Connaught Place, regarded as Delhi’s best-known business and shopping district, is an intrinsic part of the city’s rich heritage.
An air of expectancy pervaded the Great Royal Durbar. The occasion was a celebration to commemorate the coronation of His Majesty King George V as the Emperor of India on December 12, 1911. Whispers did the rounds that the King-Emperor would make an important announcement on the occasion, but nobody could guess what it would be. And when it came, the dramatic announcement took everyone by surprise-the capital of British India would be shifted from Calcutta to Delhi!
Work on the project began immediately after the durbar concluded. A foundation stone was hastily laid by King George V. Later, Britain’s renowned architect Sir Edwin Lutyens-in charge of the project-toured the area on elephant back. Lutyens felt the site was unsuitable for the Imperial capital, meant to epitomise British glory and grandeur.
So the Viceroy chose another site at Raisina Hill in south Delhi. In 1913, the foundation stone was piled on a bullock cart and transplanted at the location. Assisting Lutyens in the project was Sir Herbert Baker, another renowned British architect. The new city-spread over 26 square kilometres-would be centred around what came to be known as Connaught Place (now popularly known as CP).
Designed by Robert Tor Russell, CP was to become New Delhi’s main commercial centre. Controversy struck early, though, with a debate on whether the city’s design should be influenced by Western or Oriental architecture. “Western architecture with an Oriental motif” was the suggestion of Lord Hardinge, the Viceroy. But eminent personalities like Bernard Shaw and Thomas Hardy advocated an Indian style. Lutyens himself disparaged Indian architecture, but finally settled for a balance between the two.
It was a decision that allowed Indian contractors to play a greater role in the building of Connaught Place and New Delhi than they would otherwise have enjoyed. For the next 20 years, most of the land was levelled, roads were built and water and electricity connections provided to various sites. At the peak of the city’s building activity, 29,000 workers were employed, not counting labourers at brick kilns and distant quarries.
In the construction of CP, three Indian contractors played a prominent role. Says 90-year-old Bhagwant Singh, elder brother of noted author Khushwant Singh: “There were three main contractors who built Connaught Place, one of them was my father, Sir Sobha Singh. The other two were Sardar Dharam Singh and Rai Bahadur Narain Singh. We handled the work through my father’s company, Sobha Singh and Sons. In those days (the late 1920s), we had a home in Jantar Mantar. This is now known as Kerala House.” Indeed, in its listing on contractors, The Delhi Directory, 1932 (Old and New Delhi) has this entry in its weather-beaten pages: Sobha Singh, Sardar Bahadur, 3, Jantar Mantar Road, New Delhi.
Bhagwant Singh narrates the family saga in building CP: Born in 1912, when he was six years old, the family migrated from Sargoda- now in Pakistan-which was then a horse-breeding centre for the army. He recalls the past proudly:“The inhabitants of Sargoda were tall, big people. My father and grandfather attended the 1911 coronation when the capital’s shift from Calcutta to Delhi was announced. When they discovered that Delhi was to become the capital, both decided to relocate here and start business as contractors. In 1919-20, we shifted. We were four brothers and one sister. The metre gauge train that carried stones was a prominent feature for us children. The train going from Nizamuddin to New Delhi was quite a picturesque sight.”
Pausing to collect his thoughts, the old-timer continues: “Opposite our house in Janpath was the house that Sardar Ranjit Singh had built. Mohammed Ali Jinnah bought this house later, around 1930, I think. The road from Claridges Hotel to CP, Janpath was then called Queen’s Way. Rajpath was called King’s Way. India Gate was constructed in 1928. In those days, many roads were not paved. Rajpath was paved around 1928.”
In a conscious attempt at surpassing ancient Mughal architecture, the British utilised the same kind of red sandstone that Emperor Akbar and Shah Jahan had used centuries earlier in their majestic forts and mausoleums. Records indicate that the white and red sandstone mainly came from the princely states of Bharatpur and Dholpur. Bhagwant Singh corroborates this: “While building CP, stones were brought from Dholpur (now in Rajasthan). The red and white stones came by train up to New Delhi Railway Station and a shuttle then took them closer to the site were the stones were dressed according to requirements. Contractor Sardar Dharam Singh brought all the stones.”
Dwelling wistfully on the halcyon days, Bhagwant Singh adds: “In those days, there was nothing beyond Janpath, which was being built. One could still come across foxes and rabbits in the area bordering this place. The nearest populated area was Jantar Mantar. The British, however, lived in places like Aurangzeb Road and Safdarjung Road. In 1920, we used to go to school in a four-wheel horse buggy. By 1924, I had a bicycle and would cycle to school in Daryaganj. I was in Modern School. The construction of a new branch of the school was started and the school shifted to Barakhamba Road in 1933. No other building existed on Barakhamba Road at that point of time. Even Asaf Ali Road did not exist.
“In 1928, only Regal Cinema had been built; no other buildings were functioning in CP. The Rivoli Cinema side did not exist. The rest of CP came up slowly. ‘A’ Block and Regal Building were built by my father-Regal Building is still with us. And it was Rai Bahadur Narain Singh who built Odeon Cinema.”
According to Bhagwant Singh-who played an active role in his father’s construction business-a major portion of CP was opened in 1930 and it was named after the Duke of Connaught, a member of the British Royal family who had visited Delhi in 1921. Like much of New Delhi, the construction of CP occurred between 1913 to 1931. And it wasn’t exactly smooth sailing.
“CP took quite a long time to build. At that time, prices were very low. My father took over Scindia House but was only able to complete the Janpath side. The British chief engineer refused to release payments, saying: ‘You have to complete the entire building before I can do so.’ My father had to take a big loan to complete it-around Rs 20 lakh! It was called Scindia House because the plot was given by His Highness the Maharaja of Gwalior,” says Bhagwant Singh.