Bharat Bhawan (Charles Correa Now)
Bhopal, India

Bharat Bhawan in Bhopal, Madhya Pradesh (M.P.) remains one of the most important works of Charles Correa to date. Correa, himself, often described it as a 'non-building' because the design of Bharat Bhawan makes its elevation, invisible from the access road.

Located on the cliff next to scenic Upper Lake, Bharat Bhawan is a building one can never forget. At least I haven't been able to, since I first saw it ten years ago when I was in architecture college. When I went to photograph it (March 2021), maintenance work was being carried out. I feel it is important to witness and photograph this process. It makes us think that the building is still alive and is being taken care of. Out of curiosity regarding the workers feelings about the building, I asked the female workers who was digging the soil on one of the terrace gardens and replacing it in another, about where they came from and if they liked the building. They replied that they were Gondi people from Dindori, Madhya Pradesh(1) and that they enjoyed the building because it was open, unlike so many others. Similarly, a policeman on temporary duty told me that he remembers the building because it doesn't make visitors feel claustrophobic. He believed that at the time of construction, the building was way ahead of its time.

As Monika Correa, a textile artist and Charle's wife, told me in her House in Goa, cultural centres like Bharat Bhawan, Bhopal, and Jawahar Kala Kendra, Jaipur, were part of a bigger idea. She said, "It was Indira Gandhi who first talked about these centres, saying that each state should have their centre to exhibit the crafts of that state, so that is what M.P. did. Jaipur also took up the idea. 

"It takes a lot of effort to keep these stone walls exposed, saving them from being plastered over by the bureaucrats," said Devilal Patidar, the deputy director of the graphics and ceramic department of Bharat Bhawan. I interviewed him to understand how the building has performed and changed over the years. He has been working with Bharat Bhawan since the building was under construction. "It was inaugurated in 1982, and [At that time,] I started working in Bharat Bhawan as a volunteer. We went village to village to collect tribal art. They used to bring us to the site of Bhawat Bhawan while it was still in construction to show us that it was the place where the artworks we collected would be placed. In those days they were curing the walls and finishing the construction, so we also used to help in that." 

He took the conversation, which I initially thought would be more anecdotal, to a philosophical and experiential level, telling me about the things he felt could've been done better. "The first problem is that in most of the places, the [ceiling] height is eight feet, which is not very good for the museum. If there is a painting or sculpture on the wall, the ceiling dominates its presence. It [the coffered slab of the ceiling] is very heavy. It should've been at least 16 ft high so that when people look at the paintings, the ceiling is not a hindrance [to their ability to appreciate the work]. Then you have to install lighting for the painting, which creates many more problems [when the ceiling is just] 8 feet hight. And if the painting is bigger, let's say 8ft or 10ft, then it's a bigger problem. Later, authorities asked Correa Sahab to raise the height of one of the areas that was not part of the original plan. His plan had the building at road level for all the areas, but he was asked to raise the height of the gallery for modern art." He also narrated an anecdote in which they had to invite an industrial team to bring a furnace on rollers to the ceramics workshop, as the workshop did not have direct access to one, and it is required for the ceramic making process.  

My conversation with him also shed some light on the design process and how Correa was constantly upgrading it during construction, carefully measuring the pros and cons of every decision and the potential impact on his architectural vision. "The fountain court was set at the same level of a modern art gallery, but later, he elevated the gallery's height. His idea was that no elevation should be visible, and all of it should just look like a lawn. When the building was still in construction, we requested him to make this correction." 

We also discussed various issues the building has faced over the years, such as water leakage, warped doors because of rains, etc. We discussed how an idea is conceived and then improved by people who have done exemplary works in their fields, like Charles Correa himself. Mr Paridar said, "You know what happens is that you conceive an idea and feel strongly about it. After 15 days or so, [you begin to] think that some improvements could make it better. And if there is an option on site, then one makes the changes. When the idea is conceived, we are not able to look at it critically. Still, after living with it for some days, we feel that we can add more things." He added, "when an idea is generated, there is an attachment to that idea which does not let us look at other things. But after that process, you can look at it through different lenses because now it has an independent identity or has become a separate and autonomous object. 

I asked him if he liked the building. Like others I spoke with, he appreciated the openness of the building. "We all came from rural villages and didn't like closed spaces. If there is any work in a room or a hall then I will stay there all day, but if there is no work there then I won't stay there even for two minutes." Another feature he loved about the building was that "the building did not loom over one's head, but rather was under one's feet." He explains, "The plan and design of this building are according to the site, so it does not overpower you. It's not on your head all the time. If you go to other monumental buildings, those buildings dominate you; in a way, it's a characteristic of authority. Kings, landlords, and the like make huge main gates in their palaces to show their power. Architecture should break away from that mold. Democracy should also come in design. Why should we entertain a feudal culture? You can understand this [by thinking about] a stepwell. No matter how big it is, it will not terrorize you. Because it's not looming over your head, but it sits under your feet. And you don't have to look at that building by tilting your head upward, like when you try to see God in the sky. Instead, you have to look down. This is the difference."

The building has seen many additions, changes, and improvements since it was initially constructed. Yet, the essence of it remains the same. The ceramic studio was built earlier, during the residence of Bharat Bhawan's first director, Swaminathan. "When Correa Sahab designed it, it was more like a museum, something that can also host seminars, talks, poetry sessions, etc. The graphics department, ceramic department, etc., were not part of the original plan. There were things that we added later. His (Correa's) brief did not have it." said Mr. Patidar. Swaminathan also painted one of the white domes. Eventually, that painting was made permanent by adding colored mosaic tile over it.

Built in the 1980s, the structure now requires some updates. For example, there was an incident when the auditorium caught fire due to a short circuit. Mr. Patidar explains, "What happens is that, in the auditorium, there is a lot of electrical equipment, powerful bulbs, and consoles which heat up if used for a long time. The technology is also quite old. All of this was done with the available technology in the 80s. All these dimmers are used to increase or decrease the light intensity of sparks that you can see."

-Nipun Prabhakar, 2021


1) The Gondi is one of the largest ethnolinguistic groups in India, spread over the states of Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Chhattisgarh, Uttar Pradesh, Telangana, Andhra Pradesh, Bihar and Odisha.

51 Bharat Bhawan Road, Bhopal, India
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