How two global events left a mark on Delhi | Latest News Delhi

New Delhi: The Capital is all ready for the G20 Summit, one of the most significant international events to be held in the city. After Independence, Delhi has played host to several big-ticket diplomatic, business and sporting events, including the Asian Games in 1982, the NAM Summit in 1983, and the Commonwealth Games in 2010, each leaving a lasting legacy.

A man rides a bicycle past installations of the G20 Summit, (PTI)
A man rides a bicycle past installations of the G20 Summit, (PTI)

Over the decades, these events have shaped the city, catalysing extensive infrastructure development and urban improvements.

But little is known about two pivotal events, the 9th Unesco Conference in 1956, and Asia 72, the city’s first mega international trade fair, which gave the city some of its most iconic buildings, Ashoka Hotel, Vigyan Bhawan, and the now-demolished Hall of Nations at Pragati Maidan.

The making of Ashoka Hotel and Vigyan Bhawan has quite an interesting back story.

The genesis

In 1955, during the 8th General Conference of Unesco in Paris, then-Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru proposed New Delhi as the host for the subsequent edition in 1956. The proposal was accepted.

However, upon returning to New Delhi, he was told by officials that the city just did not have the requisite infrastructure to host an international event of this scale. It needed a hotel that could accommodate a large number of delegates along with a convention centre to serve as a suitable venue.

The Prime Minister immediately asked them to build both within a year. It was a race against time. EB Doctor, a Mumbai-based architect, and RA Gehlote, a senior architect with CPWD were selected to design the Ashoka Hotel and the Vigyan Bhawan, respectively.

Twenty-five acres of land on a rocky forest hillock was donated to the government to build Ashoka Hotel by the prince regent of Jammu & Kashmir, Karan Singh. In fact, the primary funding for the construction also came from the erstwhile princes; 15 out of the twenty-three original shareholders of the hotel were the rulers of various princely states.

“ CPWD was tasked with construction. For the first time, many new technologies and massive cranes were used in the construction of buildings in the capital. Pandit Nehru sent many CPWD engineers for quick training abroad. He visited the construction sites quite often,” says AK Jain, former commissioner, planning, Delhi Development Authority (DDA). Some anecdotes recount how Nehru rode on horseback around the Ashoka Hotel construction site, paying close attention to the smallest details as the country’s first state-owned five-star hotel came up.

“Nehru brought the Unesco conference to Delhi with a view to put newly independent India on the world map, and he wanted to build a hotel that could match iconic hotels in New York and London in facilities and services. He also sent many senior hotel staff to England for training, ” says Prof BP Mangla, 85, a former dean of the Faculty of Arts, Delhi University.

Ashoka Hotel, with a massive pillar-less convention hall, 550 guest rooms and sprawling landscaped gardens, was completed in a year’s time, well before the Unesco conference.

A link to Maulana Abul Kalam Azad

The construction of Vigyan Bhawan, a conference centre, on Edward Road (now Maulana Azad Road) commenced simultaneously in September 1955, on a site that housed the bungalow of Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, then education minister.

About 800 workers toiled for 350 days, and Vigyan Bhawan, the imposing three-storeyed conference centre spread over 3.8 acres , with a plenary hall, a committee, and a commission room, was also completed at a cost of about 78 lakh. The plenary hall had chairs and desks for 705 delegates on the ground floor and could accommodate 300 delegates on the balcony.

It featured a multilingual interpretation system, with seats equipped with phones and loudspeakers. Philips supplied the sound systems, while Voltas handled air conditioning. Mostly indigenous materials and accessories were favoured, with carpets sourced from Agra, Jaipur, and Gwalior.

“The 1950s was a period when newly independent India was trying to modernise while embracing traditional values. Vigyan Bhawan’s famous arched entrance, for example, incorporated elements of Buddhist architecture,” says AGK Menon, urban planner and former convener of the Delhi chapter of Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (Intach)

As scheduled, Unesco’s 9th General Conference opened in New Delhi on November 5, 1956, at the newly built Vigyan Bhawan.

It was the first time that the Capital saw such a large international gathering of eminent educationists, scientists, and sociologists. The entire city bore a festive look, with flags of many countries fluttering in the city’s streets — much like today for the G20 summit.

“The flags of 77 member states fluttered in bright sunshine in the early November breeze outside the main hall while the blue Unesco flag and India’s tricolour flew atop masts at the entrance. Soft fluorescent light from the glass ceiling illuminated the hall, while the stage, where Mr. Nehru, Maulana Azad, Mr Muniz, Dr Luther Evans, director-general of Unesco. Dr Mudaliar, chairman of the executive board, and other officials sat, was flood-lit,” this newspaper reported on November 6, 1956.

Cabinet ministers and members of the diplomatic corps were among the visitors. Cine cameras whirred and cameras clicked as the delegates, distinguished in their diverse national costumes, entered the hall. There were, among others, representatives of Saudi Arabia in their flowing white gowns and a delegate of the Holy See in a pink robe. A bell rang heralding the opening of the session; photographers retired, and a hush fell on the bustling hall. Over 200 delegates were present, including representatives of other U.N. agencies and nongovernmental organisations, HT’s report added.

On the opening day Nehru delivered an impassioned speech, calling for the delegates to “pay heed to the collapse of conscience and morals” in the world where Panch Shila ( five principals) had become “mere words without meaning to some countries who claim the right of deciding problems by superior might.”

The one-month conference proceeded without any hiccups.

Capital’s first international trade fair

Fifteen years later, the capital saw another frenetic building activity, this time for Asia 72, an international trade fair, which was to be held in Delhi in November 1972, the year India also celebrated the silver jubilee of its independence.

In fact, such was the hype around the trade show, where over 50 countries were to participate, that the government decided to postpone it from February-March to November to ensure that the Independence Day celebrations in August did not lose their lustre.

The government undertook massive redevelopment of what was then known as exhibition grounds, which later became Pragati Maidan. In fact, 6-crore redevelopment project also aimed to secure India’s entry into the International Union of Trade Fairs (IUTF), which would allow the country to host one general international trade fair and six specialised export-oriented fairs each year. The country needed a 40-acre permanent exhibition complex with developed public utilities to meet the condition for the IUTF membership.

The highlight of this extensive redevelopment of the exhibition grounds was the construction of new halls, especially the Hall of Nations, regarded by many as a marvel of contemporary architecture. Designed by Raj Rewal, it was one of the earliest and largest-span space-frame structures worldwide, constructed using reinforced concrete. “The Hall of Nations was an intricate, one of its kind building, a testament to the country’s architectural ingenuity and can-do spirit,” says Menon.

The Hall of Nations and many other halls were demolished in 2017 for yet another redevelopment of Pragati Maidan, which now has the imposing Bharat Mandapam, the massive new International Exhibition cum Convention Centre (IECC), inaugurated by Prime Minister Narendra Modi on July 26. Developed at a cost of about 2,700 crores, it will be the venue of the G20 Leaders Summit between 9-10 September.

Menon says Delhi has evolved and developed through many of these “episodic” international events. “These events have been great change agents, but I think the development of a city should be an organic, continuous, and not an episodic process,” he says.

Sydney Rebeiro, former dean, culture, Delhi University, says these international events the city has hosted over the decades have elevated its status, and contributed to its social and cultural life.

“Ashoka Hotel, Vigyan Bhawan and Pragati Maidan are landmarks that not only reshaped the city’s skyline but also acted as catalysts for the development of previously isolated areas in the city .

“G20 marks another landmark in the city’s eventful journey.”

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