In 1963 there was only one Punjab, though a lot of it had gone to Pakistan. The spirit was: we can do it, and do it better than anybody anywhere. Nothing but the best was good enough. That is what had brought about the building of CHANDIGARH and the BHAKRA DAM. But on the food front we were still a deficit nation. A lot of foreign exchange (and self-respect) went in obtaining foodgrains to keep the burgeoning population from starvation. That was the raison d’etre for the agricultural universities all over the country.
Partap Singh Kairon was the chief minister of Punjab. He believed in: ACTION, STRATEGY and ADVANCEMENT. He made P. N. Thapar, the former administrator for Chandigarh, who was responsible for bringing in Le Corbusier and other foreign architects, the vice chancellor with (I believe) the sole objective of showing results in the shortest possible time.
Pierre Jeanneret, the chief architect and P.N. Thapar chose me for the post of the senior architect of the University. Obviously, I had some achievements to my credit in the Capital Project of Chandigarh. But now was my opportunity to show results on my own. The challenge was great, the power structure was formidable (Jawaharlal Nehru and still at the helm of Affairs), and with all the experience of Chandigarh, I was still raw, somewhat wild, but sincere. I think it was this still raw, somewhat wild, but sincere. I think it was this last quality which saw me through the crisis.
Immediately on taking over, Thapar ordered us (the building team of architects and engineers) to move to Ludhiana and perch ourselves in any place we could find. He was anxious to get some construction started almost overnight. Hostel for students, and houses. He desired that the designs from the Chandigarh Project be picked up and work started.
Thapar wanted me to pick up the designs from the Chandigarh Capital Project. Well, that was the beginning of my troubles with Thapar. I had researched and evolved some ideas of my own in architecture and was anxious to give vent to them at the first opportunity. But here was a vice chancellor who wanted to go ahead with what had already been done (and tried). I wanted something ‘new’ to my name. He wanted no waste of time. I sent new designs, he returned them with harsh comments. I was stubborn, he was adamant. Thus it went on for nearly one year, and he thought of getting me back. He talked to Pierre Jeanneret about it. Pierre Jeannerat understood me better. He suggested that my designs to Thapar should be routed through him. I readily agreed. I could explain why I was doing what I was doing to a person who worked on the same wavelength. That marked the beginning of my golden period in the Punjab Agriculture University.
Fairly early in my time in the Punjab Agricultural University I was sent to see all the campuses of the agricultural universities in the country. The intention was that I should familiarise myself with the latest work in the field anywhere in the country. I had come back fairly disappointed, for what I saw was not poor and there was scarcely any zeal or drive to which we in Ludhiana were accustomed, But what I was not very encouraging. The architecture was poor and there was scarcely any zeal or drive to which we in Ludhiana were accustomed. But what I was not prepared for answering, when I met Thapar later, was about the calibre of the persons for the top positions in the University, and his method was to gather firsthand information about the person’s capability. Reputation, performance and all else. His sole objective was that the University should have the best person for the top position from anywhere in the country (no question about religion, province or castle), go all out to get him, and having placed him in position, get him to perform and show results. The method was quite ruthless in weeding out any aspirants to the top positions by virtue of seniority alone. The rules of recruitment enjoined the selectors to consider the persons who may not have applied but who were considered competent by reputation and performance elsewhere. The final recommendations of the selection committee went to the vice chancellor, who occasionally turned down the choice of the committee if his own information of the capability of the candidate was doubtful. On the other hand, I recall, I was responsible for recommending a higher pay scale than the candidate himself had asked for, and that was accepted. My reason was that a person should be paid the amount he deserves, and not merely what he is willing to accept.
Yes, I was saying that when I met Thaper later I was not prepared for talking about the calibre of the persons I met. But I did speak my mind and said, “If you want a dean for the Agricultural Engineering College, go for C. M. Jacob. I must not have been the only person to recommend Jacob for the deanship, but I do know that the grade of the dean for the Agricultural Engineering College was revised to a higher grade than other deans to get Jacob.
While designing the Agricultural College I had tried to introduce some revolutionary ideas in the design. They were all turned down and a conventional design which could be easily appreciated was finally accepted. I have no regrets for the design built. In fact, Dr M. S. Randhawa, who had become the vice chancellor after Thapar, wrote a very appreciative (unsolicited) letter to me regarding that design. But I was somewhat sore about the nonacceptance of a new idea. Now came my turn to design the Agricultural Engineering College at Ludhiana. By now I had won full confidence of the vice chancellor. An American expert was to arrive to advise us on the concept of the Agricultural Engineering College. It was Thapar who suggested to me that I put forth my ideas of the ‘new’ design to this team and get them to incorporate them in their report. I need hardly mention that I hit total success in this venture. We produced an extraordinary building which, when seen by Joe Stein (the well known American Architect of Delhi who had been commissioned to design the Home Science College of the Punjab Agricultural University), got so much appreciation that my image as an architect got a big boost in architectural circles in Delhi and elsewhere.
Living on the campus I got the idea that this building should have a SCULPTURE in its courtyard to dignify it. I was living with a building under realization and the building materials were sprawled around me urging me to do something. A thought crossed my mind: why not make a concrete sculpture from the very concrete and steel which is being used in the building? I had no experience, only the ‘will’ but the contractor was willing to help in the experiment. With my clay figure as model, I dug the earth to make a mould and began working on a sculpture, pouring concrete, putting pieces of scrap steel bars as reinforcement, turning, twisting, breaking, and remaking. In two-three months time the sculpture a reclining figure was ready. When shown to Dr Mulk Raj Anand, on a visit to the university, he was full of praise for my work. For me it acted like champagne.
Two more things are worth recalling: (1) My rediscovery of myself as an artist, and (2) Broadening of my vision as an architect/urbanist. I had had no training as an artist, except for attending some evening classes in the Glasgow School of Art for life study and clay modelling. But all architects are required to do freehand sketching. In me the desire to be an sketching. In me the desire to be an artist was dormant. But my days in the Punjab Agricultural University awakened my desire. I began to paint in oil, just like that. I did not even know how to stretch a canvas. It must have been the environment of the Agricultural University which gave me the strength to overcome all obstacles in the initial stages of painting. First I painted on paper packing paper proved to be a good surface and then I learnt to mount a canvas and prepare it. My artist friends helped me in learning its rudiments. But it is the spirit of experimentation and doggedness which produced results.
(I soon began to participate in exhibitions, receive flattering reviews, and be generally in demand for a painting. With all that I never became a professional painter and that kept me away from the rat race for patronage and selling. For me painting is an act of relaxation, of prayer, and of releasing me from the rigidity of the architectural profession. Gradually I began to do some woodcarving, some drawings and collages and thus it goes on till today.)
Living in Ludhiana exposed me to the realities of the urban phenomenon. I had to make frequent visits to the old city of Ludhiana from the wide stretch of the university campus, walk through its narrow lanes, observe the activities there, cross the Grand Truk Road which appeared to be the divider between the old city and the new. Ludhiana projected itself in my mind’s eye as the city on the crossroads of Punjab destined to rapid growth and industrialization. I wrote a significant paper LIVING IN CITIES based on Ludhiana, and it became a landmark paper of my carrer.
In 1966, Punjab was divided into Punjab and Haryana, and a lot of its territory went to Himachal Pradesh. What ever good this division may have done to the new state, for Punjab it proved to be a suicidal step. Partap Singh Kairon had been removed from the political scene earlier. The financial support to the University dwindled to a trickle. The building work which had been progressing at a tremendous speed came to a stand still. The final blow came with the stroke which the vice chancellor Thapar suffered. The University really became an orphan, and remained so for quite sometime after that. I felt very sad at leaving the University. But it was a great experience while it lasted.
I do feel a tinge of pride that I did contribute something but, more than that, what I greatly value is that I received so much more in return during my term with the Punjab Agricultural University.