Hello All ! Yes, time does fly and it has been long since I wrote !
My husband ,Debashish, would, once in a while, talk of a Dr.Bir Bhan Bhatia and his house that was designed and built by Walter Burley Griffin. Well, I found the house and here is a post on it that I wrote sometime back-
When the British decided to expand Lucknow they had looked beyond the river Gomti, not that they could have visualised the area which is almost another city today, Gomtinagar ! In 1921 they built the University of Lucknow in what was Badshah Bagh(originally a garden house of Nawab Nasir-ud-din Haider) adjoining the Gomti. Then on its shores, towards the east, the localities of Old and New Hyderabad were set up. University professors, doctors and other professionals were allotted large tracts of land to construct houses. One such person was Dr. Bir Bhan Bhatia, an eminent doctor, a pharmacologist, at King George’s Medical College. Bir Bhan Bhatia had two houses in Lucknow. One was on Ashok Marg and the other that was constructed by the well-known American architect, Walter Burley Griffin. I had never seen that house but knew it was located in New Hyderabad.
A chance, very enjoyable meeting with Dr. Thapar, a retired professor of architecture at Lucknow university and his daughter, Sumita led to a conversation about Walter Burley Griffin and my discovery that they knew the daughter-in-law of Dr. Bir Bhan Bhatia. Over a fabulous pineapple upside down cake made by Sumita, she told me that she would arrange to take me to see the house built by Griffin, possibly the only one remaining in India !
The large road that lies perpendicular to the Gomti on which the house built by Griffin stands came as a pleasant surprise. The kerbs were wide. The monsoon rains had worked their wonder and made the area very green. Large trees, now sadly rare in Lucknow, dot the area. Then you spot the long, low boundary wall of the house with large trees in the foreground. And beyond those, in the distance is the house- a low lying, not very remarkable, cubic structure with an interesting jaali running along its facade.
We walk up the driveway and notice a wall that runs perpendicular to the house, dividing the house and its large garden into two. The half we are visiting today belongs to Bir Bhan Bhatia’s third son, Dr.K.B.Bhatia and his wife, Asha, also a medical doctor. The garden is lush with exotic plants and trees, gifts of, I am told later, Bir Bhan’s good friend and neighbour Mr. Kanjilal, who was a conservator of forests in the 1940s. Mr. Kanjilal was also my grand-father-in-law’s good friend, my husband had told me, and I am excited by this connection!
I can visualize the veranda of the Bhatia house in its un-truncated form, running the entire front of the house. It is in polished cement with art deco patterns in black. These patterns are placed far apart and break the monotony of the grey-green cement.
We meet Asha Bhatia on her side of the verandah. She is dressed well in a cream sari with a maroon border and has a brisk air about her. She tells us about her own life and then of her illustrious father-in-law’s. ‘I fled Burma during the second World War amidst fears of a Japanese invasion. I was thirteen years old. With Japanese bombers diving deep to bomb, I fled to India with my mother and brother, leaving my father behind at his work with the education department.’ They finally wound up in Lucknow where she went on to study medicine at the King George’s Medical College. This is where her teacher and mentor, Dr. Bir Bhan Bhatia, chose her as his future daughter-in-law to marry his son.
Bir Bhan Bhatia was an eminent physician at King George’s Medical College, Lucknow. He returned from England in 1928 after becoming a Member of the Royal College of Physicians and started to teach and practice at his alma mater, finally becoming its principal in 1946 till his retirement in 1960. He was charismatic, skilled and could recognise talent. So when he found the by-then-well known American architect, Walter Burley Grifffin staying in Lucknow, he met him and persuaded him to design his house.
Walter Burley Griffin had arrived in Lucknow in 1936 after his tender to design the library of Lucknow University was accepted. He had earlier designed the Australian capital Canberra(though was unable to construct most of it) and many prominent buildings in Chicago. Asha Bhatia recalls that on being approached by Dr. Bhatia, Griffin had told him that he was fully occupied with the Library and a trade fair in Victoria Park in Lucknow that he was commissioned to design. On being pressed further, he said that the only time he could spare him was during his lunch hour. Since Dr. Bhatia’s place of work, the Medical College was quite near Victoria Park where Griffin spent most of the day, Dr. Bhatia immediately agreed. Asha says that her husband, then a seven year old, would be first picked up from school by his father then driven to Griffin’s office. ‘K.B. would be thoroughly bored with long discussions between his father and Griffin on the plans of the house’ Asha laughs.
The house in New Hyderabad, on a large plot of land, was completed in 1937. Work went on for two years. Asha Bhatia says that Griffin used inventive roofing for this house. It is made out of inverted concrete troughs, allowing space for air, creating good insulation against the searing Indian heat. She points out faint outlines of the troughs on the roof. The walls, too, have inventive brick work called ‘Rat-trap bonds’ also made for insulation.
‘This was one of the first houses in Lucknow to have concealed wiring’, Asha says, ‘People would line up to see this unique method of wiring and roofing that this ‘gora’ architect was implementing !’
Griffin, sadly, died suddenly in Lucknow in 1937 of Peritonitis. He had not completed this house. It was his wife, Marion Griffin, also a renowned architect, who oversaw the completion of the house as well as of the Pioneer building in Lucknow. Walter Burley Griffin was buried in the Christian Cemetery in Lucknow. Sadly, most of the Pioneer building has been pulled down by developers.
The rooms leading from the front verandah are spacious. The floors are of beautifully polished cement, in its natural grey-green and the crimson of red oxide. The drawing room with its red oxide floors has a border in black terrazzo with a swastika pattern in the four corners, all designed by Griffin. The design of the ventilators as well as the pattern on the doors with mosquito netting were also designed by the architect himself.
When Asha Bhatia tells me that Mr. Kanjilal’s house still exists and is just up the road, I go out, walk up the road and try to peer into Mr.Kanjilal’s house. What was once a beautiful garden is fully overgrow with wild shrubs and weed. The low lying house is obscured from view. ‘He would come to our house almost every day at 6.30am for a cup of tea with my father-in-law. The days he would not come, someone from our house would be sent to enquire and ask him over!’ says Asha Bhatia. ‘Later in the day and evening there would be queues of patients waiting to consult my father-in-law!’ A room in the house, now Asha’s drawing room, was the consultation room and benches would be put outside for the patients to sit on. She spent about a year in this house before Dr. Bir Bhan passed away and it is a time she cherishes. He was not only a skilled doctor but also one of the nicest human beings she met, she says.
It is time to go yet I feel like lingering. Asha walks us to the gate, up the beautiful tree and shrub lined driveway. I look at the house from the driveway and think this is how Griffin must have seen it. He must have stood about here and supervised its construction, making sure every brick was laid correctly! Not sure if he is watching from up there, but if he were, he would see his legacy in Lucknow, perhaps the only one of its kind in India, alive and beautiful !
Thank you, Dr.Thapar and Sumita for making this visit possible. Thank you, Dr.Asha Bhatia for opening your home to us !
Hope you liked reading this ! Do put in your comments and stay in touch !