The decline of an institution.
[Text and pictures by Mayank Austen Soofi]
More than 50 years ago, on the first day of May, Jawarharlal Nehru flashed a smile (recorded by a grainy b&w photograph) as he flung open the doors of Sapru House on Barakhamba Road. The red-and-white sandstone building, a paean to Nehruvian secularism (stupa-style dome; Hindu-esque pillar façade; Islamic design on the gateway), was built for an institution dedicated to India’s first Prime Minister’s passion – world affairs.
After shuttling through five offices earlier, the Indian Council of World Affairs (ICWA) founded its permanent home here. Named after Tej Bahadur Sapru, ICWA’s first President, this city landmark was built by public donations from Maharajas, Maharanis, and corporate houses like Tatas, Birlas.
Hopes were high. ICWA was expected to become India’s answer to London’s Royal Institute of International Affairs. Our Chatham House. Here the professors and diplomats would debate on foreign affairs. Early years were promising. Intelelctuals like Dr. Zakir Hussain and S. Radhakrishnan patronised it. Later, Margaret Thatcher and Kurt Waldheim spoke in its seminar halls (There are two; seating capacities 65 and 120 respectively). Stephen Cohen and V.I. Potapov browsed reading matter in its famed library.
Sapru House, with its highbrow seminars and extensive library, became the place to be seen at. It also staged artistic performances.
In her memoirs, Meandering Pastures Of Memories, Delhi-based kathak dancer Shovana Narayan writes:
In the sixties and seventies, the ruling theatres were Sapru House, Ashoka Theatre and AIFACS. If any artiste was presented by either of the two namely, Sapru House or Ashoka Theatre, and if by both, then one would say that the artiste had ‘arrived’. I was elated when both the theatres presented me.
But as the 1980s set in, the rot began. Many point to the appointment of Mr. Harcharan Singh Josh, a municipal corporation politician, as ICWA’s President (in 2006, this gentleman was appointed as member of the National Commission for Minorities). The intellectuals complained of falling standards in debates and abandoned the seminar halls. The scholars, dissatisfied with the book collection, stopped frequenting the library. Soon real bookworms outnumbered the metaphoric bookworms.
The staff too were unhappy with salaries. Charges of misappropriation of funds further muddled the reputation. The press completed the demolition job: ‘From serious lectures to Punjabi plays’ (Indian Express, 1982). ‘Controversy Grips Sapru House’ (Sunday Mail, 1988). ‘Sapru House: it’s seen better days’ (The Hindu, 1994). ‘Decline of Sapru House’ (The Pioneer, 1995). The dream became a nightmare, most memorably captured in a rather snobbish report by Hindustan Times on its edition of May 25, 1986:
What happened to the Indian Council of World Affairs is a reflection of the Indian reality, where a group of petty politicians shatter the dreams of the community for their personal empire building… In the sixties, if India Gate was the geographical landmark of the capital, Sapru House was the landmark in the cultural and intellectual life of the city. In the years immediately after independence, the ICWA provided a forum for visiting dignitaries like Ho Chi Minh, Chester Bowles, Dag Hammarskjold and Arnold Toynbee. Today it is better known for bawdy theatre parading in the name of Punjabi culture, kabaddi matches organised by petty traders, lavish wedding parties, and various suspect activities.
Could past glory be rekindled?
In 2001, the Ministry of External Affairs took over. New plans were made. Though the Sapru House was renovated, the downward slide continued. Today, the grand marble stairs in the lobby, the Ashoka trees in the garden, and the civil service aspirants in the reading room may put you in awe but do not be deceived. The golden era of Sapru House is over.
Where Barakhamba Road, Nearest Metro Station Mandi House
The best days are over