City Landmark – Sapru House, Barakhamba Road
Of post-independent history.
[Text and photos by Mayank Austen Soofi]
A dome that’s like a Buddhist stupa. Pillars resembling those at ancient Hindu temples. Designs on the gateway inspired by Islamic monuments.
This red-and-white sandstone edifice is permeated with the essence of India’s histories. But the Nepalese ambassador’s palatial residence across the road is more easily visible from the road outside and attracts more attention.
It is Sapru House, however, that is the precious souvenir of our city’s post-independent past. Tucked away on Barakhamba Road in central Delhi, close to the Mandi House circle, you might have passed by it a hundred times without knowing that it has been graced by the presence of international notables such as Ho Chi Minh and Dag Hammarskjold (Google him!). Its library is stacked with thousands of old and new books, and unlike the libraries of members-only institutions such as the IIC, it has free access.
Inaugurated by the then prime minister Jawarharlal Nehru in 1950, Sapru House was dedicated to his 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, the ICWA’s first president, the landmark was built with public donations from maharajas, maharanis and a few corporate houses.
The ICWA was fashioned after London’s Royal Institute of International Affairs. Our own Chatham House. The forthcoming years met the expectations. Intellectuals such as Dr Zakir Hussain and S Radhakrishnan patronised it. Margaret Thatcher and Kurt Waldheim delivered speeches in its halls. Stephen Cohen and V I Potapov browsed reading matter at its famed library. Sapru House became the place to see and be seen. Only after staging a performance here was an artist said to have finally “arrived” – according to kathak dancer Shovana Narayan’s memoirs. She was talking of the Delhi of 1960s and 70s. Over the subsequent decades, the Capital’s highbrow society got distracted by other destinations to while away its evenings. The India Habitat Centre, for instance.
But Sapru House has continued to exist. These days, parts of the building are under renovation, as if the institution is eagerly getting ready to re-enter the city’s vital blood streams with renewed vigour. This sunny afternoon, the place is gleaming gracefully with its grand marble stairs, Ashoka trees, beautiful lawns, cobbled driveway and wide corridors illuminated with daylight. Once the pandemic becomes less threatening and it is again safe to mingle with the smart set, Delhi evenings might again include Sapru House as a necessary stop. Perhaps.
Where the stars descended