Diplomatic avenues: A world apart

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NEW DELHI: For the aam Dilliwalla, the diplomatic enclave is a lovely, unapproachable island of foreignness. He or she can gaze at the tree-lined avenues, the fiercely guarded structures and the exotic flags from a distance but no more. About the only time one gets anywhere close to this self-contained world is when there one has a visa crisis.

But Delhi’s diplomatic enclave, stretching from Lutyens zone to Chanakyapuri — and now Vasant Vihar and soon Dwarka — has a remarkable story to tell. And it is chronicled in Delhi’s Diplomatic Domains, a book by Gladys Abankwa-Meier-Klodt, wife of a senior German diplomat and the daughter of Ghanaian career diplomats. A life spent among missions has given her an insider’s view of this rarefied world, and she says Delhi’s case is really unique.

“It is an exclusive domain and all the missions are purpose built. They are all built to express their national identity. Then the properties are really extensive — the average allotment size is five acres. And very importantly, most of them fit the complete embassy paradigm — they have a chancery, a residence and diplomatic staff accommodation,” says Abankwa.

The Nepalese embassy is the oldest in Delhi — it was set up in 1936, an original lease — at Barakhamba Road. A striking red-and-white structure, it doesn’t seem to have aged too well. But the story of Delhi’s exclusive diplomatic domains goes back to the years just before and after Independence when Chanakyapuri was a wild, unkempt scrubland infested with snakes and hyenas. The new capital was being laid out and the flood of refugees from Pakistan had to be accommodated. Civil Lines with its clutch of fancy hotels like Maidens and Swiss Hotel were the preferred anchors for diplomats. Even the Aurangzeb, Prithviraj Road or Ratendone Road (now Amrita Sher-Gil Marg) bungalows of the city’s old rich were preferred. Chanakyapuri seemed like a distant frontier in those days.

But fortunately, it all came together beautifully. “Connaught Place was close, so was Rashtrapati Bhawan and the prime minister’s office. It was virgin land, underdeveloped, so, when the grand vision was realized by Nehru it was unparalleled. You don’t see this expanse in any other city, not even in new capitals like Canberra,” she says.

Today, Chanakyapuri and Lutyens’ zone are no longer enough to hold the new nations and the needs of the old ones. Then Delhi had to accommodate 60 nations on its avenues; today the number is 198. So the diplomatic domain has been stretching further south. Vasant Vihar now hosts over 50 missions. The next big diplomatic block is Dwarka where 39 units are being allotted. Some of the old leases are expiring. The landmark residence of the Mexican envoy at Prithviraj Road — where celebrated poet Octavio Paz lived, wrote and even got married — had to be given up. The ambassador now lives in the farm house enclave of Rajokri. But what Abankwa finds fascinating is how nations choose to project their cultural and political identities on the interiors and exteriors of their embassies. Every embassy has dealt with the dilemma — should it incorporate design influences of the host nation or strictly reiterate its own cultural identity? Many nations have chosen to do a bit of both.

As an insider, Abankwa had fairly easy access to most structures and their innards and was able to study them at close quarters (though many did turn her down). The Bhutanese embassy at Chandragupta Marg for example has gone in for a “completely national idiom”, she says. Every single structure here is distinctly Bhutanese. “The US embassy interiors, on the other hand, use Indian design elements — the jaali, the idea of a Mughal garden layout,” she says.

The Belgian embassy, of course, took the biggest risk roping in Satish Gujral. “It was a daring idea and it turned out to be a fabulous PR tool for what it represented,” she says. The north European embassies are typically austere structures because, as Abankwa points out, post-World War II, it was important not to be ostentatious. The Nordic nations, of course, are minimalistic and neat.

There are varied slices of global landscapes in this city — the Italian embassy with its cypress trees and Tuscan olive in its verandahs or the Pak chancery with blue Multan tiles. It is just that most remain hidden delights.

Embassies with elan

The design of the Finnish embassy is inspired by the iceage incised landscape of northern Finland and the natural snow sculptures along its gulf The Holy See’s Embassy houses some exceptional works, among them, objects from the Vatican Museums’ collection, such as the 17th century Madonna with Child The embassies of Hungary, Czech and Slovak republics have features of Brutalist architecture typical of socialist government sponsored projects — massive buildings, lots of exposed concrete In the early days of the American embassy, families could picnic on the premises and view its artwork.



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