Architectural genius Bhai Ram Singh remains a forgotten man in his death centenary year
For long, Bhai Ram Singh was presumed to be just another helper with the British architects. Even the footnotes in history books bore no mention of his name or work.
A century after his death, he still lies forgotten in the very cities that he defined with his landmark creations. The year that went by marked his death centenary. Not one commemoration, on either side of the Border.
Ram Singh was a child prodigy. Legend has it that when the Deputy Commissioner of Amritsar failed to get his wife’s piano repaired, someone told him about this “magical son” of a carpenter from Rasulpur village near Batala. The officer was not let down.
It is said that, by 16, Bhai Ram Singh had mastered his craft. Soon, he joined the Lahore School of Carpentry and then the Mayo School of Art (now National College of Art) under the tutelage of John Lockwood Kipling, a painter and sculptor, also father of writer Rudyard Kipling.
He went on to create what are considered architecture marvels today: Khalsa College, Amritsar, The Lahore Museum, Punjab University Library, Lahore, and the pulpit of the Indian Institute of Advanced Study at Shimla among them. His reputation spread far and wide, far enough for Queen Victoria to invite him to design an Indian room in one of her palaces.
This came to be known as the Durbar Room at Osborne House in the UK. The British gentry then were in awe of Queen Victoria’s ‘secret Indian architect’. Today too, visitors at the Osborne House are particularly interested in the man, tells Michael Hunter, curator of Osborne, English Heritage.
“They want to know more about him. Who was he? Where did he come from? What other work did he do apart from that at Osborne and Bagshot Park?” Hunter says. Despite all the interest, he feels Bhai Ram Singh “remains a bit of a shadowy figure and more research needs to be done to bring the focus on him.”
Earlier this year, an exhibition was organised on Bhai Ram Singh and the Durbar Room by students from the University of Southampton under Ian Talbot, professor of Modern British History. He says that the exhibition held outside Durbar Room attracted numerous people. “The linkage between Victoria and India is well-known and helps explain the Durbar Room architecture.”
He says Bhai Ram Singh was the star pupil at the Mayo School of Arts in Lahore and was, therefore, chosen by its principal John Lockwood Kipling when the commission was made by Victoria.
“As it was on the itinerary of visits to Lahore, Mayo was well known to the British aristocracy and royals. Kipling was also well known and had undertaken a commission for the Duke and Duchess of Connaught in which Bhai Ram Singh was involved for providing wood carvings for a billiard room in Indian style at their Bagshot Park, country retreat in Surrey.
Prince Arthur, Duke of Connaught and Queen Victoria’s 3rd son, had earlier visited Mayo School of Arts. So, it all fits together and resulted in Bhai Ram Singh going to Osborne.
He, in fact, spent some time in London while overseeing the work, travelling down to Osborne from time to time. While in London, he was feted in the high society as Queen Victoria’s Indian architect.”
However, both history and hearsay failed Bhai Ram Singh. Lahore-based educationist and architect-planner Sajida Vandal realised this when she occupied the very chair that was once occupied by Bhai Ram Singh as principal of the erstwhile Mayo School of Arts, now the National College of Arts.
“The popular narrative before our research was that the college buildings were designed by Kipling. It was rather difficult to believe this colonial construct as he was a sculptor and the intricate architecture and brick detailing required a person with good knowledge of architecture,” says Vandal.
She, along with her husband Pervaiz Vandal, understood this and that led to the unravelling of the great works and life of Bhai Ram Singh. They penned their seminal work on the master: The Raj, Lahore and Bhai Ram Singh in 2006.
Rawal Singh Aulakh, assistant professor at Guru Nanak Dev University, says Bhai Ram Singh’s designs were more inspired from folk architecture. “The proportions, scale, rhythmical fenestrations, series of horizontal bands, flanking tower-like minarets… They were not a copy of any specific architectural vocabulary, but were a result of an abstraction of existing designs.”
He says it is quite possible that the designers from this region could have been more like the writers of folk architecture. He says that while we don’t respect Bhai Ram Singh or the importance of his works, they speak volumes of the architectural field today also.
“The exemplary play of shade and shadow, the orientation of buildings, the mass-space relationships… A lot could be learnt from his designs.”
However, our skewed sense of history fails us. When the Vandals had penned the book, they had hoped that their effort would lead to search for other architects of the colonial period. That did not happen.
“We have also tried that the archival material on Bhai Ram Singh, lying with his family and other places, is collected to properly honour a great son of the soil and an archives is set up. Sadly, this too did not happen,” she says.
The book incidentally is out of print, but Sajida hopes any word on Bhai Ram Singh will raise interest in the genius. “Why can’t an exhibition of his works be organised to invite attention of a native architect?” she asks. If only there was a coherent answer to this query!