When Lutyens became an adjective

Architecture Misfit #35: Edwin Lutyens | misfits' architecture
Sir Edwin Landseer Lutyens (1869 -1944)

Those amongst you who are glued to a specific set of television news channels or read only a couple of newspapers that lean towards a particular side of the Indian political divide, will have frequently come across the term ‘the Lutyens lobby.’ The expression is usually employed in a distinctly pejorative manner, and on television, the anchor or the panellist on the debate will sport a somewhat superior and unpleasant smirk while delivering himself or herself of this nomenclature. To cut to the chase, let me attempt to describe how the name of a great British architect, Sir Edwin Landseer Lutyens, has become an unfortunate metaphor for all the less endearing qualities of Nehruvian socialism, left of centre thinking and at this point in India’s political history, a somewhat wobbly place to be in. Especially if you belong to the Congress Party or you happen to be addressed by the surname of Gandhi without the Mahatma prefix. Not to speak of all the acolytes who speak on their behalf.

How and why has this come about, this strange name-association calumny? The reasons are not far to seek. Edwin Lutyens it was, who played an instrumental role in designing and building the modern city of New Delhi and its impressive edifices including the India Gate and the Rashtrapati Bhavan, originally christened Viceroy’s House. Thus, New Delhi also acquired the affectionate moniker of Lutyens’ Delhi. It should be mentioned, en passant, that Lutyens collaborated with another British architect, Sir Herbert Baker, in designing much of New Delhi. However, in public perception here in India, Baker appears to have been given short shrift and Lutyens has cornered all the glory, his name up in lights, though flickering and dimming in more recent times. Sir Christopher Wren has been widely celebrated as Britain’s greatest architect, but there are those who believe that Lutyens was not far behind, and fully deserved to rub shoulders on an equal footing, if you’ll pardon the mixed metaphor, with the man who designed the wondrous and imposing St. Paul’s Cathedral in London. Similarly, Swiss-French architect Le Corbusier has enjoyed basking in the limelight for his contribution in designing the modern city of Chandigarh, but he has not quite achieved the fame (or notoriety) that Lutyens has, for entirely different reasons through no fault of his own.

To those in political and media circles who are presently dictating the agenda of the nation, namely the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), its allies and media channels who are openly sympathetic to the ruling dispensation, the Congress Party’s precipitous decline on the national scene has provided them with an ideal whipping boy. The typical perceived profile of a Lutyens product is a person who generally speaks faultless English, at times with an Italian accent, probably graduated from Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), refuses to recognize the rapidly changing political landscape, is forever bemoaning the lot of the poor and the underprivileged, but for the most part lives in comfort and at times, even opulence. That is an exaggerated image but that is how they have been projected and kept stewing between a rock and a hard place. They appear out of joint with the times. If and when the Indian National Congress does come out of the doldrums and returns to its former glory, which seems very far away at the moment, perhaps they will find a suitable title to crown their formidable opponents with. Till such an unlikely event actually fructifies, it is they who are being crowned and very painfully at that.

Idiomatically speaking, one can speculate that if Edwin Lutyens could witness the hullabaloo that is being made in India over his name, he would be turning in his grave. Even that would be factually and technically wrong because he was cremated at the Golders Green Crematorium in London, and his ashes are buried in the crypt of Wren’s St. Paul’s Cathedral – a nice touch of irony. Why he was cremated and not buried, as is the standard western practice only an assiduous historian can enlighten us. Perhaps his long association with India made him partial to our customs. We can but hazard a guess.

In attempting to plumb the depths of our understanding of how a brilliant architect in life, finds himself the object of a political tease in death, I was driven to investigating if there are other examples of the Lutyens variety. Predictably, another British luminary’s name came to mind, that of Anthony Wedgwood ‘Tony’ Benn. A member of the Labour Party, he served as a Cabinet Minister during the ‘60s and ‘70s. Tony Benn was widely seen as a key proponent of democratic socialism (sound familiar?) and Christian socialism. He was identified as a left-wing politician and the term ‘Bennite’ was ascribed to anyone who favoured left-wing politics. In a country which is widely regarded, particularly after Margaret Thatcher’s extreme right-wing stance, as capitalist America’s staunchest ally, a Bennite solution to any problem is frowned upon. The term has been satirised by many British commentators, scriptwriters and playwrights. The Benn example is not an exact parallel to the Lutyens scenario, but it does show how a person’s name, over time, becomes a descriptive adjective.

Yet another British politician, Conservative MP Norman Tebbit, advocated ‘the cricket test’, a controversial phrase he coined in 1990 with reference to the perceived lack of loyalty to the England cricket team among South Asian and Caribbean immigrants and their families. Tebbit suggested that those immigrants who support their native countries rather than England at international cricket matches ‘are not significantly integrated into the United Kingdom.’ This became known in popular parlance as the ‘Tebbit test.’ Ergo, if you raucously applaud the fall of an Indian wicket at Lord’s, you have passed the Tebbit test. Some years later, ironically, Chennai-born England captain Nasser Hussain, took up the Tebbit cry when he found venues at matches against India or Pakistan a noisy cauldron of overwhelming support for the opposition from the migrant community. With travel now becoming much easier and tourists from the sub-continent thronging the Oval and Lord’s, it is virtually impossible to distinguish between a visiting Indian tourist and a migrant Indian holding a British passport.

Morbid fear and revulsion of communism in the United States during the ‘40s and 50s led to McCarthyism, when innocent people were hounded for alleged subversion or treason, particularly when related to communism. The term drew its etymology from US Republican senator Joseph McCarthy, who led the campaign against the ‘Red Scare’, characterised by political repression and a campaign spreading irrational fear of communist influence on American institutions and of espionage by Soviet agents. McCarthy embarked on a foolhardy plan to root out communism altogether. Fortunately, the courts intervened and put a stop to this rabid movement, thus effectively ending McCarthyism. Never one to miss an opportunity, Hollywood gave us Good Night, and Good Luck in 2005,directed by George Clooney, a smartly produced black and white film on the travails of broadcast journalism during the draconian McCarthy era. 

Perhaps the most dramatic instance of a name morphing, this time into a verb, was when American Lorena Bobbitt, after suffering years of physical abuse by her husband John Wayne (no relation), decided to cut off his ‘John Thomas’ while he slept. This swift, if drastic, act of vengeance in 1993 came to be known as ‘bobbitisation.’ It appears that the bobbitised John Wayne acted in pornographic films, a vocation that would have been severely hampered due to the loss of his silly willy!

Those are just a few examples I elaborated upon where names acquire the halo of an adjective for everyday usage, inspired primarily by the fair name of Edwin Lutyens’ unfortunate descent in India to a byword and a hissing. There are many more in history who have achieved this distinction, creditably or dubiously. Sadistic (Marquis de Sade), Sapphic (Sappho), Pyrrhic (Pyrrhus of Epirus) Machiavellian (Niccolo Machiavelli), Elizabethan (Queen Elizabeth I), Victorian (Queen Victoria), Kafkaesque (Franz Kafka), Hippocrates (Hippocratic Oath), Charles Darwin (Darwinian), Sigmund Freud (Freudian), Charles Dickens (Dickensian) and more recently, Chairman Mao (Maoist) and Margaret Thatcher (Thatcherite). While the mood is upon us, we may as well include the terms Nehruvian and Gandhian to this impressive roll of honour.

You can liberally add to that list and have the time of your lives, but remember this. Next time somebody asks you if you belong to the infamous Lutyens’ Lobby, you can give a tart reply by saying, ‘I am not sure what you mean but you Sir, have clearly been drastically Modified.’ Who is to say that our present Prime Minister has not earned that distinction!

Published by sureshsubrahmanyan

A long time advertising professional, now retired, and taken up writing as a hobby. Deeply interested in music of various genres, notably Carnatic and 60's and 70's pop/rock. An avid tennis and cricket fan. Voracious reader of British humour and satire. P.G. Wodehouse a perennial favourite.

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4 Comments

  1. The intellectual in you is on display. A pleasant read. In the US, the Tebbit test (even if it is not called that) is applied to the spectators at soccer games between the US and Mexico. And then there are expressions like –‘He is a real Einstein’, which could mean that the person is very intelligent or appallingly stupid.

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