Durand built buildings, but also a bridge between India and Canada

Updated: Nov 27, 2019, 15:29 IST | Prutha Bhosle | Mumbai

Canadian filmmaker Etienne Desrosiers's latest documentary, Luc Durand Leaving Delhi, tells the story of a cosmopolitan artist who built a bridge between India and his home country and why we should preserve what's left of it

Luc Durand took three days to complete this lobby mural (behind the posters) at Habib Rahman's iconic Shiela Cinema in Paharganj. It's expected to be demolished to make way for a multiplex. Pic/ Nishad Alam
Luc Durand took three days to complete this lobby mural (behind the posters) at Habib Rahman's iconic Shiela Cinema in Paharganj. It's expected to be demolished to make way for a multiplex. Pic/ Nishad Alam

New Delhi has morphed into a gigantic megalopolis that has erased much of its memories and landmark structures, especially those from the mid-century. People forget. Amnesia is everywhere," says Etienne Desrosiers. The Canadian filmmaker is speaking about what prompted him to film his latest project. "My documentary is an honest attempt not just to remind people of the common heritage that India and Canada share, but also to honour the genius of the man behind this."

Luc Durand Leaving Delhi is Desrosiers's 80-minute biopic on celebrated Canadian architect Luc Durand and his surprising stint in Delhi. "He is like the hero of a 20th century epic novel," Desrosiers thinks. In 1951, Durand, then 21, left Canada to study in Geneva with Montparnasse Tower architect Eugene Beaudouin of France. Subsequently, he landed in Delhi to build with JRD Tata's nephew Jack Bertoli the Air India booking office at Connaught Circus. "He stayed in Delhi for four years and designed a lot [of structures]; notably urban plans for the Ford Foundation, the house of writer Patwant Singh on Amrita Shergill Marg and the lobby mural of Habib Rahman's iconic Shiela Cinema."

Durand took three days to complete the mural at Shiela Cinema in Paharganj, India's first cinema with a 70 mm screen. The bright yellow wall with abstract art in red and blue is still considered one of Durand's best works in the capital.

Late Luc Durand
Late Luc Durand

"But my favourite is the 18 temporary pavilions on the Exhibition Ground [today's Pragati Maidan] for the Indian Agricultural and Industrial Fair in 1961," Desrosiers adds. The pavilions had to reflect the new energy of an independent nation. A 2012 issue of DOMUS India, reads: "Durand's pavilion for the State Trading Corporation included a daring four-inch thick shell dome, tapered elegantly to three points on a confined triangular site. The other notable design was the Martin Burn Pavilion with a metallic roof supported by two boxed columns. When illuminated at night, it glowed in triangular forms, celebrating the power of Nehru's India."

Etienne Desrosiers
Etienne Desrosiers

When Durand returned to Canada, his career was influenced by his stay in Delhi, as seen in the Quebec Pavilion for the iconic Expo 67, built in 1967. "These events were important for both countries; the buildings are a symbol of our cultures. To make Durand's biopic is a celebration of our collective heritage. It tells the astounding story of this adventurous character."

The film tells the story of a cosmopolitan artist at play with a fascinating inter-cultural dialogue. It reveals the secret histories of buildings through a free electron of modern architecture during the dynamic Nehru era, showcasing one's inventiveness for every aspect of the built environments, whether a textile rug, a residence or a skyscraper, up to large scale urban planning.

Thapar Pavilion at the 1961 New Delhi Industries Fair was built by Durand
Thapar Pavilion at the 1961 New Delhi Industries Fair was built by Durand

Fifty years after leaving Delhi, when Durand decided to revisit the city in 2012, Desrosiers tagged along. Convincing Durand to be a part of this film was not difficult. "Like most architects of the immediate post-war era, Durand's ego was big enough to embrace at least one film on himself and his immense career encompassing five decades," the filmmaker says. But the stay in Delhi, for Desrosiers at least, was challenging. "The pollution was a hindrance, but we had great help from Bimla Bissell, wife of late John Bissell [founder of Fabindia], who had hosted Durand, his wife and their three children during the first years of their stay in Delhi, 50 years ago."

This time, Durand was impressed with the city's growth. "And so, the loss of some of his buildings was not a surprise to him, since real estate and capitalism leave no one standing. He was touched at being welcomed by old friends Bimla, and architects Jeet Malhotra and Raj Rewald."

Luc Durand in Delhi. Pic COURTESY/DOMUS INDIA
Luc Durand in Delhi. Pic courtesy/ Domus India

But the city's changing character spelled the end of some of Durand's works—a cinema in Patel Nagar, for instance, has been demolished. Shiela Cinema, too, is expected to make way for a multiplex.

Luc Durand Leaving Delhi premiered at the 37th Montreal International Film on Art Festival last March. Its festival career is ongoing. Its most recent screening was last month at Rotterdam Architecture Film Festival. Montreal will see the theatrical release on December 20.

Desrosiers hopes it can come to India. "I hope to present it in New Delhi, where Durand worked and lived. He liked the city a lot, also Mumbai and Chandigarh, where he would visit his mentor Pierre Jeanneret when Chandigarh was growing with full force."

The Air India Pavilion at the 1961 New Delhi Industries Fair
The Air India Pavilion at the 1961 New Delhi Industries Fair

Desrosiers credits his writing residence, in 2016, at Charles Christopher Beninger and Ramprassad Akkisetti's India House Art Gallery in Pune for helping him research the film. "Durand passed away last year at the age of 89.

This film is an ode to the work of art he left behind for all of us to see."

4
Number of years Durand spent in New Delhi

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