Gujarat: French influence in built form
(Commissioned project for the Embassy of France in India)
French influence in built-form in Gujarat can be traced to the 17th century, when France became the last of the then major maritime powers of Europe to enter India. A large contingent of warships and trading ships under the command of Francis Caron accompanied by Marcara, a native of Ispahan reached India in 1667 and set up the first French factory at Surat in 1668. The British and Dutch East India companies had already established their presence in India by then, and gave strong competition to the French. Due to this rivalry, and mismanagement within their system, the French started suffering serious setbacks and by first quarter of the 18th century, the factories at Surat were abandoned. A majority of these factories and other buildings were destroyed by the British as the their stronghold on the region grew. Whatever was spared, could not withhold the onslaught of time, and fell apart over the years. However, since Surat over the years grew as an international port town, one can notice a very strong European influence in the house-form and motifs in facades, especially in old Surat and Rander.
The next wave of French influence in Gujarat swept through many parts of Saurashtra towards the late 19th century with a new trend in the princely class of innumerous kingdoms that dotted Saurashtra then. Often young princes were sent to Europe by their families to imbibe 'cultured' etiquette and enable them to move around with the 'white' class. London, and Paris were two of the most favored destinations, and living in Paris particularly was considered more fashionable. Several of these princes, after spending many years living in Paris returned to the region and then attempted to give their states a 'Parisian' character.
Dhoraji stands out categorically in this respect. A small, sleepy town between Gondal and Porbandar, Dhoraji went through major transformation in early 20th century. Its then ruler H.H. Bhagwat Sinhji lived in France for many years, and was so enamored by Paris that he re-planned Dhoraji based on town planning of Paris by Baron Haussmann in the previous century. There was hardly any vehicular traffic in Dhoraji in 1920's but he laid 72 feet wide roads, street squares, vistas, and majestic buildings emulating Paris; a fine example of urban planning even by today's standards.
Rajmahal Palace in Wadhwan presents another case where the architecture of the palace borrows heavily from the French Baroque and Rococo styles. It was built by H.H. Bal Sinhji Jhala in 19th century after his return from France. He was so influenced by French design and workmanship that he invited 50 artisans from France to work on this palace. Unfortunately, a few of them contracted malaria and died, and the rest left in panic thinking it was some kind of plague. Some part of the darbar ceiling still remains unfinished since then. The velvet used in tapestries was specially built on order in France, as were many other ornate articles in the palace.
Gujarat's tryst with France continued well into the modern era, when in the early 1950's the rich textile mill owners of Ahmedabad invited internationally acclaimed French architect Le Corbusier to design several buildings in Ahmedabad. Corbusier worked on plans of 5 buildings in the city, out of which 4 were eventually built, namely Ahmedabad Textile Mill Association, Sanskara Kendra, Shodhan Villa, and Sarabhai Villa. These starkly Modern buildings, built in exposed concrete stood out in the city's landscape, and later spawned a multitude of structures in the city, influenced by their aesthetics, and perhaps function.