The brightly-colored Theatre Annamalai in Madurai, a temple town in Tamil Nadu, looks like the inside of a candy shop. Set against the pale pink paint on the building, the pilasters are orange, complemented by sunshine yellow and a deep blue that borders the cornice. The building is almost art deco, but not quite. This image is part of the German artist duo Haubitz+Zoche’s Hybrid Modernism (2014), a series of photographs of single-screen movie theaters in southern India. Cauvery Mahal, the last remaining in my hometown, shut down earlier this year, hastened to its fate by the pandemic. I found myself revisiting Stefanie Zoche and the late Sabine Haubitz’s photos, taken during three trips to India between 2010 and 2014. To me, they function as talismans.
Moving back in mid-2020 to Madikeri was always going to be tinged with a sense of unnameable loss. The closure of Cauvery Mahal, an institution I knew and had visited all my life, seemed to symbolize all that was now different. It will likely be converted into a shopping complex or a car dealership. Living in a town that now has no public site for cultural dissemination (no cinema, nary a bookshop) means that encountering Hybrid Modernism as a digital album doesn’t just inspire nostalgia, but also presents an opportunity to acknowledge local aesthetics and reflect on the place these single-screen theaters hold in the cultural landscape of India.
When viewed sequentially, the photos in Hybrid Modernism instantly make the uniqueness of each building apparent. Highly individualistic and reflective of the ideas and ambitions of the owners, engineers, and even masons, the architecture cannot be pinned down to any one style. Terming it “modernism” and calling these buildings a “hybrid” is perhaps more for convenience in naming. For instance, Pankaj theater inAlappuzha, Kerala uses a large chunk of cement for its capital, reminiscent of Constructivist architecture of the 1920s and 1930s; whereas several others, like Hyderabad’s Saptagiri and Bengaluru’s Tribhuvan highlight grand decorative elements like curvilinear facades, tropical waves and flamboyant reeding. Almost all of them sport imposing entrance canopies. Columns and geometrical elements populate those like Nataraj in Bengaluru , cylindrical corniches another popular addition to theaters like Tharangam and Jairam in Kerala and Tamil Nadu, respectively. Art Deco, Modernism, influences from the Eastern Bloc, Le Corbusier’s and Louis Kahn’s designs in the then newly-independent India of the 1950s, and several other undefinable ideas of local aesthetics informed their construction. The finished, hybridized buildings were a sharp departure from the Palladian and imperialist architecture that marked the construction of Lutyens’ Delhi and colonial buildings across the country.
Most of these structures would have been built in the mid-20th century, when architecture as a field of study and architects as employable design experts for small-scale construction projects were not popular ideas in India. Masons played a big role in how the finished buildings would look, and often added in their signature styles, making construction a fully collaborative design project. London-based artist Vasundhara Sellamuthu’s work, Maesthri’s Love Letter (2019) acknowledges this quirk. In the triptych, Sellamuthu draws attention to the way masons use cursive marks to draw and write on building walls, sometimes concealing their lovers’ names in what she calls a script resembling a “pre-language” state. Given that these abstract expressions are not meant to be seen on the finished building or in a gallery, she questions what warrants artistic merit within a context where an architect’s drawings are seen and a mason’s signature markings never will be.
The odd combination of architectural elements in single-screen theaters was no doubt intended to stand out and create easily recognizable local landmarks, even when unintended, given how other buildings in the town almost never looked like this. While glamor and flourish were largely reserved for the exterior, interiors were no less opulent. Haubitz+Zoche’s photo of the interiors of Liberty theater in Mumbai shows satin and velvet drapes, and colorful, plush seats. In a shot of Tharangam in Kerala, we see plaster decorations overhead and ceiling fans lined up along the sides of the room, luxuries that were extended to most of these theaters. Such facilities were not yet commonplace in middleclass homes in the country, and these decorations framed an access to a landscape that was far from the audience’s lived realities. Influences from these hybrid structures would also come to be spotted in the work of Italian architect Ettore Sottsass in his brief design movement, Memphis, drawn perhaps from his annual visits to India over several years.
While no one facade is anything like the other, the phenomenon of single screens across India retained some common characteristics. Bound within large compounds, they were self-contained, with utilities like parking spaces and snack bars for popcorn, tea, and aerated drinks, and were usually constructed in a town center. Seating capacities were planned to suit the neighborhood, going from a few hundred up to a thousand in cities. The fairly low ticket prices made these inclusive spaces for people across economic categories.
In and of themselves, Haubitz+Zoche’s photos don’t immediately offer clues to these social contexts. Each exterior photo sticks to a format: taken mostly in the just-dawn light, the building is nearly always tightly cropped, eliminating the surroundings. Many are unpeopled, and there is never an indication of the ultra-prime real estate these buildings sit on, or a sense of the scale and size of the whole enterprise within the community.
This choice of deliberately removing people from the frame extends to the artists’ series on churches in southern India. There again Haubitz+Zoche photograph the facades of churches that depart from European architecture and encompass “Western influences,” as the artists call them, among more formal elements. In another series called India Shining (2008), a term taken from the right-wing government’s campaign that sought to promote India as a haven for foreign investment, the artists try to show skyscrapers – denoting development – juxtaposed with “situations in public space that are coined by stark contrasts in terms of architecture.” Haubitz+Zoche’s photographic works might offer some value as documentation of some of India’s architecture, but in their use of subject and framing, they are only a breath away from being seen as the West’s idea of what a Global South country’s stories must look like back home.
For the stories, people, and societal histories behind these structures, I look at the works of Indian photographers like Sameer Raichur and Hemant Chaturvedi instead. Both frame the stories of single-screen theaters in India as a history of aspirations and escapism. In Raichur’s photographs people, nearly always men, perform a hysterical and disruptive brand of fandom toward a favorite male star actor, expressed by showering coins on the screen, hoots, whistles, and dancing indoors during the show, and bursting firecrackers outside – all strictly forbidden in multiplexes. One of the photos in a series on the “first day, first show” of a film depicts the most ardent fans standing within inches of the screen to venerate the hero with marigold and rose petals. Chaturvedi’s approach, on the other hand, is clearly documentary, and focuses on the vestiges of these once-thriving theaters, on what happens after the movie ends and the patrons leave. An image of dust-laden film reels neglected on a theater floor in Uttar Pradesh; another of an abandoned cycle rickshaw that used to be outfitted with film posters and ridden across town advertising a film. While architectural elements are present in the works of both these photographers, they are mostly incidental.
As someone who grew up watching movies in Kannada, Hindi, English, and sometimes Tamil in the now closed Cauvery Mahal and the long-gone Basappa Theater, revisiting Haubitz+Zoche’s photos has been about remembering. In the pre-cable, pre-Internet era, not only were single-screen theaters the only place where one could watch a movie, these were the only sites for any kind of culture for those of us in isolated towns and hill stations (colonial nomenclature for high altitude towns where the British retreated each year to escape summers in the plains) like Madikeri, unlike in larger towns and cities with wider entertainment options.
By nature, hill stations were isolated, even mysterious, owing to a combination of poor access roads, extreme weather conditions, and a lack of economic opportunity that kept outsiders away. In a place that did not have a view to the rest of the world, single-screen theaters became the cultural commons that fostered a sense of community unblocked by rules of caste, community, age group, and class. Save for the occasional softcore movies that only boys and men went to, everyone in town accessed the same entertainment. These theaters were where we met acquaintances, the older generation exchanged quick hellos and furtive local gossip, and us younger folks flirted before the show started. With literally no other place where such inclusive mingling could happen, the importance of these theaters in a small town cannot be overstated.
Tourism has since taken over hill stations, and with it, urbanization and new economic avenues have opened up. The social spaces of theaters have been drowned by a merciless combination of reduced patronage because of access to various avenues of entertainment in homes, changing technology and the pressures on business. What suffers in this cosmopolitan morphing is the social energy that activates spaces like these and creates a sense of community, however ephemeral.
To me, having grown up with these icons of local culture in both Madikeri and elsewhere in India, the photos in Hybrid Modernism are an entryway into remembering their function as hyper-local social hubs, as would likely be the case for Indians of a few generations before mine. But for someone viewing these photos without having access to the vast cultural history behind the theaters, the work risks being reduced to images of an exotic quirk from the Orient. The artists’ choice to crop out the people and the ambience from most images, except where completely unavoidable, is dubious. The hybrid architecture is undoubtedly interesting to look at, but devoid of the larger context, the photos end up somewhere between documentation and architectural typology, and the buildings themselves end up being seen, when viewed on gallery walls, as curios from distant lands.
That said, any documentation of these fast-disappearing landmarks is welcome, for the idea of architecture as part of India’s cultural heritage is rarely recognized. For instance the controversial Central Vista project, currently underway in New Delhi, and led by the right-wing prime minister Narendra Modi, is set to demolish several heritage buildings, including national museums, to make way for new ones for the government. The project has been severely criticised for not only its cost and timing – a whopping INR 20,000 crore (approx. $2.74 billion) when India is going through a horrendous second wave of the pandemic – but also the government’s disinterest in conserving heritage structures, especially those made by anyone that do not fit the Hindu supremacist definition of “Indian.” This apathy in acknowledging architecture as part of a country’s legacy extends to more localized realms when buildings are purged with little understanding their value in histories of place. Haubitz+Zoche’s images record a small part of this eroding legacy in India, even when they place them in something of a Wunderkammer as denuded evidence of whimsical creativity and the wild imagination of unnamed builders. But the value of such typological efforts without the contextual frame that extends to a larger picture would hardly last in the history-making of a culture. You need to include the people.