Is it possible to set apart just one year for the birth of a city? In Chandigarh’s case, perhaps it is. It was on October 7, 1953, that President Rajendra Prasad came to inaugurate the city. There was very little of it on the ground then as most of its famous landmark buildings were either in the planning or construction stages. But, Chandigarh grew fast. Just 17 years later, in 1970, it was ready for the second phase, in which it was decided to adopt a vertical growth pattern as the shortage of land began to be felt even then.
M.N. Sharma is the last of the surviving architects who worked on Le Corbusier’s team, which he joined as a 27-year-old in the early 50s. “I was the chief architect of Chandigarh in 1970, and we had just witnessed what I would say was the ‘golden age’ of this young city when the legendary M.S. Randhawa was its chief commissioner,” he says. This was when the city’s many gardens—the Rose Garden, the beautiful Leisure Valley that cuts a verdant swathe through the city—and the spectacular landscaping of the Museum and Art Gallery took place. Many of the beautiful trees and plants—the stately pilkhans and arjuns, the jacarandas, the bauhinias and mahoganies—that now adorn Chandigarh’s avenues were all gawky young tree-lings in 1970.
This was also the time when people from neighbouring Punjab first began to show an interest in settling here. “Before that, it was a struggle to convince people to settle here, because most thought Patiala would be the capital of Punjab,” recalls Sharma. After the reorganisation of states in 1966 and the subsequent announcement that Chandigarh would be the joint capital of Punjab and Haryana, the city began to draw the attention of Punjabis as a viable place to live and work.
One of Chandigarh’s oldest residents is Om Prakash Arora, owner of the iconic Capital Book Shop in Sector 17. The shop that is today a favourite spot for book readings and author interactions started in 1952 as a small stationery shop in Sector 22, which was then the only marketplace in Chandigarh. “By 1970, the city had taken shape and our shop, which we had shifted to Sector 17, had some more company. It was mainly a town of government employees and some private businessmen, most of whom, like us, were refugees from Pakistan looking for a rooted existence. I remember M.S. Randhawa used to often come to Sector 17 to see if the sweepers had cleaned the market.”
There were many wooded areas in the town at the time as several plots hadn’t been constructed on, but with a population of 1.5 lakh by the time it turned 17, Chandigarh was well on its way to becoming the coveted destination it now is.