Sobha Singh was 22 years old when he and his father Sujan Singh were invited by the British for the Delhi Durbar of December 1911. The contractors from Sargoda (Punjab) were working on the Kalka-Shimla railway at the time and when they learned that the British capital would be transferred from Calcutta to Delhi, astute Sobha Singh reportedly surmised: “It’s time to buy land here.” Years later it will be called “aadhe dilli da malik”.
Delhi’s most famous pre-independence builder – whose company is now at the center of a legal dispute with the government over the latter’s alleged non-payment of rent in Delhi’s Sujan Singh Park area – has lent more than its touch to some of the iconic buildings including Regal, Scindia House, A Block in Connaught Place and Chelmsford Club.
But Sobha Singh was not the only entrepreneur to shape the new capital. Called the “panj pyaares” of Delhi – after the first five Sikh volunteers to be initiated into the Khalsa order – this group included, in addition to Sobha Singh, Narain Singh, Dharam Singh Sethi, Baisakha Singh and Ram Singh Kabli. There were at least three other prominent entrepreneurs – Akbar Ali from Jhelum and Lachhman Das and Seth Haroun from Sindh. Each brought their expertise to the work that transformed a barren expanse into a historic city.
Although construction of Delhi was to begin shortly after the announcement in 1911, with World War I budgets were cut and costs increased. The inauguration would have to wait another two decades.
British architects Edwin Lutyens and Herbert Baker were called in to design buildings along the central vista, which included the Viceroy’s House (Rashtrapati Bhavan), Secretariat Buildings (North and South Blocks), numerous offices and government housing. The ground was leveled and the long winding streets of Old Delhi were abandoned for hexagons and axial layouts.
But the real builders were these contractors, besides the many architects and engineers who shaped the landscape and gave Delhi its monumentality.
At a time when Delhi was home to hyenas and jackals, when families in Old Delhi warned their children not to travel to New Delhi after dark – the border was then Amrita Shergill Marg – there were businessmen here industrious who saw beyond the reality of barren, hilly terrain.
Khushwant Singh, the son of Sobha Singh, wrote in his book Not A Nice Man To Know about those “pioneer builders…of little education and modest means” who became millionaires.
One of the first to arrive was Haroun, a Sindhi, who helped build the Rashtrapati Bhavan. Then there was Das, “legendary for his honesty”, who never used cheap materials and always paid his workers fairly. He was involved in the construction of the Parliament and the Bikaner House and his family was famous in Agra for the work they did on the marble. Narain, who arrived from Sangrur, would continue building roads, leveling the land and laying the foundations of Rashtrapati Bhavan. His son Ranjit Singh built the Imperial with Francis Blomfield as architect; his grandsons currently manage the hotel. Baisakha Singh, who arrived from Amritsar, was responsible for the construction of the entire northern block, in addition to the bungalows for government officers.
Dharam Singh would go on to build a lavish house on Jantar Mantar Road which later housed the office of the All India Congress Committee. In fact, most of them built houses along the same street. Sobha Singh asked his architect Walter George to build him a house, which is now Kerala House. Right next to it was Baisakha Singh.
It is said that Sobha Singh and Baisakha Singh would not let the walls stand between them, that they even had a perimeter wall broken through so that their families could mingle without leaving the gates. Opposite Sobha Singh’s house lived Narain Singh.
Delhi was part of Punjab during the Delhi Durbar era, and most entrepreneurs were from Punjab or Sindh. These entrepreneurs found an opportunity to relocate to Delhi during the construction of a new capital.
Sumanta Bhowmick, additional director of the Parliament of India, whose book Princely Palaces in New Delhi tells the story of New Delhi’s empire and post-independence, says: “We have to credit them not because ‘they accumulated wealth, but because they were industrious and enterprising. many who came to Delhi at a time when the land was bare except for brick kilns and tombs. Delhi was not an attractive place at all.
But of all the builders, Sobha Singh landed the biggest batch of projects, including Vijay Chowk, India Gate, National Museum, AIR, Baroda House and Sujan Singh Park (SSP). What marked SSP as a unique project was that it was a precursor to other housing projects in Delhi, including Delhi Development Authority settlements, introducing the style of four blocks of houses surrounding a park.
Architect Gaurav Raj Sharma, who recently renovated apartments in SSP, says: “After the capital moved, there was a housing shortage in New Delhi. In 1943, the New Delhi Municipal Corporation approached Sobha Singh to develop one hundred apartments for government use in a four-storey building. The 11-acre plot on the southeastern outskirts of New Delhi was offered on a 99-year lease.
The condition of the lease was that the tenant would build, using their own funds, and upon completion the government reserved the right to use all or part of the buildings by paying fair rent. This arrangement would continue until the end of World War II and until a year later. After this period, “a certain number of apartments, not exceeding 50% of the total, will be rented to civil servants at a fair rent”.
This builder model of building apartments is followed to this day in the real estate market.