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Purani Dilli: Erasing the past

Our glorious past cannot be allowed to surrender to the contemporary current; surely, with some imaginative and ingenious thinking, there is scope for their cohabitation. — Dr. Jaya Kakkar


These days hosannas are being sung in praise of restructured Chandni Chowk by those who trust that certain topical change will require some landmarks to concede space. But there are others who lament and say that the costs of repurposing are paralysing in terms of sacrifice of heritage. In today’s Chandni Chowk there are certain landmarks which-still-are part of the landscape. Such as Sufi shrine of Hazrat Chitli, which provides name to the nearby traffic intersection. This looks as ancient as if it existed all those centuries ago when Emperor Shahjahan has set up his new capital of Shahjahanabad. And yet there are new ballads for Chandni Chowk. The refurbished avenue has become more pedestrian friendly prompting a leisurely walk from Red Fort to Fatehpuri by the Walled City aficionados. For some at least the change has accentuated the enjoyment of shopping and eating, visiting shrines, soaking in the idyllic view of the Lal Quila on one side, and of the Fatehpuri Masjid on the obverse extreme. 

Actually despite its seeming timelessness, Purani Dilli is witnessing an ever continuing and dynamic evolution. On one hand there is mushrooming of modern architecture in its cramped lanes, while on the other even the age old kuchas and katras are witness to pizza parlour and espresso coffee. All this amidst the beauty of Meena Bazar which extends from Netaji Marg to the Jama Masjid, skirting past the garden – mausoleum of freedom fighter Maulana Abdul Kalam Azad. The market is as bustling as ever with the sellers of nick nacks, delectable food, and every thing else that you may need. 

In more recent past two capital complexes were built – Chandigarh and Delhi. When Lutyen built New Delhi he took many things from Indian vocabulary and created a relatable edifice. On the other hand when Corbusier built Chandigarh he never cared for this aspect. This sole aspect of relatability had made all the difference: while Chandigarh has failed to find a place in the heart of India, Lutyen’s buildings are deeply etched in the psyche of Indians of post Independence generation. And, yet, even they have an expiry date. So does Purani Delhi (Dilli).

Chandni Chowk unfailingly finds space in historical texts as in modern tourist guidebooks. Even 50-60 year ago men would be attired in kurta-pyjama, and the ladies would be adorned in sarees or salwar-kameez. People were unhurried, with moments to spare; they would indulge in idle gossip. Havelis, the sprawling old residences, would be home to large joint families, and were a distant from the modern day pigeon hole flats occupied by nuclear families. Barbershops would have the facility of a hamam, that is, if you could afford it. And old timers would tell you about bedmipoori, daulatkichaat, and biryani.

With the influx of refugees, post partition, wholesale markets mushroomed – Chawri Bazar, Dariba Kalan, Kinari Bazar … the sky still remained blue, traffic manageable, and air breathable. Every corner of old Delhi was replete with its own nuggets of history. But now virtually every inch of it is giving way to new architecture, rebuilt shops, modern houses instead of havelis for sur; it is not only imaginary fear that the encroaching modern designs will one day ensure that the glory of old Chandni Chowk is completely faded away, consigned to pages of history that once was...

Purani Dilli or Shahjanabad was a walled city built by emperor Shah Jahan in 1639. It occupied 1500 acres with 14 gates. It is no longer the city that Mughals built. The shops, at least some of them, mirror those in sleek, upscale south Delhi markets, in tune with the more sanitised, modern look that a millennial or Gen Z customer would prefer. There are hitech chairs and modern tools in hair salons as are available Mediterranean and Italian (Chinese is so down market now) fare to savour in swanky, Parisian looking cafes. The place is changing with time. Commerce guides this charge. It is believed, and perhaps rightly so, that today’s customer wants variety, accessibility, and comfort. So the younger heir to the family business are hurrying up to meet those expectations. Only that, some complain, the modern architecture, in an attempt to stand out and outshine, hurts the aesthetics and the cultural heritage of the area. This is inescapable outcome, since now it is home to two worlds – one, enmeshed in its ‘glorious’ past but perhaps out of alignment with the present day realities, and the other one hungry for new, and yet oblivious to consequential loss of prestigious heritage. Dilapidated Mughal era havelis or the crumbling façade of colonial building are slowly conceding space to the neon lit front of a designer café. It uses social media to expand reach; it has no time for ‘old world’ loyalty through word of mouth publicity! Though kormas and kulhadki chai have not vanished, waffles and mojitos pervade the air and space. Many bemoan that we are staring at a complete loss of an integral part of our history.

Should we not be able to find a way so that there is a space for both the old and the new? While Purani Dilli does not lose the race for decay, the New Delhi does not overwhelm it? Chandni Chowk acquired its name because the silvery glint of the stars was observed in the flowing waters of a canal. Alas, now it cannot even be called Moonshine Square, to give it a modern twist, since the moon is hardly observable. 

To be sure, the area became pregnant with change in a major way post partition. After division of India, Chandni Chowk and adjoining areas started getting commercialized. Abandoned havelis were converted into katras (shops). The market at the mouth of Chandni Chowk, Lala Lajpat Rai Market, became a hub for electronics. Slowly and gradually if was reduced to a slum; worse, an erroneous – and perhaps now, a deliberate – impression is being built that it is a Muslim ghetto. However, with some imagination and concerted effort, it should not be impossible to retain the indigenous architecture while accommodating modern designs. In Puducherry we have a shining example of this. Only that rebuilding a heritage site needs scrupulous planning, execution, monitoring, and management. First and foremost the local community must be involved. The basic issues need addressing, such as sewage, parking, hygiene, overcrowding etc.

Nobody can begrudge a café, which has existed since aeons, when it decides to go for Mediterranean look, or other stores which are going for a modern look, in order to answer the demands of the killing competition and ever evolving customer. He is perhaps not enamoured of the old Mughal type look. Attention of the millennials ensures the swiping of their credit card at a ‘modern’ outlet. So there are votaries of change who say that redevelopment has enhanced the attractiveness of the place for tourists and youngsters. 

Then there are those who believe that civic authorities are solely responsible for the history and infrastructure of the place. But it is partly true. Instead of allowing the new to become native, there should be an attempt to bring past in the present so that it can be transported to the future. The govt. needs to ensure that infrastructure is upgraded, the authenticity of the architecture is maintained, and local community is benefited.

Else, the past will be permanently erased.              

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