Independent: Celebrations and Myth-Busting in the Old City

In the monsoon of 2012 we visited Old Delhi almost every week for a group research project at architecture school. We were trying to understand the Old City’s complexity and see how it was different from the Delhi that we lived in. Over many visits to the same mohalla (neighbourhood), we had effectively invited ourselves over to the home of a family we had befriended, for iftaar and flying kites. Our families remained skeptical about us going there on Independence Day – perhaps it is human nature to be wary of what one doesn’t understand.

Although, not too eager to sacrifice a holiday for what seemed like work, our curiosities still got the better of us and we pushed ourselves to just go. From the moment we emerged out of the ground from the metro station at Hauz Qazi Chowk (popular as Chawri Bazaar Metro Station), we realized that it was indeed a special day. This Chowk, where the crowds were usually dizzying, was almost deserted. We hopped on to a cycle rickshaw and started making our way to Sharif Manzil in Ballimaran, a place we had frequented ever so often over the summer.

As we entered Ballimaran, we realized that the streets that were usually bursting with people and commerce were silent – just long rows of closed shutters.  Some men were selling goats for sacrifice – Eid was coming up in a few days. For a fleeting moment one assumed that with Ramzaan going on, all shops being shut and the weather being sultry, most people would be indoors- just another holiday like it was for most of ‘New’ Delhi. Little did we know.

The emptier-than-usual lanes near Hauz Qazi Chowk. Photograph by Varun Bajaj ©

Crossing Ghalib’s haveli, we ventured into the gate of Sharif Manzil. We spotted our friend and host, 27 year old Amir and his cousins on the terrace, five floors above us, from the chowk in front of their building. Amir’s ground floor garment shop that also sold kites during the season and the neighbouring cyber cafe were both shut. Amir had asked us to make our way up to the chhat. The first flight of steep and long stairs took us directly to a generous balcony on the second floor. We went up the rickety spiral staircase, passed through a passage and climbed a ladder to reach the fourth floor. Finally we walked up a narrow staircase to the terrace and we were engulfed with sounds and color.

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The courtyard at Sharif Manzil. Photograph by Varun Bajaj ©

 The terrace itself was not so much a flat plane but a collection of distinct rooftops connected to each other. The highest of these had been appropriated by the patangbaaz. We arrived just as the motley crew of boys and young men were helping Amir set up a kite, thread the ribs and roll the manja on to the pin. Their undeclared captain wielded the huge kite, maybe five times the size of a normal one, tugging at it, waiting for it to catch the wind. Middle aged uncles looked on endearingly, calling out advice as they deemed fit. It was a grand production.

Amid the shouts of “kati, kati, KATI!” , we could hear some Bollywood music playing in the distance. Amir told us that mohalla usually hired a DJ and it was almost an open air terrace party on Independence Day. However, with the month of Ramzaan being observed, it was only correct to be respectful. Most of these people hadn’t eaten or even had a sip of water the whole day and still they were flying kites, shouting out to each other and just generally, being happy. There was an electric buzz in the air. The sky was a brilliant blue canvas against which hundreds of kites were painted. The emotion was building up like the heavy humidity that was so common this time of the year, though Amir pronounced it a clear afternoon. “As long as it’s windy, and kites are flying, it won’t rain.”

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Dotted with Kites. Photograph by Varun Bajaj ©

Interactions with Amir and his family, who have been residents of the mohalla for generations, revealed that even though the closeness between neighbours had reduced over the years, there remained an implicit feeling of mohalledari. Children were jumping across parapets from chhat to chhat , and everyone was a chacha, tau or bhai – there was an overwhelming sense of familiarity.

The visual connection across terraces enhanced the interaction, both within and between mohallas, at a scale which is not imaginable on the street. Though the terraces belonged to individual families, they were not distinct from each other, making them a common resource for the mohalla. The chatt was a whole new realm of public space.

Hop, skip, jump! Photograph by Varun Bajaj ©

Occasionally, one would see, a flock of pigeons collide with another and then circle back to their masters. The sport of kabutarbaazi is still prevalent in many neighbourhoods in the Old City, where a kabutarbaaz trains his pigeons to not only come back on call but also steal a few from other flocks on the way! The Khans themselves had many pigeons, some of whom were bought at prices as high as 20,000 rupees a pair.

The sky was mesmerizing as the sun started to set – the tricolor, backlit by the waning sun and the approaching clouds, and was fluttering against a sea of terraces. In that light, even the monstrous MCD building suddenly looked quite harmless. The patangbaazi was starting to wind up and Amir’s kite, which had soared high up and attacked fiercely at first, had met its end as the winds changed.

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Symbolism at its best. Photograph by Varun Bajaj ©

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From Jama Masjid on the left to the slightly obscured MCD Tower on the right. Photograph by Varun Bajaj ©

Soon the azaan was called, one mosque after the other. There were fireworks at the Jama Masjid as the sky went pink. We helped spread some mats and bring out the food and sat with the entire family on the chhat. They opened their fast (roza) with dates and fruit. It felt private, but they were genuinely warm and welcoming. We joined in the feast of hot pakoras and gulped down some Fanta for good measure.

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Fireworks at Jama Masjid – time for Iftaar. Photograph by Varun Bajaj ©

 Being a part of that spirit made us realize that in this part of the city, 15th August is so much more than just another holiday, it is truly a celebration, not just of our independence but also the monsoons, the winds and togetherness. This day was all about collectively appropriating the sky, which belongs to all of us, with hundreds of kites and flags, by people, young and old. And there is a strange sense of freedom in just this awareness.

This post is co-written by Bhavika Aggarwal, Rohan Patankar and Varun Bajaj. It is a recollection of their visit to Old Delhi on 15th August, 2012 as part of a research project with Ammani Nair and Vani Sood. Their research paper ‘By the People : Complexity in the Commonplace’ can be found here.

A version of this post appeared on the August 15, 2014 issue of The Scribbler.

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Notes from St.ART Delhi @Shahpur Jat

shahpur card collage (rohanpatankar)

street (noun)

a public road in a city or town, typically with houses and buildings on one or both sides.

art (noun)

the expression or application of human creative skill and imagination, typically in a visual form such as painting or sculpture, producing works to be appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power.

street art

an umbrella term defining forms of visual art created in public locations, usually unsanctioned artwork executed outside of the context of traditional art venues

St.ART Delhi is the India’s largest Street Art Festival, that in early 2014 invited over twenty artists from around the world to come and paint the town red, quite literally so. The 6 week long festival’s first stop was at the urban village of Shahpur Jat. The folks at St.ART gave us the opportunity to string together narratives from various facets of the festival into a curated walk, . Excited much, we began by going back to our ‘history of architecture’ lessons from architecture school and simultaneously, began speaking to the artists ‘on site’ to get their perspectives.

The peeps at the festival really meant it when they said they were intervening in Shahpur Jat, in the thick of the urban village. This is not the area that most people who are reading this post have seen; not the Fender Academy, not the Wishing Chair, not the Dada Jungi House lane. This was the much larger yet hidden ‘hinterland’, bustling and complex, strikingly different from the world outside it. The ‘outside’ is merely 200 metres beyond, marked by the August Kranti Marg, of the fairly new Delhi (especially in comparison to this 600 year old settlement). To the closely knit village community, this became a starting point for many a conversation- within itself and with the world outside.

Layers and intervention

While the street art became one more layer among the many layers that made the experience of the place, it also initiated a process that unearthed other buried layers. We began our wanderings and meanderings; understanding the workings and internal relationships between these many layers. The most visible among them are the ruined fortifications of the 14th century city of Siri and, in contrast, the many designer boutiques that have popped up along the outer periphery of the village, not so long ago.

We were equally curious about the ones less apparent, about why most of these houses have the title Panwar written on them, about how a certain specific corner shop selling tea and snacks would have all its signage and music playing  in Bangla, about the staggering number of sequins shops on every street and also about just how many prachin shiv mandirs there were in this village. In our two weeks of frequent study-on-ground (after our day jobs, of course), we slowly began to absorb these observations and aberrations and also began to understand that street art was intervening with these layers in ways beyond the obvious.

Landmarks

The traditional landmarks of the village also became navigational anchors for us and the St.ART team to go about town. One such landmark, albeit a forgotten one, is the anonymous Baradari, the epicenter, where the story of this settlement began. Today the baradari doesn’t quite exist. The shadows of this 14th century monument are buried under and surrounded by many generations of ambitious building all around it. The Rainbow Project gives this ‘non-place’ another anonymous anchor that unites it with the hundreds of other such anonymous places across the globe that host the rainbow.

While the village gave the festival some landmarks thanks to its geography and multi-layered history, the festival also reciprocated with a few anchors. German artist Tofu’s piece of the striped lines at the Nayi Chaupal was one of the first pieces of the festival, also one of the most memorable, perhaps because of its central location. It became the torch-bearing reference for any artist who went to seek permission for doing a wall.

The massive cat drawn by Indian artist Anpu Varkey was also part of the first wave of festival interventions, and it quickly grew to be a neighbourhood icon. It also earned Anpu many friends and assistants in the week that she spent drawing the massive piece. The January air was cold and damp, the wall was huge and the scaffolding looked fragile. The neighbourhood aunties and uncles were amazed at this petite-looking girl’s skill, and also somewhere in their hearts, proud – of Anpu as well as the cat!

Haan, aapne woh billi toh dekhi hai na? Bas wahin se dayeen taraf janaa hai.’(Yes, you must have seen that cat, right? Just turn right from there.)

Conversation

While Anpu was one of many women artists who participated in the festival and painted walls that were possibly much more challenging to paint than the ones done by their male counterparts, the commentary on feminism was taken to another level altogether by artists like Ranjit Dahiya and Sé Cordeiro. Dahiya’s monumental mural of fearless Nadira (the infamous rebellious seductress from the 1950s) cleverly gets us thinking about how a woman’s smoking and drinking fixation has been automatically branding her as the vamp on the Indian screen and outside it since forever. Se Cordeiro’s beautiful woman warrior from the Gulab Gang is as powerful as she is spunky, armed to pin down all of those men who disrespect her. Adding charm to the quaint village setting are also Alina Vergnano’s graceful murals of women, almost softening the mood of this somewhat aggressive setting.

The festival generated quite a stir in the neighbourhood. People were intrigued about the organization that was just going around painting on walls without even taking money for it.

Achha, aap bhi company ke hi saath aaye ho? Yeh ho kya raha hai?” (Are you also with these people the company? Just what is happening here?) “Yeh log sab jageh drawing kar rahe hain, par phir yeh festival kahaan ho raha hai?” (These people are just painting everywhere, but where is this festival happening then?)

This is exactly what even many visitors wondered walking right through this village, not realizing that, in fact,  ‘they’ were the festival! The fact they were there, looking and talking and moving around seeing this place, made the festival. This real experience was only complimented by the sea of people who saw all of these pieces online, not in relation to each other but in relation to the worldwide scene. Delhi, India had just popped up on the street art map, and so had Shahpur Jat village as this neighbourhood bursting with art!

On ground, the festival was thriving, really, on conversation between the artists and local people, often only through gestures and body language and bits of broken English (and in the case of a few curious characters among the village folk, some surprisingly eloquent exchanges in English). While traditionally, street art would be relinquished as vandalism, in this case, all of it was legitimate and carried out in broad daylight (and sometimes, in the night too, ofcourse), with police permissions et al in place. With no economic transaction at play, it was just about finding the right wall and seeking permission from the owners and soon enough, being flooded with requests for commissioned art pieces too. Well, these conversations have only just begun. And we are sure we’ll be listening intently!

AFTERNOTES:

  • We learnt about various styles of street art, from Graffiti to paste ups and murals.

  • We began to appreciate the immense amount of skill required to draw on walls (that turn very cold in the winters) and how different it is from drawing on paper in terms of scale.

  • We realized we really do like taking people out and showing them around places : )

  • We met Daku. (It was kickass!) No, we’re not telling you who s/he is.

Of ‘hang-out’ places and pigeon droppings!

Sort-of in the center of  Central Delhi, just off Hailey Road (which in turn, is just off Barakhamba Road), ‘Agrasen ki Baoli’ is one of those places which you wouldn’t typically chance upon. You can’t spot it from far away cause its cozily tucked in,  and surrounded by buildings which are many times its depth, in height. If you’re there, you’ve probably heard of it from a friend, or maybe seen a photograph. It is one of those (many) monuments of Delhi, which don’t usually find a place in history books or travel guides.

So when I actually went there for the first time, I was a little shocked to see people; mostly youngsters and quite a few of them at that. I guess one should be happy about that; after all, don’t we keep saying that people in our city need to look at monuments as more than just mere blackboards for scribbling ‘Pinky ❤ Rinku’? Instead I felt a tinge of disappointment because I’d expected it to be deserted and would rather have seen it with fewer people dotting my field of vision! Anyhow, the Baoli has a rustic charm, to put it simply. The steps, leading down to the water (almost non-existent except on very rainy days),  in exposed stone masonry are an obvious result of time and weather at work. One can spend hours just sitting there and listening to the pigeons rustle and flutter, while absorbing the tension between the zenith and the nadir – shards of high-rises rising behind the plunging depths (ok, that’s a bit of an  exaggeration) of the baoli. Thanks to its ‘protected monument’ status, ASI had put up a much-needed historical overview of the place, which is believed to have been built by Maharaja Agrasen during the Mahabharat era and rebuilt by the Agrawal community in the14th century. Another addition by the ASI, is a prefabricated security cabin (in reflective glass X-/), annoyingly placed right at the top of the Baoli.

A few weeks back, I made my third visit to the baoli. As mentioned in the previous post, 2/3rds of Delhi Dallying was in Bangalore for the last many months and I had found myself feel immensely proud talking about my city (I know I live in NCR but whatever!) to my Bangalorean friends. Some of them happened to be in town for the day and I thought I ought to show (off) Delhi to them, in its full summer glory. This started with breakfast at Bengali Market followed by a walk past my school (Modern School, Barakhamba Road) across the road to this beautiful baoli. Despite the summer heat, there were a couple of youngsters  ‘hanging out’. There were about a dozen plastic chairs stacked up at the broken mosque on the south-west corner of the baoli which got me wondering if this place could actually hold events. Another addition was a visitor’s book displayed proudly right in front of the security cabin.

Now, this book is brilliant! It is  an honest reflection of what the people of the city really feel about such monuments, the sarcasm comes out poignantly in most of the comments and the language is just SO Delhi. At first glance, I couldn’t stop laughing at the ridiculous ‘Nice, Good to Smooch!’ comment. But on reading further, it was clear that some people were genuinely concerned about the baoli. There is rightful criticism about the lack of drinking water and ‘the wonderful aroma of bat shit and pigeon droppings’ as well as some interesting suggestions like ‘jhule hone chahiye’!

The visitor’s book is definitely a step towards involving people (rather making people feel involved)  in managing public places but will these suggestions and concerns result in improvements? Time shall tell. Till then, enjoy the comments!

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Photo Credits: Our ‘Bangalorean friend’ Alkananda Yeshwanth

Back to Black (dusty grey actually)

Okay. So we’re back after our little (long) holiday.

Two thirds of the Delhi dallying core team (who anyway live not in Delhi but in NCR :-P) were in Bangalore for the past five months; enjoying lovely weather, the ease of reaching any part of the city within 50 minutes (which is lesser than their average commute to school in Delhi), the wise warmth in the cultured folk of Bangalore. Back to the grime and the grind, this clever city was almost incomprehensible to me for a couple of days and I hated it.

My second day in the city, I went for the pre event prep for the new Typervention for the fortnightly Typeout feature in the Timeout Delhi magazine (writing a Hindi couplet by Gopal Das Neeraj written in a Braille and Devanagari hybrid typeface with Bindis and pearl buttons at the Amar Jyoti Charitable Trust school, Karkardooma). (The incredible) Kriti Monga/ Turmeric Design and I went to Sadar Bazaar and Kinaari Bazaar to get supplies. Through the day, I was fretting to her about how since morning the city’s been annoying me with a frozen SIM and Delhi Metro card a chain of dysfunctional ATM machines. And then we reached the old city and I forgot about it all.

Interestingly, the moment we told the shopkeepers we needed the supplies for this project at the blind school, they had a sudden change of heart, stopped haggling with us, gave us things we precisely wanted with a smile on their faces.

Apart from the pilgrimage to Natraj at Chandni Chowk and the best Banta place yet at Kinaari Bazaar, Kriti took me to her secret summer food must-haves, the puraani Kuremal  Kulfi wale at Sitaram Bazaar, and had frozen fruit kulfis  (simple fruit purees really, but mind bogglingly delicious). Among the two of us, we shared six servings; Jaamun, Faalsa, Anaar,{ask for Kaala Namak for these} Aam, Litchi (the yummiest of them all) and stuffed Aam. So delicious, you have no idea!!

Also, as part of the seminar programme at school, Delhi Dalllying with Ammani Nair and Vani Sood, we would be looking at the Mohallas of Shahjahanabad as Complex Adaptive Systems (more on the mind f**k bits of the same from a better informed contributor soon) under the guidance of Dr.  Leon Morenas. We’re looking forward to the regular trips to the old city, for food and field work.  We’ll keep you posted and invite you for the final event. In barter, you tell us about you secret food spots in Old Delhi.

Join the Delhi typerventions Group here.

Enjoy some Jazz by the Hauz here.

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Style

If you live in South Delhi then you’ve definitely seen some of the great graffiti (ahem, vandalism?) out on the streets. NowDelhi/ Tahska has even made a pretty brilliant short film/ documentary on this, which you can find some posts behind.

From the style and signature (which I sometimes spot) I know that most of the graffiti done around my area is by Daku. It’s all brilliantly coloured typography (and I mean the other meaning of brilliant, the one to do with bright and shining, complete with glinting edges); it’s really good work.

There’s a huge abandoned plot at the edge of my colony -used as a rubbish dump and public urinal- with a lone square very DDA-looking structure on it. I don’t know what it is, but I’ve seen it on plenty of other huge abandoned plots- perhaps some kind of guard room, or something that hides an ancient well?

Anyways, that structure has now been vandalized. (Actually, it’s been so for at least a month, and I’ve been planning to write this at least as long, but we’ll talk about my procrastination sometime else.) This is the best graffiti work I’ve seen for real so far, outside of my computer screen. I mean, shit. It’s just so good, the idea and, of course, the execution. Take a look:

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notes on delhi, vol.1

Have decided to share interesting observations on Delhi. Book/blog/movie/etc. recommendations are most welcome!

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Writer/journalist Jai Arjun Singh runs an interesting weblog called Jabberwock. He’s lived in Delhi all his life, in Saket, and thus has been privy to its metamorphosis. Some quotes from his many posts on Delhi:

From PVR Talkies!, May 2005

“Bhai saab, yeh PVR taakis kahan hai?” one asked me, or at least that’s what it sounded like.

I figured they meant the movie hall but couldn’t be completely sure; for all I knew, any number of new buildings/offices/dhabas might have come up in the colony that were informally called PVR-something-or-the-other. When I hesitated momentarily, one of the other men said “jahan phillum lagti hai” and simultaneously the first one said “PVR taakis” again. I directed them to the hall and walked off, realizing that what the first guy had meant was “PVR Talkies”. That was so cool. PVR Talkies. Jahan talking picture dekhne ko milta hai. Takes you right back to another era, doesn’t it, while also serving as a reminder that many movie theatres outside of the big cities are still referred to that way.

From The Saket Column, July 2007

We moved to Saket in September 1987. Still years away from acquiring road sense, I had little idea then of where this quiet colony placed on the map in relation to the rest of South Delhi, but I’d heard the area was once a forestland where people went fox-hunting, and it seemed a very adventurous thing to live in such a place.

From Flyover down under, January 2008

I’ve concluded that the multi-level underground parking lots in Delhi’s newest malls are versions of the clover leaf-shaped flyovers that are staples in big cities around the world. In fact, if you can picture a clover flyover that goes deep down into the ground, it’s practically the same thing.

From In Praise of the Delhi Metro, March 2011

Now the Metro is changing this to an extent. When I wrotethis post in 2008, it seemed like the construction would go on forever and we’d never get to see actual trains (all we saw then were hordes of solemn-faced, helmeted men wandering about our park with giant measuring instruments, occasionally visiting houses to take photos of every crack on every wall so we couldn’t subsequently blame the damage on the vibrations). But it’s all in working order now, and a huge convenience – these days I sometimes find an excuse to get out for a while even if I don’t strictly have to.

and from his latest On Dave Prager’s Delirious Delhi (which led to all the others), December 2011

The structure of each south Delhi neighborhood, observes Prager, is such that it focuses life “squarely towards the centre. Residents are both figuratively and physically forced to turn their backs towards everything outside. It’s introversion by municipal design…we can’t help but see south Delhi as isolated islands separated by seas of traffic”.

which almost exactly echoes SPA faculty Henri Arthur Fanthome‘s views on the issue, and

Delirious Delhi is a mixed bag overall. Prager has a broad sense of humour that usually works, his enthusiasm is infectious and I enjoyed his obsessive interest in such things as the intonations of the word “bhaiya” by women trying to hectorsabzi-wallahs.

and, my favourite bit:

The nearly 400 pages of Delirious Delhi are more than enough to show that Delhi is a place where anything (and its opposite) is possible, and in fact this book is a little like the city itself: sprawling, unruly, continuing to expand alarmingly just when you think you might have reached the border (or in this case, the end of a chapter).