A Capital Controversy (or not)

India Today editorial director M.J. Akbar writes on ‘History in Capital Letters‘.

There’s been enough said in the social media (and, possibly, conventional news media too, but us SPA students have generally been living under rocks these past couple of months) about how valid the 100-years-as-capital celebrations are, considering that Delhi was first the Slave capital, then the Mughal, then British and finally independent India’s. So, commemorating 12 December 1911 as the big date seems mighty ridiculous to some.

On the other hand, I see nothing wrong with the Delhi government’s (and other organizations’) many events, festivals and fairs in observance of the date. After all, nothing’s stopping us from recognizing other anniversaries, is there? The more celebrations, the merrier, I say!

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What’s in the type?

It’s been three weeks since I have had this Dilli seated in black and white on my desktop screen. To me it was as Delhi as it gets. I LOVE it! Today, at my cousin’s place, my uncle who’s lived in Delhi almost all his life seemed to differ. He thought it could be made more readable. Google results for my image search revealed another attempt by the INTACH guys that seems to have been abandoned now (and no surprise at that). Thinking of how much could this brilliant image be screwed with, I came ahead and together, we gave it a shot on photoshop. And our Dilli appeared. The tittle on the ‘i’ made prominent. d-i-l-l-i: clearer than the previous version. The word appears a little more indigenous than exotic  in my opinion and rings Delhi 6 more than Shahjahanabad in my head (but that’s my opinion). What do you guys think? Which one do you like better? Take either of the images and share with us your own version (until someone from INTACH chances upon this article and asks us to remove all this enthusiastic guerrilla dilliness). Until then!

Documenting Delhi

Author Tarquin Hall introduced me to an unusual Delhi slum in The Case of the Man who Died Laughing (2010):

The slum, one of Delhi’s largest, was inhabited almost entirely by street entertainers: puppeteers, snake charmers, bear handlers, musicians, acrobats, troupes of actors who performed plays with social messages, the odd story-teller, and jadoo wallahs. But the view through the scratched, convex windshield was depressingly familiar: a sooty ghetto of ramshackle brick houses smothered in cow dung patties. Plastic sheeting, chunks of concrete, and twisted scrap metal were draped over roofs. Canvas tents were pitched amidst heaps of garbage where filthy, half-clad children defecated and played.

Hall went on to describe the incident in such vivid detail that it was a clear, crisp movie playing in my mind- in fact, when trying to recall where I had previously come across the slum, I had to discard the idea of a movie/ video, it seemed that real. Anyways, and again, credit to Tarquin Hall, I was so enthralled by the book that I forgot my intention to google the slum: he never even mentioned its name, only that it’s in Shadipur.

It’s called the Kathputli Colony, where wandering magicians and entertainers settled sometime in the 1950s, on public land which was then barren, but now prime property, courtesy of the Metro.

The name seems familiar-ish now that I know what it is, as if it was always on the edges of my consciousness. I’m sure I’ve come across it before.

This post was prompted by this brilliant trailer (and appeal) for Tomorrow We Disappear, a documentary by American filmmakers Jim Goldblum and Adam Weber.

The slum land now belongs to a private developer, so it’s most probably in its last days, soon to become another entry in the long list of lost traditions and quirks that made Delhi Delhi. I’m not saying that slums are good, and need to be conserved. But I certainly think that the art and culture of this particular slum needs to be saved- or at least, remembered.

Jim and Adam are attempting to do exactly that- their movie will document Kathputli Colony as it is today. (As far as I know, it does not aim at stopping the eviction.)

The clips they have are beautiful. Also, I love the music they chose.

Tomorrow We Disappear Teaser Trailer from Rebel Yell on Vimeo.

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This project is similar to HandpaintedType, by which graphic designer Hanif Kureshi is attempting to preserve the tradition of street-painting. You know, the painters who sit on roadsides and make posters/ banners/ car number plates. Before watching this video I never fully appreciated their skill. All I had were semi-curious half thoughts about how exactly they do it (especially since I’ve been required to draw guidelines for my text) – do they draw guides, do they use rulers, do they make a first draft, do they outline and and then fill-in later? Now I know, some-what.

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How is it that expats/ foreigners/ tourists sometimes (often) know your city better than you do? Tarquin Hall is a British journalist, Jim and Adam are American, and recently Delhi Dallying (with friends) participated in a surprisingly tough Delhi quiz hosted by another British journalist, Sam Miller, and which was (surprise!) won by other foreigners (of unknown nationality).
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Happy Diwali!

When we eat our words

Remember our post and debate on the Indraprastha Park? Well, we decided to actually visit the park, and, you know, see for ourselves whether our fancy theories and top-down discussions hold any merit.

They don’t.

We went around 4 in the afternoon, and it was blazing hot, but there was no dearth of people. Mostly young (and middle aged, and young and middle aged) couples under bushes and behind trees, but also some uncle-types and school boys all hanging out together.

The reason why we don’t see any cars, cycles, etc. parked out front is because the park has a very nice and convenient parking lot, which was pretty much full when we visited.

It also has a designated canteen area, with lots of stalls and seating.

The Park is surprisingly peaceful, even with the Ring Road right next door.

The park is surprisingly peaceful, being next to both the Ring Road and the railway line. And the west edge is absolutely brilliant, simply falling down to the railway line some 3-4 metres below.

The railway line, from the western edge of the Park.

We also finally went to the white marble Shanti Stupa, the one which you can see gleaming in the sun from the Ring Road. It was actually being cleaned, necessary to maintain its shine, I guess. (The park also had plenty of malis and security guards, so maintenance is definitely not an issue.) And well, it’s a real stupa, and not a fake one, like I stupidly thought it would be because it’s not ancient.

The modern Stupa, complete with a universal access ramp.

It’s definitely authentic, complete with other Buddhist signage and inscriptions out back. And we were very, very lucky to see a young Budhist monk, in ceremonial orange and yellow robes, pay his respects to the stupa and the other monks living behind it. It was surreal, almost unbelievable that we were still in Delhi.

Prefabricated (?) houses for the Buddhist monks, behind the Stupa

The amazing stone work and textures in the Japanese-style "zen garden", sadly inaccessible.

So, were we completely wrong? Is the IP Park a sensible and perfect-as-it-is land use decision?

The Park is very nice, and so what if it doesn’t have a specific function? It seems to function quite well as a public park. This challenges most of what we’ve learnt in our Theory of Settlements class, and otherwise. Is it again a case of “technocrats” theorizing without understanding the ground conditions? But what we’ve learnt does make sense: of course good public spaces need to be easily accessible and have relevant functions. Perhaps Indrapratha Park is an exception, but I have a feeling we’re missing something here. Maybe it’s more accessible than we think, and it has another entrance, or maybe there are some offices nearby because of which we saw so many office people. Either way, there’s no questioning the publicness of the Park.

So, we eat humble pie (and our words).

Of breathing spaces and public places

From Lucy Peck’s absolutely brilliant DELHI: A Thousand Years of Building (2005):

There are numerous problems associated with Delhi that do not appear to have ready solutions. Some of the causes are easy to identify: it is widely understood, for instance, that low-density development causes traffic congestion. In the case of Delhi the situation is exacerbated by the lowest densities occurring in the ring that encircles the commercial heart of the city, while higher densities occur further out.

This phenomenon was recently termed (very aptly, I think) “the inverted suburb” by our Design studio faculty Dr. Leon Morenas. It definitely adds to -in fact, is one of the main reasons for- Delhi’s traffic problems, but I think I agree with Varun when he says that the solution can not be to increase the built in Lutyens Delhi. Can you imagine the city without this green centre as breathing space? Of course, there are other issues, such as how these green spaces are mostly private and also never used as such in our climate, but the point is that they also act as necessary lungs for the city. And how awesome is the fact that (according to the Masterplan 2021) Delhi is one of the greenest cities in the world?

The green lungs

Also from the same book:

Another easily identifiable problem is the astonishing amount of unused or ill-used land in the city centre, including a suprising amount of decayed industrial land that lies empty. Among many startling inept land use decisions must be counted the new Indraprastha Park between the Ring Road and the main north-south railway line near the Yamuna, which is inaccessible by foot from any residential neighbourhood apart from Sarai Kale Khan- surely a prerequisite for an urban park!

This park is very close to college, and this is another thing which I’ve always wondered about- who uses it? I never see any people about, though I confess I’ve never been inside, and only seen it from the road. Of course pedestrians can’t use it -crossing that stretch of the Ring Road is near impossible- and I don’t even see any cycles or cars outside it, so we can’t even say that non-pedestrians use it. Neither have I ever seen any hawkers or ice-cream walas (who unfailingly congregate around used public places).

The large public park(s?), bound by the railway line and the ring Road.

This just begs the question: What were they thinking? Actually, they probably had pretty good intentions, of providing Delhi with a very well designed and landscaped public park, but how could they not have thought of something as basic as accessibility?

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Update (28/09/2011), by Rohan Patankar

The Indraprastha Park opened in 2004 over a saturated landfill site. Hence, its location was not determined by its pedestrian linkages at all. I guess the intention was to give the city a green lung and a visually pleasant open stretch. (BTW, I absolutely love the Jaali detail on the boundary wall of the park, will try getting a picture soon). About the desertedness, I have seen lots of school buses and cars parked on weekend mornings, but surely, its complete potential hasn’t been realized. Partly because of inaccessibility, and partly because of its bleh function. If the need and use of the open space, could be identified (maybe, themed) more specifically, it would pull people out of their neighborhood parks, for stronger reasons, repeatedly.

So, what do you guys think? How can this Park be made more successful? What other intervention would have made more sense or been better suited to the site? Which public function (that the city lacks) could have been accommodated here?

Our tryst with the DDA!

A few days back a friend and I went to the DDA office, which happens to be right opposite our college’s planning block. We were looking for some information about one of their projects in Dilshad Garden. It was then that we got our second taste of how government offices work (the first is our college’s administration itself). The tallest in Delhi at one point of time, it is quite an imposing building. From the inside it reminded me of the ministry of magic from Harry Potter’s 7th movie (part A), with a core of 6 elevators going to certain floors only, spewing out a variety of people every time the lift doors opened. The place stank like a toilet, tube lights didn’t work and ofcourse, paan stains, everywhere. To get hold of the right person to talk to, we were made to hop around from one lazy ‘Madam’ to the other bored ‘Sir’ and so on, only to be told that the chap who knows where the records are kept hadn’t come to office.

Studying at SPA, back in second year , a bunch of us created a ‘utopian’ (we like to call anything remotely whimsical, that!) character – Archiman. Armed with a parallel bar, transparent string and lethally pointy set-squares, he was to fight the ever-loathsome Dr.DDA (flanked by his secretary Miss Pencil, ofcourse!). Mr. DDA was touted as the biggest architectural kill-joy ever, forcing the entire fraternity to water down any  creativity and stick to its by-laws (Oh, we wrote a song about that too!).

Two years hence, in fourth year, we are at a stage in our design studio, where we have no option but to read the ‘wretched bylaws’ and basically, play by the book (Hence, the visit to the DDA office). Initially its all such a strain; why do we have to provide 15% housing for the EWS? Do we have to leave a 6 meter setback? Can’t we exceed this height limit? But the more I think about it, I see the logic. Apart from certain climatological and safety reasons for providing setbacks and minimum sizes, there are manifestations of an overall vision for the country, the city and the neighborhood, which need to trickle down right to the individual building. These manifestations could have social goals, such as providing housing for all or visual ones, such as maintaining the greenery of Delhi, the one thing which probably all of us are proud of.

However, this is not to say that all of these laws are justified. Looking at Delhi today, its apparent that it is an inverted city. The center is so sparsely populated and the peripheries are packed. This is directly linked to by-laws, FAR and density limits etc, decided by the DDA. Similarly, the minimum standards for housing and slum resettlement are things which have been quite the same for years. With the kind of progress that flexible architecture has made in recent years, it is surprising that the authorities have not  adopted more economical and space  efficient designs, to counter the huge pressure of  migration.

These are just some observations I have made over the past few months. These are my opinions and I might be getting some facts wrong. But what is important is, that as students, we realize that following certain building laws is actually in our interest but at the same time, we should have the audacity to challenge the law, if we can justify it.

One of the many avtaars of Archiman!

(credits: Akshay Khurana)

The DDA building at ITO

(courtesy: http://www.skyscrapercity.com)

The un-destitute Delhi

Architect Charles Correa writes in his 1989 book The New Landscape: Urbanisation In The Third World:

Our criminal indifference to cities Like Calcutta or Bombay over the last decades have allowed conditions to deteriorate to sub-human levels. Yet somehow Bombay functions, and with an energy and enthusiasm that is far more impressive than a showpiece capital like Delhi, because the budget available there per capita is several-fold that of Bombay. Furthermore, cities Like Bombay and Calcutta represents a true cross-section of urban incomes, whereas New Delhi has no destitute people (they are all hidden in Old Delhi); the poorest people one sees are governnient clerks cycling to work, and in winter even they are dressed in woolens! The Third World has too many examples of such capital cities, cities whose apparent affluence is misleading — most of all to the politicians and bureaucrats who live there.

Well, Delhi sure has changed in the past 22 years. Maybe not our politicians, though.