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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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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Issues

The city of Delhi sometimes reminds me of an onion, imperfectly taken apart – many layered, veined and maimed. The layers are not coherent or even tightly packed – scattered stray wisps forlornly curl at the edges in some corner, many centuries lie bunched together in another. Yet within them lie hidden vapours of many pasts, rising unbidden to sting you into an awareness of a different time.

Quoted from Anisha Shekhar Mukherji’s amazingly thought provoking post on the essence of our first Delhi Dallying seminar: Delhi and its image issues (if we can call it that).

Considering that a significant part of Delhi (like that of India) is too busy surviving, does the city even have these issues? Or is it only us, thinking too much? Of course, I’m not denying the situation, which is very much real, but I’m wondering whether we can call it an issue if so many of those concerned are not even aware of it.

Delhi Dallying: Seminar I [18.02.2011]

Delhi Dallying held a seminar on 18th February 2011, as a part of Utopia 2011, the annual festival of SPA, Delhi. We had 4 expert panelists who came together to discuss the imageability of Delhi.

Question raised: If ‘New York : Skyscrapers, then Delhi:?’?

Bharati Chaturvedi, Environmentalist + Editor

Ms. Chaturvedi drew our attention to an aspect of the city which we tend to be oblivious to, often unaware of. She spoke about the informal sector of Delhi which is an integral part of Delhi’s ecological chain and also its economy, but is still unrecognized, and often banned. Delhi is a city of ‘walas’ like the neighbourhood fruit vendor, press-wala and maid, who form a large chunk of Delhi’s population.

Himanshu Verma,  Art Curator + Activist

Mr. Verma is passionate about the traditional flower markets of Delhi (like the ones near mehrauli and Baba Khadak Singh Marg) and has been heading the ‘Genda Phool’ campaign to prevent them from being shifted to a dedicated depot on the city periphery. He raised some very valid arguments explaining how these markets were actually ‘activity generators’ and enlivened an other-wise dead space, for the few hours that they are functional everyday.

Madhav Raman, Architect

Mr. Raman is currently involved with the Delhi Ring Rail project and went on to explain the twisted identity that Delhi is headed towards. We often aspire for Delhi to be like Shanghai or New York but that is where the problem lies. The whole point is that Delhi has its unique identity. Infact, it has multiple identities owing to the influx of migrants from all over the country, which makes it a diverse melting pot. He stressed on the promotion of sustainable models of development like the promotion of low cost public transport and indigenous, site specific development.

Narayani Gupta, Historian + Professor

Ms. Gupta concluded the seminar by sharing her experiences of Delhi. She spoke about a protest which she had undertaken in the 1980s wherein they protested against the demolition of the King George V monument, saying that British buildings too, were an inherent part of Delhi’s image as well and one cannot and should not try and erase them from history. She explained the transition of Delhi from a post-independence, nascent city to the rapidly growing metropolis that it is today.

Conclusions:

The discussion led us to conclude that Delhi has the potential of being truly cosmopolitan, as it has multiple images, not just one. Their is so much diversity in the city, that it actually adds to the character of the city.

(This was just a start and we hope to have many more Delhi Dallying seminars soon!)