The neighbours were a curious lot. After all, the barsati in Panchsheel Park was a peculiar one, with snake charmers, piano nights, kite flying matches and a wedding reception. The year was 1999, and pianist Brian Silas and his wife Ravi were a part of the beaming bunch of young people who lived on the barsati, for long a defining part of the capital’s architectural landscape.
On one barsati in Jangpura, occupied by musician Vidya Shah and her photographer husband Parthiv, impromptu baithaks over biryani happened; on another in Golf Links in the early ’90s, an author finished his book on the city and its djinns; while play readings took place at noted theatre director Ram Gopal Bajaj’s barsati in Pusa Road in the late ’70s.
Cut to 2017, and the barsati seems to have vanished. The barsati — a spacious terrace typically connected to a 1 BHK above the second floor — which, through the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s, was a hotspot for cultural and social interaction, has been gradually replaced by high-rises.
“In Delhi, there has always been a lack of adequate housing and the DDA has to shoulder a share of the responsibility. Barsatis were in response to that. People couldn’t build on the roof. This changed with the master plan in the late ’90s, which allowed people to build a portion of the roof as per the floor area ratio they had,” says former Urban Development minister and Delhi Congress chief Ajay Maken.
Urban planner and architect AGK Menon adds, “The reason why there are fewer barsatis in Delhi is perhaps due to the changes in the building bye-laws, which now permit more area to be built up on the third floor.”
Bajaj, best known for his play Ashadh Ka Ek Din, reminisces about a time when, along with actor Om Puri, he decided to pitch a story to Doordarshan on various characters that inhabit a barsati. “The ’70s were a period of struggle. I remember Om Puri, Naseeruddin Shah and M K Raina would come and crash at my barsati in Pusa Road. Raat ko gappe karte thay, gaddon pe sote thay, aasman ke neeche. Barsati hi humara rain basera tha,” he says.
The time that Suvir Kaul, a professor of English at the University of Pennsylvania, spent at his Golf Links barsati in the late ’70s sounds like a snippet from ’80s cult film Chashme Buddoor. “The problem was that the barsati became an adda for all our friends. They knew where we kept a key, so we would often return home to find them lounging around, finishing off all they could find in the fridge,” he says.
Amitav Ghosh finished writing Shadow Lines on his Defence Colony barsati in the late ’80s, Arundhati Roy wrote God of Small Things at a rented barsati near Nizamuddin dargah in the late ’90s, and glimpses of William Dalrymple’s life and his Sikh landlady became a part of his book City of Djinns in the early ’90s. “The barsati was an inspiration for the book, no doubt. The accommodation was cheap, and there was open space — it was an instant draw,” says Dalrymple.
Parthiv, who hosted baithaks where the likes of Shubha Mudgal also performed, remembers, “Heated debates would often happen but the barsati had the capacity to absorb different experiences… Artists loved it because you could see the sky and not worry about chaos on the ground.” He and Vidya moved out once their family grew.
For Brian and Ravi, too, it was addition of children that made them turn the barsati — which they eventually purchased — into a proper floor. “Both Brian and I come from small towns, where houses were big. The only way many like us could compensate for the space was by living on a barsati,” says Ravi Silas, now 61.
Chetan Vaidya, Director of School of Planning and Architecture, says the number of barsatis began falling in the ’80s itself. “As property rates went up, the builder lobby became strong and started doing away with the barsati. We became conscious of the commercialisation of real estate. The other reason is a change in building bye-laws,” he says.
Bajaj, perhaps, sums it up best: “Living on a barsati had something to do with maansikta, the mental attitude. Only those with open minds and hearts would rent the open space.”