Friends of ASI… and history

A group of men playing cards under the leafy expanse of a Neem tree in the courtyard of Begumpur Masjid in Malviya Nagar.

Published:March 31, 2013 12:41 am

A group of men playing cards under the leafy expanse of a Neem tree in the courtyard of Begumpur Masjid in Malviya Nagar. A handful of children from the basti darting in and out of the Masjid — their private playground. Women drying clothes on a makeshift clothes line on one side of the Masjid. A stray cow pottering among the ruins as a guard keeps a lazy eye on the card game,now in full swing. This is a picture of daily life in and around Begumpur Masjid,an Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) protected monument.

But one morning in January,the Masjid wore a different look. School children — from the nearby Mother’s International School and Begumpur’s local school — had gathered,exchanging notes and chatting. ‘Friends of ASI’,a group that was formed last year,comprising historians,architects and teachers,was directing them.

In a first-of-its-kind initiative,the group was attempting to bridge the gap between civil society and conservation. And their pilot project kicked off with a heritage walk from Bijay Mandal to Begumpur Masjid that morning,followed by talks and an exhibition of archived ASI photographs and paintings made by students of Mother’s International School.

Narayani Gupta,Delhi historian and a ‘Friends of ASI’ member,said,“Delhi is a unique city with its wealth of heritage,with about 170 carrying an ASI tag. It’s time that local communities began interacting with their monuments. People drink,litter,play cards,deface walls (of these monuments) and ASI is perceived as a hostile guardian by local communities. This gap needs to be bridged. We chose Begumpur Masjid because it’s a perfect example of this situation.”

Shibani,a class XI student of Mother’s International School,was one of the students leading the walk. From Bijay Mandal,the palace of Muhammad bin Tughlaq famous for its thousand-pillared hall,Shibani led the group through the winding lanes of the basti,weaving personal anecdotes into her historical narrative of the three dynasties there — Tughlaq,Lodhi and Khilji. Curious onlookers watched at first then joined in,asking questions and even correcting her in places.

“I never knew of the masjid’s existence,although I live nearby in Sarvapriya Vihar. I remember the first time I saw it,it was raining. I walked in,saw the 64 domes and the mehraab and I was awestruck,” she says.

Afterwards,at the exhibition,a woman from Najafgarh,who had come to Begumpur to visit her relatives,recognised parts of the masjid from the pictures. “There were stables here. We’ve even had weddings here,” she said. As she delved into her memory,people surrounded her,to hear her impressions of a time lost and unpreserved.

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