One of the few owners of a black-and-white television in Nizammudin East in the ’70s, Mr Chaddha often had neighbours come home to watch programmes. But he had a novel way of managing the crowd. “He could only fit 20-25 people in his home, so he would issue passes. I’ve gone to see several 26 January parades and Chitrahaars,” says 50-year-old Rajbir. Owner of Delight Parlour in the Nizammudin East market, Rajbir’s family is one of the original allottees in the area. There is a lot more to retrospect, from the discomfort between Nizammudin East and West (with plots allotted in the latter vs quarters in the East) to the Yamuna waters that now flow kilometres away, unlike the past when the residents walked to its shore across the railway tracks. “Nizammudin is very interesting. For some people it is only the dargah, for others it is just the station, for me it is everything that is Nizammudin. It is defined by the railway station on one side, the nullah on the other, then the Lala Lajpat Rai Road and the Sunder Nursery. There are two large phenomena, 70-year-old post-Partition resettlement colony, but also the 800-year-old basera. We are talking about varied histories, yet a common shared life and knowledge,” says Vani Subramanian, about the project that took her four months.
The filmmaker has documented voices from the neighbourhood in an exhibition. Titled “Hum Sab Nizamuddin”, the oral history project has panels that chronicle its past and present. While Ali Kumar, 40, recalls how his father needed a ration card to obtain licence for a coal and firewood business after he arrived from Peshawar, 80-year-old SK Gandhi remembers bulldozers flattening the land, and his family living on the railway station, who were told that the area would become a refugee colony. Seema Bhatt, former resident of Nizammudin East, says, “I was fascinated to see Punjabi families carry their atta to Ramchander to get tandoori rotis and parathas made by him.”
Subramanian’s chronicles begin much before Partition though. A panel has a photograph of a 1450 illustration of Nizammudin Auliya with three attendants. An excerpt from a brochure reveals that artist Baba Sanyal had suggested naming the neighbourhood on the great saint. In archival photographs, there is Shahid Siddiqui, chief editor of the Nai Duniya, an Urdu weekly, as a baby in his father’s lap; another has a 1958 print of Lala Sahai Ram, owner of Aneja Restaurant, with his Diwali spread. “The family could not identify the people in the photograph. It was a dry cleaner next door who remembers that night of brisk preparations,” says Subramanian. New-age heroes of the locality too are documented, including budding soft rock artiste Zuby Ali. There are panels on Aari work embroidery and crochet by women in the basti. Children too have contributed sketches and paintings.
More archives are still being gathered. Two days ago, a resident brought a photograph of his mother standing by the only hand pump in the area from the early 1950s. “The exhibition has become a community exercise,” says Subramanian. Just like it was meant to be.
The exhibition at Nizamuddin East Community Centre is on till April 26; it continues at MCD School, Nizamuddin Basti, from April 28 to May 4