Theatre directors say that a play is about people — as they circle one another, clash, connive or cooperate, a story is born. Delhi-based Feisal Alkazi, 59, a veteran of 300 plays, would argue that theatre is also about places. His recent productions have taken audiences to Slovakia during World War II (Love in the Time of Oppression), colonial Kolkata (A Quiet Desire) and Mughal and modern Delhi (Noor and Khoya Khoya Chand, respectively).
Even when he takes off his director’s hat and puts on the writer’s, places remain important to the director. Some of the 20 books he has authored have titles such as Exploring an Environment, and The Riverfront of My Town: Discovering Jaipur. Alkazi’s new book is called Srinagar: An Architectural Legacy (Intach and Roli Books, Rs 395) and presents the Valley as a wondrous place full of mysticism, imperial history, 300-year-old gardens, aromatic deodars, saffron-flavoured food and hereditary chefs. In an interview, Alkazi reveals why he had “a ball writing this book over eight months”.
What was your first impression of Kashmir?
The first time I saw Kashmir was from a plane window and it was scary — this valley hemmed by mountains and totally cut off from the rest of India; there is only one connecting road. That’s what makes it so different from the rest of the country. Accessible from the north, Kashmir was, however, on the Silk Route. I have been to Samarkhand and Bukhara and could see the linkages in the architecture of these places with Srinagar’s. The book explores the architectural heritage of this 500-year-old city through its rich past and different eras of kings.
How did this book come about?
In 2004, I ran a project called Children of Kashmir with the Rajiv Gandhi Foundation. It involved children whose parents had been killed during the violent years. When you work with children, you cannot focus only on trauma, you have to deal with the positive. As we evolved a project on Kashmir, we found many interesting stories and hidden histories of the place. The third Buddhist conference was held here in 100 AD. It was also ruled by Sikhs and there is still a population of Kashmiri sardars. This produced a book, Discovering Kashmir. I went back many times thereafter. Srinagar: An Architectural Legacy is for a person who doesn’t want to do the touristy three-day-two-night stay. Six of the 10 chapters in the new book are on heritage walks in Srinagar so that people can discover the city for themselves. I had a totally different Kashmir experience and the book shares that.
How did you decide on the walk routes through the city?
The chapters on walks focus on the river being an integral part of Kashmir, with boats being the main form of transport as it is in the backwaters of Kerala or Venice. The first chapter, “From medieval to colonial Srinagar”, begins with a walk from Khanqah-i-Mualla shrine, which lies on the bank of the Jhelum. Directly opposite it stands the Pathar Masjid, where no prayer has ever been offered because, among other reasons, it was built by a woman, Empress Nur Jahan. The next chapter is “A walk along the Bundh,” which tells the history of Srinagar through colonial architecture. Another is “A garland of gardens”, which takes you in a sweep on Boulevard Road around the grand old Dal Lake. It begins with Shalimar Gardens, goes into Nishat Gardens and then to Pari Mahal.
You say you asked yourself a lot of questions during your visits to Kashmir.
Much of our introduction to Kashmir is through its food. I asked myself ‘do we like gustabha, yakhni, and kebabs because it is light, or because there’s less frying, or because there is no haldi and very little jeera and the main delicate flavour is from saffron, or because their koftas are different from the UP koftas?’. I asked myself why there are so many gardens and began to trace the story backward to the time the Mughal emperors would visit with their retinue of two lakh people — Delhi would be practically empty. Why are Kashmiris such good craftsmen and embroiderers? It was a fascinating journey to undo those threads.