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Tales from the Labyrinth: Exploring Delhi’s history through baithaks, walks and some adventure

Historical storytelling isn’t as simple as it sounds; while facts need to be as accurate as possible, finding interesting ways to tell them as stories is a constant challenge.

Lessons from the past: A discussion after a heritage walk organised by Delhi Karavan in the capital Lessons from the past: A discussion after a heritage walk organised by Delhi Karavan in the capital

It’s a muggy Sunday afternoon and Asif Khan Dehlvi, 24, walks past the medieval bridge, tombs and the mosque in Delhi’s Lodi Gardens, searching for a quiet and cool patch of grass. A group of 25-odd people trail behind him, they are prepared for this week’s discussion about books written on the capital over the ages.

For the next two hours, Dehlvi meanders between fact and fiction as he narrates episodes from Begmaat ke Aansoo by Khwaja Hassan Nizami, Shamsur Rahman Faruqi’s Kai Chand the Sar-e-Asmaan and others. The discussion goes on beyond the agreed time. It’s time to pay a fee of Rs 300, collect the list of books that Dehlvi and his team have prepared, and, of course, click photographs with the Bara Gumbad in the backdrop.

“Heritage walks mostly concentrate on history and architecture, but these baithaks are more about people, first-person accounts and a living culture,” says Dehlvi, who started Delhi Karavan last year, and was with Delhi by Foot earlier. The organisation focusses on exploring the city’s rich historical and architectural legacy, their walks and tours take enthusiasts to numerous heritage structures that dot the city — outside a tomb, a ruined palace, a baoli or the courtyard of a haveli. Dehlvi has already conducted more than 30 such baithaks, including the screening of Satyajit

Ray’s Shatranj ke Khiladi, followed by a discussion on Awadhi culture inside a 155-year-old haveli at Kucha Pati Ram area of Sitaram Bazar in old Delhi. The night walks included a walk through Mehrauli Archaeological Park “in search of the supernatural”.

In 2009, digital marketing professional Vikramjit Singh Rooprai began a project called Monuments of Delhi, with the aim to visually document more than 1,300 existing and lost structures in the capital. “It all started with a visit to some little-known heritage sites in south Delhi; I realised that very little information, particularly visual information, was available on these,” he says. The next few years saw him set up, what he claims to be, India’s first photography club dedicated to heritage sites, the Delhi Heritage Photography Club. Soon after, he started Heritage Durbar, a social media platform for discussions on history and heritage of the Indian subcontinent, and lastly, Heritage Hunter, a group that goes looking for “hidden” or lesser-known heritage structures, such as the abandoned fort at Indori in Haryana.

The “search” for Indori came with its own set of adventures. “It was a long route and on the way we were stopped by illegal miners who thought we were mediapersons. When we started at 5 am from Delhi, there were five cars. Only one car finally reached the foothills of the Aravalli, only to realise later that there was no motorable road leading to the fort. But these aspects make the hunt for heritage thrilling,” says Rooprai, who formed Youth For Heritage Foundation this year.

It is important to read historical events as a story, and focus on the untold ones, he says. For instance, at the gates of Purana Qila, Rooprai talks about Hemu or Hemchandra Vikramaditya who ruled from the fort briefly, and not about Sher Shah Suri and Humayun. His is a one-man show and he does not charge any fee.

Historical storytelling isn’t as simple as it sounds; while facts need to be as accurate as possible, finding interesting ways to tell them as stories is a constant challenge. “One needs to dig up stories hidden in the past, locked in the present and buried within ourselves. The idea is to bring together spaces, places and people in a matrix of stories that connect us with our roots,” says Yuveka Singh, founder, Darwesh, a Delhi-based storytelling organisation that offers storytelling walks, tours and workshops for fees ranging between Rs 1,000 and Rs 2,000. Founded last year, Darwesh has also attempted to weave in theatrical performances in its storytelling sessions. For one of its events, “Her Story”, organised at the Roshanara Garden last month, Singh invited two professional Delhi-based actors. The story unfolded through a dialogue between the two actors playing sisters Jahanara and Roshanara, two powerful women of 17th-century India, and showcased the power struggle in the Mughal court. Besides such “theatre walks”, Darwesh also conducts workshops on Sufism. Next on the cards is a photo story session in old Goa.

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