Resting between the palace of emperors, Red Fort, and the royal mosque, Jama Masjid, is Maulana Abul Kalam Azad. As India’s first education minister, his birth anniversary on November 11 is celebrated as National Education Day. Reaching his mazaar (tomb) involves dodging two-, three- and four-wheelers and the hawkers doing business at Meena Bazar in Old Delhi. The memorial stands testimony to Azad’s indomitable spirit and far-sightedness. He had famously said that a country is not made rich by its bankers but by its primary schools.
It took three rejections of design competition entries of other architects, before Habib Rahman was assigned the mazaar project in 1959. Having proved his architectural and engineering finesse in Gandhi Ghat in Barrackpore, West Bengal, for which (among other buildings) he was given the Padma Shri in 1955, Rahman was told he would have to build the memorial to complement the historic site and not clash with its monumental neighbours. “It was a flat ground that reached all the way to the masjid steps,” says well-known photographer Ram Rahman. “My father responded to the context through his design, where he took the arch with its perfect proportions from the mosque and abstracted it as a thin-shelled concrete, cross-barrel vault structure.” The tomb is surrounded by low enclosure done in marble with jaali patterns. “Nehru liked the memorial that evoked tradition yet was modern in its essence,” says Ram. Taking the structure off centre, Rahman gave three reflecting pools around it, even as it framed the mosque in the distance.
“Both the Gandhi Ghat and the Maulana Azad Maazar as memorials were symbolic of its purpose and people. For the former, Rahman gave it a secular design with its temple shikhara capped with an Islamic dome, while the cantilevered slab seems to be somewhat of a cross. In the latter, Rahman consciously kept to the Islamic connections, in keeping with Azad’s pride in being a learned maulana,” says Ram.
Azad was also founder of the three state cultural bodies — the Sahitya, the Sangeet Natak, and the Lalit Kala Akademis — and the Indian Council for Cultural Relations (ICCR), besides being instrumental in setting up the Indian Institute of Technology, Kharagpur. “The ICCR as part of its annual birth celebrations of Azad had prepared the memorial one such year in the mid-1970s. Rahman, who was invited to the event, walked away from the memorial service when he saw the mazaar was coated with white plastic emulsion paint. In his original design, he had mixed white cement and white crushed marble in the structure that was slighted polished by hand. He was furious,” recalls Ram.
Today, the sloping ground has been levelled, the underground bazaar surrounds the memorial and sunken water channels are flooded with vendors. Much of the landscape has changed and ficus trees dot the boundaries of the enclosed memorial, and leaves one wondering what forces of life influence such development.