Updated: January 24, 2021 1:43:07 pm
It is a national festival which does not move around like Diwali or Eid-ul-Fitr. It is fixed in the Gregorian calendar, so much so that it is not referred to by the clunky Gantantra Divas but as Chhabees Janvari. My generation will remember the cold morning of January 26, 1951, when we were wakened to the sound, then the sight of villagers walking barefoot to Rajpath, shoes prudently carried on their heads to save them from the harsh tarred roads. Which explains the déjà vu feeling in late March 2020 — but with a difference: unlike their grandparents, the endless line of people were walking away from the city.
Republic Day echoes to other footsteps, too — the marching feet of soldiers and of children in the parade, the abandon of folk-dances, familiar but always impressive and strangely moving. Variety comes in the form of jhankis (tableau) presented by different states with the same pride as school children presenting “projects”.
What if one were to visualise a jhanki for our own millennium city? A city constantly on the build (and often clearly on the make) like Delhi, should look before and after. Things that have happened in the last year have given much to think about. At any moment, the city can find the ecological balance of centuries upset, not only by a virus, but by human predators, including those who are its custodians.
For centuries, those who settled here have flattened its surface, channelled its streams, cut into its quartzite and sandstone to build forts, garden-houses and walkways nested on green carpets. That magic combination of dusty rose sandstone, clear water and verdant foliage is the signature of Delhi. References to “monuments” often ignore the complex nature of this urbanscape. The great builders knew where to build but also where not to.
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There was an instinctive harmony and balance in the height of buildings set off by green lawns or pedestrian paths, the ratio of open space and built area, the vanishing points, the balance of textures and colours. Today, our open spaces — the lungs of the city — have to be guarded vigilantly. There are a number of such spaces, but turning the light on three major ones will be enough to make the point — first, the open spaces and lawns of Humayun’s mausoleum (designed in the 1570s, modified by the Archaeological Survey in the 1920s); the spacious boulevard of Shah Jahan’s Chandni Chowk (mid-17th century) from where pedestrians with good vision could see the Badshah on his throne; and, finally, the century-old Kingsway/Rajpath, designed by British horticulturists inspired by the Mughals, with a two-mile lawn and water channels, encircled by jamun trees that come alive in the monsoon.
If only we could rewind and listen to conversations about these spaces at the time they were designed! Humayun must have described the wonderful gardens in Iran he had seen when in exile. His son Akbar created a carpet-garden for him on the bank of the Yamuna, more beautiful than the one in Kabul where his grandfather Babur was buried. Eighty years later, Shah Jahan was also inspired by drawings of Isfahan, of a great imperial avenue, with room for all. That in Shahjahanabad led from the Fort to the Fatehpuri Mosque. Unlike in Europe, avenues in India were not named, but the people’s name for an ornamental pool — Chandni Chowk — was used for the street. With the reincarnated nahar of Ferozeshah Tughlaq running down its length, the street came to life and became an icon. Ali Mardan, the Persian whom the canal was named after, who had also laid out the Lahore canal, must have been a satisfied man. Architects and engineers commanded well-deserved honour at the royal court.
As they did in early 20th-century Delhi, too. The centre of the British capital in India, running west to east, was exactly parallel to Chandni Chowk, and to one of the two avenues dividing Humayun’s garden into four baghs. Based on classical Roman planning principles revived by Palladio, it was a green expanse, a counterpoint to the hill where the dramatic twin Secretariat buildings soared up to the plateau of the Government House.
After Independence, the Humayun’s Tomb gardens did duty as a refugee camp. Half a century later, the Aga Khan Trust breathed new life into it. Chandni Chowk was almost destroyed by mindless jerry-building and indiscriminate motorised traffic, until two years ago, when a rescue operation was mounted and the area reclaimed. On Rajpath, the green on both sides are a temptation to “developers” to whom open areas are empty areas, an invitation to build on. The jamun trees and the building bye-laws held their own and the serenity remained even after administrative blocks and cultural venues were built in the ’50s and ’80s.
Why should I wish these three spaces to be the theme of the jhanki for Delhi? Because one of the messages of last year’s pandemic is that monumentality has nothing to offer; that “development” does not mean less trees, less grass underfoot. Or, more motor cars, more offices, more paper, more people requiring more space. Neither shops nor government offices need more space. The magic phrase — “online” — can scale them down. Efficiency is achieved by energetic work and a healthy atmosphere, which is contingent on clean, beautiful open spaces where we can connect with earth and sky. When it comes to designing cities, it is Japan we have to learn from, not the USA, where there is still so much land to exploit. Nor from the British imperial notion of cantonment planning, but from the design of British offices today, spare and minimal.
Do we really believe “development” is marked by huge convention centres or nine-storeyed buildings for departments that keep expanding on a variation of Parkinson’s law (work expands according to the space available)? Wouldn’t it be much more rewarding to retain for all the people the spaces bequeathed by earlier generations of builders and designers of vision. Our three examples need no reinforcing — a memorial which is among the finest, most uplifting of Indian architecture, set in quiet tree-shaded lawns where children can play; an avenue of which the city’s poets wrote with affection; a boulevard commanding a view of a harmonious ensemble of buildings and institutions inviting you to a shared culture, a majestic expanse of sky.
Art historians may sometimes lose sight of the wood for the trees, indulge in doubts about “authenticity”, argue about pink sandstone or blue domes, label narrowly as “colonial” what was actually part of international design initiatives. But to jaded office-workers, exhausted housebound women, children released from the tyranny of homework, these places are priceless gifts — the spaciousness of Humayun’s Tomb gardens, the pedestrianised Chandni Chowk, the majestic Central Vista as it is today. Interact with them and there might be an unexpected moment of delight when you echo something said by one of our greatest architects, Louis Kahn. “The sun never knew how great it was until it hit the side of a building.” For the sun to light up our buildings, we have to respect our unbuilt areas.
Narayani Gupta is a Delhi-based historian
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