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When the Central Vista had space and light for all

As the Central Vista Redevelopment Project proposes to remake the heart of the national capital, here are some memories of the cultural spaces that safeguarded a nation’s history and a democratic patch of green that opened its arms to all in a city of ambitions


Updated: May 30, 2021 9:54:46 pm
The India Gate has been a place of inclusivity, of romance, for people from all walks of life

When the Central Vista had space and light for all

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As the Central Vista Redevelopment Project proposes to remake the heart of the national capital, here are some memories of cultural spaces that safeguarded a nation’s history and a democratic patch of green that opened its arms to all in a city of ambitions

LAILA TYABJI, 74, Craft activist and social worker

“The wilful destruction of Central Vista seems a metaphor for not only the physical destruction of buildings and public spaces, but of digging away at and destroying the roots ofIndia’s freedoms and cultures.” (Express Photo By Amit Mehra)

I grew up in Delhi in the ’50s, so Central Vista and Rajpath hold many memories — picking up my father from South Block and going boating and eating ice creams afterwards; sitting on the carpet in front of the stands watching the Republic Day floats and having Pandit ji (Jawaharlal Nehru) jump down to join us kids, sitting cross-legged and affectionately joking, in those early security-less days, the trees a lush canopy, laden with jamuns; watching the National Museum come up under (American museologist and National Museum’s first director) Grace Morley’s sensitive perfectionist eye; hanging the decorative flags and celebratory banners we designed for the triumphal Republic Day parade Ebrahim Alkazi choreographed after the Bangladesh War of Independence in 1971.

The serene lawns, trees and waterways of Central Vista are not only the green lungs and oxygen of an otherwise choked Delhi, but are its spirit and soul, meant for the ordinary people who found relief and relaxation (and sometimes romance!) in its enfolding spaces, and not to accommodate the offices and parking lots of civil servants and politicians. It should have been left so, with bureaucratic Delhi and its ministries rebuilt in Dwarka (in west Delhi) or elsewhere. The wilful destruction of Central Vista seems a metaphor for not only the physical destruction of buildings and public spaces, but of digging away at and destroying the roots ofIndia’s freedoms and cultures.

SHANNO KHURANA, 94, Hindustani classical vocalist

“There was a wide platform on which we would sit in the open gardens at India Gate.”

By the time Partition hit in 1947, our little flat on Parliament Street was the only refuge for so many extended family members. Our home was small, but we had gardens all around at Jantar Mantar, Connaught Circus and the area we call Central Vista, which was the grandest part of “New” Delhi. Partitioned, but independent, we witnessed the change of the main road’s name from Kingsway to Rajpath. After a day of hard work, we would drive down to India Gate to relax. My husband’s friends, who, like him, were also doctors, would join us often — families of young professionals who wanted to unwind and didn’t want to dress up and go to the clubs. None of us could bear the club’s European style bands and ballroom dances every night!

There was a wide platform on which we would sit in the open gardens at India Gate. We took boat rides in the canals. It was from one such boat ride that I had to be rushed to the hospital to deliver my daughter. Our friends and family never let us forget that incident! As the children grew, we brought them there to play in the evenings. There were picnics; vendors selling all sorts of things — ice cream, too. No one was an outsider — young and old, rich and poor, everyone used the lawns. Someone listened to their transistor radio, someone else spontaneously sang.

I remember once listening to an early morning recital there by Kishori Amonkar — it was open to all. And then all the Republic Day parades that have gone down Rajpath. Who knew that one day I’d also have to help the Defence ministry compose the music for so many of their tableaux on that street. I can’t recall how many times I must have been to the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts (IGNCA) — to use their studios and to record for DVDs or sessions for their archives, to give recitals — sometimes in an auditorium, but again, so many times, just out in the open, for anyone in the public who wanted to come. I remember the many weeks I spent reading books and papers across the road at the National Archives to complete my PhD research on the music of Rajasthan in the early 1960s. So much happened in this area. One has grown with all the cultural institutions around Rajpath for the past 75 years. My association with the area was beautiful and I will miss it. It is part of our history and we must respect it.

NILIMA SHEIKH, 75, Artist

“I probably went up the Central Vista most often to swim at the Rashtrapati Bhavan pool, where my sister and I learnt to swim, before I graduated to the National Stadium at the other end of the Rajpath.”  (Express Photo by Tashi Tobgyal)

India Gate was very much a part of one’s life for anyone who grew up in Delhi. Residing in central Delhi’s Sundar Nagar, it came en route to my school at Barakhamba Road. It was the place for outings with family and friends. It is where we would pick jamuns, go for impromptu picnics in winter afternoons and for the cool evening breeze in summer, and for the inevitable ice cream. There used to be a choice of ice-cream carts: Kwality, Caryhom or the favoured Keventers. I recall participating in a rowing competition in the water channels near India Gate as a teenager. And, adventurously, for a non-starter like me, cycling down Rajpath with a friend, only to end up colliding with a baffled scooterist, trying his best to avoid me.

I probably went up the Central Vista most often to swim at the Rashtrapati Bhavan pool, where my sister and I learnt to swim, before I graduated to the National Stadium at the other end of the Rajpath. My father was an honorary physician to the President and shared a personal relationship with Dr Rajendra Prasad. He allowed us to use the lovely pool that was seldom used by anyone else. We would also visit the Mughal Gardens of the Rashtrapati Bhavan during the flowering season when the gardens were open to the public.

Though the IGNCA with its remarkable exhibitions and programmes came into our lives much later, when we were young, my mother would often take us to the National Museum to look at the artefacts, paintings and amazing sculptures. I would visit the National Gallery of Modern Art (NGMA) as a young art student to study works of Amrita Sher-Gil and the Bengal School. Later, on a couple of occasions, I accompanied my husband Gulam (artist, art historian Gulammohammed Sheikh) and we had a wonderful time studying some of the stunning Indian miniature paintings in the reserve collection of the National Museum. I still visit this culturally regenerative area as a pilgrimage whenever I am in Delhi. But even driving past it or an occasional walk there brings back so many wonderful memories.

(AS TOLD TO VANDANA KALRA)

JANICE PARIAT, 38, Writer

“It breaks my heart that in one fell swoop, all this will be lost to Prime Minister Modi’s “Central Vista”.

I’m not sure whether you adopt a city or a city adopts you. But that’s what happened with Delhi and me. I arrived here as a young university student, from faraway Shillong, nervous for all the stories I’d heard about the big, bad capital — and let’s be honest, it wasn’t easy. But there was respite. College, new friends, Majnu ka Tila, and almost every weekend, a foray to the centre, to the lawns around India Gate.

We walked around a lot. It was hot. We drank copious amounts of banta, sat under the shade of the jamun trees, talked, read, watched the world. Once, we even grew bold enough to approach the Parliament building where a friendly guard allowed us a sneak peek inside — impossible to imagine now, I know. I didn’t realise it then, but within these lawns was where I began to slowly feel at home.

Perhaps because in a city that remained for me prohibitively out of reach, here was open green space that welcomed everybody. Carloads of families, or us tumbling out of buses, playing, picnicking, all against the backdrop of the India Gate. I’m certain now that the only meaningful notion of a nation is this — space and light for all.

Over the years, I’ve shown them off, these lawns and buildings, to visiting friends and family. “Here, see!” How pretty they looked in the setting sun. In my later years in the city, we would drive here to escape long summer loadshedding nights, lie in the grass, eat ice cream. Some evenings, tai chi with random Spanish tourists, or long walks to the fountains after a meal at nearby Andhra Bhavan. More recently, in 2019, gathering for protests — for Kashmir, for anti-Citizenship (Amendment) Act meets — a crowd of us reading the preamble of the Constitution in December — We the people of India.

It breaks my heart that in one fell swoop, all this will be lost to Prime Minister Modi’s “Central Vista”. Work on the project has begun already, even in these crisis times deemed “essential work”, slated to be completed in late 2022, with Rs 20,000 crore (an early estimate) poured not towards healthcare, the economy, the vaccination drive, but into a project of hollow vanity.

I hear the lawns will be turned concrete, hemmed by barbed wire, policed by guards with guns. The public kept out from this most rare of “public spaces”. The trees will be felled. The green lawns will be gone. And here will rise a palace and Parliament built on the bones of the dead. And, in my head, only that old old belief of how Delhi belongs to nobody because it belongs to all. That whoever attempts to mark their ownership of the city has fallen. The story of Nizamuddin Auliya, and his words “dilli dur ast”. Delhi is far. That Delhi is seven cities because all those who have tried to conquer her have fallen. That Delhi is seven cities because all those who have tried to conquer her have fallen. Let this then be the grave of those who fail to heed this warning. Their fitting and irrefutable end. Their fitting and irrefutable end. Buried beneath their own vain and cruel ambition. How else may we be consoled as we stand here today cradling all our unnamable losses?

NASEERUDDIN SHAH, 70, Actor

“Not long after, in Delhi, I went to India Gate and Vijay Chowk for the first time and I consider that visit more satisfying in terms of aesthetic pleasure than my sojourn to the Taj.” (Express Photo by Vasant Prabhu)

My first sighting of the Taj Mahal was completely underwhelming, I have to say; my 12-year-old eyes had seen it before — on boxes of sweets and on a zillion calendars. Only on the return journey, glimpsing it through a train window from across the Yamuna and the not-exactly salubrious Agra landscape did its splendour hit me. Not long after, in Delhi, I went to India Gate and Vijay Chowk for the first time and I consider that visit more satisfying in terms of aesthetic pleasure than my sojourn to the Taj.

While living briefly in Delhi in the early ’70s, I escorted out-of-towners to this exquisite spot innumerable times, feeling a kind of personal pride in seeing their eyes disbelievingly taking in the expanse, its serene beauty and elegant architecture. Sunrises and sunsets there were as marvellous as any I have seen and though I could not then afford to splurge on ice-cream, the walk from nearby Vakil Lane, where I lived, to India Gate always intrigued me greatly — the abandoned mansions of erstwhile maharajas all along Sikandra and Bhagwan Das roads, the plethora of theatres dotting the Mandi House area, the wide uncrowded thoroughfares all the way to the National Rail Museum which heralded one’s arrival at the spot.

The India Gate has been a place of inclusivity, of romance, for people from all walks of life (Express archive photo by Ravi Batra)

Akbarabad (Agra) and Shahjahanabad (Old Delhi) were also vanity projects helmed by respective emperors of the time to immortalise themselves, but no one suspected that a would-be emperor of today would compel us to witness the lovely verdant corridors around India Gate being brutally excavated, trees, almost a century old, being uprooted and plans for a grandiose but hideous landscape being finalised. Watching this “essential service” unfold is nothing short of nightmarish. It is impossible to suppress the thought that the Prime Minister, who calls himself the pradhan sevak of the people, has his heart set on outdoing the tyrannical Mughals he so despises. It should come as no surprise if in Modi’s lifetime New Delhi becomes Modinagar — if Sardar Patel can be upstaged, who the hell is Lutyens — and the grotty little industrial town near Delhi with that name will have to seek a different moniker.

The Prime Minister would do well to remember, though, that the names Delhi and Agra outlasted the Mughals’ self-glorifying tendencies because there was history in their every nook and cranny, whereas the ultimate vanity project Fatehpur Sikri turned into a ghost city soon after being built.

Demolishing the National Museum and National Archives Annexe among others, and having no tangible plan to preserve their contents, obviously doesn’t bother the PM one little bit, so much faith does he have in our preservation committees and so hell-bent is he on either creating alternative museums and archive buildings or rendering them totally redundant. In any case, there’s a strong probability that the writing of the PM’s historical hagiography, by someone in his army of sycophants, has already begun.

Fahmida Riaz, the celebrated Pakistani poet, hit the nail on the head with the poem, “Tum bilkul hum jaise nikle”, which she supposedly composed after the demolition of the Babri Masjid in 1992. Just as Pakistani history completely ignores pre-Islamic times, it is not hard to imagine where the history of India, according to the BJP, will begin and what it will contain.

VIVAN SUNDARAM, 78, Artist

“I was deeply interested in modern art and, when I was growing up, we would often visit the National Gallery of Modern Art” (Express photo by Oinam Anand)

The cross-section between Rajpath and Janpath was proposed by architects Edwin Lutyens and Herbert Baker to be a cultural hub with the National Museum, National Archives and the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts (IGNCA). This was meant to be for the people to use, and has served that purpose for years. I recall the numerous occasions when I watched the Republic Day parade at Rajpath as a child and the lights at Raisina Hill. My father was a senior civil servant and we lived in Lutyens’ Delhi. Back then, in the evenings, there were hardly any cars on the roads. We would see lots of cyclists going home or people taking a walk. These memories of a quaint Lutyens’ Delhi are forever etched in my memory.

I was deeply interested in modern art and, when I was growing up, we would often visit the National Gallery of Modern Art, which had paintings of Amrita Sher-Gil (aunt), donated by my grandfather and mother, and the collection bought from her husband, after her demise. I have never had a solo there but have been part of several group exhibitions. Those remain very dear memories.

When I was studying art in Baroda, I would visit the National Museum during my Delhi trips. The architect who designed the National Museum building, Ganesh Bhikaji Deolalikar, was also the first chief architect of the Central Public Works Department. He was trying to merge a post-Lutyens’ aesthetic with an Indian one and designed the impressive Supreme Court as well. What’s extraordinary is for a man of Bimal Patel’s sophistication and background to say that he wants to demolish historic buildings such as the National Museum and replace them with office blocks. It’s mind-boggling for someone to suggest that the artefacts be taken to the North Block and South Block, when the collections are only partially documented and run the risk of mishandling and breakage.

The IGNCA once served as a canteen for the Indian Air Force. Its construction has remained incomplete over the years but I have great memories of staging a promenade theatre project — 409 Ramkinkars (2015, with Anuradha Kapur and Santanu Bose), comprising sculptural installations and theatre — there. I can imagine the IGNCA being replaced — that building had fallen to great disrepair and it could very well be destroyed to make an office block — but one needs to be sensitive to art and heritage and spare the rest.

(AS TOLD TO VANDANA KALRA)

FEISAL ALKAZI, 66, Theatre director

“The lawns were also a pick-up place for gay men, a hangout for lovers, a space for romance. It was a great equaliser”

I was nine years old when we moved to Delhi from Bombay. During my daily commute to and from Modern School Barakhamba, the grandeur of India Gate and its generous lawns fascinated me. The long walks, the jamun trees, the maroon-purple splashes of the squashed fruit — it was a road I knew the most. At the time, we could drive up to the canopy which had King George V’s statue, but in the mid-’60s, it was removed and an empty arched structure stood there. When we rehearsed or saw plays at the National School of Drama and Shri Ram Centre for Performing Arts, we would often walk down to India Gate and hang around on the lawns. Many artists, including Tyeb Mehta’s family and MF Husain’s children, would have evening picnics here. Our house didn’t have air-conditioning and this was one place you could feel comfortable in the summer.

The lawns were also a pick-up place for gay men, a hangout for lovers, a space for romance. It was a great equaliser; one could see all types of people here — north Indians, Maharashtrians, Tamilians and Malayalis but also, and more so with the arrival of the Delhi Metro, people from Old Delhi, from the Northeast. My memories are also filled with images of cheap toys and pink parachutes, balloons, and ice cream. Here the policeman too is your friend, which is very unusual in other public places in the Capital.

I also remember bamboo poles and tawdry tin-sheets that would be painted green for the Republic Day parade. In 1971, to celebrate the victory in the Bangladesh Liberation War, then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi had asked my father (Ebrahim Alkazi) to stage a tableau, and Vijay Chowk was used for such an event for the first time. I have fond memories of the Beating Retreat, too, since it’s the day of our wedding anniversary. My wife (Radhika) often jokes that that’s why they’re beating retreat!

Recently, the Ruchika Theatre Group (of which Alkazi is the founder) did an online reading of Hindi author Nirmal Varma’s story, Zindagi Yahan Aur Wahan. It is set against the backdrop of the Connaught Place and India Gate of the ’80s. We used photographs of that time, which bring alive a certain moment in Delhi’s history. Soon, I will be releasing a novel, a cosy murder mystery, which has an entire chapter on India Gate.

(AS TOLD TO SHINY VARGHESE)

SWAPNA LIDDLE, 53, Historian

“Over the last few years, we’ve seen a gradual reduction in the informal green area.”

In 1930, as New Delhi stood complete, Herbert Baker, one of the two architects of its principal government buildings, wrote in The Times, London, “The Indian people are good sightseers, and the gaily-dressed crowds will come in increasing numbers to see the new as well as the old Delhi.” Baker was right. People came to see the spectacular edifices of the new Capital.

But they also came to enjoy the green open spaces of the new city. The newly spruced up Purana Qila, which had been cleared of the village that had originally stood there, became the venue for a large mela-like gathering every year on Basant Panchami. This tradition lasted till World War II, but even after Independence, the lawns and the shady trees on either side of Rajpath and around India Gate continued to draw people to what became a popular informal recreational area. Many of us have enjoyed ice cream while lounging or strolling on the lawns on a hot summer evening.

Over the last few years, we’ve seen a gradual reduction in the informal green area. A large part of the area immediately around India Gate has been made into the War Memorial, rendering it a more formal, regimented space — certainly not where one can sit on the grass, or on the considerable paving that has replaced much of it, and have roasted chana. The new plan for the Central Vista will put more paving and other hard surfaces into the lawns on either side of Rajpath. The large new blocks of government buildings will probably introduce greater “security” measures. All this will necessarily mean a fundamental change in the character of an important public space.

Amritha Ballal, 40, Architect and urban ecological planner

“Growing up in Delhi in the 1980s, my parents would take my brother and me for a spin on the scooter and, sometimes, we could even go inside the Rashtrapati Bhavan’s Presidential Estate.”

Central Vista is special as it isn’t just a recreational public space – it’s a space where you feel like you are a part of our republic. Maybe you were going there just to have ice cream, but the shadow of these buildings gave a symbolic beauty to even the most mundane of family outings.

Growing up in Delhi in the 1980s, my parents would take my brother and me for a spin on the scooter and, sometimes, we could even go inside the Rashtrapati Bhavan’s Presidential Estate. It wasn’t a thoroughfare but once in a while the guards allowed us to pass through. As children, it was exciting because we would salute the guards dressed in their regalia and they would smilingly salute back. It was a different time when things weren’t so paranoid. Over the years, the access to the whole complex has gradually retreated, but it still persists as a popular hangout.

Everyone had a connection to Central Vista because of watching the Republic Day parade. When we had guests from south India, where I am from, it was exciting to bring them here. Sure, it was our space as city-dwellers, but our guests also felt a connection to it, even if they were coming to Delhi for the first time.

I remember the Nirbhaya gang-rape and murder protests happened at India Gate in 2012. Even though I wasn’t there myself, we shared this feeling of collectively making ourselves heard. In every generation, this space has been marked by citizen’s movements, with people speaking truth to power in this symbolic setting.
Even Lutyens’ imperial plan allowed for an embracing of the public domain. After Independence, we knew that we weren’t stepping into an official area alone, but a place for cultural and public use. Today, we have reversed this legacy by officially changing land use from public to government, to be occupied by monolithic, repetitive sarkari office boxes. Even if they make cosmetic landscape changes along the edge of the Rajpath, the symbolism is disturbing.

SHUDDHABRATA SENGUPTA, 53, Artist and curator

“By enclosing the Central Vista, our rulers have ensured that Delhi is no longer a city with a civic space for democracy and freedom. It keeps the parade, but shuts out the people.”

Delhi is a city without horizons. There are few places in the city where you get a sense of the horizon. The area around India Gate has always been a democratic space, although that has reduced over the years. Even so, it’s where rallies happened, where people assembled, and with the redevelopment project, it will soon be gone. Delhi has so many layers to itself, and it’s all been dug up now.

The enclosure of the open space of the Central Vista is an assault on freedom. Every major city in the world has a space, a square, a plaza, for peaceful democratic assembly. This is the heritage of the democratic transformations of the last two centuries. By enclosing the Central Vista, our rulers have ensured that Delhi is no longer a city with a civic space for democracy and freedom. It keeps the parade, but shuts out the people.

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