A young traditional artist from Rajasthan was once discussing why artists from rural areas do not get the same recognition or earnings as “contemporary” artists in metropolises. Perhaps the query was meant to remain rhetorical. But it gave impetus to the idea of combining the best of the rural and urban in a new creative project.
Dilli Haat was conceived and piloted by me in 1990, when India was opening its markets to global players, to address rural disparities and create market space for rural craftspeople. Brilliant out-of-the-box assistance by a bold bureaucrat helped convert a wide stormwater drain into usable land by making a lid from a concrete slab with overlaying soil, on which only light structures could stand. Needy artisans thereby got a marketplace for themselves in the capital without depriving anyone of precious real estate.
The haat across the road from INA Market was thoughtfully designed by Delhi architect Pradeep Sachdeva as the first urban crafts marketplace based on the systems and structure of village haats. The design emplo-yed the simplest north Indian architecture to display the colour and artistry of what was on sale. It boasted of the first airy, well maintained, free public toilets in the capital. They allowed for rural crafts people to have a quick bath if their temporary living quarters in Delhi were unsuitable.
City additions like ticket booths, banking facilities, STD phone booth (in the days before mobile phones), an administrative office, an official meeting room, open-air stage and a children’s play area were provided. Regional food stalls offering good quality, inexpensive fare were deliberately located at the far end to ensure foodies saw the crafts on offer before heading for the open-air cafes. These informal facilities were inviting to visitors and did not culturally alienate rural sellers.
The social purpose of Dilli Haat was to create attractive urban infrastructure to provide economic opportunity to artisan communities. Who has not seen chik weavers, mudha makers and even handloom weavers tucked away in city slums? They were usually considered pavement nuisances and encroachers of valuable city space, but were surely as deserving of a dignified environment to sell their works as contemporary artists. Since migration from rural areas was a daily reality, “inclusiveness” was a policy that had to find expression even before the word became a part of recent political jargon.
Dilli Haat was therefore a concept, a statement, an opportunity and a newly devised urban space to include creative craftspersons across India in the city. Its benefits would directly reach poor rural homesteads. As an economic arena, producers could engage directly with urban customers to understand their preferences and to assess the size of their purses. It was also important to provide a structure that could edge out exploitative middlemen.
At a time when malls arrived on the scene with their brands and flashy establishments, the idea of Dilli Haat was positioned as an alternative “permanent space for impermanent people”. Subsidies provided by government are largely cornered by a few, whereas commonly usable infrastructure would instead benefit a larger number, who could also understand the economic viability of selling their goods in an open market. Therefore, all sellers at Dilli Haat were to stay only for a fortnight every three months.
This short-stay plan was also because genuine craftspeople can only make limited stocks, but since they are made individually by hand, they can vary constantly. This made Dilli Haat an ever-changing showcase for the multifarious and evolving craft skills of the country. It also became a perfect marketing idea, since a visitor would be tempted to immediately buy what looked attractive as the seller would leave soon. A lively atmosphere with folk performers and food festivals encouraged shoppers to see what new goods had arrived. This system brought in new visitors and kept bringing old ones back.
The system soon became viable as a model that generated a good income for the craftsperson who could offer fair prices to customers as rentals and other expenses were reasonably low. The administering agency received a sizeable income from entry tickets, rents of craft and food stalls and cultural spaces. Simultaneously, India’s many dying craft skills received a new lease of life to flourish in a contemporary milieu. Making it a tourist attraction ensured proper maintenance, regular beautification and pride in showing an urban interpretation of the rural village haat. It appeared to be a win-win situation for everyone, attracting international awards and praise from all over the world, including Prince Charles, who invited it to London! A smaller makeshift version did indeed go to Trafalgar Square for a weekend in 2005. Alas, this is not a story that ends with a happily ever after.
When combining rural and urban worlds to create something better than each, it is idealistic to imagine that flaws in human character and administrative systems would not arise, unless properly monitored. A teeming city like Delhi has its fair share of chaos, filth and illegal practices that allow many to get away with everything short of murder. Bribery is a way of life. Callous neglect of community spaces is common. The earlier decade, when rural India offered an idea to embellish a city, is no longer visible as Dilli Haat celebrated its 20th anniversary in 2014. City ailments have taken over.
The marketplace has become a landscape of makeshift plastic coverings, piles of litter and additional makeshift stalls selling sundry and machine-made spurious goods in the name of new policies of “brand promotion”. Signage once elegantly carved in red sandstone are negated by flex banners that say, “Before you stand in ‘Q’ look left and right for suspicious persons or objects”. Eerie bomb warnings are played every few minutes on loudspeakers. Paid and free toilets are equally ill-maintained, the former displaying crude and discriminatory boards. Sloppily hung posters warn the public that “Littering will invite penalties” and “This is a No Plastics Zone”. Sadly, administrators blatantly flout their own orders. What could be better examples of a great tourist put-off?
A majority of craft-sellers are now of a different breed. Instead of gifted communities rotating regularly, a cartel of city-based craft traders permanently occupy 70 per cent of the stalls through influence and other devious means. Heavily subsidised government events benefit the “haves”, while bribe-giving and high bidding for stalls are accepted. If we needed an example to mock the prime minister’s Swachh Bharat and Good Governance campaigns, Dilli Haat would be a frontrunner.
It is now for the initiating agencies, marginalised craftspersons, urban planners and a conscientious public to retrieve it from the present morass. The larger questions that emerge are: Can projects to enrich the human experience in cities be handled exclusively by stagnating bureaucratic systems? Can the futuristic “smart city” concept allow for such experiments to succeed? Does an amalgam of the cultural landscape and moral spirit of rural and urban life destroy or enrich the other? We urban citizens must find the answers.
The writer, former president of the Samata Party, is founder of the Dastkari Haat Samiti