Thursday, Dec 01, 2022

Public spaces,private claims

Resist the Waqf Board’s attempt to grab our national heritage....

As awareness of India’s heritage becomes increasingly fashionable,community responses and engagement with heritage lend themselves to interesting analyses — perspectives that say something about the society India is becoming,as well as helping us understand the public life of monuments.

Frequently,for example,the community engages itself with a heritage site to enhance some aspect of a particular cultural identity — laying “claim”,in other words,to an otherwise secular protected heritage site. This needn’t be from a cultural group — it could be from an individual. (And you can advertise that claim by conspicuously writing your names and emotions on the body of monuments.)

Consider one such site in New Delhi,the tomb-mosque complex of Jamali Kamali in Mehrauli Archaeological Park,near the Qutab complex. In recent years it has been claimed by different groups in some compelling ways. Jamali,whose real name was Faizlullah,was a poet and Sufi saint,well known from his Masnavi,who lived through the fall of the Lodis and the reigns of Babar and Humayun,dying in 1536,10 years into Mughal rule. Notably,he was probably the first poet from Delhi to append Dehlavi to his name — though eventually,he came to be known as both “Jalal Shah” or the fiery saint,or as “Jamali” from Jamal,or glory. During the reign of Humayun,a mosque was built under his guidance; and,when he died,he was buried nearby. The walls of his mausoleum are decorated with coloured tiles and inscribed with his verse. The grave next to his is remembered as that of Kamali; like the Hare-Bhare shrine near the Jama Masjid,the names Jamali and Kamali also go together — but who the latter was is still a riddle. According to Dr Naseem Akhtar,the curator in charge of the Islamic Art section at the National

Museum,the identity of the person buried there is still unknown.

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That didn’t stop photographer Sunil Gupta from claiming,in his memoirs a few years ago,that Kamali had been Jamali’s partner,and that Jamali Kamali was the only “gay monument” in India. This invented history for the monument occupied an important symbolic place in the deeply personal account of Gupta’s coming out.

The more recent claim on the mosque in the Jamali Kamali complex is more confounding. Over the past few months,out of the blue,plastic prayer mats have turned up,as have clocks that show namaz timings,evidence of the desecration of the central niche or mihrab with oil fumes,and many ugly-looking plastic pitchers lying around. The monument has been claimed,through the straightforward mechanism of conducting rituals there. The Jamali Kamali is not alone: several other protected monuments have been encroached upon deliberately,following an initiative from the Delhi Waqf Board — that claims that even if a monument is ancient and protected but is or was a mosque,then the community must have the freedom to claim it ritualistically.

As a national,protected monument the mosque and tomb have a secular identity. The Archaeological Survey of India is supposed to make sure that such illegitimate,controversial takeovers are prevented. The ASI’s rules say that if rituals were carried out by a group before the monument was


declared protected,then they can continue — otherwise no activity can happen,no claim can be made. The gate and the chowkidar have been ineffective in this case.

Something must be done before the problem becomes much more complex. After all,if one claim is accepted,what stops other competing ones from being put forward? Suppose the representatives of non-Muslim communities claim that,since the area was not occupied by Muslim rulers before the 13th century,the sacred spaces are theirs?

The fact that the Jamali Kamali complex is in what is called the Archeological Park is ironical. The park was a successful collaboration for conserving heritage between Delhi Tourism,Delhi state department of archaeology,the Delhi Development Authority,and


INTACH. The area is peppered with several fragments of built heritage in an area that has the distinction of over one thousand years of continuous occupation. One of the important objectives of the collaboration was the sense of promoting collective participation for conservation of heritage. That,today,seems to be wavering.

Communities should indeed play an active role — but not by claiming sites such as Jamali Kamali for their own. They should instead actively participate in the maintenance of the park as a whole. Not everything can be the government’s responsibility. The civic community,too,has a role to play in restoring our pride in our national heritage.

The writer is a Kathak dancer and creator of heritage walks

First published on: 05-08-2009 at 05:32:42 am
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