Shahjahanabad and its Havelis: In Conversation with Narayani Gupta

Shahjahanabad and its Havelis: In Conversation with Narayani Gupta

in Interview
Published on: 22 June 2018
In conversation with Prof. Narayani Gupta at the India International Centre, New Delhi in February 2018

Priya Chauhan: Delhi is often talked about not as a city but almost as a whole living entity .. What are your thoughts on it, on Delhi being labeled a unique city?


Narayani Gupta: You know old cities are, in a way, unique—so, that I don’t think is very special to Delhi. What is interesting is that it has seen the use of a lot of evocative language, like talking of seven cities of Delhi, 'seven' being a kind of metric number, not absolutely accurate ('Rome of the seven hills and so on'). And there has also been a term 'phoenix' used for it, that it rises from its ashes, which is over-dramatic I think, because though Delhi like most medieval cities has had its share of being set upon by outsiders, in the course of a war or a battle and parts of it were destroyed, many people losing their lives, I don’t think it has ever been devastated in the way say the towns of Europe were in the Second World War, and it is also fairly proverbial that Indian cities are always able to shrug their shoulders and start again, even if they have been through a crisis. In the case of Delhi this is particularly so because it occupies a strategic point from many points of view—from trade routes and in terms of strategic lines of defense and attack, and therefore it is a scenario which would be sought after or suitable for a city—so, the fact that it has appealed again and again, and was made alive and prosperous is not a matter of surprise.  



P.C.: Today actually, when one thinks of Shahjahanabad, or 'Purani Dilli' as it is referred to, the image is that of utter chaos, narrow lanes, wholesale shops and storage spaces, but then also at the same time, really quiet inner lanes and galis—even in utter chaos it seems that everything is working out magically in an almost organized manner. So how would you describe Shahjahanabad as it was being built—how did the city around the fort came to be?


N.G.: That is two questions in one, isn't it? So, let me try the first one. You know this term 'Purani Dilli' or 'Old Delhi', I used to hear when I was in college which was like 50 years ago, and we took it granted, that there was old Delhi and new Delhi—but I don't find that being said very much now, and it is certainly not said by, say, people in Mehrauli who just call it Dilli, not Purani Dilli, the railway station is Dilli, so this is a kind of pejorative term, I think which was developed after Partition because the new areas, where there were large refugee settlements were closer to Lutyens' New Delhi, and an area which was hardly being developed which was West Delhi. So the area of Shahjahanabad remained like a little pocket of a historic city which also had its kind of turbulence because of Partition—maybe we can talk about this later—but it was an area which was already densely built and populated, on which the troubles of people migrating and other people coming in was imposed. As to the chaos—I'm always quoting an Italian architectural historian, who was describing Shahjahanabad (or I think particularly Chandni ) and saying 'Disorder is actually order that we cannot understand'. So those who refer to it in this pejorative way as being crowded, difficult to maneuver and all that are those who identify themselves with a style of living which I don't think was necessarily natural to all of them but was a preferred one. Where you have a car, where you don't walk too much, there's no pedestrian, where shop fronts are very glittering and inviting—the whole structure of the commercial part of Shahjahanabad was something which was different.


I think over time people have become more self conscious and have begun to appreciate the qualities of that, which is the welcoming air, the fact that you go in and are treated like a guest rather than an impersonal customer. And, that everywhere there's always refreshment at hand, you can never go hungry in Shahjahanabad, which, I think, is important. So now, by contrast, there's this romanticization of that area, partly by heritage walks and things being written about it. So, in the last half century I think the perception of it has changed but it still remains basically the 'other' for people from New Delhi or from other towns, you know, they wouldn’t like to think of themselves living in one of those houses. And many people who had homes there have left and are living in much more impersonal, spaciously set out, so-called colonies in New Delhi. And I wouldn’t know that all of them necessarily enjoy that much more, but that's what has made out to be the case, that space makes for happiness.



P.C.: So, the face of the city has changed and only parts of it remain the same as we see today, a lot of people have moved out as you just mentioned, a lot of havelis have been turned into warehouses, a lot of structures are still in a derelict state—what called for this exactly?


N.G.: In the last 50 years, you’re absolutely right, there have been a lot of changes, much of it for the worse in the city. You can place Partition at the centre of this, because there was, in a short space of a few months, a tremendous turnover, in the sense that many very affluent Muslim families chose to leave … they did not think it was going to be permanent, so they locked up their havelis and went to Pakistan, mostly to Karachi. Unfortunately hardly any of them came back … so those houses remained what they’d call ‘evacuee property’. I remember seeing this notice up on many houses in New Delhi and Old Delhi, and then the government went into this enormous task of working out with Pakistan how to compensate people for what they had lost. So, there was this kind of balance sheet created between properties in towns in Pakistan and in India, to give people the equivalents of what they had lost. I think it was an amazing exercise and done with great care and somehow we’ve lost those details, but they’re all there recorded in their archives. So, this meant that beautiful havelis suddenly became anonymous evacuee property. As far as I understand, even before this, so to speak, rectification was done, they were occupied by people who had nowhere to go, and you must remember all this was in the winter of 1947–48, when people needed roofs over their heads and they just moved in.


At some stage, the Bharat Sevak Samaj did a tally of what they call katras in old delhi and it struck me only afterwards that they counted 4000 katras, now there were never 4000 katras in Shahjahanabad. Many of these were havelis, which architecturally has some similarity with a katra: a katra is an enclosed market with an enclosed space in the middle, a haveli has buildings around and an open courtyard in the middle, and these havelis were occupied by many times the number of people that originally occupied it—they were no longer areas of gracious living, they were like workshops where there’d be the owner of a particular craft and all the people who worked for him—I have seen this—living in one haveli and quite reconciled to living in one room per family. Can you imagine that?


And the strange thing was that when I saw it (I can’t speak for today), many of them were quite happy, this was in the 1980s, and continued to live there though they had made enormous fortunes, or certainly a very comfortable livelihood through their work but they did not want to leave, they found the security and congeniality of that area very comfortable. They had bought properties in Karol Bagh and other areas but they said ‘abhi to nahi jayenge’ … you know, they didn’t want to move. So, there was something about the atmosphere of the place that compensated for the lack of the space per family and I think that should be remembered: it has something to do with Shahjahanabad, with the sense of closeness and the fact that people lived in mutual tolerance which made them feel happy living there. And of course it was like Lahore, the mirror image of Lahore which many of them might have left. Karachi was a much more modern town but Lahore and Delhi are really like twins separated at birth, as it were.


So, this is the major change that occurred, after that, it went through the trauma of all old cities caught in a situation where modernization and changes of architectural profile or whatever that went on there appeared very much the alternative which was desirable. Rather than taking it as a home, more and more of the area became what you call commercialized, turned into little shops and you could have six shops where there was one house earlier. So, even things like the Paranthewala Gali, these were not old things (it’s not like Mughals wandered around to eat paranthas!), these are all post-Independence as much as Moti Mahal is a post-Independence phenomenon. So, these areas became viable and as an attraction for people who wanted to go to and buy things which were more traditional, I mean, ittar and jewellery and ivory crafts until that (ivory) was stopped.


So, the sense of a beautiful home, which you had earlier was gone because the owners were no longer there, so, there was no sense of wanting to keep it up, there were some which had the owners staying on but in their case many of them were too poor to be able to undertake any kind of maintenance work. Now, this is something common to even Calcutta and Bombay, where there are older homes and people are unable to look after or do any kind of repair work, this is the whole problem with heritage. Heritage is expensive. To present something as heritage means a fair amount of investment. And it is not yet completely well worked out as to where this is going to come from.



P.C.: Interesting, how do you think the Rent Control Act or notifying the area as under the Slum Area Act in 1956 has affected development or lack thereof?


N.G.: The Rent Control Act has affected all towns. All older towns in India because that was done during the war and you have it in sections of Calcutta and Bombay and so on. It is obviously something people have managed to subvert by the use of ‘pagdi’ and getting advances so on, so it’s not as though you lost out in terms of the rent you received but it made the owners uninterested in keeping the building looking good in the hope of getting higher rents. If their rents could not be increased, they saw no reason to invest in it. So, they allowed it to go to pieces, I mean the division of property in Shahjahanabad is incredibly complex, there was somebody who was trying to work on a particular haveli and then he found it’s ownership was divided between so many people, then in such a complicated fashion, not per floor but there would be somebody with a couple of rooms downstairs and upstairs and so on. So, to get it all sorted out to work out who is going to pay became an absolutely impossible task. So, it's only if ownership is constricted, you must remember that in Europe, properties are not divided in the family, when a person passes away, his eldest son gets the property. Now we don’t have that rule here so, it gets divided and, in most cases, there is a court case that follows which goes on for another century. So, we are living in a kind of looking glass world where you really cannot deal with the problem in a quick and efficient and forcible fashion.


You know an average person in Delhi would not know that Shahjahanabad is under the slum department, but the DDA knows. So, I think it's really ironic because the definition of a slum that they are using is an area which has a density of population more than, I cannot remember, something like 1600 but by that definition, yes, it is a crowded area and as much as our shanty towns or the older villages which have got cramped because they have not been allowed to expand their built-up area. So, three very different categories of homes come under the same definition: villages, shanty towns just set up by immigrants and the old houses of Shahjahanabad. It's not just the old houses, the whole of what is called the walled city. Incidentally this is also a pejorative term which was never used by the British. It came into use with the DDA, I’ve looked for it’s history and I find it was not used before the 1950s. So, they used it for convenience sake and it’s an irony because there is no wall to speak of, only little fragments of it and Sadar Bazar is added to it, because though its beyond the wall its more or less the same kind of pattern of occupation and layout as the old city. So, having it under the slum department obviously is very demoralizing, can you imagine what the occupants would have felt but I do want to say that there was such a lot of objection to this that now, it is referred to as a heritage area—how they square the two is difficult to understand—but it is treated as something that can be improved upon and every now and then some noise is made about bringing the 'actual' Chandni Chowk to what they call its original glory and so on, without deciding where the original is to be pitched—the 1900s or 1648. So, it’s a slightly wishful kind of statement which, just to keep people quiet.



P.C.: This brings me actually to my next question, so, what were the distinct features of the old city in terms of planning and the architecture that would be completely lost if not acted upon, you know keeping in mind decades of struggle by various historians, conservationists and heritage lovers alike, and organizations like SRDC, SPA, DDA or INTACH. It has not resulted in much: buildings are being constructed and demolished, structures being altered, what was once Begum Samru’s palace is now a shopping complex for electrical goods, and so many more that it might as well be tagged as the city of lost havelis or lost heritage.


N.G.: I don’t think there was an original structure for this city, the total attention of Shah Jahan and his department of architects and engineers was on the fort, so the fort was laid out with great care, its site was chosen after consultation with astrologers, the river was very much part of it, because for most journeys the emperor used to leave by river gate and used to go by boat. He did not go out of the Lahore Gate, which was the front one, which we all enter. Except when he went on a procession to Eidgah. If he went to the Jama Masjid he went by the Dilli Gate, so, there were three entrances, two ceremonial and one slightly more private route for the royal family. Now, the details which are given about the construction and the money spent and all the buildings are entirely about the fort. One of the things that he had missed in Agra was that it had been built in a slightly haphazard fashion and therefore had no ceremonial route. Chandni Chowk was laid out.


But if you look at Faiz Bazar which goes through Daryaganj and has the bazaar on the other side, this is actually a very old route. It is the route of the canal. So, you must remember that outside the fort and actually linking the fort to the settlement that developed, the important thing was not so much the roads or the galis but the water system. Because, from the time of Feroz Shah Tughlaq, there had been a very impressive canal system laid out and this is called Nahar-e-Ferozshahi, there so it is named after him. But the Chandni Chowk canal, which is the new one, was not part of Feroz Shah’s system. It was called the Ali Mardan canal because it was designed by this Persian engineer come administrator, a very accomplished gentleman whom Shah Jahan employed not just in Delhi but also in Lahore. He built canals in both. So, the primary, so to speak, skeleton of the city was shaped by the canals. There was a whole street, which now is indistinguishable, to the north of Chandni Chowk which was called the Canal Street in English. And, if you remember, when President Musharraf came to Delhi, they took him to his ancestral home in Delhi which was called Neher-wali Haveli, that was in Daryaganj. So, the Neher was the primary as I said, skeleton.


And, then, as the fort neared completion, the king gave out parcels of land, because he had drawn a very large circle and made it Khalsa Land and Khalsa Land was his to give to anybody as gift. So his chief noblemen and the rulers of little states which owed allegiance to him bought themselves plots or were given plots around the fort. This is why, in the area which we called Daryaganj today you had the Nawabs of Ballabhgarh and Jhajjar, which, who were allies of Shah Jahan and, in the area of Daryaganj, the northern area of Daryaganj, you had the Pataudi estate. And, Jaipur had a huge area around what is today New Delhi. The Nawab of Loharu had the area around Mehrauli, so you have all these rulers nearby, now some of these areas got enclosed into what we call Shahjahanabad. Shahjahanabad comes much later and there is a small mud wall constructed around it rather informally and the plots were laid out.


So, if you visualize this, there are the canal routes and you have plots of land on which they had built there, when they had time to as it were, they would build havelis and they would have all their dependents also in the karkhanas and courtiers around it, so they were miniature kingdoms as it were. And, then the galis shaped themselves around the havelis. The galis were not there originally, it's not as though a blueprint was laid out. If you were walking down and suddenly a large haveli’s wall appears in front of you, you skirt around it, so that becomes the gali. So, that is why the galis have the names of the nawabs or the rajas and in some areas where there were groups of people living you have them named after the people, the occupation of people who lived there. Like, chhipiwada and teliwada and so on. So, that’s slightly later development. So, the planning as I’ve said is to do with the fort, the canal system and one ceremonial route which he was very proud of, which is what the British very wrongly call Chandni Chowk, because ‘chowk’ does not mean a street, ‘chowk’ means an opening in the street. So, that was a misnomer and it had no name, the chowks had names. The street didn’t have a name. So, therefore, Shahjahanabad is built up over time, and so there’s no original Shahjahanabad to go back to.


What we can think about is original havelis: I mean, is it possible to enter a gate and enter the world of a haveli? It is going to be very difficult to try and revive, bring to life, a haveli in totality. As I said, they have been cut up, there have been lanes cut through them. For instance, there is a favorite lane of mine in Nayi Sarak called Patli Gali, which is very difficult to pass through unless you’re fairly slim. Now, obviously it was not a gali, it was carved out as a shortcut. It will be very difficult to try and create a haveli, in the sense that you open a door or gate and you go in in a different world and atmosphere of family and extended family and its retainers living in a space which is fully utilized but also spacious because so much has changed and since there are no blueprints for us to go on, the detective work is going to be very difficult to find the design of the original. One can make informed guesses I suppose, but it’s not going to be easy. So, when you talk about the, say the haveli where Kamala Nehru used to live, the Haksar Haveli, which has disappeared, it’s not going to be possible to renew it, I mean even before it had a chance it was destroyed. I mean, there should have been some sort of condition that if you have to demolish something at least make a drawing of it before you do something like that, you know we’ll never know what it was like earlier.



P.C.: So, was there any moment when—what exactly prompted the DDA or INTACH or SRDC to go in the direction of conservation and suddenly all this matter about bringing the city back to life as it had seen before?


N.G.: I think that is something that really should be historicized, we should know when it began, because the Archaeological Survey, as you know, is allowed to take under its protection anything that is more than 100 years old. But, till the 1990s, I don’t think they had anything in their care which was later than about 1800. Because the list had been made around the 1900s and they stayed that way, it was only after, from the late 1980s, that they began thinking of more modern buildings. So, that is one, the other was that in the 1970s, worldwide there was a lot of talk about conservation, institutions like ICOMOS were set up which worked with UNESCO and India became nominally a member of it, though it was not very much involved in any active work on conservation and you must remember there’s always this kind of triangular, if you like, divide between architects, archaeologists and the administrators, municipalities or DDA or whatever. And it's very difficult to bring them together and have a kind of discussion which would move things forward. I’m saying this because I do remember that the Conservation Society of Delhi which we had set up in 1984, I think it was in 1987 that we had a seminar which brought al these people to the same table and somebody said, 'We have never seen a meeting where archaeologists and architects have talked to each other'. So, even bringing them on to a common platform was a very difficult task. Because they saw themselves as the antagonists rather than as people who could cooperate on something very exciting.


The other great tragedy, I think (since I’m a teacher of history), was that in History we hardly taught anybody about architecture. There were nominal gestures towards Mughal architecture or Chola architecture but you did not get a sense of this as something that is as important as the development of science or of new methods of agriculture. I mean the Persian wheel was more familiar to us, rightly so, but then the technique of building a thing like the Qutub Minar, at that impossible height, I mean, children always ask me, how did they build so high? And, we haven’t thought all this out of technologies which were improvised or imported or taken from one part of India to another. The sheer excitement of old architecture, let alone that of different lifestyles, different ways of living in a city, all these never came into any subject you studied in college, that was all grim things about battle and administration and taxes, which none of us really has to deal with, whereas if we had talked of the history of art and history of architecture, which are quite separate things by the way but are always lumped together as though they have a kind of close connection. If we had studied all this, we would have been more aware of the beauty of older structures because they had a very special beauty. Which is not to deny that the new ones are very exciting and the buildings after Independence, which were entirely inspired by European and American design, they had a grandeur of their own, but this was different. So, in those years, from the 1950s to the '90s when the pressure on land was not so great and you could afford to develop archeological and architectural sites, it was not done. And the movements, such as there are were, such as the INTACH, INTACH did one valuable service, which it continues to do, which is to list heritage buildings in various parts of India, they have done an enormous amount, but these lists are sitting in a library.



P.C.: Talking of all this, can you draw some parallels to other old cities in the world, those perhaps which are still lived in or maintained as heritage cities are there places where the challenges we are facing here today are tackled in a different, more efficient manner and if there is something we can draw inspiration upon?


N.G.: I was just wondering about the word ‘challenge’, who is the challenge to and what is the challenge? I know what you are implying, that we should have some amount of restoration, that is going back to showing a haveli for instance the way it used to be even in the 19th century, simply as something to look at and think about and ask questions, and whether this is something worth doing. I really feel that until there is some kind of common course created where the owner, the municipal authorities and people outside, encourage or come together and applaud this attempt, no, there’s no point doing it. And the most important thing to realize is that this is not a cheap thing to do. It costs a lot of money and it is ironical, when it was built, it was probably done stage by stage without much expense because the workmen were at hand, now the people who do traditional building or flooring, raising of pillars and so on, are very few and they are expensive because of their rarity but we need to be thankful that at least we have them, because in Europe, in the west, they had to re-learn those skills and it’s become even more expensive, but contrast the attitude in the west with India. In India there is no great excitement about this, let's be frank. It’s not as though people are anxious to do it, and most of them are looking to see whether this will be economically viable.


In other words, it is true that what the Rajasthan people have done very well is to turn their palaces into hotels so they keep them looking the way it is but the purpose is something quite different. So, that is one option. The other is to simply keep it like a museum. But it is also very important to re-imagine and re-construct the life of the haveli, I mean, we are not just talking of pillars and floors, we’re talking about people who lived there, who had tremendous formality of relationships, which we don’t have in today’s families. We don’t have that sense of how people related to each other, how they divided their time, how they sat together, how they welcomed guests, what their threshold was, you know, all these are the things which we have. You know the whole notion of welcoming somebody, how was it done. So there must be something and I cannot at the moment think this out but I think, just having the structure and leaving it empty is the way the Archeological Survey treats its older buildings, which are skeletons and without any sense of the beauty that had been inside it, which has all been vandalized, or the sense of how it related to the surroundings. I mean, if we go away from the haveli for a second, somebody said ‘Delhi is a dreary place, it’s full of tombs’. Now I look at it the other way, which is that Delhi is full of gardens, which have a building in the centre which happens to have a grave in it. So, the garden is the important thing, so instead of calling them the tombs, we can call them the Garden of Humayun, the Garden of Safdarjung, it will be so much more appealing.


Similarly havelis also, need to be seen as places of literary creativity, of people coming together for just having this kind of conversation together, eating in a particular fashion, with the tremendous sense of conviviality, you know, not the dining table and food ordered from outside and that kind of thing, if you read older books, you get glimpses of this, it is worth putting them together and having at least one model place where you can see all this without it having to be a hotel or a homestay place.


Now, you asked about places which have lived successfully with their heritage. I mean, there are different examples of course, and the one I think is rather relevant here is that of Warsaw. Warsaw was almost destroyed in the Second World War and they pulled out their old blueprints—you understand why I say blueprints would have been a help but we don’t have any—and then reconstructed the façades of the buildings, so that if you look at the streets now, it looks much as it did before. But, once you go behind the façade, you get totally modern houses which people live in in great comfort, and since they are compactly built they find it much easier to maintain then large modern flats, so they’re quite happy with that. One of the most expensive areas in Paris is Marais which has old, small-scale houses which have been restored to what they were and for senior citizens, couples, it’s the perfect place to live in, exquisite, small and manageable.


So, that is something that should be emphasized when we talk about havelis, that this was a different way of living, we don’t have to go back to the formality of separating the mardana and zenana (male and female quarters), but we can still have the sense of small and multipurpose rooms and all this is doable. We don’t have to have this kind of stereotype of a sitting room with a sofa set, and dining room with a dining table, we can modify that. So, that is worth thinking about and I think, if you have that sense of an older life to a city, it becomes that much more attractive and something for which people have a lot of affection for.


So, what we have got so far is that, say compared to the '60s, today we are, at least we recognize the word ‘haveli’, we have a sense of what it meant, we have a sense of where it was but you’ve to do much more. You have to have a map of them, for instance, they are put in as dots in the Master Plan but you have to go beyond the dots and have structures. You must have some sense of who the owners were before and after: you gave the example of Begum Samru’s House. Begum Samru’s house was sold to Lala Bhagirath in 1922 and if I remember, broken up into shops after Partition but when you go there they are very anxious to tell you it’s a historic building and they point out the pillars to you. It hasn’t occurred to them that maybe they can still keep their shops but also indicate clearly what the façade was like: it’s a rather interesting structure, with a kind of neoclassical building. All this calls for a kind of background in architectural history and interest which has never been cultivated in our people. When you ask someone how old something is their standard reply is of ‘char sau saal’ (400 years), never understood it. That seems to them the limit of historicity. Then there is a thing called 'ancient India' which comes in, which is below every building, struggling to be heard but meanwhile, the other side of town which is called the developed will go on in peace, everybody would want to demolish their houses and build something with four storeys. One way of preserving these areas is as homestay places which keeps the owner also around—that is possible. But above all, you need to study, you need architectural history.

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