The Mughal Maestro

Ratish Nanda
Photo: Ishan Tankha

IN 1997, the Aga Khan Trust for Culture stepped into a part of Delhi that was sandwiched between a busy railway station and a large urban slum, Nizamuddin. As a microcosm of the city, the area presented a slew of challenges. Seven hundred years of continuous habitation had by now included a Muslim ghetto with no sanitation or water, a ghetto that spilled over into the most visited pilgrim site in the city — the dargah of the 14th century Sufi saint Nizamuddin Auliya. It’s also the place where qawwali was invented and where its creator, poet-philosopher Amir Khusrau lived and died. Very close to the dargah was the tomb of the second Mughal emperor Humayun. Parts of its fine red sandstone were chipping and even with a lofty status of the World Heritage Site, the tomb looked like a bedecked bride jilted by time. The Aga Khan Trust decided that if this part of Delhi’s heritage was to be brought back to life, it could not be piecemeal. It had to be all or nothing. In case of the former, the area to be restored would include Humayun’s Tomb, Nizamuddin Dargah, the old botanical gardens, 50 other monuments and, most of all, the culture of the people of Nizamuddin.

Restoration, in the eyes of the Aga Khan Trust for Culture, has meant urban renewal. In the past six years, this massive project has been steered by a conservation architect who has an iron will with an appetite for complexity. Having done restoration work in Scotland, Turkey, Nepal and Iran, Ratish Nanda spent four years in volatile Afghanistan, restoring the Bagh-e-Babur or the gardens that served as the resting place of the first Mughal Emperor, Babur. It’s only fitting that his next project was second Mughal emperor Humayun’s tomb. Nanda, 39, tells Revati Laul how the job has been a heady mix of old and new traditions — from reviving old Mughal craft traditions to building a gymnasium for women in Nizamuddin basti.


What is the Aga Khan Trust for Culture’s idea of conservation?And how has Nizamuddin in Delhi defined it?
I think the underlying belief is that heritage, whether as an economic or a cultural site, is often the only asset in the hands of communities living in historic cities. The approach of the Aga Khan Trust is to integrate conservation with development. The Nizamuddin area where we work in Delhi, for instance, is the densest ensemble of medieval Islamic buildings but also has 700 years of living culture. So for us, the music is as important as the built heritage. Qawwali was invented in Nizamuddin. So we can’t be working there without working on Amir Khusrau and his legacy. Therefore, we have the Jashn-e-Khusrau festival of Sufi music once a year. But we also can’t be working in Nizamuddin without benefiting the 30,000 people who live there. To see these people struggle with problems of malnutrition, economic deprivation, lack of education, health and sanitation is troublesome. So the large urban renewal project aims to improve the quality of life of local inhabitants while improving the visitor experience for the millions of pilgrims and tourists that visit. Through the project that we started in 1997, we have done all sorts of things. Our partnership is with the Municipal Corporation of Delhi, the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) and the Central Public Works Department.

That kind of partnership must require trapeze artist-like manoeuvring. How do you stitch this matrix together?
What is critical is that this becomes a model. And work on this scale can only be done in partnership with government agencies. The belief is that the government can’t do it all. So in many cases we are providing technical assistance to government agencies and in many cases we are doing it all from fundraising to implementation. What has been amazing is the phenomenal support we’ve got from the senior levels of government. For instance, we are trying to build a site museum at Humayun’s Tomb and for that we need a lot of different agencies to pool their land. So the Joint Secretary, Urban Development, Chittaranjan Kumar Khetan brought four officers to the meeting with him to study the project first hand. And this is when we did not have to push for it.

Dazzling sites Men pray inside the Nizamuddin Dargah
Photos: AFP

So what have you built for the community in Nizamuddin as part of urban renewal?
Twenty-two percent of this population did not have toilets. And this is an area that is visited by pilgrims as well. So we built public toilets. We also connected private toilets to the sewage system. We have almost rebuilt the municipal corporation school. There were 150 kids attending school when we started, now there are 600. Each kid goes through three hours of art education. The school works almost like a community centre. There is an NIIT centre for computer education that we facilitated. There are after-school tuitions free of cost and English-speaking classes. Then we adopted the polyclinic that the municipal corporation had set up. Thirty-four thousand patients visited the pathology lab we set up there last year. We have vocational training courses. Over a 1,000 members of the community have been trained. There are over 15 different training programmes on offer — from building construction to home-based crafts like bag-making, embroidery, sanjhi (the art form based on paper cutouts), computers, carpentry, electrical training and many others.

Dazzling sites a boy leans on a stone carved window of the mausoleum

So the approach to conservation is very broad. Can you outline its main ambition? 
Through this project, we’re trying to do three critical things. One, return to a craft-based approach to conservation where we’re saying our craftspersons have thousands of years of traditional knowledge. Make them part of the decision-making and also use their skills, which since the British times the ASI has hesitated to use due to a colonial mindset that believed in preserving rather than restoring. For us, renewal has always been continuous. The second aim is to do conservation with an urban landscape approach. So we’re not only conserving Humayun’s Tomb, but we’re looking at the whole setting as well. So we’re restoring about 50 monuments. And the third, which is most critical, is that we want to demonstrate that conservation is a tool for development.

This has also included restoration of the intangible heritage, like music and culture, hasn’t it?
Yes, and critically what it has become with support from the Ford Foundation, is looking at Khusrau’s legacy. You go to Austria and Beethoven is everywhere. Khusrau was an amazing person and yet we know next to nothing about him. So we’re doing performances based on his poetry. We’re disseminating literature. We’re documenting musicians countrywide. We’re even doing phone applications. Part of that is to get Khusrau back into the mainstream. And the other critical thing is to get millions of school children to pass through Nizamuddin. We have roped in youth we’ve trained to lead the heritage walks.

‘What gives us the strength is to see things getting done. About 50%of the community benefits from our programmes’

While working in the basti, did you face resistance from people?
Every day. We have a staff of 70 working in the basti. We have not one but 10 issues that come up each day. For instance, we decided three summers ago to map the entire basti. Before every day of mapping, we held a street meeting, explaining people why we were doing what we were doing and what will come of it. We found a lot of people were living in fear because they didn’t have the requisite paperwork. It is sad that in the heart of Delhi, a community lives in fear because of that. We had to be flexible. And we have the flexibility to adapt the project to community needs. For instance, the women of the basticame up with the demand that they needed a gym. And we thought this goes well with our health programme. So we created that gym. Even the parks we landscaped, we did them after long dialogues with the community so that they met their needs. We’ve got one park, which is the Zenana Bagh for women, one park for children, one for community functions and one for cricket and baraatghars for weddings. There is a lot of community dialogue.

What are the changes you’ve seen in the basti over time?
What gives us the strength is to see things getting done. About 50 percent of the community in Nizamuddin directly benefits from what we’ve done. I know we’ve saved lives through our health programme — mainly of pregnant women. I’ve had women come and say their lives were incomplete without the parks and now they have a place to go. I’ve had heritage volunteers from the basti say that they used to be embarrassed about where they lived and now they’re proud of the basti. We’ve had six kids from our programmes now go to America on scholarship. These are people who couldn’t speak a word of English and one of them has come back after a Master’s degree. Heritage needs to be based on incentives for people. Our definition of heritage is straight-forward. It is an asset to be used for development. We’ve demonstrated that through our work in Nizamuddin.

Revati Laul is a Special Correspondent with Tehelka.


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