The polyphony of the past


For Delhi’s centennial, this coffee table book celebrates the capital’s pageantry, poetry and its traditions of tolerance, says Mushirul Hasan

The Faiz Bazaar, by a Rajasthani artist, C. 1840 The view is taken from the Chowk, the open square at the beginning of the Faiz Bazaar. The mosque is possibly the now vanished masjid of Roshanuddaula, Photo Courtesy: Roli Books

SELDOM IS one allowed to see a pageant of history whirl past, and partake in it too. Ever since becoming the capital in the early 19th century, imbibing knowledge and ideas and imparting cultures, becoming homogeneous and cosmopolitan in spite of the origins and ethnicity of its rulers and inhabitants, Delhi had remained the embodiment of a whole country, free of the creedal ghosts and apparitions that haunt some of modern India’s critics and bibliographers chased by the dead souls of biased historians of yesterday.” (Ahmed Ali, Twilight in Delhi.)

Delhi: Red Fort To Raisina
Delhi: Red Fort To Raisina JP Losty, Salman Khurshid, Ratish Nanda & Malvika Singh Roli Books 248 pp; Rs 2,975

Delhi’s men of letters contributed largely to the better understanding of themselves as well as their period. They brought out the sense of colour and charm characteristic of Delhi’s life, which lingers still in the writings of the times. They presented their readers not just with a fictionalised account but a kaleidoscope of life all around them.

They entered, with the onset of colonial challenge, a novel realm of stress and strain. Their subsequent reflexes and postures are of considerable interest. Their constructions of Islam, especially in moments of cross-cultural relationships, and their understanding of themselves as Muslims, and as Indians living in British India, become crucial in tracing the historical development of Islam in South Asia. Their vernacular images and imaginings of the British government significantly shaped the generally held views of Pax Britannia. Among themselves, they shared a political heritage under which lineage and language furnished the ingredients necessary to reconstruct, in a new imperial format, their identity.

Essentially, Delhi’s sharif culture was inclusive. It included scores of Hindus, Muslims and Christians. Those who entered this realm had to fulfil certain pre-requisites for membership; religious affiliation was not one of them. Knowledge of Persian and Urdu was one; taste for music and poetry was another. Preserving this cultural milieu, thus, became a matter of general concern. It was widely believed that sensitiveness, open-mindedness and intellectual probity would make people wish to remove the communal canker.

Traditions of tolerance, dissent and camaraderie continued to serve as the perfect antidote to a mode of thinking that accentuated religious difference. Sayyid Ahmad displayed affection for the Hindu and Jain temples in Delhi. “This sense of the luminosity of place, and of the pleasures and ease of the erstwhile great and culturally diverse empire of Hindustan,” he wrote, “was a compelling motif for much of the poetic-cum-historical work of the 18th and early 19th centuries.” Such views reflected, and were part and parcel of, the relationship between popular Islam and the local traditions it encountered. Although, there isn’t sufficient material to chart the relative importance of these various views, it stands to reason that they resonated with a significant section of the educated people.

Jama Masjid
Jama Masjid By Sita Ram, 1815 From the albums of drawings done by Sita Ram for Lord Hastings. Ram presents a monument isolated in its magnificence, in accordance with picturesque conventions

Delhi: Red Fort to Raisina captures the look of Delhi and its changing complexion. The contributors are well-known figures; the editor was associated with the British Library in London. The other three, Salman Khurshid, Ratish Nanda and Malvika Singh, have lived in Delhi and are witness to its evolution over the past few decades. Pramod Kapoor, a Banarsi Babu, provides the concept with his characteristic sureness of touch and punctilious concern for detail. They see the big picture, the interplay of the intellectual and administrative life, the most likely centre of influence, and the most significant developments. Their narrative is firmly placed in a lavish setting, for which the public deserves wide acclaim.

Salman Khurshid draws the picture of the everyday life in Shahjahanabad. Much of what he writes is borne out by contemporary accounts. Mir Taqi Mir, caught up in the political tumult of his age, had complained: “The custom is now quite extinct — and yet in days gone by/ Friends would sit down and talk to one another night and day.’ In the second half of the 19th century, the remnants of the old culture were well and truly intact. Meeting people, including the new arrivals from Punjab, especially the Khattri and Jain traders and merchants, was a common social practice that could only be curbed by some natural calamity. Like the steadily enlarging frontiers of knowledge, friendships and literary exchanges developed not only within the city bounds but extended to other cultural centres.

Postmodernists would accuse Ghalib’s generation of ignoring differences in various Indian cultures

GHALIB, TOO, loved Delhi with its glorious Sultanate and Mughal buildings, its thriving bazaars, and its karkhanas in mohallaSuiwalan, Turkman Gate, Farashkhana, Kashmiri Gate, Kucha-i Chandni Chowk, and Imli ki Pahari. Ghalib regarded himself as a living part of Shahjahanabad. There was an increasing belief that life and art should not be separated, that a well-lived life was a work of art. It is therefore not surprising, then, that he wanted to try to weave the two together. Avuncular, laid back and full of big beaming smiles, he mixed, with the easy openness that characterised his poetry, with rulers, statesman, poets, writers and artists and the common fellow-citizen.

(L to R) Malvika Singh, JP Losty, Chief Minister Sheila Dikshit, Salman Khurshid and Ratish Nanda
Down memory lane (L to R) Malvika Singh, JP Losty, Chief Minister Sheila Dikshit, Salman Khurshid and Ratish Nanda

The protagonists of the ‘two-nation’ theory deny the existence of much cohesion or unity of sentiment between the Hindus and the Muslims. A chorus of voices, presented as postmodernists, would now accuse Ghalib’s generation of ignoring differences and emphasising sameness, of failing to see how different the various cultures of Indian society were from each other. There is not much truth in either of these formulations. If we consider Ghalib, Sayyid Ahmad, Nazir Ahmad the novelist, Ramchandra the mathematician, and Zaka Ullah the historian, as emblematic of their age, we discover that they all paid attention to religiously defined cultures and recognised the importance of communities within which people worked out their politics, their standards of truth, and their personal identities. They acknowledged that religion and culture played a critical role in numerous conflicts, but at the same time endeavoured to tease out the subtle ways in which such conflicts could be avoided in the lives of peoples, nations, and religious communities.

Ratish Nanda, who is doing excellent work in the Nizamuddin (East) basti in Delhi, has written a fascinating account of Delhi’s architecture. He lays much stress on synthesis, for most Sultanate and Mughal structures make for synthesis. Ritish is followed by Malvika Singh’s account of the ‘Making of New Delhi’. The image of India protected and projected by the Raj — large, populous, glittering and ceremonial, layered and traditional, princely and rural — reached its elaborate zenith at the Coronation Durbar held on 12 December 1911 in Delhi, the newly-chosen imperial capital.

Delhi had seen this vivid expression of imperial grandeur, and power before: first in 1887 and then in 1903, when George Nathaniel Curzon organised a glittering durbar to proclaim the succession of the new King, Edward VII. Eight years later, in 1911, another reign began when George V was crowned King on 22 June 1911, and Emperor of India on 12 December. His durbar had to be even more splendid than Curzon’s, bringing together princely India and British India in feudal hierarchy and imperial subordination.

King George V and his queen stepped ashore at Apollo Bunder in Bombay. Five days later, on 7 December, the royal train reached Delhi for the spectacular bauble for which the Indian taxpayer footed the bill, a whopping £6,60,000. Riding a horse (Curzon had mounted a bejewelled elephant) on a perfect winter’s day with a bright sun, blue sky and cool breeze, the King-Emperor’s State entry went through the Red Fort and onto the big maidan between the stately Fort and the gleaming domes of Jama Masjid, “both softened in the gentle light of a Delhi winter”. It was a perfect setting of the imperial progress, an elaborate and grand extravaganza watched by 4,000 special guests, 70,000 spectators, and 35,000 troops, in the durbar amphitheatre.

This spectacle had to impress some, but not everybody. Akbar Ilahabadi, who had served the government in UP’s judicial service, composed a satirical poem on the pomp and pageantry of the Raj. His poem was effective because it was written from the point of view of the simple man, who was only too willing to be impressed.

The map of Delhi (p. 160) is spectacular. This book gives a much needed sense of the value of a pictorial representation. It shows that it’s possible to bridge the gap between scholarly tomes that some of us write and coffee table books. While we take years to produce our monographs, an average reader wants to know quickly and to tell others what history, embellished with illustration, means.

Mir Taqi Mir wrote: “The streets of Delhi are not mere streets, they are like the album of a painter; Every figure I saw there was a model of perfection.” The city that Ghalib and the poets Zauq and Momin had known and loved, whose history they recorded, whose songs they had listened to, was a Delhi that has passed away for ever. Today, Delhi is a bustling city echoing the aspirations of over 13 million people. I hope the book Delhi: Red Fort to Raisina had made Delhi’s life real and delightful to readers.

Hasan is the Director-General of National Archives of India.


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