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Thursday, 2 June 2011

Celebrating Delhi

I asked my soul, what is Delhi?
She replied: The world is the body and Delhi its soul

Was Mirza Ghalib indulging in hyperbole when he penned these famous lines? I think not. For centuries, the true Dilliwalla has always believed that Delhi is a notch above India’s other great metropolises. Travelers from distant lands have written about its gardens and palaces. Successive emperors have adorned it and every ruler down the ages has tried to leave a mark. While Neophyte New Delhi has been quick to discard or erase large chunks of its past, there is still much left that deserves to be celebrated.

Celebrating Delhi gathers a distinguished group of writers to remind the blithe blasé city dwellers of its once-glorious past. And it does so not through homilies and hagiography accounts but by insightful essays on different aspects of the city’s life. Conceived as a series of lectures by the late Ravi Dayal in collaboration with Preminder (better known as Pami) Singh of The Attic, most of these essays formed part of a lecture series at the India International Centre. With the idea of anthologising the lectures, some parts of the original series were dropped and a couple more added. What you have, then, is a significant addition to the growing ouvre of ‘Delhiana’; moreover, one that contains many facets within its slim covers. Urban history, architecture, antiquity, cuisine, music, environment and the arts – the book is a smorgasbord of tastes.

Khushwant Singh’s introduction to the lecture series serves just as well to introduce the book. Called ‘My Father the Builder’, it gives a first-hand account to the building of the imperial capital and the transformation of ‘Dehli’ to New Delhi. In ‘Discovering the Ancient in Modern Delhi’ Upinder Singh shows us the unexpected ways in which the past – even the ancient past – lurks around the corner and catches us unaware. Narayani Gupta shows how the past is reflected in the city’s toponymy: ‘With time, landscapes get sedimented over with new meanings and new maps of movement; but the submerged histories resonate at the sound of place names.’ Gupta goes on to list names of places in Delhi that conjure up a vanished landscape – hills, valleys, nullahs, tanks, forests and embankments all gone, gobbled up by the growing city. Paharganj, for instance, reminds us that once there was a hill or hillock, as does Malay Mandir (malay meaning hill and not malai meaning cream!).

Located at the cross-roads of history, Delhi has attracted soldiers and conquerors as well as scholars, holy men and wandering mendicants. By the early thirteenth century Delhi had emerged as the beating heart of the Sufi movement that had sprung in Central Asia and swept across much of north India. With the city fast gaining popularity as the axis of the Islamic east, waves of wandering Sufis came to set up hospices, to gather the faithful around them, and to spread the word about a new kind of Islam. So much so that medieval scholars referred to Delhi as Qubbatul Islam (the Cupola of Islam). In the light of the sufi saints’ benevolent presence in the city, Vidya Rao discusses the evolution of the Dilli Gharana of music, a unique blend of the qawwali born in the khanqahs of the Sufis  and the darbari or courtly tradition of music patronised by the rulers of Delhi. In a delightful essay entitled ‘The Pir’s Barakat and the Servitor’s Ardour’, Sunil Kumar chooses to focus on two relatively lesser-known among scores of sufi shrines that are found in such abundance all over Delhi.

The books also includes essays on the avenue trees in Lutyens’ Delhi by Pradip Krishen; the Delhi Uprising of 1857 by William Dalrymple; the language of Delhi by Sohail Hashmi; the real cuisine of Delhi by Priti Narain; a Kayasth’s view of Delhi by Ravi Dayal; and a pithy, hard-hitting attack on those who break the law with impunity in ‘City Makers and City Breakers’ by Dunu Roy.

I am tempted to end with another Urdu couplet. Mir Taqi Mir, one of the greatest Urdu poets, who could not bear to be away from his beloved Delhi even for a short while, had written:
There was a city, famed throughout the world,
Where dwelt the chosen spirits of the age:
Delhi its name, fairest among the fair.
Fate looted it and laid it desolate,
And to that ravaged city I belong.
Ravaged though it has been many times over, Celebrating Delhi tells us why we still have reasons to cheer.

-- Rakhshanda Jalil
(Rakhshanda Jalil has written Invisible City: The Lesser-Known Monuments of Delhi, Niyogi, 2007, Revised Third Edition 2011)

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