I asked my soul, what is
She replied: The world is the body and
its soul Delhi
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 ’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. India
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
. 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!). New Delhi
Located at the cross-roads of history,
has attracted soldiers and conquerors as well as scholars, holy men and wandering mendicants. By the early thirteenth century Delhi Delhi had emerged as the beating heart of the Sufi movement that had sprung in Central Asia and swept across much of north . 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 India 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 . 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
even for a short while, had written: Delhi
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 , Niyogi, 2007, Revised Third Edition 2011) Delhi