A platform for positive and constructive discussion on ways of looking at history, architecture, archaeology, and conservation
Thirty short years ago Kamaladevi Chattopadhyaya (whose stretch of imagination was as long as her name) conjured up an Environment Group at the India International Centre. Lots of people turned up, each with at least half-a-dozen grumbles in her pocket. And Kamaladevi looked around with her winning smile and said “Right. Now do something about it!” And before we could get a grip on things we were divided up into three unequal groups – environment (which included green areas, air pollution, and monuments), water and sewerage, traffic and transport. That one-ninth which took on ‘monuments’ began with two members, but kept increasing. In 1985, by which time the Environment Group had got fragmented, the one-ninth regrouped as the Conservation Society of Delhi – a word that often was transformed into Conversation or Conservancy. CSD was an enthusiastic bunch of people who kept going without getting distracted into applying for ‘funding’. They were the second to conduct ‘heritage walks’ in Delhi (the first being the legendary Nigel Hankin who also compiled that superb dictionary of Indian English Hanklin-Janklin). The CSD walks increased to 18 a year, beginning with Lal Kot and ending with Lutyens’ New Delhi. CSD was the first to use the PIL route to save endangered monuments. When the government announced that the canopy at India gate was to be removed, they kept up a protest through articles, letters and meetings which led to the order being withdrawn. Workshops with school teachers, discussions at the IIC where the DDA and the ASI officials sat across from each other, and the celebration of World Heritage Day on 18 April relentlessly reminded Dilliwalas that Delhi was 1000 years old, and there was still so much to discover, so much to cherish !
We felt optimistically that attitudes were changing…. But one thing did not change. Through these past three decades, there has been a depressing monotony to the way newspapers refer to the ASI. They hardly ever get a ‘good press’. The adjective ‘neglected’ seems to have attached itself to the word ‘monument’. The British introduced certain institutions which we have inherited – the ASI, the post office, the railways, and of course cricket. Why is it that the ASI is the only one that gets the brickbats? Because the average citizen sees the monuments, but does not trouble to see the work the ASI does, the number of skills that are woven together, the battles they fight – against encroachers, thieves, visitors not educated to respect public places. Isn’t it time to realise the responsibility of citizens in helping look after ‘protected’ monuments? Think of sites which are well-kept – expensive hotels, where much money is spent, private lawns be they ever so small, where much affection is spent. Isn’t it possible for our monuments – the ambience of which can never be replicated or revived once destroyed – to look equally beautiful? Don’t we owe that to the craftsmen who built them ? Go look at Masjid Moth, crushed into a corner behind South Extension II – and ask yourself how you would like it to look. Walk into Khirki Masjid or Begumpur Masjid, and then go see them featured in George Michell’s Architecture of the Islamic World – and give a little of your time to thinking how you could help them once again to look the way they should.
Therefore FrASI – there are so many of us who feel this way, who would feel better if they frequently did something small and immediate for Delhi’s heritage, instead of leaving the custodians to soldier on alone, or the ‘experts’ to prepare plans which take years and crores to become a reality. Isn’t it possible that this will be the way to create the sense of citizenship which our young megacity still has not developed ?