Celebrating Delhi

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Item Code: IHL373
Author: Various Artists
Publisher: Penguin Books India Pvt. Ltd.
Edition: 2010
ISBN: 9780670084821
Pages: 202
Cover: Hardcover
Other Details 8.8 inch X 5.8 inch

Book Description

Who are the real makers of a city?

Delhi, located at the crossroads of history, has been occupied, abandoned and rebuilt over the centuries. It has been the capital of the Pandavas, the Rajputs, Central Asian dynasties, the Mughals and the British, and is best described as a melting pot of these vastly varying traditions and customs.

A galaxy of experts come together to offer fresh perspectives on the capital city. Originally part of the Sir Sobha Singh Memorial Lecture series organized by The Attic in collaboration with the India International Centre and the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage, this updated selection explores Delhi's living syncretic heritage.

The essays illuminate unknown and fascinating aspects of the city's history. We learn, for instance, how Sir Sobha Singh transplanted Delhi's two foundation stones by bullock-cart in the stealth of the night from Kingsway Camp to Raisina Hill. In a different departure, archival records point to the fundamental ecological miscalculation in the British choice of trees to line the avenues of Imperial New Delhi. Place names, part of the cultural fabric of a city, unearth a vanishing history of Delhi, while the contrasting history of Sufi shrines draws attention to the spiritual masters, the pirs, and their search for truth.

This open-mindedness is reflected in the letters and public proclamations issued from the Mughal court in the Delhi uprising of 1857. These were emphatically religious, yet inclusive of both Hindus and Muslims. In our time a different take on the reality of refugee and resettlement colonies shows the blindness of the city's civic planners, and reveals who was making and who was breaking the city in the twentieth century.

As the centre of political power for centuries, many great artists, poets and musicians found patronage at the royal courts of Delhi. The city has been home to a rich tradition of classical music—both the Sufi traditions of Central Asia and the darbari (courtly) style explore the development of the rich Delhi gharana tradition, as well as the birth, growth, banishment and reinvention of the language of Delhi over centuries. The many peoples who made Delhi their home through the centuries have all contributed to the creation and development of a sumptuous cuisine noted for its rich variety.

Celebrating Delhi takes you on journey, both varied and unexpected


Perminder Singh


My Father the Builder
Khvshwant Singh


Discovering the Ancient in Modern Delhi
Upinder Singh


Religious Rhetoric in the Delhi Uprising of 1857
William Dalrymple


The Pir's Barakat and the Servitor's Ardour: The Contrasting History of Two Sufi Shrines in Delhi
Sunil Kumar


Avenue Trees in Lutyens' Delhi: How They Were Chosen
Tradip Krishen


Delhi's History as Reflected in Its Toponymy
Narayani Gupta


The Dilli Gharana
Vidya Rao


The Language of Delhi: Birth, Growth, Banishment, Reinvention
Sohail Hashmi


City Makers and City Breakers
Dunu Roy


Dilli Ka Asli Khana (The Real Cuisine of Delhi)
Priti Narain


A Kayastha's View of Delhi
Ravi Dayal


Notes on Authors



This book is a compilation of eleven lectures held at the India International Centre (IIC) over a nine-month period in 2006. Originally titled the 'Sir Sobha Singh Memorial Lectures', they were organized by The Attic (Amarjit Bhagwant Singh Charitable Trust) in collaboration with the IIC and INTACH (Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage). In their subject matter, planning and inspiration they owed everything to informal and insightful discussions with Naina Dayal and Ravi Dayal, to whom the lecture series and now this book is" dedicated.

Sobha Singh was a twenty-two-year-old contractor working on the Kalka-Simla railroad when he visited Delhi in 1911. He was present at the Delhi Darbar at which King George V declared that the capital of British India would be shifted from Calcutta to Delhi. He saw his opportunity and took it.

'Rarely was a man so identified with the birth of a city as Sir Sobha Singh was with New Delhi, translating into sandstone and marble most of the imperial blueprints of Lutyens and Baker. Few builders in the world have left behind as tributes to their genius such an imposing list of edifices encompassing most of the colonial face of Delhi as he has done,' says Khushwant Singh.

The original introduction to the series of lectures is as good an introduction to the book as it was to the lectures: 'This series of lectures encompasses many facets of the life of Delhi—its history, architecture, cuisine, music, environment, and the arts.'

The first lecture (and article) 'My Father the Builder' by Khushwant Singh, author, historian and raconteur, set the tone and style for the series. His celebrity status ensured a huge audience with more people who couldn't get in to hear him than those who did. At the age of ninety, his memory was undimmed, his style elegant, his scholarship undoubted and his humour undiminished. This is a first-hand account of the building of New Delhi and the important role his father Sir Sobha Singh played in its construction. He talks of the building of this imperial city which he witnessed 'rising in front of my eyes' set against the backdrop of the personalities, English and Indian, who made it possible.

Most of us see Delhi as a city of imposing medieval forts, palaces and tombs. But Upinder Singh in 'Discovering the Ancient in Modern Delhi' strongly believes that the less 'sexy' ancient remains, the broken bits of pottery, the prehistoric stone tools, the glazed earthenware and the stone pillars tell an equally fascinating story. She suggests that the antiquity of the Purana Qila could go back to 1000 BC and may even be linked to the legendary city of Indraprastha mentioned in the Mahabharata. Excavations in the villages of Anangpur, Kharkhari Nahar, Bhorgarh and Mandoli of the National Capital Region of Delhi have revealed that they were stone age and Harappan sites. She says that with a cultivated sensibility ordinary ancient remains can be animated by imagination.

Place names are where 'history and geography intersect' and Narayani Gupta in her piece 'Delhi's History as Reflected in Its Toponymy' uses place names to unearth a vanishing history of Delhi. The 'kots' and 'sarais', the 'purs' and 'paharis' contain the true romance of Delhi's past. Firoze Shah Kotla, Sarai Kale Khan, Badarpur, and Paharganj are just a few of the names that have survived the onslaught of our new political classes. 'Place-names have a meaning in the language and in local history and are part of the cultural fabric of the city. At every point,' she says, 'when we name or rename places we lose a little bit of history and risk becoming a city of Nehru Nagars and Veer Savarkar Margs.'

The thirteenth century saw the beginning of a brilliant era of Sufi Islam in India that continues to this day. In his article 'The Pir's Barakat and the Servitor's Ardour: the contrasting history of two Sufi shrines in Delhi', Sunil Kumar notes that in spite of its magnificent forts, mosques and tombs the 'epithet for the city most frequently encountered in medieval sources—Hazrat-i Dehli or the auspicious, sacred city—is derived from the mystics, theologians, litterateurs and jurists who made this city their place of residence'. The Sufi mystics he notes are remembered not by the grandeur of their tombs but the simplicity of their graves and the intense spiritual emotion they evoked. The final resting place of a Sufi spiritual master provides the believer guidance and succour, his grace imbues the premises turning his grave into a place of pilgrimage. He compares the evolving histories of two small shrines: the flourishing sixteenth century one of Khwaja Maqbul Shah in Saket that has been lost to doctrinal Islam and the twentieth century anonymous grave that is now the flourishing shrine of Sayyid Jalal-uddin Chishti in the Jahanpanah forest.

Magnificent palaces, imposing forts and striking buildings are not built by kings and governments but by masons and stonecutters, bricklayers and loaders—people we choose not to see or care about. This vast army of the underprivileged, which includes the clerks, the drivers, the nurses are pushed to the periphery of the city and are regarded as a burden. Without basic civic amenities, the perpetual threat of 'illegality' and 'demolition' hangs over them in the name of a clean environment and tourism. Dunu Roy in his hard hitting article 'City Makers and City Breakers' asks who the real makers of a city are and confronts us with the reality of the refugee and resettlement colonies, the thousands of illegal slum dwellers and the blindness of the civic planners who refuse to acknowledge their presence.

In Mughal times the mango, sheesham and banyan were the favoured avenue trees but when choosing the trees that should line the avenues of Imperial New Delhi the British chose 'not a single species of tree that can be called a Delhi native'. Delving into archival records Pradip Krishen in 'Avenue Trees in Lutyens' Delhi: How They Were Chosen' finds that the choice of trees was a 'fundamental ecological miscalculation'. In their desire to avoid 'deciduousness' and 'commonness' the mango, sheesham and neem were ignored and some not excellent aesthetic and value judgements made about the trees to be planted.

Delhi has been for centuries the centre of political power and many great artists, poets and musicians have found patronage at its courts. Delhi has thus been home to a rich tradition of classical music. The 'Khalifa' of the 'Dilli Gharana' traces the roots of this style to the end of the thirteenth century when two different strands of music developed—music inspired by the Sufi traditions of Central Asia and the 'darbari' (courtly) style. The Sufi style developed into what is now 'qawwali', while the 'darbari' continued in the classical dhrupad dhamar style. Many centuries later, these two styles fused to form a composite now known as the Delhi Gharana. This style, says Vidya Rao in 'The Dilli Gharana', has a distinct identity. It is an extraordinary mix of dhrupad-dhamar, khayal, tarana and also draws from folk music forms like jhoola, geet, qaul and dhamar.

On the evening of Tuesday, 6 February 2007, we were treated to a wonderful performance of the Delhi Gharana by Ustad Iqbal Khan, the Khalifa of this style, preceded by Vidya Rao's talk.

No account of the history of Delhi can be complete without a detailed examination of the 'mutiny' or the 'war of independence' of 1857. Using recently translated archival material and writing this history from an Indian perspective, William Dalrymple in his book The Last Mughal: The Eclipse of a Dynasty captures the last days of the dazzling Mughal capital and its final destruction in the uprising. One of the surprising elements in this history is the use of 'Religious Rhetoric in the Delhi Uprising of 1857'. In an era remarkably similar to ours in this respect, the Mujahideen were fighting a 'jihad' to rid the country of 'kafirs', Hindu sepoys were fighting for their 'dharma' and the British chaplain John Midgley Jennings was exhorting the faithful to 'be preparing to conquer the subcontinent for Anglicanism and the one true God'. As we know Anglicanism triumphed but with a savagery and barbarity reminiscent of the Mongol chieftain Taimur and the Persian King, Nadir Shah.

We were not able to include pieces by all the speakers of the Delhi series in this book, either because they did not send their articles or due to the constraints of this book. An excellent talk by Sheila Chhabra, 'Dilli ke totay, mainay aur thoray bahar ke mehman—Common birds of Delhi and some interesting winter visitors', could not be included without the beautiful colour slides that accompanied the talk, nor could we include 'Dehli ki Aakhri Shama', a poetic re-enactment of the Last Mush'aira of Delhi directed by Rakhshanda Jalil and enacted by the faculty and students of Jamia Millia Islamia. We have however added three articles that were not part of the original series. These articles are on the food, the language and a personal view of Delhi soon after Independence.

'Dilli ka Asli Khana' (The Real Cuisine of Delhi) by Priti Narain is a fascinating glimpse not only into the foods of Delhi but the history and culture that produced it. Buddhists, Jains, Central Asians, the Sultans and the Mughals followed each other over the centuries each producing and introducing dishes and ingredients—everything from simple vegetables without onions as they 'caused pain, ruined the eyesight and weakened the body', to rose-flavoured sherbets, meat-filled samosas, Samarkand apples, Portuguese pineapples, elaborate biryanis and the mouth-watering foods that make the North Indian and Delhi cuisines among the best in the world.

Tokyo has Japanese, Moscow has Russian, London has English and Delhi is polyglot. There seems not to have ever been a common language for Delhi. When the rulers spoke Turkic or Persian or Urdu or English the masses spoke Braj or Dehlavi or Punjabi or Hindustani and this rich Creole forms the texture of the linguistic expression of the city. Rarely has a city been occupied and 're-culturized' as often as Delhi by invading armies, foreign kings, nomadic adventurers, wandering Sufis and assorted colonialists in search of spices or trade routes or conversions. Each group brought amongst other things its language adding yet another layer to this city of Babel but also taking away. Sohail Hashmi in 'The Language of Delhi' shows how words like the Persian 'sepah' and the Urdu 'sipahi' became the colonial 'sepoy' and how idea, style, house, hospital, bisicle (bicycle), pension, file, office, car are now Hindustani words.

The last piece included in the book 'A Kayastha's View of Delhi' by Ravi Dayal, the quintessential 'dilliwalla', is a very personal account of post-Independence Delhi. With his trademark humour and a heavy dose of nostalgia he writes about the Mathur Kayasthas of Delhi. The Kayastha community, scribes to the Mughals, considered themselves dilliwallas par excellence and the ultimate in refinement, not least because they were 'speakers of a tongue untainted by Punjabi'. He remembers the culinary delights of 'shahar' (Shahjahanabad), 'the classical view of the dhobis washing and drying clothes on the river bank' and tongas piled high with tin trunks, holdalls and baskets, clattering down the well trodden streets of a now vanished age.

Mala Dayal, the editor of the book, has worked patiently and closely with the authors. She has suggested many of the additions, especially the article on cooking to make this book as complete and interesting as possible and reflecting the many unique facets of the life of Delhi that make it both a frustrating and a rewarding city to live in.

Preminder Singh

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