Dalmiafication of the Qila-e-Mubarak Will Lead us Nowhere

Our monuments are in crisis. We need to grab this moment as an opportunity and tap the vast pool of individuals and institutions ready to take on the twin challenges of conservation and interpretation.

The East bow’d low before the blast,
In patient, deep disdain.
She let the legions thunder past.
And plunged in thought again.
∼ Matthew Arnold

Why, when I read about the impending Dalmiafication of the Qila-e-Mubarak, did that old refrain from Matthew Arnold come to my mind? The Lal Qila – a piece of such superb design and workmanship, a wonder of planning and architecture, but which has never been given its due.

The Qila has been described over and over again, but only in bits and parts, in cliché and stereotype, viewed only in bits and parts in dreary architectural language and drawings. Never has one been able to sense the harmony of the whole citadel. It has been equated with many things: fanciful descriptions of the life of people living there (why were the harmless salateen always described as leading lives of dissipation?); the ‘atrocities’ of Nadir Shah (was the Peacock Throne taken away on the back of a camel or on a cart ?); the flickering shama of the aakhri mushaira in the Fort, described so evocatively by Farhatullah Beg; the shock of the tempestuous arrival of the soldiers from Meerut on May 11, 1857; after 1859, the dispirited people of the city being told to buy tickets to enter, as if the Palace were some Ajaib Ghar; the long confinement (1858 to 2003) of generations of young British and Indian soldiers in the Fort-turned-cantonment; Curzon’s horror at seeing the vandalism perpetrated in the halls of the Fort; the dedicated work of the young Gordon Sanderson to restore the section of the Fort under the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI); neighbouring Salimgarh as the prison for the Indian National Army (INA) leaders; Jawaharlal Nehru walking into the Fort in his lawyer’s gown during the INA Trial, and a year later hoisting at the Fort the flag of independent India that Subhas Bose had dreamed of planting there…

And so the Fort slides into a way of life. Twenty thousand people tramping through it every day, different parts closed off for weeks and months without explanation, the annual spruce-up every summer in readiness for the few minutes when the Prime Minister is wafted to the ramparts where no self-respecting emperor stood, to speak to a carpet of school-children spread out like a giant national flag. And when the legions of children have scattered, the Fort “plunged in thought again”.

In 2003, the army moved out, and the vast area of the cantonment became part of the ASI’s holdings. That year, Anisha Mukherji wrote a beautifully illustrated book on the Fort. In 2007, 350 years after its foundation, it did seem to have been given its due – Lal Qila was inscribed as a World Heritage Site. In 2011, the architect Gurmeet Rai was asked to prepare a Comprehensive Conservation Master Plan for the Fort, for the ASI to follow through. But the detailed study, the international recognition, and the suggestions for conservation measures, have not made the slightest dent on the Qila.

And now the minister of tourism is the knight in shining armour who is to be its saviour? A saviour in such a hurry that he is said to have ignored the conditions laid down by the parliamentary committee for the AaH (Adopt a Heritage) scheme. (It also does not help that ‘Adopt a Heritage’ is neither correct English nor language appropriate for a department of government . Even worse is the coy ‘Apni Dharohar, Apni Pehchaan’, a copy of ‘Mera Aadhar, Meri Pehchaan’ – this regime will be remembered in history for its slogans).

The Dalmias cannot help being what they are (in the early 20th century cement was seen as the great leveller – the miracle material which could build affordable homes for the middle-class – but now the thought of a cement corporation becoming a ‘Monument Mitra’ makes one shudder fastidiously.

Red Fort. Credit: Pixabay

A combination of knowledge and sophistication in presentation should be layered in such a way that the well-read visitor as well as the almost illiterate one gets something out of the experience of trudging round the sprawling Red Fort. Credit: Pixabay

Predictably, there is an outcry – or outcries – and (to follow official grammar) an outrage. No homework was done for the project, and no homework is being done by the critics. That facilities should be provided for tourists is seen as somehow demeaning. But who are ‘tourists’? They are not just well-heeled foreigners; they are thousands of our countrymen, for most part of modest means. It is vitally important that for them these three-dimensional history lessons should be made as clear and evocative, as unforgettable as possible.

We need a combination of knowledge and sophistication in presentation, layered in such a way that the well-read visitor as well as the almost illiterate one gets something out of the experience of trudging round the sprawling site. AND that the experience should be comfortable – clean food, clear signage, clean bathrooms, is the right of every Indian.

Hardly anyone seems to have read the small print of the adoption form (which has been available for scrutiny since September 2017). No-one seems clear as to the difference between the NCF (National Culture Fund), CSR (corporate social responsibility and AaH (the ministry of tourism document implies that the AaH scheme comes under CSR). It has even been darkly suggested that the Dalmias will give a miserable sum of Rs 5 crore a year and pocket the gate-money, which amounts to much more.

The document itself has lost sight of the wood for the trees – there are details of the size and height for proposed signage and for public conveniences, but an interpretation centre is casually listed among the things-to-do; and Rs 5 crore a year is hardly likely to meet its cost. There is an alarming breeziness and a lack of seriousness about the document which does not surprise, but does alarm.

Officials have swung into denial mode, which only makes things even more confusing. INTACH is mysteriously silent.

In a week or two, we’ll move on to what news channels call the next ‘shocker’, and the Qila will be forgotten.

Let’s put the Dalmias aside for a moment. Shah Jahan, who transformed the face of Indian architecture, Mohammad Shah, patron of dance and music, Bahadur Shah ‘Zafar’, poet and gentle dreamer — your qila has been let down not only by ‘leaders’ who made evocative slogans a substitute for action (It began with Jawaharlal’s “Delhi, where every stone speaks of history” ) but by two generations of scholars who have been quick to criticise officials without having any alternative to offer.

Could we stop to think whether this state of things would have come to pass if:

  1. ‘Culture’ had formed a rigorous part of school and college curricula from the 1950s?
  2. Indian historians had introduced art history with a strong and detailed visual element into history courses?
  3. The Council of Architecture had allowed detailed courses on Indian architectural history?
  4. Post-graduate ‘heritage management courses’ had not been allowed to be a disgraceful mish-mash of tourism infrastructure and archaeology?

Till today, history is taught with hardly any interaction with archaeological or architectural sites. Urban development, as much as it is taught in courses on town planning, has little or nothing about heritage sites. Museum courses do not teach display and interpretation in any depth. The arts – performing and visual – have flourished after Independence; there has been a wonderful revival of crafts; schools of architecture multiply in geometric progression – but why do these not reflect on our monuments?

Why is the ASI’s self-esteem constantly falling, at the same time as visitor ‘footfalls’ are rising? Credit: ASI website

Articles in architecture journals show that there are many architects who are excited by traditional techniques, and would be happy to be associated with conservation work. The country has over 400 trained conservation architects – why aren’t they made partners of the ASI? Why isn’t the ASI a partner of departments of history? Why is the ASI’s self-esteem constantly falling, at the same time as visitor ‘footfalls’ are rising?

Where is the pride, where is the knowledge that backs the pride? ‘Apni Dharohar’ does not mean the heritage of Dalmia Cement, but of every student of history. And knee-jerk reactions will get us nowhere.

Can we see this moment – and the debate it has generated – as an opportunity? And think for a moment that perhaps it is better to light a candle than to curse the darkness? Recognising, nurturing, interpreting our wonderful monumental heritage holds out the promise of a vast number of job-opportunities, as also a sense of satisfaction in the work.

Two areas present challenges – conservation, and interpretation. Conservation is needed on a war-footing. The ASI is scandalously short-staffed. Conservation should be done by trained architects and should be audited, but not by senior officials who are not experts. Critical comments by observers should be made with a sense of responsibility – much too often, particularly in the case of dedicated work which has produced such happy results, like that done by the Aga Khan Trust for Culture, critical remarks are made without any basis, and repeated in Chinese-whispers style. People in authority are getting past with glib one-liners, and thoughtful reports like the Mirdha Committee Report of 1983-84, on which “no action was taken” (CAG Report No. 18 of 2013), have been unobtrusively shelved.

The second challenge – interpretation – can be such an exhilarating exercise. Anyone who has browsed through Freeman Tilden’s classic of 1957 (“Any interpretation that does not somehow relate what is being displayed or described to something within the personality or experience of the visitor will be sterile”) , or the subsequent scholarly output on the subject will realise that bringing landscape experts, craftsmen, art historians, linguists, historians, anthropologists together will be an unparalleled exercise in making us discover the web of connections between different parts of our country, and the links with the larger region.

Our monuments are in crisis. There is no dearth of institutions and individuals to take the initiative. But they have to be prepared for a long haul. This is as good a time as any to begin. Remember Article 51A (f) of the Indian constitution?

Narayani Gupta is a historian.