A dis­cus­sion on two books: one that fo­cuses on the world her­itage mon­u­ment of the Taj Ma­hal and the con­text of the city it sits in, and the other that high­lights the con­tem­po­rary con­di­tion of the city of Agra and the nat­u­ral and his­tor­i­cal land­scapes it i

Domus - - CONFETTI - Text Kai­wan Me­hta

Ur­ban­i­sa­tion is a more com­plex process to­day than the mak­ing, shap­ing, and man­age­ment of cities. Cities that got con­cep­tu­alised and imag­ined in an­other time or era are to­day un­der­go­ing an ur­ban­i­sa­tion. This is not the same as over­grow­ing cities, mis­man­aged de­vel­op­ment, or un­planned and un­prece­dented growth. Ur­ban­i­sa­tion is a phe­nom­e­non which is de­vel­op­ing a unique form to it­self at the present mo­ment. In­dia, at the eco­nomic and cul­tural junc­ture that it is to­day, and now, is ac­tu­ally a site for such ur­ban­i­sa­tion — one which imag­ines an amor­phous re­gion than a bounded shape; it imag­ines a net­worked set of mi­gra­tions and eco­nomic ex­changes than fixed routes of exit and en­try or ge­o­graph­i­cal ex­pe­ri­ences, and is am­bigu­ously linked and in­ter­grated to its built and nat­u­ral en­vi­ron­ment as well as his­tor­i­cal imag­i­na­tions. One could de­bate about places and cities at one point but those set of equa­tions are prob­a­bly in­ad­e­quate to­day. His­tor­i­cal com­plex­i­ties in terms of feu­dal re­la­tion­ships re­shape through the 20th cen­tury; sys­tems of man­u­fac­ture and pro­duc­tions of goods (of­ten re­ferred to as hand­made or craft in­dus­tries), mon­u­ments and nat­u­ral en­vi­ron­ments are de­vel­op­ing a com­pli­cated re­la­tion­ship, a strug­gle; and some­times bat­tle with these con­cep­tual twists and turns in the idea shift­ing from city to ur­ban­ity. The dis­cus­sion on man­groves, or the Ganges, the con­flicts of reser­va­tion in parts of Gu­jarat and Ra­jasthan, or the de­vel­op­ing of mon­u­men­tal parks in Ut­tar Pradesh and Cal­cutta, or a movie de­signer in­vited to de­sign new cities in South In­dia are in­di­ca­tions of this very un­fa­mil­iar de­vel­op­ment in ur­ban­i­sa­tion which we are still try­ing to un­der­stand through the lens of a City. In this con­text, two books pub­lished re­cently be­come im­por­tant and re­quired study and ar­gu­ment. We are talk­ing here of Taj Ma­hal: Mul­ti­ple Nar­ra­tives, co-au­thored by Amita Baig and Rahul Mehro­tra, and Ex­treme Ur­ban­isn 3 — Plan­ning for Con­ser­va­tion: Look­ing at Agra, edited by Rahul Mehro­tra, Vi­neet Di­wad­kar and José May­oral Mo­ratilla. The Taj Ma­hal as an ar­chi­tec­tural mon­u­ment, and Agra as a city, share, and do not share a re­la­tion­ship. How does an is­land of his­toric mon­u­men­tal­ity ex­ist as an is­land within an ur­ban ag­glom­er­a­tion that shows many signs of de­te­ri­o­rat­ing liv­ing con­di­tions? Or how do ar­chi­tec­tural ob­jects ex­ist in a land­scape of dis­re­pair, when those mon­u­ments are part of the his­tor­i­cal city struc­ture? As a mon­u­ment of epic world re­pute, with tourists from across the globe, in­clud­ing na­tional guests vis­it­ing — how does it not in­flu­ence the state of be­ing of Agra as an ur­ban con­di­tion? A com­plex bun­dle of ques­tions face not only plan­ners but con­ser­va­tion­ists too. The key ap­proach in both the books is bridg­ing these di­vides and dis­rupted ex­is­tences. The idea of ‘Ex­treme Ur­ban­ism’ is to pre­cisely eval­u­ate and gen­er­ate tem­plates of sur­vey and in­ter­ven­tion in the emerg­ing un­fa­mil­iar con­di­tions of ur­ban ex­is­tence, de­vel­oped over a series of alien­at­ing con­di­tions. The Ex­treme Ur­ban­ism 3... book fo­cuses on Agra as that site where an ur­ban­i­sa­tion of con­flict­ing val­ues is on its way while it is also the site of a world her­itage mon­u­ment and many oth­ers of lesser value on a par­tic­u­lar scale. It is yet im­por­tant to the struc­ture and mem­ory, as well as his­toric sense of the city. The lo­ca­tion of high preser­va­tion, cru­cial con­ser­va­tion, and stressed ur­ban­ity is what Agra is, and the book pre­cisely lays out the idea of preser­va­tion and ur­ban­i­sa­tion in a struc­ture of mu­tual ben­e­fit lead­ing to con­di­tions of liv­ing in dig­nity. In the whole rhetoric on value, tra­di­tion, and cul­ture, we have per­haps for­got­ten the ba­sic ethics of hu­man dig­nity that places of habi­ta­tion need to pro­vide in our ev­ery­day lives. Why has hu­man dig­nity not been the agenda in con­ver­sa­tions of cul­ture and tra­di­tion? His­tory is of­ten only val­ued at a sym­bolic level, and that too only when it is po­lit­i­cally or eco­nom­i­cally (vis-á-vis tourism) con­ve­nient and prof­itable. But the merg­ing of a his­toric fab­ric to­wards the bet­ter­ment of other pro­cesses of

liv­ing and built en­vi­ron­ment are rarely con­sid­ered nat­u­ral. In the book, this re­la­tion­ship is stretched to its max­i­mum pos­si­ble pos­i­tive value — the sense of a sym­bi­otic re­la­tion be­tween his­tor­i­cal preser­va­tion and con­ser­va­tion, and ur­ban­i­sa­tion, in­clud­ing the as­pects of lo­cal trades and pro­fes­sions, and nat­u­ral her­itage and re­sources. To take for­ward this ar­gu­ment we could now look at the next book fo­cussing on the Taj Ma­hal. It is a struc­ture that has been at the po­lit­i­cal cen­tre very of­ten, whether it is the de­bates on ab­sence — pres­ence of lo­cal ge­nius and tra­di­tions of build­ing in the writ­ings such as those of E B Havell, or the re­cur­rent and more re­cent per­verse po­lit­i­cal rhetoric on mosques be­ing built on sites of for­mer tem­ples — just as tem­ples were built on for­mer Bud­dhist shrines — and other such his­to­ries drawn out on ei­ther po­lit­i­cally driven whims and fan­cies or pur­posely lo­cat­ing his­toric events out of a time con­text and mis­read­ing his­tor­i­cal pol­i­tics. The Taj Ma­hal is an iconic Mughal struc­ture born out of the rich tra­di­tions of many con­flu­en­tial cul­tures that of­ten found home and ground, shape and form in In­dia. Ar­chi­tec­ture needs to be read from its de­tails and or­na­ments to the fab­ric of peo­ple and places it lives and breathes within, and this book gives a wealth of ma­te­rial and con­tent, ar­gu­ments and frame­works for that. It en­gages si­mul­ta­ne­ously the ques­tion of craft and beauty as well as ur­ban­ity and in­fra­struc­ture. Ap­proach­ing this range in the same book is some­thing unique to the study of mon­u­ments. Mon­u­ments of­ten stand out as ob­jects of beauty in a larger en­vi­ron­ment, which is also of­ten seen as detri­men­tal to the beauty and sur­vival of the mon­u­ment. But this ap­proach is rid­den with prob­lems, as sep­a­rat­ing the ob­ject form the en­vi­ron­ment and built land­scape it be­longs to, cre­ates prob­lems for the mon­u­ment and the ur­ban con­text that sur­rounds it. The con­cep­tion of the Taj is not sep­a­rate from the con­cep­tion of ur­ban gar­dens or river­front cities in the Mughal imag­i­na­tion — and this study in the book is im­por­tant to help us un­der­stand the in­te­gral value of the Taj not sim­ply as a na­tional and in­ter­na­tional ob­ject of her­itage but also the Taj as a build­ing in a larger ur­ban con­text; es­pe­cially since the ur­ban con­text in fo­cus. Agra, is in se­ri­ous need of at­ten­tion from ur­ban de­cay and a de­vel­op­ment that is strug­gling be­tween newer eco­nomic net­works and older ties to tra­di­tions of cul­ture, trade, and liveli­hood. To see the mon­u­men­tal build­ing and its de­tailed dis­sec­tion as a com­po­si­tion of craft and or­na­ment, con­struc­tion and geom­e­try, form and ide­o­log­i­cal con­cep­tion, as a pos­si­ble way to un­der­stand its ur­ban lo­ca­tion — not just his­tor­i­cally but also in the con­tem­po­rary sce­nario — is a very use­ful and much needed frame­work. The two books are in­ter­est­ing twins in their ap­proach: one takes the world her­itage mon­u­ment, the ob­ject of fas­ci­na­tion as its cen­tral sub­ject and then im­por­tantly en­gages with the city of Agra, the site of ur­ban stresses and strug­gles, the dirt­i­ness of ur­ban mis­man­age­ment and mis­un­der­stand­ing. The other book ap­proaches the city as a site of ex­treme forces, in­tense di­lap­i­da­tion and hap­haz­ard, un­fa­mil­iar, dif­fi­cult to dis­cern ur­ban re­al­i­ties but brings forth his­tory, and the her­itage of mon­u­ments as the pos­si­ble way to re­cover an ur­ban con­di­tion that is much needed in con­tem­po­rary In­dia. The most im­por­tant as­pect of both books is that they are ad­dress­ing con­tem­po­rary In­dia as the site of con­text and com­plex­ity, of­ten set out in bi­na­ries such as tra­di­tion and moder­nity, ru­ral and ur­ban, preser­va­tion and de­vel­op­ment. We re­alise fairly con­clu­sively in the books that these bi­na­ries are not use­ful but harm­ful. The con­tem­po­rary ur­ban merges and nav­i­gates the ru­ral with­out iden­ti­fi­able bound­aries or pe­riph­eries; and his­tory to­day is clearly not a dis­tant past of po­lit­i­cally con­fused pur­posely, but can ac­tu­ally be the site of re­cov­ery; of hu­man cul­ture as the lo­ca­tion of hu­man dig­nity for life, liveli­hood, and so­cial ex­changes of mu­tual ben­e­fit and civilisational growth of the larger com­plex such as the na­tion.

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