MONUMENTS, LANDSCAPES, CITIES
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
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.