Cap­i­tal IN­TEN­SIVE

Giles Til­lot­son’s his­tory of Delhi reads like a friendly guide

India Today - - BOOKS - —Gau­tam Bha­tia

Delhi’s city bounds were based on an at­ti­tude of ter­ri­to­rial oc­cu­pa­tion and pro­tec­tion

Ase­ri­ous lapse in a guide to a city is the in­abil­ity of its au­thor to sub­mit to the tra­vails of its cul­ture and liv­ing rou­tines. For the most part, his­toric re­mains ap­pear as static tes­ti­mo­ni­als to a for­got­ten time, their im­por­tance gauged by the for­bid­ding si­lence within which they ex­ist. In his book Delhi Darshan, Giles Til­lot­son, how­ever, takes a more vol­u­ble track. He as­sid­u­ously traces a build­ing’s an­ces­tral value—the struc­tural, artis­tic and craft ideas in­her­ent—and then sub­mits whole­heart­edly to his­toric rou­tines, per­son­al­i­ties and pri­vate re­flec­tions. Talk­ing of Shah Ja­han’s elder son Dara Shikoh, he writes, “On as­cend­ing the throne, Au­rangzeb first hu­mil­i­ated his brother by parad­ing him through Delhi’s streets and then had him be­headed… it is some con­so­la­tion to think that even in death Dara Shikoh re­mains a Del­hi­ite…”. Much of Delhi’s Sul­tanate and Mughal pe­riod ar­chi­tec­ture is em­bel­lished with the au­thor’s in­ter­pre­ta­tions that in­clude the spe­cific ec­cen­tric­i­ties of the rul­ing class and their pre­cise con­tri­bu­tion to the ar­chi­tec­ture of the time. A ge­nial wit and turn of phrase draws the reader ef­fort­lessly into an ex­tra­or­di­nary era, mak­ing a his­tory book into a con­ge­nial and friendly guide. A res­i­dent of Delhi for the past 15 years, Til­lot­son is a scholar of In­dian art and ar­chi­tec­ture. And it shows. His writ­ing on the city comes from both schol­arly re­search and an in­ti­mate fa­mil­iar­ity with the sub­ject. ‘No indige­nous tribe in­hab­its this do­main,’ he writes of Delhi’s oc­cu­pa­tion. ‘Al­most ev­ery­one who has ever lived here is of im­mi­grant stock… the Ra­jput clans and Tur­kic in­vaders who built the first cities; the Bri­tish who be­gan an­other; the refugees from par­ti­tioned Pun­jab who came here in 1947; the labour­ers from Ra­jasthan and Bi­har, and the mid­dle class hope­fuls…’. The city’s dis­jointed past adds in­co­her­ence to an al­ready messy lay­out. For those in­ter­ested in map­ping its ar­chi­tec­ture, Delhi is an im­pos­si­ble city with nei­ther the con­ve­nience of New York’s grid

plan nor the friendly street life of Rome— two cri­te­ria that make the ar­chi­tec­tural ex­pe­ri­ence con­tin­u­ous and ef­fort­less. As Til­lot­son in­di­cates, city bounds—and con­se­quently ar­chi­tec­ture—were based on an at­ti­tude of ter­ri­to­rial oc­cu­pa­tion and its even­tual pro­tec­tion. This is seen in the seven iso­lated, at times over­lap­ping, cities that make up his­tor­i­cal Delhi and again in the over­lay of in­ter­sect­ing av­enues and geo­met­ric vis­tas im­posed by the de­sign­ers of the Im­pe­rial City, the eighth Delhi. The ninth, or present-day Delhi, also re­in­forc­ing this idea of iso­lated oc­cu­pa­tion, has de­vel­oped in parcels of land bought in an ever-ex­pand­ing recla­ma­tion of its ru­ral sur­round­ings. Con­se­quently, the qual­ity of ur­ban­i­sa­tion has had the ef­fect of a coun­try­side in­hab­ited and made denser, with­out the char­ac­ter­is­tic am­bi­ence that sug­gests a ‘city’. In­di­vid­ual build­ings and com­plexes, con­scious only of their own iden­tity, free-float in a jumbled land­scape. The selec­tion of the ma­te­rial for the book for these rea­sons is largely sub­jec­tive. It presents those struc­tures, con­ven­tion­ally un­der­stood to be mon­u­ments to the ar­chi­tec­ture of their age—mod­ern projects, colo­nial com­plexes, iso­lated Mughal land­marks that have, through use, age and ar­chi­tec­tural crit­i­cism, come to the public eye. There is no dis­put­ing the se­lec­tive and per­sonal value of Delhi Darshan. How­ever, the dis­con­cert­ing as­pect of the book is its self-con­scious di­vi­sion of recorded his­tory and its ex­pres­sion of Delhi as tourist prac­tice, into two com­ple­men­tary parts. The awk­ward di­vide seems to sug­gest that the sep­a­ra­tion of his­tory was nec­es­sary to keep the con­tent schol­arly and spe­cial, un­blem­ished by the or­di­nar­i­ness of day-to-day ex­pe­ri­ence. Til­lot­son’s nar­ra­tion in both sec­tions is de­light­ful and anec­do­tal. It would have greatly ben­e­fit­ted by a fu­sion. None­the­less, the book is a thought­ful read for any­one in­ter­ested in a deeper com­pre­hen­sion of the var­i­ous city mon­u­ments—the unique view of a his­to­rian speak­ing sim­ply and elo­quently about build­ings we pass by daily with barely a cur­sory glance.

GE­ORGE ENELL/GETTY IMAGES

FELICE BEATO/GETTY IMAGES

THEN AND NOW (clock­wise from above) Delhi’s Hu­mayun’s Tomb, (circa 1958); the Ba­hai tem­ple in mod­ern Delhi; and Con­naught Place (circa 1858)

DELHI DARSHAN The His­tory and Mon­u­ments of In­dia’s Cap­i­tal by Giles Til­lot­son PEN­GUIN `499; 208 pages

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