Depictions of a city

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A Delhi long gone

It’s Thursday morning. We are celebrating Holi, the Hindu festival of colours. People are throwing water colours across Delhi and India. Many are also high on bhang, many others are dancing. I’m writing this column at a friend’s place in Matia Mahal, a neighbourhood in Shahjahanabad, also known as Old Delhi. This is a dominantly Muslim part of the city and I see no signs of Holi here. I look out of the window and the view is depressing: overhanging electric cables, unclaimed garbage, open drains and lots of beggars. The decline of Old Delhi, I think, is due to many reasons, including the creation of Pakistan. But I must go further back.
In the mid-19th century, Shahjahanabad was the civilisational heart of the Mughals. The limits of their capital were guarded by a rampart of random rubble that protected it from the surrounding wilderness. The inhabitants enjoyed and abused the advantages of music, poetry, food, women and wealth. The emperor appeared to possess sovereign authority, but devolved on the East India Company all the executive powers of government.
In the summer of 1857, a revolt plunged Shahjahanabad into chaos. A siege of four months followed. Havelis were pillaged, homes looted and thousands massacred. The British then took over the Qila-e-Mubarak (Red Fort), exiling the emperor, killing the princes, and destroying many palace-pavilions inside the Red Fort.
Shahjahanabad, or what we are more likely refer to now as the Walled City, is very different today from what it was pre-1857.
Two new books attempt to trace this. ‘Delhi 360°: Mazhar Ali Khan’s View from the Lahore Gate’ minutely examines a rare panoramic painting of the Mughal capital made in 1846. ‘Beato’s Delhi: 1857 and Beyond’ contains photographs of Delhi taken after the uprising. In the first book, we see a watercolour vista of towers, arches, gateways, pavilions, gardens, fountains, mosques and palaces. In the second book, that fairy-tale setting has been transformed into a sepia-stained ghost town of vandalised mansions, scarred walls and empty alleys.
One day, with the uprising still a decade away, topographical artist Mazhar Ali Khan, about whom not much is known, went to the Red Fort. He climbed to the chhatri (cupola) on the southern tower of the Lahore Gate and looked about him. What he saw, he painted. The Persian title of the 5m-long panorama translates to A Picture of the Imperial City of Shahjahanabad drawn from the Lahore Gate of the Exalted Fort. Acquired by the British Library in 1981, and now published for the first time, the painting shows, among other landmarks, the Red Fort. In response to what the British saw as the mutiny, 80% of the palace complex was destroyed.
We will never see the Red Fort as it is depicted in the panorama. There’s the Anguri Bagh (Grape Garden) running from Lahore Gate to the Yamuna, with its European-style glasshouse. There’s a lone sepoy standing on a tower. There’s the Chatta Darwaza gateway with its floral decor, since then whitewashed many times over. There are the shacks of salatins, the unlucky imperial descendants confined within the fort lest they be used in succession games. There the Kashmiri masjid with its broken minaret, built by a wife of Shahjahan, was demolished. Straight ahead is Chandni Chowk, Shahjahanabad’s principal street, teeming with camels, elephants and horse carts. Sitting on a time bomb, this ordered world would soon explode.
Italian-British military photographer Felice A Beato arrived in Delhi a few months late. In place of the marching soldiers, gunshot smoke and terrified civilians, that marked the action in 1857, Beato captured devastated mansions desolate streets and new British graves.
Beato’s images are significant because they were the first examples of photography in Delhi but his Delhi looks bleak. The photos tell the story of losers. The battlegrounds on the Ridge, towards the north of Shahjahanabad where the British had camped for months, are rocky and barren. Most of the Red Fort’s royal inhabitants are gone. A shuttered house in Chandni Chowk, with arches and carved balustrades, looks well-kept yet abandoned. The giant domes of a mosque in Daryaganj appear humbled as uniformed soldiers pose in the forefront, with their cannons. Most of the classical columns in the grand Metcalfe House show cracks; some have collapsed. The former home of Sir Thomas Metcalfe, the British representative in the Mughal court, was badly damaged in the uprising. It held a library of 20,000 books. Further north, at a cemetery in Kashmere Gate, discarded stone slabs lie adjacent to the tomb of General Nicholson, a victim of one of the battles for Shahjahanabad.
One day, climbing the northern tower of Jama Masjid, Beato “saw the whole city and country like a map below our feet”. His photographic panorama of Shahjahanabad is similar to the watercolour version of Mazhar Ali Khan, in the sense that they both preserve a city that has been vanquished. Many of the landmarks in Beato’s image would soon be destroyed by the British as part of Delhi’s military reorganisation.
Today, the southern tower of Jama Masjid is open to visitors. The steep unlit staircase exposes the remnants of Shahjahanabad in all its squalor: dilapidated buildings, clogged roads, and large crowds. The air is punctuated by the blaring of horns. Far away that ribbon of shimmering grey could as well be the Yamuna. With such a view, Mazhar Ali Khan’s panorama appears to be nothing more than an artist’s illusion.
Holi Mubarak.

Mayank Austen Soofi lives in a library. He has one website and four blogs. The website address: thedelhiwalla.com. The blogs: Pakistan Paindabad, Ruined By Reading, Reading Arundhati Roy and Mayank Austen Soofi Photos