Tuesday, February 28, 2023

Representations and Realities: Tracing Missing Bits and Misconceptions -- The Case of the Red Fort

Keynote Address to Conference on 'Remembering Architecture, Excavating Memory’

Department of English, Ramjas College, Delhi University

24 February 2023

Thank you for inviting me to an exploration of the connections between architecture, memory and literature. And the opportunity to re-visit my own thoughts on this. The very idea of re-visitation is central to what I have to say — the keynote of my address on ‘Remembering Architecture’. 

We approach the past through memories. 

Memories are recorded in our minds. And in myriad ways in words, or by hands: as texts, as drawings, as pictures, as sculpture and as architecture. But these events, however immediate they seem, are mediated by external and internal senses of perception. We know this not just from abstract texts on philosophy, or even from crime fiction where the unravelling of the mystery depends on the detective ploughing through testimonies of different ‘witnesses’ to the crime, but also from daily experience. Memory alters both perception and recollection. No two independent versions in newspaper reports of a current event, presented by two different people even if observed at the same time, will be identical. They can, in fact, be very dissimilar. What we may call the ‘Rashoman Effect’ that Akira Kurosawa demonstrates for us so brilliantly and disturbingly.

So, which version do we believe? In other words, how much can we rely upon representations of memory to convey the realities of what they aim to record? This is the question that especially confronts us in the case of past events that we cannot approach physically or observe ourselves — though it is a moot point how much reliance we can place upon our own senses. Can we pronounce with certainty that what we may have retained is the essence, and what has perhaps been thrown away — like coffee grounds — is insignificant? Physicists and philosophers remind us that all our attempts to register anything, are quite literally re-presentations, since by the time it travels to our senses: however infinitesimally small that time may be, the moment or sight or sound is already past. Taken in this literal sense, no event and its recording can ever be simultaneous or present in the same moment — and each is a memory.

Even if we disregard the implication of such minute allocations of time, our knowledge of events — whether through records made by someone present at a particular time in the past, or later — are re-presentations in another way. They are impressions filtered by not just the organs of perception, but also by the conceptions, abilities or intentions of those who make them. It would seem then that all records of the past are secondary sources. The only ones that may be termed primary sources are those we can still come close to perceiving in a primary way: those of architecture and archaeology. Archaeological records are however, more fragmented than historic architecture, and are often simply not open-to-view. They may be underground, or far from their original settings. In contrast, it is more difficult to dislocate architecture, though not impossible. 

The record of historical architecture — where it exists — also differs from all others, in that we can experience it through not just one, but practically all our physical senses. We can view and touch it, be enclosed and encompassed in it, hear the sound of our voices and footsteps as we walk within and around it — in similar even if not in exactly the same ways as did those who created and inhabited it. In other words, we can interact in various ways with architecture — which is not just the setting or record of events of life, but also the event itself. There are multiple levels at which we can engage with it and multiple layers of information contained in it. The act of creating architecture, even when done with the objective of commemorating a stated purpose, contains more than that. Conversely, even when there are no stated objectives of memorialising, we can trace in the way architecture is built, lived in, and transformed, a record of what people held important, what they remembered or wish to remember, what were their craft, technology or management skills. In The Order of Time, Carlo Rovelli, ‘the poet of physics’ as he has been called, explains how ‘the second principle of thermodynamics…is the only equation of fundamental physics that knows any difference between past and future. The only one that speaks of the flowing of time.’ This equation, he tells us, provides the mathematical definition of the variation of entropy of a body: the sum of the quantity of heat leaving the body at a temperature. He goes on to say: 

’the growth of entropy distinguishes the past from the future for us and leads to the unfolding of the cosmos. It determines the existence of traces, residues and memories of the past. We human beings are an effect of this great history of the increase of entropy, held together by the memory that is enabled by these traces.’

Though we can see architecture as the most direct manifestation of such ‘traces, residues and memories of the past’ and of their effect on us as ‘human beings, held together by the memory enabled by these traces’ — especially since certain kinds of architecture can last through several human lifetimes — yet it is also precisely because it contains so many memories of so many interactions that it is easy to be led astray in interpreting what we perceive of such architecture, even through our own senses. Especially when we have missing bits to contend with.

So, how do we read this primary resource, so that we may extract the memories encoded in it? I would like to explore this general question through the specific example of what has been variously known through different times as: the Qila-e-Mualla, Qila-e-Mubarak, Lal Haveli, Red Fort of Shahjahanabad, Dilli ka Lal Qila etc. From the epithet of ‘The Most Magnificent Palace in the East’ by James Fergusson, to the brusque and noncommittal title of ‘The Fort’ that it was called in British official records after they took over in 1857, these different names, and how and which we remember or use, reflect the different associations of this complex piece of historic architecture. I will also, through a couple of examples, hope to partially touch upon how far its representations match its reality — within the constraints of the time we have today. Please bear in mind, that my reading of the Red Fort, is inescapably coloured through my own filter.

Reading the Red Fort: What is — and What may have been

The Red Fort is a particularly good example for our purpose, because of its iconic reputation and role in the political and cultural sphere of the subcontinent — in fact of the world; as well as its sheer size, complexity and the great degree of transformation it has been subject to. Though its towering red walls loom large on the cityscape and the imagination of Delhi, very few structures from its original conception remain with us today — only about 10 percent. Inevitably then, its walls and gateways are practically all that leave an impress upon our memory, even after we have wandered or walked within it. When I first visited the Red Fort, incoherent as its interior seemed to be, I could — just like anyone else who visits it — experience the proportions, volumes, and forms of its buildings; their elegance, delicacy and craftsmanship; the light and space within them. At the same time, I could read the absence, albeit in a confused way, of what was not there: from my memory of what ought to be attributes of Shahjahani or Mughal architecture, and equally from my professional training about what a place that accommodated the functions of life, ought to be. I could also tell that the British barracks were evidently later intrusions, even though there was no information on site to help realise how much of the Fort was destroyed in 1857 and after.

To give an analogy from literature, the Fort may be likened to a large book, whose seemingly intact hard-bound cover is moth-eaten around the edges. When you turn the cover, you discover that most pages inside are missing. In the few that remain, the text has been so erased that only some scattered words of the original story are visible: in a half-familiar script that is not completely legible, crossed-out and overlaid by insertions in a different language and a different hand. How do we then read such an incomplete manuscript? This is the challenge posed by the erasure and reordering of so much of the primary record of the iconic Red Fort. 

To continue the analogy: it is evident that first, we must glean what we can from what remains of the book itself — by becoming as proficient as we can in the original script that it uses, to gauge the quality of language used, and understand what it describes. My being a Dilliwallah and my training as an architect helped to an extent, but finally it was only my repeated revisits to the Fort that allowed me to glimpse its many stories, plots and sub-plots. To put it simply, I knew that Shah Jahan had got the Red Fort built, and had lived here. But it was difficult to reconcile its disconnected isolated structures, with the regal splendour associated with Shah Jahan and his other magnificent acts of patronage. It was also impossible to understand how he or anyone else could have lived in it — which as an architect, was my main question. Thus, the primary record of the Fort yielded clues to what it was, as well as what it may have been. Even the absence of certain architectural features on site furthered my understanding. The realisation that they were missing-bits, directed my search to other sources: but only because I had some of the primary record of the few extant structures of the Red Fort, and I kept these in sight as reference. These kept me on track, and steered me away from incorrect conclusions. 

Whose Perspective

If you’ll forgive the pun, I’d like to illustrate this through some drawings of the Red Fort by British artists in the mid-19th century. These drawings figure in different collections. They appear realistic; and are from all accounts, based on actual observation on site. They show the Fort from the vantage point of the ridge across and beyond the river, drawn during or just before the momentous events of 1857, which saw scenes of intense battle in and around Shahjahanabad. As we know, the Red Fort’s outer walls and inner structures suffered extensive damage by shelling in 1857, and unabashed looting and destruction after the British forces moved in to the Fort, as the symbolic seat of the Mughal empire. We also know that as a consequence of the palace demolition order carried out in 1863, most of the structures within it, and stretching around its boundary walls upto a distance of 500 yards, were ordered to be reduced to rubble. On the face of it, these drawings, showing as they do, an unbroken Fort and its inner buildings and outer adjacencies drawn realistically according to the rules of perspective, seem invaluable in re-constructing its reality just before its large-scale and violent destruction and re-modelling by the British authorities in power. 

However, a comparison with existing Mughal buildings in the Fort, as well as with maps, drawings and other descriptions, reveals that these views of ‘Delhi and its surrounding countryside’ re-order the configuration of the Red Fort’s built-form. Firstly, they greatly transform its outer profile, its neighbourhood and other parts of Shahjahanabad. Secondly, they completely eliminate the numerous pavilions, forecourts, gateways, enclosed gardens and arcades within the Red Fort. Thirdly, they reduce the interior of the Fort to a couple of towering buildings, depicted within an open area entered through a wide driveway flanked by trees and shrubbery. It is not a record of what really existed, but an Orientalised image of a stately European or English home.

Despite this rather glaring mis-representation, the preface to an official publication of the Kolkata Victoria Memorial Hall containing this and similar artworks by European artists, claims that ‘these paintings reflected images as in a mirror’ whose ‘credibility and fidelity remain above board’. We are urged to see these as ‘study-based endeavours in which no room is left for the imagination’. Such acceptance of ‘eye-witness’ records, without comparing them with what they purport to depict, leads us twice astray. First, it makes us see them as the ‘true’ reality of what existed. Secondly, it effects our perception, by making us see in these the standard image for monumental architecture. And therefore, the desirable template for making architecture, even in our times. As I mentioned in the beginning, memory alters both perception and recollection. 

The rendering of the Red Fort into re-presentations by British artists, may have been an unconscious act affected by memories of grand edifices in their own culture. But we must also remember that regulated access within the Red Fort to visitors and to residents of Shahjahanabad, was possible in many but not all areas. Entry to its inner, private areas was especially restricted. It is unlikely that these artists would have had the opportunity to therefore actually enter many parts of the Fort. Unfamiliar as they were with the very different forms, scale and layout of the indigenous tradition of architecture that the Red Fort was a development of, and the culture and world-view it emanated from, it is not surprising then that they depict it not as it was, but as best they could make sense of what they could see of it.

Apart from drawing on their individual skills as well as the store-house of memories of what they were used to and their expectations of an imperial residence, these artists were also recording for viewers back home, a simplistic image of unfamiliar architecture, seen as exotic if effete and inferior. Many Europeans stereotyped Indian rulers as decadent despots, and imagined the Red Fort as a den of vice. For instance, John Dryden, considered the greatest English poet of the later 17th century, themed one of his most successful plays on Shah Jahan’s Court, filling it with intrigue, improper amour and imaginary characters. That, Dryden, poet laureate in 1668 CE was also appointed royal historiographer of England in 1670 — and that his play Aurangzebe, first staged in November 1675 for the King of England, continues to be described as ‘the last and most intelligent example of the genre’ of a heroic play — shows us that literary merit and historical authenticity may be two different things, but can still be confused for each other.

To come back to the visiting artists, they were responding both to the prejudices and principles of where they came from, and reacting to the very different principles of architecture in the Red Fort. One important difference was in the way open space was articulated, and its relationship with built structures. For instance, the many forecourts, enclosed gardens, colonnades, pavilions and verandahs that the artists omitted from their drawings, were not part of their way of life. These were, however, integral to the form and functioning of the Fort where space, as it were, flowed effortlessly between inside and outside along with views, smells and sounds.

The Distortion of Singular Memories 

Along with such inherent limitations of secondary records, there are also instances where these deliberately reinforce a particular memory — as in the way in which physical remnants of the Fort were presented to a European audience to memorialise the British version of what occurred in 1857, and to justify their violence towards the city of Shahjahanabad and its people and ruler. One such is Felice Beato’s much reproduced photograph of the Forecourt of the Naubat Khana or Naqqar Khana, captioned: ‘Inner Gateway of Palace, with the tree under which the Christians were massacred’. As Narayani Gupta notes: ‘The account of this cowardly deed was to be so highly exaggerated that, when the British forces captured Delhi in September 1857, many of them slaughtered children and women in what they thought was retribution’.

The photograph deliberately highlights this much recounted tragic episode. The visual composition and the wording of the title, makes the Naqqar Khana — reduced to the ambiguity of the ‘Inner Gateway of Palace’ — recede so much in the background, that the fact that the photograph is an invaluable record of the presence and proportions of an important part of the Fort demolished by the British, escapes attention. This is the effect not just on those whose interest is in memorialising the incident, or on a casual observer, but also on many researchers. That I registered the presence of these vital architectural components and could use these in tracing and visualising the original conception of the Red Fort, is again only because of sustained engagement with the primary resource of its extant Mughal structures.

I would like to give you another example of how familiarity with the primary record of architecture, through close scrutiny of not just explicit forms, but of the entire canvas of implicit systems characteristic of architecture from specific times and places, may furnish clues to ways of excavating its memories. Through undertaking a variety of geometrical, spatial and proportional studies of the Red Fort, I was able to literally fill in the gaps in the sequence of the extant Mughal structures, and thereby recover the location of its missing bits. This spatial reconstruction was corroborated by a fortuitous discovery of a plan made by the British, documenting what they intended to demolish. Again, it was through a realisation of something significant being absent, and of uncovering a relationship between the architectural traces that remained, that I could in the first place, position these missing parts. And consequently, recognise the value of the document that recorded evidence of this vital relationship, when I accidentally came across it in the ASI archives.  

Literary records

We have so far looked at instances of visual records, dating from two hundred years after the Fort’s establishment. What of literary records? Those contemporary with its founding such as official court-histories, are often called primary sources. They cannot however, really be termed so because they refract the three-dimensional experience of architecture into words, through the gaze of the one who is recording or writing. Given this caveat, let us look at a portion of the Badshahnama commissioned by Shah Jahan. This, the combined work of Abdul Ahmed Lahori and Muhammad Waris in Persian, available in partially published form, covers the time that the Red Fort was established (i.e. between 1639 and 1648 CE). The translated description of the Fort’s founding, undoubtedly helps to picture the detail and decoration of its original buildings, as well as their dimensions and materials. However, it does not, by itself, help to understand the basic fabric of the Fort.

This is because the Badshahnama— illustrated with formal miniature paintings of portraits or framed views of selected areas — does not cover all of the Fort, even the private imperial domain and the formal entrance sequences leading to it, with which it is principally concerned. The authors of the Badshahnama rhapsodising about the ‘grandness and beauty of this mighty Fort’, write that ’Its structures are beyond imagination. Its every corner is dazzling and every direction full of heavenly gardens…The qualities of these buildings are so high that none can elaborate on them’. The writing — whether poetic, eulogistic, or recording specific dimensions of the plan or structures — does not describe or convey the spatial quality of the Fort, which, as I mentioned, was an elegant permutation of inter-linked built and open space. It is, in any case, for literary ability in coining phrases or sentences in a manner that appealed to the Emperor rather than architectural knowledge, that Lahori — coming after a succession of writers given access to exhaustive data pooled from different parts of the empire — was chosen as the author of the Badshahnama!

Neither the text nor the miniatures cover the parts of the Fort where the attendants and soldiers lived or worked — even though these are integral to its original conception as a city-within-a-city and its subsequent functioning. In other words, the official record of the founding and original form of the Fort also has ‘missing bits’. We deduce the existence of these missing bits and understand their diverse complexity from other sources: maps, drawings, travelogues, earlier Mughal Forts etc. What this also tells us, is that rarely is a record complete in itself. It is by looking at multiple frames of reference and memories, that we come close to a more complete picture of the reality we are trying to understand. And, as I hope I have shown, it is only by revisiting the primary record of what remains on ground — and consciously recognising the absence of what does not — that we can trace the essential attributes of these records from earlier times. And realise the many misconceptions in which we see, conserve, or write about them today. 

On revisiting and examining the primary record of the Red Fort, we realise that its refined resolution of space, was in many ways, the grand finale of a tradition where buildings were not used as sealed objects sitting in space, but interlinked with open areas and each other: permeable, efficient and adaptive to different seasons and multiple use by a wide number and variety of people across the social spectrum. Such an expression of architecture was the embodiment of the underpinnings of life in the sub-continent with coexisting plural and spatial identities, and multiple affiliations. Yet, despite this fact of an inclusive philosophy central to its creation and functioning, we paradoxically reinforce the appearance and use of the Fort set forth during its colonial occupation. It is now an exclusive, aloof and barred space, occasionally used as a stage-set and backdrop for celebrations that ironically dwell on its memory as a symbol of resistance to colonial British rule — while continuing colonial concepts of rigidly keeping people out.

The Red Fort like all architecture, is an act of community. It is particularly important for us to dwell on this in a conference themed on ‘Remembering Architecture, Excavating Memory’. Architecture cannot be built single-handedly. Nor conceived as the outcome of one mind, however unique it may appear. We bring forth architecture through a coalescing of recollections and practices internalised through training or temperament; through the play of cherished memories of light and space, constituted equally of places we have inhabited or visited, as of real or imaginary places we have read about and visualised. The more diverse and varied these spaces and thoughts, the richer are our memories, our minds and our lives. The Red Fort, like other architecture from times before us, bears the imprint of many lives, spaces, embodied knowledge-systems and skills. It is in our own individual and collective interest, to comprehend these memories and knowledge-systems, and discover through these the ‘unfolding of the cosmos’ as it were.

Thus, the Naqqar Khana, is the scene of tragic events, and happy ones. The setting for court-musicians marking with drums and cymbals the presence of the emperor on the throne in the Diwan-i-am, it is also the place where some emperors lost their lives. It is the final element in a dramatic spatial sequence, the point where noblemen, visiting ambassadors and everyone not of imperial Mughal blood, dismounted before passing in — and where the British official Francis Hawkins had the temerity not to: and consequently had the palace affairs removed from under his jurisdiction. It is a way of seeing how buildings were constructed three-hundred years ago, and a lesson in how something may be simultaneously a marker of space, a gateway, and a music-chamber. It is an exercise in proportions, a configuration of arches that are both structure and decoration; it is the panels of carved red sandstone flowers, the delicate underside of the dome under which you pass. And so much more. What it, or the Red Fort that it is a part of, evokes in us and how we remember it, ultimately reflects what we are. What I have analysed so far is how I see it through my filter, even as I base it on direct experience of its physical form. 

I end with a different filter: a poet’s evocation of the realities and remembrances that the Red Fort constitutes for him. A testimony to the ability of history and architecture to fire imagination and empathy — this is the poetry of Rabindranath Tagore, originally in Bengali and here, through my imperfect translation in English. 

You have gone away

Emperor, today;

Your empire like a dream has flown. 

In pieces lies your throne; 

Your soldiers, whose marching feet 

Made the earth ring and beat,

Their memory carried on the wind today  

Flies after the dust of Delhi’s streets. 

Within your walls are songs no more;

With the Yamuna no longer does the naubat roar; 

The sound of the anklets your perfect women once wore 

Dies away with the crickets’ drones,

In the corners of your broken palaces 

As the night-sky mourns.

Even so, your messenger ever high,

Unsoiled, untiring,

Above the ruins of empires rising, 

Above the turn of life and death, 

Through time and after in a breath

Of bereavement infinite

Avers without respite 

“Beloved, I have not forgotten, nor will I.”

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