Wednesday, April 26, 2023

Construing the Meaning of Heritage — and History: The Case of the Red Fort

 Construing the Meaning of Heritage — and History:    The Case of the Red Fort

Anisha Shekhar Mukherji

Lecture to Department of Conservation, School of Planning and Architecture: 18 April 2023

On the occasion of World Heritage Day, I believe we must re-examine the fundamental issue of the meaning of heritage. And as a corollary, that of history. To do so, let me locate our larger context in the world, with the help of a quote from the quantum physicist, Carlo Rovelli. In his book, The Order of Time, Rovelli explains that the second principle of thermodynamics which provides the mathematical definition of the variation of entropy of a body, '…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.’ 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.’

It may be argued that the most direct manifestation of such ‘traces, residues and memories’ that last through several human lifetimes, lie in heritage embodied as architecture. Thus, the most significant meaning of such heritage is that it constitutes memories that human beings are both an effect of, and that they are held together by. But how can we be held together rather than divided by these ‘traces, residues and memories of the past’ — especially when heritage is appropriated for commercial, personal or political profit? I will explore this general question using as a case study, what has been variously known as: the Qila-e-Mualla, Qila-e-Mubarak, Lal Haveli, Red Fort, Dilli ka Lal Qila etc. From the epithet of ‘The Most Magnificent Palace in the East’ by James Fergusson, to the brusque title of ‘The Fort’ in British official records after 1857, to its appellation of “Fortress of Freedom’ after Independence, these different names reflect the different meanings of this iconic World Heritage Site, which has been subjected to unprecedented transformation because of its seminal role as a symbol of political and cultural identity. 

Architectural Heritage as a Manifestation of Memories and Knowledge-systems

Apart from the meaning of architectural heritage as a manifestation of memories that govern our individual and larger identities, it is also a manifestation of knowledge-systems that can be accessed more directly than texts, paintings, sculptures, music, dance or legends. All these other knowledge-systems may be said to constitute secondary information — to access and understand which, we depend on the prisms of perception and inference of others: their qualifications, their abilities, their agendas. One may argue that our own perception is subjective too. So it is. But within this constraint, architecture speaks a universal language. The experience of architecture is open to everyone, through practically all our physical senses. We can view and touch it, be encompassed by it, hear the sound of our voices and footsteps as we walk within it — in similar even if not exactly the same ways as did those who created and inhabited it. And as the very repository of life, architecture is not just a setting or record of events, but also the event itself, with which we interact in a primary way. Even when conceived with the objective of commemorating a stated purpose, it contains more than that. Conversely, even when there are no such objectives, the way in which architecture is built, lived in, and transformed, gives knowledge of what people hold important, what they remember, what were their craft, technology or management skills. To reiterate, heritage embodied as architecture is neither a text in an archaic language, nor just a piece of art or object. It is also distinct from heritage embodied as archaeology, which is often underground and not open-to-view, fragmented or dislocated from its original settings. Thus, it is the only source of knowledge-systems that we can all engage with, in a primary way and at multiple levels to access many layers of information. 

Before I go on, I would like to correct a misconception regarding primary sources, common in popular references such as Wikipedia, as well as in academic circles. These tell us: ‘In the study of history as an academic discipline, a primary source is an artefact, document, diary, manuscript, autobiography, recording or any other source of information that was created at the time under study. It serves as an original source of information about the topic.’ ‘A primary source document shows direct, immediate or firsthand knowledge of a subject or event. Primary source documents are written at the time or on the scene where an event occurred.’

However, with respect to such a complex event as the creation of the three-dimensional experience of architecture — especially one as huge as the Red Fort — neither is sustained observation nor is adequate communication of all parts possible, even in documents contemporary with its founding. As an illustrative example, Abdul Ahmed Lahori and Muhammad Waris, appointed for their expertise and expression in Persian, could not themselves have personally checked all the information on the Red Fort recorded in the Badshahnama, the official court-history of Shah Jahan that they co-authored. Neither were the officials, supervisors and court-members, whose exhaustive accounts the Badshahnama is based on, ‘on the scene’ at all times between 1639 and 1648 CE, being periodically transferred to other posts in the Mughal Empire over the nine years of the making of the Fort. The Badshahnama is refracted through the gaze of all these people. Neither does it describe all parts and aspects of the Red Fort, or indeed of other imperial Forts. Excluded in the text and the accompanying Mughal miniatures from the imperial atelier, are the parts where the attendants and soldiers lived or worked, which I term the Public Common and Private Common Domains in my analysis, and which were integral to the original attributes of the Red Fort as a city-within-a-city. This therefore, calls into question how much ‘direct, immediate or firsthand knowledge’ such documentary sources give us.

Heritage as memories that shape our individual and larger identities

Let me, therefore return to what I deem the primary source: the architecture of the Fort to explore its significant meanings. It is also pertinent to remind ourselves that precisely because there are so many memories embedded in it, it is easy to be led astray in interpreting any piece of heritage embodied as architecture. And therefore, the need to arrive at the essential characteristics. With reference to the Red Fort, one of its essential characteristics I arrive at, is that it was created by a philosophy of coming together: of multiple skills, sensibilities and social strata. This coming together, was because of the patron and ruler, and his acceptance of varied ideas of beauty, technology and craft; and also because of the inclusive values that influenced life in the subcontinent, over and above the individual religious philosophies of the Emperor or those who worked to make the Fort.

`To illustrate this, let me focus on three prominent architectural features in the Fort that are a reminder of the coming together of memories: 1. the innovation of the covered Chatta Bazaar, reportedly inspired by a market in the mountainous north-western limits of the Mughal Empire; 2. the introduction of the doubly curved Bangla roof in areas of imperial use, inspired by those commonly used in the eastern coastal part of the subcontinent; and 3. the theme of buildings as pavilions used all over the Fort, inspired by the characteristic feature of architecture in the Indic tradition since very ancient times. I stress this evidence of interconnected influences on the Red Fort, which also makes it a record of life in the sub-continent that thrived on coexisting plural identities and multiple affiliations.

(b) Heritage as an embodiment of knowledge-systems

We can appreciate the meaning of heritage as an embodiment of knowledge-systems, through some over-riding design principles in the Fort, arising from its cohesive interconnectedness. Let me also direct your attention to the manner in which these principles exemplify the true spirit of conservation — mindful of resources, renewing and reusing these with consideration. This is intrinsic in the manner in which existing built and natural features were elegantly integrated into the Fort’s design, as well as the way in which newer structures were designed and used. Thus, the Salimgarh Fort constructed by Salim Shah Sur, the political rival of the Mughals, was incorporated into the functioning of the Red Fort. We see this clearly in how the Red Fort was positioned next to Salimgarh, with its northern profile oriented parallel to Salimgarh’s walls, instead of being limited to an octagonal plan with its imperial Mughal associations. Though conventional histories stress that Shah Jahan and his builders followed a predictable geometry in architecture, an examination of the primary record of the Fort, shows that instead of rigidly following preset rules, they improvised design-responses to conserve earth, water and what we may call existing built- and natural heritage: whether the Yamuna river and its course, or the existing topography, or structures such as Salimgarh or the Afghan step-well next to its Charbaghs. The spirit of conservation can also be seen in the provision of many forecourts, enclosed gardens, colonnades, pavilions and verandahs, which not only enlarge the perception of available space in the Fort, but also make open areas comfortable for daily activities so that the number and size of built structures are reduced. Such an expression of architecture can be viewed as the grand finale of the Indic tradition, where buildings were not used as sealed objects, but interlinked with open areas to be permeable and efficient; and to be adaptive to different seasons and multiple use by a wide variety of people. 

Comprehending these Meanings and ‘the Unfolding of the Cosmos’

Given the extreme extent of the Fort’s transformation and how little of its original architecture remains, it is not easy to comprehend all these meanings — even for architects who are trained to visualise, read and plan spaces for living. Anyone who visits the Fort today, can still experience its elegant proportions and craft. But to understand its historical value, give directions in identifying important secondary sources, and work out appropriate conservation approaches, we must put aside preset biases and rhetoric, and rigorously analyse the most important evidence of the architectural record on ground. Not just its surface forms and decoration, but also its frames of reference and implicit systems. For instance, by working out geometrical and spatial proportions and construction systems of the architectural record on site, in conjunction with studying earlier Mughal Forts, as well as maps, paintings, translated diaries, court-histories, photographs, etc., it became clear to me what the directing principles were that linked individual parts to the Fort as a whole. Because of this, I could correctly pick out later changes to ‘predict’ the location of missing original parts, as well as appreciate the significance of hitherto unrecognised sources — such as a plan I found in the ASI archives. Though not as detailed as some other records, it is invaluable in that it actually plots overall outlines of the parts that the British intended to demolish. Similarly, an 1812 plan of the Fort by Ensign Peter Lawtie in the National Archives, documenting the Fort walls and just a few internal spaces, confirmed what I had argued in my book on The Red Fort of Shahjahanabad, about only specific ‘domains’ being ‘visible’ to specific users. It was also because of such analysis that I could spot ‘traces and residues’ of original architectural configurations on site, whose presence it is easy to miss; such as a seemingly inconsequential fragment at the plinth level between the Moti Masjid and Bhadon pavilion. This marks the position of the wall between the Hayat Baksh garden and Diwan-i-Khas Forecourt; corroborates the veracity of archival maps; and gives evidence of the limits of the Diwan-i-Khas Forecourt.

In the end, I draw attention to a space at the very heart of the Fort: the Naqqar Khana, as an illustration to understand how we can design and inhabit space to form a gracious yet grand environment; conserve rather than waste resources; and be considerate for each user, even when the scale is huge and the wealth and power of the patron is legendary. Shaded and defined by colonnades and arches, the Naqqar Khana was accessible through a Forecourt where visitors and users could literally come together and orient themselves after passing through the long entrance-ways from the Delhi and Lahori Gates, before being allowed entry into the inner Fort. I visualise its boundaries reinstated to communicate a spatial experience where I can share space with others to reflect, relax, and to rediscover, in the Palestinian writer Amin Malouf’s words, “a certain kinship with my fellow human beings”. Regretfully, the current conservation effort gives no such opportunity; nor directions on what to expect or how to proceed within the Fort. So, when they come away, visitors only retain an incoherent perception of huge gates, boundary walls, a museum and a pavilion or two. As professionals directly involved in conservation, it is both our responsibility and privilege to bring to the fore for the entire world, memories and knowledge systems embodied in the primary record of architectural heritage. As I hope I have shown, these can lead us and future generations to discover through their evidence, how to cohesively enrich our identities and indeed, how to comprehend the very ‘unfolding of the cosmos’.

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