Sunday, December 10, 2023

‘Unfolding The Cosmos’

 Unfolding The Cosmos’

The Significance of History — and of Architecture as its Primary Source 

The Case of the Red Fort

Anisha Shekhar Mukherji

Lecture for Frontiers of History: 8 December 2023

To examine the significance of history and the role of architecture as one of its primary sources — let me first locate our larger context in the world, with the help of a quote from a different discipline. The quantum physicist, Carlo Rovelli, in his book, The Order of Time, 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.’

This significance of history that ‘we are an effect of and that we can be held together by’, is what I will speak about today and the memories that determine how we see history. These are recorded in myriad ways as texts, drawings, pictures, sculpture, architecture. But physicists and philosophers remind us that by the time some sight or sound travels to our senses, it is already past: however infinitesimally small that time may be. 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 implications of such minute allocations of time, our knowledge of events — through records made by someone present at a particular time in the past —are re-presentations in another way. They are impressions filtered by not just the organs of perception, but also by the abilities and intentions of those who make them. We know this not just from abstract texts, or even from the exciting genre of 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. No two versions in newspaper reports of an 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 in his film. Memory therefore, alters both perception and recollection.

Architecture as a Primary Source of History

If all records are secondary sources, why do I claim that architecture can be read as a primary source? Indeed, in the conventional view architecture is not generally considered a primary source in history. Yet architecture (along with archaeology) perhaps constitutes the only record that we can all come close to perceiving in a primary way. Less easy to dislocate as compared to archaeological remains, the record of historic architecture 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 and multiple levels with architecture — which is not just a setting or record of events, but the event itself. Even when there are no stated objectives of memorialising, we can trace in the way architecture is built, lived in, and transformed: what people held important; what they remembered or wished to remember; what were their craft, technology or management skills. Architecture is thus one of the most direct manifestation of memories that govern our individual and larger identities, and also a manifestation of multiple knowledge-systems comprising cultural, social, economic and technological history.

The Significance of History

Within this universality of experience that architecture offers, it would be perhaps natural to assumed that architects are particularly equipped to read the historical information embedded in it — formally trained as they are in representative methods of drawings, plans, maps and models to visualise built-form; and to co-relate these representations into actual built spaces.

Despite this, architects themselves do not generally view architecture as a primary source of history! Indeed, history is considered inimical to creativity in the modernist tradition — a rather extreme reaction to the restrictions imposed by history when it is limited to just a style-palette. The sidelining of history from mainstream architecture, initiated by the German-American architect Walter Gropius (one of the pioneers of modernist design) has persisted beyond his time and beyond Europe and America. Delinked from the logic of construction and spatial function, architectural history is taught today as compartmentalised lectures in Schools of Architecture, and divided into periods and styles. By isolating architectural history in this way, we greatly reduce its potential to trace what human beings are ‘an effect of, and are held together by’. 

So, how can we read this primary resource such that we do not just look at it from the point of view of ‘styles’, and instead as a source to inform creative and beneficent living practices? I will explore this general question through the specific example of what has been variously known as: the Qila-e-Mubarak, Lal Haveli, Red Fort, Dilli ka Lal Qila etc. This Fort is a particularly good case study given its size and complexity, the extreme extent of its transformation, and the very few traces that remain of its original architecture. 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 associations of this iconic World Heritage Site and its seminal role in formulating identities in the subcontinent. I will also, within the constraints of the time we have today, touch upon how far its representations match its reality and how it illustrates political and social history.

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

Though its towering walls and powerful gateways loom large on our cityscape, only about 10 percent of the structures from the Red Fort’s establishment remain today. When I first visited the Fort, incoherent as its interior seemed to be, I could — like everyone who visits it — experience the volumes and forms of its few Mughal buildings; their delicate sophistication; the lightness with which they enclosed space. 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 Mughal architecture, and from my professional training about what a place that accommodated the functions of life, ought to be.

It was difficult to reconcile these disconnected Mughal structures with the regal splendour and other magnificent acts of patronage associated with Shah Jahan. It was also impossible to understand how he or anyone else could have lived in it — which was the main question that triggered my research. I could also tell that the British barracks were later intrusions, even though there was no information on site to help realise how much of the Fort was destroyed after 1857. Thus, the primary record of the Fort yielded clues to what it was, as well as what it may have beenEven the absence of certain architectural features on site furthered my understanding. The realisation that there were missing-bits, directed my search to other sources.

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. On turning the cover, we discover that most pages are missing. In the few pages that remain, the text has been so erased that only some scattered words are visible: in a script that is partially legible, and overlaid in a different language. How do we 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 the original script, to gauge the quality of language used and understand its content. The original script of the Fort consists of the structures and spaces that date from its establishment. And this is what we have to read through a scrutiny of its tangible forms and of the systems implicit in these forms.

These are some of the geometrical, spatial and proportional studies of the Red Fort that helped me to understanding this primary record. I could, through these studies uncover the relationship between what remained of extant Mughal structures on site, and ‘fill in the gaps’ to surmise where the missing Mughal structures may have existed in the original sequence of buildings. Apart from ‘predicting’ the location of missing Mughal buildings, these exercises helped me to correlate information from its different sources. And to spot the significance of hitherto unrecognised records — such as a dusty plan in the ASI archives! Though not as detailed as some other maps, this plan is invaluable in that it contains measured outlines of the original components in the Fort’s design that the British intended to demolish. It was also due to examination of the architectural remains and correlating them with the emperor’s daily schedule of activities, that I figured out a very interesting aspect of the Fort’s use: how specific ‘domains’ were accessible to only certain occupants or visitors, and thus virtually 'invisible’ to others. This insight into the way the Fort functioned and appeared was confirmed by this Plan of the Fort in the National Archives, drawn by Ensign Peter Lawtie in 1812 — which only plots the areas that Lawtie was presumably allowed to enter. He had no access to the rest of the Fort, and so, left it as a blank!

The geometrical, spatial and functional analysis also directed my attention to other remains on site — such as a fragment at the plinth level between the Moti Masjid and the Bhadon pavilion. This marks the position of the wall between the imperial Hayat Baksh garden and Diwan-i-Khas Forecourt. It helps to corroborate information in archival maps; and gives evidence of the limits of the Diwan-i-Khas Forecourt. Thus, the traces of the Mughal buildings in the Fort when read appropriately, can convey lessons in the usage of space, track positions or proportions of missing built-structures, and serve as tools to gauge the veracity of other sources.

Whose Perspective

If you’ll forgive the pun, I’d like to illustrate this further through some drawings of the Fort by British artists in the mid-19th century, which are supposed to be based on actual site-observation. They show the Fort from 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 walls and buildings suffered extensive damage by shelling in 1857, and unabashed looting and destruction after the British forces moved into the Fort, 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 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, a complete and unbroken Fort and adjacencies drawn realistically according to the rules of perspective, seem invaluable in re-constructing its reality just before its large-scale destruction and re-modelling by the British. But how true to reality are these representations?

A comparison with existing Mughal buildings in the Fort — as well as with other drawings and descriptions — reveals that these views of ‘Delhi and its surrounding countryside’ substantially re-order the configuration of the Red Fort’s built-form. Firstly, they mis-represent 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, the preface to an official publication of the Victoria Memorial Hall at Kolkata containing this and similar artworks by European artists, urges us to see these as ‘study-based endeavours in which no room is left for the imagination’. We are told that ‘these paintings reflected images as in a mirror’ whose ‘credibility and fidelity remain above board’. Such acceptance of so-called ‘eye-witness’ records, without comparing them with the primary record of what they purport to depict, leads us twice astray. First, it makes us see in them the ‘true’ reality of what existed. Secondly, it makes us see in them the standard image of important architecture. And therefore, the desirable template for making architecture even in our times.

The rendering of the Red Fort into re-presentations by British artists would have of course, been affected by memories of grand edifices in their own culture. But apart from their individual skills as well as expectations of an imperial residence, these artists were also recording for viewers in Europe, a simplistic image of an unfamiliar architecture seen as exotic and effete. Since access to all parts of the Fort was not possible, they depicted the Fort not as it was, but as they could make sense of it. Since its many forecourts, enclosed gardens, pavilions and verandahs were not part of their way of life, they did not perceive their significance and simply omitted to draw them!

Many Europeans also stereotyped Indian rulers as decadent despots, and visualised the Red Fort as a den of vice. For instance, John Dryden, considered one of the greatest English poets of the 17th century, themed one of his most successful plays on Shah Jahan’s Court, which he filled with intrigue, improper amour and many imaginary characters. Dryden, poet laureate in 1668 CE, was also appointed royal historiographer of England in 1670. His play Aurangzebe, (incidentally written when Aurangzeb was still ruling) was first staged in November 1675 for the King of England. That it continues to be described as ‘the last and most intelligent example of the genre’ of a heroic play — shows us that literary ability can be confused with historical authenticity. And how much such representations effect us, can be seen in the view that many of us continue to harbour of the Mughal rulers as being tyrannical or decadent — or both.

The Distortion of Memories 

Along with the inherent limitation of memory unconsciously altering perception in written or drawn records, a particular memory may be deliberately reinforced to control the narrative of an event. For instance, the formulation and presentation of records of the Fort after 1857, were intended to  memorialise the British version and justify their violence towards the people and ruler of Shahjahanabad. This photograph by Felice Beato of the Forecourt of the Naqqar Khana in the Red Fort, is 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 focuses on this much recounted tragic episode both in its visual composition and the wording of its caption. Though it is an invaluable record of the enclosing arcades of the Naqqar Khana Forecourt which were demolished by the British, this often escapes attention since the Naqqar Khana is made to recede into the background and reduced to the ambiguity of the ‘Inner Gateway of Palace’.

This visual record in its mournful and partial representation, also gives no indication of the dramatic spatial and functional quality of the Naqqar Khana Forecourt, through which passed ambassadors and noblemen, artisans and attendants, ministers and musicians. This Forecourt, provided the necessary formal foreground to the Naqqar Khana, and was of a size and shape that could accommodate a great number of people without crowding. It allowed circulation and active movement as well as space to pause: where different people could come together to work, wait, reflect, and perhaps rediscover, in the words of the Lebanese-French author Amin Malouf, “a certain kinship” with their fellow human beings.

Literary records

We have looked at a few instances of visual records dating from 200 years after the Fort’s establishment. What of literary records? Such sources have a limitation in that they refract the three-dimensional experience of architecture into words. This limitation is compounded for such a huge complex as the Red Fort. If we consider the Badshahnama, the official court-history of Shah Jahan, it covers the founding and early years of the Red Fort and describes the decoration, dimensions, and materials of many buildings. But it does not convey the spatial quality of the Fort, which was an elegant permutation of inter-linked built and open space. Neither does it record all parts of the Red Fort. It is concerned mainly with the formal entrance sequences and some of the eastern parts (what I term the Public Imperial Domain and the Private Imperial domain in my analysis of the Fort). The areas where the attendants and soldiers lived or worked, which were also integral to the essential attribute of the Red Fort as a city-within-a-city, are not referred to in the Badshahnama.

Neither is it likely that Abdul Ahmed Lahori — chosen after a succession of writers as the author of the Badshahnama (or Muhammad Waris, who co-authored the last volume of the Badshahnama) could have personally observed everything covering the nine years from the commencement of the Fort to its inauguration. Details cited in the Badshahnama would have been necessarily based on accounts by a great number of individuals, who supervised or participated in different parts of its construction or upkeep for varying lengths of time, before being transferred to other posts. In other words, the official record of the founding and original form of the Fort has many ‘missing bits’. We deduce the existence of these missing bits and understand their diverse complexity from remains on site, drawings, other texts, 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 most importantly by revisiting the primary record of what remains on ground — that we come close to a more complete picture of what we are trying to understand.

So, What does the Fort tell us?

Let me, therefore return to this primary record to highlight the significant meanings that I have derived of its history. In my book The Red Fort of Shahjahanabad, I examine extant buildings and spaces to understand the Fort’s original spatial, functional and architectural attributes, and how and why these have transformed through the 350 odd years of its existence. This examination, in conjunction with other sources ranging from measured-drawings to maps and miniature paintings, revealed to me that the Red Fort was activated by a true spirit of conservation. The very choice of architectural components — forecourts, pavilions, halls, verandahs, enclosed gardens — and their provision throughout the Fort, not only enlarged the perception of available space — where views, sights, and sound flowed between inside and outside — but also made open areas comfortable for daily activities, so that the number and size of built structures were 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 used by a wide variety of people.

The Fort as a whole, too was devised for multiple purposes. Formal entrance-streets, halls of justice, workshops, kitchen gardens, elephant stables, residences of soldiers, were lodged in close proximity within their own enclosing walls. These accommodated a huge number of activities of different groups — even in areas such as the imperial pavilions. They also allowed control over entrance or exit — as the story of one of Princess Roshanara’s unfortunate suitors who got lost in the maze of these walled forecourts reveals! Both open and covered space were formulated with great intelligence, to have decorative and functional features. Buildings within and around gardens and forecourts enhanced geometry and gave shade; open spaces yielded verdure, fruit, vegetables and herbs; water channels irrigated as well as cooled the gardens. The Fort was configured to respect site-constraints and existing built- and natural-structures — such as the Yamuna, the Aravallis, the older Salimgarh Fort, baolis, hillocks, water-systems. These were not demolished or disturbed, but instead incorporated into the formal layout of the Fort and its city, so that they enhanced both spatial experience and efficient functioning. 

Even within a monarchical set up, in a decentralised process of design, construction, and use, master-builders and guild-heads from all parts of the imperial dominions in tandem with technicians and official, led teams of calligraphers, garden-designers, carpenters, dome-builders, finial-makers, masons, stone-cutters, sculptors, inlayers — s. Sizes, motifs or details of buildings were not expected to be exact replicas, nor made to follow rigid grid-modules. They were instead based on interlinked systems of proportions that encouraged design-participation of even masons and stone-workers, all of whom could then devise details on site within a structured template and location of functions. And all of whose contributions were rewarded and publicly acknowledged.

Architecture activated by conservation and inclusion 

How we remember and re-present the Fort, reflects what we are. It is particularly important to dwell on this today, as we reinforce the appearance and use of the Fort set forth during its colonial occupation — even as we occasionally use it as a stage-set for celebrations that ironically seek to commemorate its memory as a symbol of resistance to British rule. It is now an aloof and barred space, continuing colonial concepts of keeping people out. Its specific quality of designing open space as an adjunct of architecture so that buildings were flexible and versatile, as well as the implicit qualities of frugality and inclusion that were central to its creation and functioning, are ignored. It is in our individual and collective interest to remember and comprehend these, to fire our imagination and empathy — as in 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.”

The long overdue second edition of the Red Fort book to be published soon by Westland, I hope will enable all of us too, to not forget. And to discover through the diverse, rich and varied memories and knowledge-systems embodied in the Fort, the very ‘unfolding of the cosmos’, as it were.

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