Saturday, January 20, 2024

History and its Expression in Architecture: Text of the Talk at the Bhopal Literature Festival

  Good morning.

I am delighted to be at the Bhopal Literary Festival, where the second edition of my book on the Red Fort of Shahjahanabad makes its debut. But I'm not going to talk about the book right now. 

What I intend to do instead as a prelude to what the book contains, is to take you backstage and share what is “behind the scenes”, as it were. And how and why the book came to be written. 

The Red Fort is so often in the news, that it would seem that we all know whatever there is to know about it. On the other hand, there is so little left of its original buildings that we may wonder what is it really that we can know from it? Researching on the book has been akin to doing a tightrope-act between the simultaneous existence of too much and too little on the Fort. Between getting inundated with information of one kind, to casting around far and wide in search of other information that is so elusive as to be almost impossible to track down. 

But I'm jumping ahead. 

My first coherent memory of visiting the Fort, was when I had already begun my training as an architect. In architectural education, one is constantly prodded to assess the possibilities of different places for different functions of habitation. And this was the question I found myself asking, as I walked through the Red Fort. How did the Mughal emperors — arguably some of the richest and most refined individuals of their time — live in the Fort? 

Indeed how did anyone live in the Fort? From what was visible within its walls, there was no way to figure this out. 

This question exercised me so much that I started ferreting around, and hunting for references on the Fort that would explain it. But much to my surprise, despite the Red Fort's iconic cultural and political importance, no one seemed to have seriously tried to seek answers to this question before me! Since I could not find any ready answer in any book, I began looking for first-hand sources on its original appearance and use — court-histories, paintings, maps. These were scattered in collections and museums in different parts of the world, ranging from Delhi to Dublin. 

By dint of perseverance and luck, I succeeded in accessing many of these sources — to discover that these were so fragmentary that they depicted only parts of the huge Fort, that too during just short periods of its long existence, and generally from a time when it had already transformed greatly. Many of these sources seemed to take a great deal of artistic license and directly contradicted each other! I also discovered that the reason why my visits to the Fort had left me so confused, was that large swathes of it had been destroyed by the British. But how much and why, was not clearly explained either at the Fort, or in any of the books I had read. 

So the challenge for me was to visualise and reconstruct from a handful of buildings, and from some scattered and contradictory records, how the Fort was lived in, and how it looked — when it was established 350 years ago. 

To give a literary analogy, it was like piecing together an entire story from a few words here-and-there — with a faded and torn translation for reference. In hindsight, I would perhaps describe the entire process as a piece of detection, that actually compared testimonies from different historical records of eye-witness or hearsay accounts. I utilised the remains of the existing original buildings as clues, through techniques of architectural and spatial studies and analysis — to judge which of these testimonies were more correct than others.

This is, in essence what I did, and what I’ve explained in the book. 

And what did I discover about the Fort through this process of research and analysis? Well, the picture that emerged from my study, overset many of my existing notions about ways of living and building —  as well as my ideas of fortresses and palaces. I realised that the Red Fort which James Ferguson, the pioneering British historian had titled ‘The Most Magnificent Palace in the East—perhaps in the world’, was actually a beautifully detailed mini-city. 

As the grand finale to earlier great forts of the Mogul emperors, it contained within it not just palaces but also meticulously planned karkhanas and kitchen-gardens, market-streets and music-chambers, halls and housing-precincts for attendants and soldiers. 

I also understood that the palaces within the Red Fort, which were reached through a succession of gateways leading into larger and ever grander forecourts, were not conventional towering buildings. They were instead a series of glowing single-storey pavilions, strung together with delicate walled screens and arcades — almost like a necklace of pearls. These pavilions were positioned on raised plinths and terraces, each within its own garden or forecourt. On one side, they looked out onto trees, flowers and fountains framed within geometrical baghs; and on the other side, onto the expansive banks and waters of the Yamuna, with green fields stretching beyond into the horizon.

Throughout the day, in a precise routine that combined public duties, ceremonial and administrative functions, private activities and family gatherings, the emperor along with courtiers and officials in attendance, moved in and out of these pavilions, and walled forecourts and gardens. They allowed him and his family to freely imbibe views, colours, scents, and breezes of the outdoors; and simultaneously worked wonderfully well to protect them from unregulated public view. 

The power of the Fort’s design was such that it gave the impression of being very accessible: located as it was right on the river-banks of the Yamuna, and at the public intersection of Shahjahanabad’s main entrance streets which led straight into it through high gateways — while utilising the arrangement of walled forecourts to afford security and privacy to the emperor, to his family, as well as to everyone living and working within the Fort. 

So much so, that it was virtually impossible for anyone to make an unobserved entry or exit into the Fort, especially its inner parts, even with the complicity of the inmates. Francois Bernier, a Frenchman who stayed in Shahjahanabad for six years during Aurangzeb’s reign, records in his memoirs a story about an unfortunate suitor of Princess Roshanara. This suitor entered the inner palace with help from the Princesses’ attendants, but then got hopelessly lost in the maze of the walled forecourts, to be finally discovered by the palace guards!

Today, none of these walled forecourts exist, along with most of their accompanying buildings. Nor do most of the walled gardens. No wonder then, that we cannot make sense of how the Fort functioned and appeared originally.

This is where the book comes in. Apart from tracing the past life of the Fort, it gives suggestions about its future well-being, drawing from my thesis on the Red Fort for my Masters in Architectural Conservation, as well as my research and examination of parts of the Fort not open to the public as a conservation consultant to the ASI. I hope it will help others who may have been mystified by the Fort, to plan how we should be taking care of this unique historical site and to better appreciate its design.

This design responded so intelligently to site-constraints — the Yamuna and the Aravalli outcrops, older buildings and baolis, hillocks and drainage courses — that the huge construction venture of the Fort and of Shahjahanabad was accomplished in just nine years. This is also the reason for the Fort’s unusual plan. Since the Fort’s design made open areas comfortable for daily activities, it reduced the requirement for built-structures, thereby continuing the Indic tradition where buildings were like pavilions and not walled-in structures, but interlinked with open areas to adapt to different seasons and multiple purposes. Its palace-pavilions, entrance-streets, halls of justice, craft-workshops, residences of soldiers, all in close proximity within separate enclosures, housed a remarkable range of activities — in function it would be like the Rashtrapati Bhawan, North/South Blocks, Parliament House, cantonments, Crafts Museum, theatres, etc. spread out across New Delhi.

Built with the active involvement, and skill of an array of craftspeople — calligraphers, carpenters, finial-makers, sculptors, inlayers — led by master-builders and guild-heads, the Fort’s architecture in its details was comparable to the Taj Mahal. Court histories record that in the inaugural celebrations, ‘artisans of wondrous talent and magical skill’ were publicly honoured by Shah Jahan.

Instead of making it an aloof and barred stage-set that continues colonial concepts of keeping people out, while ironically commemorating its memory as a symbol of resistance to British rule, I hope that that the second edition of the book will help us to conserve the spirit of the Red Fort. I hope it will be able to convey how such values of flexibility, versatility, frugality, and inclusiveness directed the Fort’s creation and functioning. And I hope that we will not forget these values and incorporate them in our buildings today, and build imagination and empathy

Let me end with the poetry of Rabindranath Tagore, that summons up the enduring memory of the Red Fort and the Taj Mahal: originally in Bengali and here, through my imperfect translation, in English.

You are gone today, Emperor;

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 

Flies with 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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