Fiona Fernandez: Of afterlives and secular spaces

Updated: Feb 05, 2018, 08:18 IST | Fiona Fernandez

Understanding the afterlife of a heritage landmark opens it up to look at it as beyond being just a brick and mortar structure devoid of character and legacy

Jama Masjid was the centre of a secular space in the 1930s. File pic
Jama Masjid was the centre of a secular space in the 1930s. File pic

"We need to stop looking at our heritage as dead weight in the middle of our cities." It felt like one of those penny-had-dropped moments. It made perfect sense.

Meanwhile, yours truly also realised that the telephonic conversation with Dr Mrinalini Rajagopalan, associate professor from the University of Pittsburgh, was turning out to be less interview and more chat. Mutual interests for urban histories with likeminded souls always make for a welcome add-on while pursuing a story.

Relooking heritage
The scholar from the Department of the History of Art and Architecture was in the city to deliver a session at Dr Bhau Daji Lad Museum on five medieval monuments in Delhi, and, rather interestingly, their afterlives. Our imagination was piqued. Her book around the same topic, Building Histories, looks at the Red Fort, Rasul Numa Dargah, Jama Masjid, Purana Qila, and the Qutb complex in a way unlike we've heard before that point.

We managed to speak with her about this book hours before that session, and we were gradually beginning to feel not too bad for having to miss out on it due to another deadline. As the conversation ensued, it opened our minds to immense possibilities about how we have been looking at heritage in the past and more importantly, the need to rethink strategy, especially in India's metros [Bombay, for sure], where the past and the future need to coexist to be termed world cities.

Decoding history
"What started off as a study of Muslim neighbourhoods for a dissertation ended up into offering fascinating insight into the changing nature of some of Delhi's most famous landmarks from 1857 to the present," she told us, adding, "It also changed the way I saw a monument."

Dr Rajagopalan went on to cite the example of two sites mentioned in her book — Red Fort and Jama Masjid. She shared how the citadel, which had been witness to the 1857 Uprising, was a site of British vengeance, and today, stands for all things democratic in India.

Likewise was her research on Jama Masjid, which showcases the zenith of Mughal architecture, that led her to discover how it was also the centre of a secular space in the 1930s and played a key role to harbour Indian nationalism, as it took shape to fight India's war against its colonial rulers.

"We must remember that the social space of architecture is constantly changing. With this comes the realisation of looking at heritage in a different, realistic manner, and not just as a colonial legacy. A more nuanced understanding of heritage will relate to better polity."

Bombay next
It reminded of the need for mind blocks that our babus and netas ought to break free of, first up, since nine times out of 10, they are the ones whose nods make or break most things around our city's heritage. Wishful thinking, right? Sure, but there's no harm in bringing this out in the open and putting it out there. Dr Rajagopalan's simple yet hard-hitting views based on her solid research on the topic made us look at the long-perceived 'dead weight' in a different light.

It was tough for us to not keep Bombay away from this conversation about the afterlives of our monuments. Watch the space; we'll be back after giving it a good, long thought. And after some purpose-driven walking through the innards of old Bombay, of course.

mid-day's Features Editor Fiona Fernandez relishes the city's sights, sounds, smells and stones...wherever the ink and the inclination takes her. She tweets @bombayana. Send your feedback to mailbag@mid-day.com

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