Windows in the city walls

Two Old Delhi buildings are waiting to be reborn as city museums ♦

This article is part of a longer story on Delhi’s museums.

ochterlonyIn a miniature watercolour from 1820, Sir David Ochterlony lords over a nautch, dressed in Mughal garb with hookah in hand. That portrait shows Delhi’s first British Resident in his home – a building which still architecturally reflects the life of the famed “White Mughal”, as well as the many-layered history of the Kashmere Gate area.

It’s a popular belief that the building, which dates back to 1637, was once prince Dara Shikoh’s library. Ochterlony had it remodeled in the early 1800s, mixing soaring British columns in with the hunkered Mughal arches. Later it was used as artillery barracks; then for various government schools and colleges. Since the 1980s, it has housed the state government’s Archaeological Department, which wants to turn this capsule of the city’s past into the future site of a Delhi City Museum.

There couldn’t be a better location than Kashmere Gate, a neighbourhood that is itself a spread-out, crumbling urban museum. The Dara Shikoh Library is surrounded by city walls, churches, graveyards and historic markets, all sundered by multi-lane traffic and modern construction. The Delhi City Museum might be the key that unlocks all of Kashmere Gate.

Or it might not. Delhi already has a city museum, less than three kilometres away at Lahori Gate. The defunct Walled City Museum opened in 2004, intended as a cultural shot-in-the-arm for Shahjahanabad. Vijay Goel, a history-dabbler, former area MP and General Secretary of the BJP, gave 50 lakhs of MPLADS money, as well as objects from his own collection, to the new institution. But the three-courtyard 1929 haveli is now derelict: broken stone and pigeon shit is all that’s on display. Goel’s association is, unfortunately for him, engraved in stone above the entrance. The MCD failed to maintain it, he explained. “Us ka haal he behaal. All the exhibits have been stolen or destroyed, so I took out whatever was left there.”

Goel is still urging the MCD to revitalise the Walled City Museum. It has received a proposal to restore and restock the place from the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage. INTACH’s preliminary proposal envisions technology superimposed over history, using the kind of gizmo-kiosks that are ubiquitous in Delhi’s newer museums. Ajay Kumar, senior project manager in INTACH’s Delhi Chapter, described the Museum as a potential “interpretation centre” for the traditions of trade, food and lived heritage of the area.

Meanwhile, the Archaeological Department has also received proposals about the Dara Shikoh Library from – no prizes for guessing – INTACH. As with their plans for the Walled City Museum, the proposal seems to have sprung from INTACH’s search for a permanent home for its Delhi: A Living Heritage exhibition from last year. Kumar explained the special appeal of the Dara Shikoh Library. “It’s near the university, it’s near the Metro station, it’s near the old part of the city,” he said. “Whenever any tourist comes to Delhi, they visit Old Delhi. You could say that locals don’t prefer to go that side, but we want to develop the site as an interaction. Why do people go to Dilli Haat, and not this place?”

So far, most of the “interaction” with the surrounding community has involved professors of Ambedkar University Delhi, which is shifting into historic buildings on the same compound. Anil Persaud, a professor of Liberal Studies, believes that the Delhi City Museum could be one “that exists even outside its walls”, linking together Mughal, British and modern urban history. Referencing the Museum of the City of New York, a paragon of its type, Persaud dreams of bringing the city into the museum, via cultural programming, or even a camera obscura that uses a periscope to refract views of the city into the museum’s interiors.

At this point, however, predicting the museum’s facilities is not unlike squinting through a periscope into the future. The Department of Archaeology, accustomed to counting out years in the thousands, seems in no rush. “We’re calling for an Expression of Interest again,” said Keshav Chandra, the Secretary for Art, Culture, Languages, and also Special Secretary to the Chief Minister. “It is at a very premature stage.”

Until then, the Dara Shikoh Library is filled with the echoes of Persaud’s wry comment: “When an archaeological department starts talking about a museum, it’s time to get suspicious.” The front hall of the library holds a ramshackle museum-repository, all dusty display cases littered with late-Harappan potsherds or ornaments excavated from Mandoli, Bhorgarh and Jhatikara. The centrepiece is a half-buried hominid skeleton, surrounded with pieces of pottery. Its caption – simply, “The Pit” – could easily describe the building around it, or the current state of the Walled City Museum.

Rather than setting a gloomy precedent, the failure of the Walled City Museum should provide a lesson for the Delhi City Museum. Meanwhile, after the closing of Delhi Town Hall at Chandni Chowk last month, there have murmurs about a potential city museum there as well. If we’re very lucky, the city could have two, maybe three, illuminating museums, within cycle-rickshaw distance of each other, creating connections between Delhi, old and new. Though there’s no Commonwealth Games urgency behind them, they could do far more for city pride.

Read more about Delhi’s museums.

Originally published in Time Out Delhi, September 2011.