In 2017, architect and photographer Satish Kumar came across Hotel Taj Mahal – A Home Away From Home on Church Mission Road in Delhi’s Chandni Chowk. The building was old and its teal-coloured façade was flaking. But the air of shabbiness couldn’t detract from the beauty of its curved balconies with fluted columns and elegant latticework – a typical example of Mughal architecture often seen in buildings in the Old Delhi area.
Kumar couldn’t help but compare the building to many of the more upmarket hotels in the city – structures made using aluminium composite panels, boasting a more contemporary look, but utterly lacking in personality. He photographed Hotel Taj Mahal and juxtaposed it with an image of another hotel, the frame divided right in the middle, to show the difference between the two.
That contrast set off an idea. He wanted to “understand the evolution of architecture in Delhi based on the historical, cultural and social influences which have shaped its progression”. The 31-year-old started photographing the streets of Old Delhi more regularly.
Kumar posted 12 images, selected from the ones he had taken over the last year, on his blog Architecture and Photography in September, as a photo project titled Beauty Lost in Progression. The dozen photos capture the last vestiges of Mughal architecture on Old Delhi’s streets. Crowded on all sides by modern buildings, film posters and shop hoardings, they are almost hidden from view.
What is called Old Delhi today was founded as Shahjahanabad by the fifth Mughal emperor, Shah Jahan, in 1639. “Urdu poet Mir Taqi Mir had once said that ‘the streets of Delhi are not mere streets, they are like the album of a painter’, but the sad reality is that Delhi today is not the same,” said Kumar. “What was earlier perceived as an album has now been transformed into broken threads of alien buildings, which do not belong together.”
“Beautiful jharokhas [windows], chattris [umbrellas], small decorative balconies, fluted columns, well-designed chabutras [terraces], traditional baithaks [drawing rooms] and marble floors were iconic features of the Mughal architectural style,” said Kumar, who runs the architecture firm Aadhunik Architects and Photographers. “Today, entrance archways, doors and balconies, from where women once peeked out to see the street, remain in a deteriorated state. Old intricate facades and doors have been piled with stock and have become makeshift godowns.”
As a result, he says, buildings such as Zeenat Mahal, Old Allahabad Bank, Khazanchi Haveli, Chunna Mal ki Haveli and Masjid Mubarak Begum, and markets like Khari Baoli, have lost their heritage feel.
During one of his walks through the labyrinthine streets of Chandni Chowk, Kumar came upon Ghalib ki Haveli, the residence of the 19th century Urdu poet Mirza Ghalib. Though the building has been designated a heritage site by the Archaeological Survey of India, it jostles for space with a chemist shop and a general store, and has parked vehicles blocking the entrance.
“The state of heritage conservation is good in Delhi in comparison to other states of India, but in Old Delhi, you see examples of negligence in the current urban conditions,” said Kumar. “The buildings, due to lack of regular care, has become structurally weak and are on the verge of falling apart. There are no strict urban guidelines to ensure the conservation of the character of the old city. Even the infrastructure lines like the electrical wiring and drainage system are not properly placed, which reduces the aesthetic appeal of the structures.”
Kumar’s photographs show how Shahjahanabad, which once thrived as a centre for art, culture and music, has descended into disorder, thanks to traffic and unauthorised construction. “The character of Shahjahanabad was efficiently designed,” said Kumar. “The colonial reign saw the beginning of mass negligence towards its architectural identity.”
In an interview with Sahapedia, an open online resource on the arts, cultures and heritage of India, historian Narayani Gupta spoke about the change in Shahjahanabad’s character after Partition. “In a short space of a few months many affluent Muslim families [living in the area] chose to leave,” she said. “They did not think it was going to be permanent, so they locked up their havelis and went to Pakistan, mostly to Karachi. Unfortunately hardly any of them came back…so those houses remained what they would call ‘evacuee property’…this meant that beautiful havelis suddenly became anonymous.” The abandoned havelis were converted into market buildings, no “longer areas of gracious living”. “They were like workshops where there’d be the owner of a particular craft and all the people who worked for him living in one haveli,” she said.
According to Kumar, it is important to question what development means in the context of Delhi. “What role does heritage play and how can it play a more active role in the lives of the people?” he asked. “Making more modern structures which do not complement the old structures, only damages the identity and what will a city really be with its identity lost?”
All photographs by Satish Kumar.