The Tribune - Spectrum

Sunday, July 30, 2000
'Art and Soul

Several tombs and a garden
By B.N. Goswamy

JUST as one finds oneself teetering on the edge of despair, seeing the callousness with which — in our land — culture, and cultural institutions, are being treated by the powers that be, something that offers a gleam of hope comes along. Sometimes.

In Delhi, I picked up two little booklets the other day, snugly fitted into a paper case so as to form a set. Published by the Delhi Chapter of Intach — Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage, in case someone does not know this — these concern themselves with just one historic complex in Delhi, the famed Lodi Gardens. In the nature of things, the scope of these is limited, and strictly defined, unlike that of the two large and most impressive tomes which Intach also published recently: an illustrated listing of all the historical buildings in the city, more accurately the many cities, of Delhi. But these little booklets stand firmly on their own. And the reason that I speak of them at length is that this is precisely the kind of publication that we need on the countless monuments that lie in a state of desperate, bleeding neglect all over this land of ours. They are inexpensive, being printed not on fancy paper or in full colour; the information they contain is precise; the graphics are sensitively done; the writing is accessible and friendly. Above all, subtly and persuasively, they address themselves directly to the reader, making him somehow a participant in the great adventure of looking after our past, developing a respect for it.

Measuring time in Japan
July 16, 2000
About the making of a throne
July 2, 2000
Blending the old with the new
June 18, 2000
Picasso in Lucerne
June 11, 2000
Commerce in craft
May 28, 2000
The Pharaoh and the sun
May 14, 2000

Tomb of Muhammad Shah SayyidThe first of the two booklets deals exclusively with buildings in the Lodi Gardens, and the second with trees. Aware of the fact that the Lodi Gardens are mostly used by ‘joggers, picnickers and tourists’, most of whom spend very little time to acquaint themselves with the history that surrounds them, the booklet on buildings opens very simply, inviting the reader to take a walk through time. "Welcome to Lodi Gardens", it says, "once called Bagh-i-Jud, the royal burial ground for Sayyid and Lodi rulers of Delhi." And from here it proceeds to take — with the help of a finely drawn map of the gardens on which every building is indicated — the reader/visitor by the hand, and lead him or her to each structure: the Tomb of Muhammad Shah Sayyid, the Bara Gumbad, the Sheesh Gumbad, the Tomb of Sikandar Lodi, the Athpula. Each of the monuments — these, the reader is constantly reminded, are only fragmentary survivals — is then introduced: exact date, structural peculiarities, place in the scheme of things. If an inscription has survived, the reader’s attention is drawn to it; if there are traces of old, glazed tiles which once adorned the structures, the reader is asked to keep his eyes peeled for them; if any puzzlement is anticipated, like over the athpula, the eight-piered bridge over a now non-existent stream, information is provided that this bridge once spanned a tributary of the Yamuna, "a part of the river system that once drained the South Delhi area". By the time one finishes this walk on paper — and, hopefully, in real life — one feels that one has moved a little closer to the 16th century, set up a dialogue of one’s own with the past.

But this is not where the information that the booklet provides, ends. The history of the Lodi Gardens, both recent and old, is introduced, in another section, in the form of a connected account. When Lutyens’ New Delhi was nearing completion in 1931, and south Delhi was still "a flat country, brown, scrubby and barren", we learn, the Lodi Tombs stood in a village called Khairpur. But one goes back in time, and a short account of the Sultans of the Sayyid and Lodi dynasties is provided, ending, as their reign did, with the defeat of the last of the Lodis in the First Battle of Panipat, in 1526. But these relatively unimportant Sultanates, the reader is told, contributed in their own fashion to the development of an architectural style that was to flower in the form of the great Mughal monuments that one knows well. The arch, the squinch, the corbel, the dome, are spoken about, but in simple, un-technical terms: also brought in are feeting references to the place of mosques and tombs in Islamic society. This, truly, is a lot of information. But one does not feel burdened, or dwarfed, by it. On the other hand, the reader is apt to end up feeling enriched, educated; prepared in some ways to look around with eyes full of wonder mingled with respect.

The second volume in this set — if one can call a narrow-format, tri-folded, 12-page booklet a ‘volume’ — is devoted to trees in the Lodi Gardens. Here, again, there is an abundance of precise information, ranging from a mention of the fact that there are about a hundred species of trees that grow in the lush Lodi Gardens, to specific notes, with sensitive drawings, on the major species, complete with their description, characteristics, origin, local or vernacular names: karanj, jamun, pipal, gulmohar, saptaparni, dhak, shirish, pilu, and the like. The information is of a different order here, but the vision is the same: to sensitise the reader/visitor to the environment, make him or her in some ways a participant. Is there anything more that one can ask of a publication of this nature?

Moving forward?

What Intach set out to achieve, and the large measure by which it has fallen short in so many areas, would remain a matter for discussion for those who care. But some good things, like the publications I have referred to, happen. And fill one with hope again. Perhaps the answer was for the organisation not to be too ambitious — like these publications are not — and to address itself to the issues in hand unpretentiously. But who am I to give advice? I should confine myself to simply quoting what I find effective, like the exhortation at the end of the booklet on buildings. "Be a friend of Lodi Gardens", it says. "Remember, this garden was once a burial ground. So help us keep it clean, …."