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Connaught Place and the Making of New Delhi

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(By Swapna Liddle. Nominated in the category of English Non-Fiction for the REC-VoW Book Awards, 2019)

Excerpts from the interview with Swapna Liddle:

By Sanjana Kumar

Q: How long did it take you to write this book? Can you tell us a bit about how and when you understood that the structure of Delhi could best be understood with Connaught Place at its centre? Were there any astonishing facts that you came across during this research?

A: It took me over a year to research and write it. The importance of Connaught Place for this book is, I think, two-fold. One, in the popular perception, Connaught Place signifies not only the actual circus, but a wider commercial area around it. It is thus much more identifiable with the area I was describing, than the name “New Delhi”, which is today synonymous with the larger metropolis. Secondly, Connaught Place is the institution through which most people actually connect to ‘New Delhi’ or ‘Lutyens’ Delhi’. I used Connaught Place as a hook on which to hang the story of the making of New Delhi. Very similarly, my book on the historic city of Shahjahanabad, or ‘Old Delhi’, was called Chandni Chowk. One truly astonishing fact that came to light was the naming of Pandara Road; but I don’t want to reveal a spoiler here!

Q: What are your views on the political and strategic motives behind shifting the capital of India from Calcutta to Delhi?

A: In my book I have discussed a very convincing theory, which is unfortunately not known outside a very narrow academic circle. It is, that through the move, the British were actually seeking to re-invent the image of the British Raj, to make it more acceptable to Indians. The choice of a city that had been India’s capital for centuries, the development of an architectural style that drew upon Indian traditions, even the site and town plan, which linked the new city to historic landmarks, were all geared to the political aim of winning over the Indian people, and convincing them that this was their Raj.

Q: Are you writing a next book?

A: I have a couple of very exciting projects in the offing. One is in a way my magnum opus – my PhD thesis which I am turning into a book. It is a history of Delhi during the period of the East India Company’s administration – from 1803 to 1857. This is a fascinating period, full of interesting characters such as Bahadur Shah Zafar, Ghalib, David Ochterlony and Begum Samru. But, moreover, it is the period of very interesting cultural change, which is often overlooked in the usual sentimental cliches that surround the writing on this era. I am looking at institutions such as the Delhi College and the Delhi Archaeological Society, and to their contributions to what has been referred to as the ‘Delhi Renaissance’– comparable to the much better known ‘Bengal Renaissance’. The other book, which will be released later this year, is on a historic map, drawn in 1846, of Shahjahanabad – the capital city founded by Shahjahan. This is a really exciting project, too, since the large scale of the map has enabled a detailed study of its kuchas (lanes), katras (commercial complexes), bazaars, water features, havelis, places of worship, etc. Through it we can not only understand a city like Shahjahanabad and the historical change it has undergone, but we can answer bigger questions about Mughal town planning principles, and bust myths such as that of the ‘Islamic City’ in the context of Shahjahanabad. In addition to these projects, I am also hoping that a revised edition of my first book, Delhi: 14 Historic Walks, will be out soon.

Swapna Liddle is an author and historian with specialisation in the history of Delhi. She is also closely involved in the movement to preserve heritage monuments and sites, and is the Convenor of the Delhi Chapter of the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH). For the complete interview, log onto www.valleyofwords.org