June 05, 2020
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A Fort Besieged

It survived centuries of tumult. Now neglect is doing to Red Fort what even Nadir Shah couldn’t .

A Fort Besieged

THE in congruity is startling. Shah Jahan’s famous saying: "If there is paradise, it is here, it is here, it is here...," inscribed on the walls of the Red Fort in Delhi belies the present state of this magnificent monument. The gradual destruction of what was once the epicentre of India’s political life, the seat of its grand rulers, seems to be a symbol for the malaise that afflicts the country. Today the fort is a victim of bureaucratic mismanagement and the g reed of agencies who, in their efforts to "conserve" one of the finest examples of Mughal architecture, are simply destroying it.

Recent reports that the Diwan-i-Khas and Rang Mahal had been practically vandalised by the ITDC— which runs the sound and light show— in an effort to upgrade its facilities, kicked up a storm in conservation circles. On the surface, only some old lights had been replaced with new ones. But it dredged up a few old ghosts. Even the first time around, to put in the lights, part of the marble floor (near where the peacock throne used to be) had been replaced by metal covers. Of course, displaying typical babu ingenuity, the covers were painted a bright white, perhaps in the hope that they would merge with the rest of the flooring. Ditto in the Rang Mahal, where the metal covers have been painted red in keeping with sandstone used there. Says P.B.S. Sengar, superintendent,  Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), Delhi Circle, "I’ve always found the sound and light fixtures objectionable. They shouldn’t have allowed the fittings in ’65."

And thereby lies a sorry tale. The sound and light show was commissioned by the then prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru in ’65. With all the delicacy of a bull in a china shop, the ITDC mounted brackets and lights on this historic monument dating back to the 1640s. Says K.T. Ravindaran of the School of Planning and Architecture (SPA): "The ASI shouldn’t have allowed it even then. Preventing any damage to the structure is the primary concern." The ASI itself admits that the lights— already 33 years old— have resulted in the accumulation of dust and increased insect activity

on the marble flooring. Worse still, no audit has been done to assess the impact of these lights or whether they needed to be there at all in the first place. Not to mention the sheer ugliness of the metal covering that distracts from the beauty of the Diwan-i-Khas and the Rang Mahal. There are other examples of this complete lack of aesthetics. Some chhatris on the Lahori Gate side are painted every year for the Independence Day celebrations. While this may not damage the structure, it certainly is a mutation of the original beauty and conception of the fort. Says Sengar, "It should have been left as it was. There is no need to paint it."

WHILE Shah Jahan was the undisputed king in his day, now the Red Fort has many masters, each with their own agenda. Right now there are nine agencies involved in the running of the fort. These include the ASI, the municipal corporation, the CPWD, Delhi Administration, ITDC, Delhi traffic police, the Indian army, the Railways, plus various parking lot contractors, kiosk owners and Meena Bazaar shopkeepers. Says Divay Gupta who works with the Delhi Institute of Heritage Research and Management, "The entire approach is piecemeal. It’s a 300-400 year old building. Why is it being treated like a DDA flat? The attitude is: if you want a light, drill a hole anywhere!" Even the Mumtaz Mahal— now a muse-um—has been covered from all sides destroying its original colonnade style.

Some of the agencies have no real reason to be there any longer. The army, for instance, has been resisting moving from there, whereas the ASI, INTACH and most other conservationists agree that it needs to vacate its part of the fort. The army liaison cell cites ceremony and tradition for its continuing presence. Says Anuradha Chaturvedi, a conservation architect, "You can’t be casual about the fort. We need a conservation management plan in place." It was the lack of such a plan that led to the rejection of a proposal to declare the fort a World Heritage Site. The result of all these agencies working at cross-purposes is evident in the case of the baoli which dates back to the Tughlaq period and is considered to be of "unusual design and high archaeological value." Currently under the army, it is treated as a dumping ground.

SOME buildings like the Moti Masjid and the Hamaam which are closed to the public, are littered with bird droppings and nests. Old buildings, experts aver, need to be properly ventilated to increase longevity. To compound matters, the supposed ‘restoration’ work carried out in the Hamaam is also reprehensible. Patchy, with cement used for ‘repair’ (white cement was used on the Diwan-i-Khas floor too), it is at best ungainly. At worst it’s detrimental to the well-being of this sandstone monument. Also, the shopkeepers in Meena bazaar are a law unto themselves, and with their wares spilling onto the approach road, it looks more a DDA market than a show-piece of the glory of the Mughals.

The ASI’s attempt to "protect" the fort from the 20,000 average daily visitors by closing most of the buildings to the public is also a touchy point. Says Ratish Nanda, consultant at INTACH, "Why should the heritage of the people be kept away from them in a democracy? Maybe we can have a diff e rential ticketing system that reduces the pressure on these buildings." Experts also recommend a revival of the Mughal Gardens and an interactive museum which would give people a feel of what the fort was like in its days of glory.

While its easy to bash the ASI for its incompetence, it’s also important to realise that the agency is strapped for funds. Of the annual budget allocated from the centre, a large chunk is earmarked for the Taj Mahal. Next in the line of priority are the 16 World Heritage Sites. But, says an expert,

"There are many foreign agencies which would be more than happy to spend on restoration and maintenance of this monument. If the Aga Khan Cultural Trust can sanction Rs 2 crore for Humayun’s tomb, then why not the Red Fort?"

Meanwhile, abysmal facilities, unscrupulous guides, beggars, touts and rude staff all make a visit to the Red Fort an unpleasant experience. This building, representative of the delicate workmanship and unmatched grandeur of the Mughals, in its present misery is a testimony to the times.

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