The Once and Future City

The Once and Future City
The Lodhi Art District

Delhi has had many avatars through the ages. Reminiscing about Delhi with the true-blue Dilliwala

Aman Nath
May 31 , 2020
18 Min Read

Delhi is as much a buried city as one that wilfully layers itself anew. Being the capital of the only continuously alive civilisation in the world, it owes this resurgence to itself, and to India. To me—who was born in New Delhi in 1950—it is energising to live in a city which is forever mercurial, effervescent and adolescent. 

When the British announced the shift of the seat of their ‘jewel in the crown’ from Calcutta to Delhi, they were back on that dahel—the threshold—which had symbolised a point of entry for the Turks, Afghans, Mongols, etc, and they consciously saw their Dilli transformed to New Delhi. Dictums like ‘All roads lead to Rome’ moved from the english tongues to our lips. That was the classical, ancient civilisational seed of Britannica. So, like Rome, New Delhi also got to have its proverbial seven cities. But when I grew up studying history and counted, the buried layers led to the figure of 12: 1. Indraprastha, 2. Dilli, 3. Lal Kot, 4. Qila Rai Pithora, 5. Kilughari, 6. Siri, 7. Tughlaqabad, 8. Jahanpanah, 9. Ferozabad, 10. Din Panah, 11. Sher Garh, 12. Shahjahanabad. New Delhi was the 13th and it became the grandest architectural commission since Rome. 


Once upon a time, you could take a tonga to Connaught Place

I was born in 9/56 Western Extension Area in a twin house by Pusa Road, where a post-1947 refugee colony was created to house some of the 14.5 million displaced and dispossessed from west Punjab. And I was privileged to be born with a twin brother—unidentical; so we could both grow our own personalities. 

Going out in Delhi in the mid-1960s (Aman Nath is second from left)

My father bought an oldsmobile with a dicky that opened downwards. We would jump into the boot and sit on a springy sofa seat which made our mobile exhibitionism a joy on Kingsway. Much that we now flaunt in Delhi was yet to be created. But the West Pakistan refugees knew for certain that money was never going to be a substitute for perseverance. As children, when we wore our best and visited Connaught Place, that was the only london we knew: Rivoli, odeon, Regal and Plaza cinemas. Then there were restaurants where we wore our best table manners, places like volga and Gaylord with a Chinese Nanking thrown in for cosmopolitanism. A ‘gay’ lord was only a merry, epicurean nobleman—not an Oscar Wilde turning a new page or indeed a page boy! The eclectic palate began much later when, in 1960, Nirula’s opened a Gufa restaurant with an Indian name, rather than calling it The Grotto. It was the first air-conditioned speciality Indian food restaurant with the interiors designed by M.R. Acharekar, an eminent artist and art director of R.K. Studios. He got a team from Bombay to do all the plaster of paris work here. The peacock-style chair was designed by Linder Tanger, an Austrian woodwork consultant to the Government of India. The food was served in sterling silver thalis at Rs 10 per person. At that stage, an Indian theme countered the mainstream aspirational flow. So Nirula’s also did La Boheme! Thirty years later came Chor Bizarre on Asaf Ali Road and Moti Mahal wasn’t the only reason to head towards Daryaganj. Desi appeal—which we used to call ‘very pap’ in our days—rolled into ethnic became chic. Indian became acceptable for Indians. 

A taxi strike in Delhi from another era

The Tabela opened at Oberoi Intercontinental as the first discotheque. one Coca-Cola which sold for one rupee outside could be consumed there for Rs 4 in pitch darkness. As school kids, we considered it bad value for money but we hovered like bees till they introduced cover charges and we laid off to go instead to the Cellar in the Regal Building at Connaught Place. Then there was Sensation at the Oberoi Maidens, when we were at college (the translucent dance floor of Ghungroo came much later with ITC Maurya). 

When the Taj Mahal hotel on Man Singh Road was to open, Anjolie Ela Menon who painted their haveli restaurant (now varq) and Mr Pathak who created the fibreglass domes in the lobby, both happened to be staying at my home. I would go and watch them shape the newest hotel of Delhi. At the oberoi, naturally, there was concern for this real competition—also curiously because their Indian restaurant was called Taj! This was going to create much confusion. Which Taj would Delhiites choose to date at? I wrote an advertisement clarifying this: “At the end of the Oberoi lobby, turn right into the Taj!” eventually this area was to get more global with Oberoi’s signature 360° restaurant. We were admitted in 1954 to the Modern High School, an expensive outfit based on the British public schools, but it was a more grounded proposition. It was the best investment my parents made and we grew up good at Sanskrit and Hindi, Batik and Bharatanatyam, just as much as at horse riding swimming—and golf outside our school. My twin brother headed for technology (robotics) and golf championships while my road was backwards—history (restoring ruins) and recording my ignorance in books. 

Aman Nath sitting with his brothers in a striped woollen sweater knitted by his grandmother, mid-1950s

As children, a horse-driven tonga would drop us from W2/2, Patel Nagar to Barakhamba Road at a cost of 4 annas or 25 paise per trip—the quarter of one rupee. The kids, who came in chauffeur-driven cars, thought we were princes, not the children of refugee parents! An American limousine— imported at a duty of 300 percent—parked outside our school was an anomaly, crying out to old money for a nouveau riche approval. Our family had no such illusions as we grew up to cycle freely from Nizamuddin to our school, some six kilometres away. At 12km per day, I wheeled hundreds of thousands kilometres of roads, which gave me good calves and thighs. At 14, when I won the prestigious obstacle Race at school, competing with 17 year olds, it was to do with being self-driven in a city where the whole new order was also driving itself to stabilising and upscaling their businesses. It had nothing to do with physical trainers which surround the spoilt children of today. My muscles were effortlessly self made. 

A common Punjabi surname like Oberoi linked with Intercontinental in 1965 to make us fiercely proud and H.P. Nanda took escorts to dizzying heights tying up with Ford and others. Slowly, Bombay looked over its shoulder to see the ‘village’ of Delhi, for long its country cousin, overtake it in more ways than one. New Delhi coalesced to become both Washington and New York—a seat of power with its unholy nexus of go-betweens intact. New Delhi as a city was also Indira Gandhi’s salon to receive guests and to wow them over. The jamun and neem trees that my maternal grandfather had contracted to plant as a side business in the 1920s, had made Delhi into a city of boulevards through which the world drove in admiration. 

Post 1911, names like Marybad and Georgegarh had been rejected by the King emperor George v and empress Queen Mary for the new city. They simply suggested the addition of New to the older Delhi. But Delhi’s population momentum has kept the sprawl going. Many Newer and Newest Delhi will continue to come. My grandfather had wanted to buy a home in Model Town (Re. 1 per sq yd) as opposed to Ratendone Road (Amrita Sher-gil Marg now) which was “too close to the Safdarjung Airport”, as he had said. A plot in Golf links was available for Rs 5,000. But that was exorbitant. Sunder Nagar was for the Seth log, Jor Bagh for professionals and the salaried; the Golf links gentry were Sahibs, already with some funds in their pockets. Today, newer Delhis keep reinventing themselves. Many more buildings have sprung up in the National Capital Region than in Haussmann’s Paris. We have our Beverly hills, Palm Springs and all our Pappu pretensions. Restaurant goers are spoilt for choice just like Londoners are. 

Punjabi Delhi was all about touching the feet of elders. Symbolically, at least, and a bear hug. Then there was the shaking of hands, which the British had taught us, basically keeping us at an arm’s length—with gloves for their royalty. Kissing had always been a European thing: two baisers in France, three bacio in Italy. Men never kissed, except in the Middle East. The new Haryanvi-Delhi style imbibed and overtook all the cultures. Now men and women have shed victorian prudery to kiss cheeks flamboyantly in the presence of their partners. Men too hug and kiss without any connotations. Namastes are out, though Coronavirus is paying a retro-tribute to them. But Delhi’s own culture has planted the flying kisses firmly on both cheeks. 

CHOGM and the NAM conference saw New Delhi become newer. The roads broadened on to the pavements which in turn trespassed the grass. A garden city run over with a tapestry of serpents in black tarmac and grey concrete had soon begun to emerge for the Asian Games. From the sky, one could see the looped roads incestuously embracing themselves to their right and left with flexible, elbow-less arms. 

When I first visited the Delhi Golf Course at age eight, trying to discipline a little white ball with moon-white craters, golf was still considered a sport and not a snobbery. We played in simple, unbranded clothes and a shower was the real delight—not the beer. We remained innocent about the connotations of the game and where it placed us socially. Dr Bharat Ram, L.M. Thapar, Karni Singh of Bikaner, etc, only stopped at their handicaps, not at their bottom lines or palaces and jewels. That was the privilege of golf in childhood. I played a regular weekend game with three distinguished members of the judiciary—Chief Justice Sikri, Justice Manchanda and Justice Bhargava—because I was the only Nath who didn’t give them a complex about the length of their drive or their stubborn sand wedge which buried the ball like an ostrich beak, without it budging out of the bunker. We never talked shop or asked for favours. Public relations and liaison officers could only have been too much in-the-face and rather unenviable professions. When my mother, as lady Captain of the club, had an ‘At home’ in our little triangular garden, there were no caterers to lay out a spread and no wine because my parents did not curry favours from ambassadors nor did they know the word bootlegger. To be invited home was about warmth and a privileged door to friendship—not a demonstration that one had arrived, or that the wine glasses were Lalique. Living in Nizamuddin from 1957 meant that you had a bohemian, artistic neighbourhood. M.F. Husain, Tyeb Mehta and V.S. Gaitonde lived here with Ram Kumar and Krishen Khanna just down Mathura Road. In a painted Fiat car, Husain would stand on the Nizamuddin east roundabout trying to flog his works for Rs 75. These were signed ‘Maqbool’. His seminal 80th-birthday bash was half a century away and was arranged at Art Today in 1995 by Rekha Purie and me. Here, each of the Madhuri Dixit canvases sold for Rs 10 lakhs each. I had bought a Tyeb for Rs 2,700, and a Ram Kumar and a Krishen Khanna for Rs 19,000 each—never once thinking they were investments. 

An expansive roadside hoarding in Delhi detailing Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s 20-point economic programme, 1976

In 1988, when I wrote the first catalogue for Sotheby’s auction, Husain crossed the Rs 1 lakh mark for the first time. I bid for Tyeb up to 70,000 but was both relieved and sad when it went for 75,000. Art for the eyes and heart gave way to auctions for money suction and show off. 

There was a minimal club culture in Delhi. The ICS mingled at the Gymkhana where money was sneered at but discreet style wasn’t. Swimming and bridge became more democratic. ‘Lady Willingdon Swimming Bath’ it read and Indian memsahibs loved the sunless pool. The Chelmsford was glitz, gambling and gourmandise bursting on all edges into gluttony. We used to shop only when necessary. In 1959, the Tibetan refugees brought Queensway (Janpath) to a new fame/shame as they ended up selling all their heritage treasures. I remember looking for T-shirts in a little shop where Rajiv and Sanjay Gandhi also picked their colours without any security. Connaught Place was a trousseau shopping place where hunting for that rare three-piece suit for the bridegroom was a many-splendoured choice. Khan Market was where servants and drivers were sent for the chemist and car repairs or we stopped for Caryhom ice-cream, and, occasionally, for a book. 

Excess brought another phase: Green Park and Greater Kailash spilled over to greener pastures called ‘farmhouses’ whose real agriculture was not barley but beer mugs and barbeques. I skipped the farmhouse phase as I advertised for DLF Qutab enclave. K.P. Singh had bought some 2,000 acres of land and there were no buyers. I was sought after as the best copywriter. My freelance campaigns brought instant success to DlF and I remember K.P. Singh saying to me, “We are selling two crores a week, Aman. Maan gaye!” They used to tell me to buy their land which was sold for Rs 1,000 per square yard, even though the metres had long arrived. But I had different plans. I first chose to invest in the ruins of a haveli—and then in some 30 Neemrana projects. My tryst was to be with history and my future walked backwards into India’s past. 

But how far back can you go in and around Delhi? Recently, fate led me east to Noida where a 5,000-year-old Shivalinga is venerated. It was worshipped by Vishrava Muni and his son, the wise Ravana. Today, the village is called Bisrakh, surrounded by a bewildering skyline of sharp buildings poking the sky. There are plans to make an octagonal garden parikrama. The more one travels the body and mind, the more the ego dwindles. The rest depends all on the outlook! 

The City That Is
Delhi’s fitrat is to emerge from the proverbial ashes of its ancestors. This spirit of revival floats across b-boy groups popping and locking among relics from the Mughal era, the minaret of the Slave Dynasty shining down on pubs and nightclubs, and the Tibetan monasteries tucked behind swarming Korean skincare stores. It is, however, especially apparent in the way this dynamic city has embraced and evolved its cultural spaces. Labanya Maitra reports: 

National War Memorial
The National War Memorial

Spread over 40 acres in the India Gate complex, the new National War Memorial and Museum was established in memory of the 22,500 soldiers martyred during the 1962 Sino-India War, the 1947, 1965 and 1971 wars with Pakistan, the 1999 Kargil conflict, and the Indian peace Keeping Force operations in Sri Lanka. Designed in the Chakravyuh formation, the central 15-metre-tall obelisk—the Amar Chakra—rises with an adjoining eternal flame, separate from the Amar Jawan Jyoti. The concentric Veerta and Tyag Chakras stand for bravery and sacrifice, while the outer Rakshak Chakra represents soldiers standing guard in the form of 695 trees. Calm remembrance is thick in the air and entry to the memorial is free for all. 

Sunder Nursery
The Sunder Nursery
Set along the 16th-century Grand Trunk road, the Sunder Nursey is flanked by Humayun’s Tomb in the south and Purana Qila in the north. This Mughal-era garden tomb complex was restored in stages since 2007 by the Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN), and houses six Unesco World Heritage Sites. Sprawling across 70 acres, the new and revamped Sunder Nursery has over 300 tree species, and is Delhi’s first arboretum. There are over 50 varieties of flowers for visitors to enjoy and nearly 20 acres of nursery beds. The nursery now looks like a modern-day Persian garden with water channels and fountains, architectural motifs, and jaali panels. But Sunder Nursery is not just a pretty garden. The open-air premises have been home to over 60 sandstone and bronze sculptures. The amphitheatre is a perfect spot for artists to gather, collaborate and perform. The installations keep changing, so be on the lookout for new art at the nursery! 

Rashtrapati Bhavan
A tour through Rashtrapati Bhavan
Step into the world’s second largest presidential estate and marvel at how the abode of the country’s first citizen functions. Rashtrapati Bhavan now takes visitors on tours of the complex in three different circuits. Circuit one showcases the Forecourt and rooms like the Banquet Hall, Durbar Hall, North and long Drawing rooms, the Ashok Hall and more. The second circuit boasts of the country’s only underground museum, which offers a glimpse into the freedom struggle, the election process, and displays the presidents’ personal belongings. Interestingly, the Clock Tower, Stables and Garages are also open to the public, and the latter houses the vehicles of all the presidents past. The Mughal and other gardens fall under Circuit three. 

Lodhi Art District
Lutyens’ Delhi got a facelift back in 2016 with the introduction of the Lodhi art District. in the two-month-long street art festival, 20 artists from India and around the world took to the drab walls of the government residential buildings—armed with an idea and some paint—and went to town. What remains now is an art walk unlike any other with the added thrill of discovering a new mural around every corner. people can make use of the interactive pieces by scanning a QR code on their phone and watch the art come to life, quite literally. The murals speak of love and compassion, the city’s colonial history, its amalgamation of cultures, peace, and well, the magic of Delhi. 

Studio Safdar
Inside Studio Safdar

While Mandi House represents the theatre hub of the Delhi that was, it’s the city’s little black box theatres which represent the Delhi that is. The idea of Studio Safdar—named after political and cultural activist Safdar Hashmi—came from the radical theatre enthusiasts of Delhi who wanted to break the art out of the proscenium and bring it to the people. Today, it’s not only a space for experimental theatre to thrive, but it’s also taking a leap into films. Studio Safdar presents itself as an alternative, intimate platform to promote discussions on political ideologies, society, philosophy and culture. 

India Art Fair
A glimpse from India Art Fair

Delhi’s art scene has been taken by storm and the annual India art Fair is a curated insight into the changing themes, ideas and formats of the genre. The fair brings galleries, artists, charities and collectives together with national institutions, events and festivals to the city’s forefront. The juxtaposition of established artists with emerging ones, photographs with paintings, and performance art with multimedia ensures it’s an immersive experience for days. India art Fair engages its audiences in innovative ways to connect with the history and development of the region. it’s also nice to note that the fair doesn’t shy away from artists making a political statement. 

Bikaner House
Built during the times of the princely States, Bikaner House’s opulent architecture was a thing of beauty. Over the decades, the mansion fell into a paan-stained, decrepit state. The former bus terminus has now been restored to its former glory, and revamped into Delhi’s art and cultural hub. From art openings in the gallery, musical performances in Chandni Bagh, and book readings in the baithak, Bikaner House offers the works with well-curated spaces to suit different needs. The design shop, VAYU, is a permanent fixture run by Vivek Sahani, and sources custom-crafted items from local Rajasthani artisans to match the mansion’s bygone beauty. 

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