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Connaught Place and the Making of New Delhi – Swapna Liddle

Connaught Place and the Making of New Delhi – Swapna Liddle

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Connaught Place and the Making of New Delhi – Swapna Liddle

Sanjana Kumar

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?

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!


As you’ve mentioned in the book, you conducted most of your research on Delhi while working on a UNESCO project to give Delhi the status of a World Heritage City. How important do you think it is to give old structures and monuments a UNESCO status. Would you say that doing so is an essential step for preserving heritage? 

Yes, some of my research, and a lot of my thinking was done during that project. UNESCO recognition is maybe not essential but it is desirable. It can help reinvent the way we and the world looks at a place. If we define historic districts like New Delhi or Old Delhi in terms of the essential features of their distinctive character, we will be more circumspect in how we change or redevelop parts of these. Change is inevitable in a living city, but it should be sensitive. In addition, of course, UNESCO recognition helps to boost tourism, and for neighbourhoods like Shahjahanabad, may be the one thing that can save its beautiful historic character.


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

In my book I have discussed a very convincing theory, which is unfortunately not known outside a very narrow academic circle. This 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 much of 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.


It was often emphasized by the makers of New Delhi that the city would bear a testimony to the growing bond of the British Raj with the people of India. Do you think that this was actually achieved in the final structure of the city? 

The physical structure of the city probably lived up to the vision of those who planned it with those aims. Unfortunately, ultimately these were hollow gestures, however grand they may have been. In the eyes of the Indian people, the harsh realities of colonial rule did not change with a shift to Delhi and the building of a new capital.


Can you suggest some steps that can be taken to ensure that the distinctive cultural heritage of Delhi is preserved in the future? 

I seriously believe that the protection of historic spaces is crucial to the survival of culture. For instance, the traditional havelis of Shahjahanabad, with their courtyards and hospitable front steps, foster a culture of close neighbours and community life. And ironically, one can actually get closer to one of the famous so-called ‘Lutyens’ Bungalows than one can to a ‘villa’ in a gated community in other areas. This is simply because the pavement outside is free for anyone to walk on. The open plans of Connaught Place and Khan Market also are in fact more inclusive than an air-conditioned mall–yes there are upmarket stores there, but also hawkers. No one is likely to feel out of place there because they are not expensively dressed.


There is a famous saying, “until the lion tells the story, the hunter will always be the hero.” What would you say are the few important things that one must keep in mind while writing histories? 

I can only speak for myself here, but I have always believed in making history accessible to a non-specialist readership. This does mean writing in simple language, and trying to keep it light, but it does not mean any compromise with solid research. I am a historian by training and discipline, and I trust that informs my writing. Ultimately, I try to take historical research out to a larger audience. 


Are you writing a next book? 

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 in 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.


About the Interviewee:

Swapna Liddle is an author and historian with a specialization 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).

She is the author of Connaught Place and the making of New Delhi (Speaking Tiger, 2018); Chandni Chowk: The Mughal city of Old Delhi (Speaking Tiger, 2017); and Delhi: 14 Historic Walks (Westland, 2011, new edition forthcoming). She has also written several articles for academic journals and books, and edited and annotated Sair-ul-Manazil (Tulika 2017).