Much has been written and spoken about a certain kind of allure that surrounds the ideas of and on Havelis in India. Art historians, architect, Travel bloggers, common tourists among others express their wonder on the architectural structures and interior designs. A recent walk on the theme of Havelis presented these reflections and went beyond to provide a glimpse on the lifestyles of the communities who live or lived in these amazing mansions by referring to the historical Chunnamal Haveli on the Chandni Chowk main road in Shahjahanabad Old Delhi. The walk advocated the need to immediately address and support Havelis owners to sustain both tangible and intangible heritage of fast ‘developing’ New India.
The havelis, courtyard mansions were architecturally designed to suit climatic conditions and accommodate multiple generations who lived as a joint family unit. In the North, these homes had spaces for community living like the courtyards and the roofs. While the courtyards saw everyday family congregations and celebrations, the rooftops were where all kinds of activities such as kite and pigeon flying and even flirtatious activities with neighbors peppered the humdrum life and formed a seminal aspect of lifestyles.
Within the context of the urban phenomenon, these Havelis were homes of the city elites who were largely political, mercantile, and professionals. In the city of Shahjahanabad like in Varanasi, a large number of more elaborate mansions belonged to merchants. Lala Chunnamal of Delhi was not only a successful trader but one who benefited from his closeness with the British much like the Neo-Nawabs of Lucknow post-1857. His famous Haveli built in 1864 carries a slab that provides the date and says that this home was a paradise.
Such was his friendship with the Brits that Lala Chunnamal bought the entire Chandini Chowk for a pittance. He also owned the Fatehpuri Mosque at the end of the road. The influential merchant was twice elected to the municipal council in Delhi, and the Indian family was one of the few who was granted membership of the Delhi Gymkhana Club during the British days. And while Havelis such as that of Lala Chunnamal integrated sturdy cast iron balconies and spun spiral staircases around the courtyards the interiors were often about Indo-Western aesthetics. Viceroys visited, Nehru, and Indira Gandhi came to dine, and the family participated in horse races including winning in the Aminabad horse-show in Lucknow. Theirs was one of the earliest homes to acquire a telephone, a car and other trappings of Western lifestyles.
Like in other Havelis their courtyards hosted mehfils (gatherings) of tawaifs (geishas) while their women watched from behind the chicks or bamboo curtains. The washerwoman dhobin and the barbress nainyin were important figures who transmitted news from one zenana or women quarters t those of other Havelis.
The luxury of lifestyles manifested themselves in acquiring Western decor like the famed Osler glassware chandeliers for candles and kerosene and Belgian mirrors. The Chunnamal Havelis had it all which incorporated stylistic European furniture, clocks, telephones, fireplaces and even the maintenance tools for the fireplace.
This was augmented by using sophisticated crafts to embellish the interiors. Clay tiles from Sindh that provided a carpet look, gold plated stucco work along the ceiling with an offset with the use of real indigo and ceilings decorated with cloth ensured the best of the Indian crafts.
Dilemmas and Struggles: It is a struggle for those who continue to live or own such large mansions. Whether in Lucknow like the Raja of Memoodabad and Raja of Jehangirabad or in Delhi like Mr. Anil Perahad the only one from the Chunnamal family who continues to live in the Haveli while the rest of the stakeholders of one of the largest Havelis of the old town have moved out. Mr. Pershad has relentlessly work to glue the history of his family and house as a significant heritage of Shahjahanabad, however, he hopes support is extended to somehow sustain the home amidst a well-conserved ecology of heritage-landscape.
The Heritagescape of Shahjahanabad certainly is in peril. The construction lobby who without any synergized local aesthetics has overtaken the area with such force that there is a garish and outlandish aura about the newly constructed buildings. The heritage zone is under threat and fast changing. Advocates, tradition bearers and cultural repositories like Anil Pershad are marginalized in the face of the lopsided fervor on development.
Cultural Policy & Action: There needs to be a strategy to provide economic incentives to preserve the outer facades of mansions like the Chunnamal Haveli along with incentives to create and sustain an exhibition section of the interiors. This kind of strategy can emerge only when there is a wide and a detailed Cultural policy which at present is nonexistent both as the Centre and at the State level.
The strategy towards Havelis needs to assimilate and address issues related to intangible heritage and cultural skills. For example, much of the décor in several Havelis and temples especially Jain Temples which as constructed like Havelis in Old Delhi comprise of frescoes that are painted with organic paints by Muslim artists from Rajasthan. The elaborate interior painted work in the ‘Naugarha’ Swetamber Jain temple in the Kinari Bazaar is one such example. A few years ago the trustees recruited artists from the original family, and a significant amount of conservation of artwork was done. However, as it often happens, tourism from Belgium lured them and now they have acquired substantial work in Europe.
A few years ago, the Shahjahanabad Redevelopment Corporation (SRDC) was set up to address such issues. Nonetheless, constant red tape by ill-equipped bureaucrats, constant change in political views has done away with positive documentation and plans suggested by both internal and external experts. So while the jamboree regarding the fashion of Heritage Walk has peaked there is a disjunction between the State, Heritage stakeholders and the actual players in Old Delhi and this needs to be resolved soon before Delhi forfeits its crowning glory of Heritage in Shahjahanabad.