Think conservation of historical monuments in India and images of 20th century's mindless repairing of old structures invariably come to mind. Fresh layers of concrete simply mask years of grime and ill-use - but have never managed to restore the monuments to their original state. However, in the last eight years in Delhi's Nizamuddin area, Aga Khan Trust for Culture (AKTC) has adopted a multi-disciplinary approach to heritage conservation that seeks to change this - it has not only revived history, but also the lives of its local stakeholders. "When we sketched out the Nizamuddin Urban Renewal Programme, we were clear that unless our heritage conservation efforts had direct and discernable socio-economic benefits for the local populace, they would probably not succeed in the long term," says Ratish Nanda, Projects Director of AKTC. In one of the largest public-private projects of its time, with an MoU was signed in 2007 by Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), Central Public Works Department, Municipal Corporation of Delhi, Aga Khan Foundation and the Aga Khan Trust for Culture. Their aim? To unify the three presently segregated zones - Humayun's Tomb, Nizamuddin Basti and Sunder Nursery - into an urban conservation district of immense historical significance.
How they went about this project has redefined the concept of conservation. "We've spent more time and resources on building school and health infrastructure, than we have on rejuvenating historic structures such as Humayun's Tomb, Chausath Khamba and Mirza Ghalib's tomb," says Nanda. Also unusual is their idea of giving the local populace a stake in the preservation of their heritage, especially in a country where conservation of heritage structures often simply entails the forcible removal of poor squatters living there. I walk through Humayun's Tomb with Rashid and Aamir Ahmed, two youths from the Nizamuddin basti who're part of an AKTC-trained Self Help Group (SHG) to conduct guided walks in the area, and see how well the concept is working. "During my training as a guide, I learnt about the history of my neighbourhood and the importance of the monuments where we used to play cricket in as children!" says Ahmed. "I'm now proud to show my home to other people…" Under the banner of Sair-e-Nizamuddin, they introduce tourists to the poets, food, architecture and culture of Nizamuddin. Ahmed, who is also pursuing a course in social work through distance learning, tells me enthusiastically that they have tied up with several premium hotels and agencies and even in the summer, which is typically off-season, they manage to conduct six to seven walks a month.
"Inculcating pride in their historic neighbourhood has ensured that our conservation efforts here will have a lasting impact," says Deeti Ray of AKTC. It helps that Ahmed and his cohorts in the SHG now have a direct economic stake in the preservation of their heritage. Similarly, Ray and her associates have worked to capitalise on Nizamuddin's rich craft heritage. "Traditionally, women here stayed indoors, but were known for the fineness of their embroidery. We helped them form SHGs and today, they're making and selling products with motifs that echo those found in Mughal architecture, under the brand Insha-e-Noor," she says. Recently, ASI allowed them to set up a small kiosk at Humayun's Tomb and the outlet is providing them with a steady source of business. At the kiosk, I walk over to a quirky looking cart and meet Shaheen Begum. "Through a training workshop organised by AKTC, I learnt the art of paper cutting. Today, I cut lattice designs on paper that look just like the beautiful sandstone jaalis in the tomb!" she says proudly.
"In addition to creating livelihoods, we've also worked on core aspects of infrastructure in the basti - schools, health centres, parks and aspects of community life," says Jyotsna Lall, director programmes at AKTC. Since 2008, owing partly to improved school infrastructure, enrollment has risen from 130 to 550. While 25 per cent of locals still don't have in-house toilets, open defecation is almost nil as the community toilets have been revamped completely. "Since their own quality of life has improved, they're more open to bigger issues like improving their environment and reviving their architectural heritage," she says.
Walking through Humayun's Tomb with the Sair-e-Nizamuddin duo, I muse that the investment in the local stakeholders has, in some ways, dwarfed the conservation aspect of the project. But this too has created jobs, quadrupled tourist footfalls and revived lost arts of architectural embellishments. "We brought artisans from Rajasthan to copy old sandstone jaalis and had local tile makers trained by Uzbek craftsmen in the art of glazing," says Nanda. Inside the workshop at the Tomb, I see tiles in the signature shades of lapis and green being made. "We analyse each old tile to determine the materials used to create its colour, then replicate it exactly," says Saroj Pandey, master tile maker. "They have to be perfect."
As we leave, I cast a last look at Begum confidently selling a crocheted dream catcher to some tourists and realise that the essence of renewal of Nizamuddin lies not as much in the beautiful Mughal tomb restored to much of its original glory, but in the new-found spring in Ahmad's step, and in Begum's confident smile…
For more information, visit www.nizamuddinrenewal.org and see Sair-e-Nizamuddin on Facebook.
Next up, the story of a Wildlife Conservation agency whose undercover operatives have revealed a thriving trade in poached animal parts