Opinion

View: The 'just leave it alone' lesson from the dolled up Jallianwala Bagh


Earlier this month, I wept at Jallianwala Bagh. Not for the martyred, but for the place. At Karbala-e-Hind in Amritsar, I expected to be touched by a sense of bewildered chaos, stirred dust, flying slippers, ‘Goli chalao!’ orders, ricochet of bullets against lime-plastered walls, wailing of forsaken children, last moans of the dying, smell of warm gun metal, thud of women diving into a corpse-filled well, and stillness following the last fired round.

Instead, I encountered disproportionate murals in the corridor leading to the bagh, undulating drip-irrigated greens that reminded me of Hole Number 14 at the Tollygunge Club golf course, and a feel-good that people with spare time are likely to share with their family – ‘We have an evening free, let’s picnic at Jallianwala!

The intention of the designer would have presumably been to evoke riqqat (pathos). However, the net result was a feel-neutral place where everything appeared prim. The only place where you kind of felt that this had been the theatre of a tragedy was in the audiovisual enclosures where a security guard periodically whistled to hustle visitors off to the next enclosure. If I hadn’t remembered from school that Jallianwala Bagh had marked the beginning of the end of the British Empire, I may have assumed from the decor that some local havildar had indiscriminately fired, some passersby had died, and a few had reported missing.

Forty years ago, I had climbed the Jabal e Abi Qubaish mountain in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, to get an aerial shot of the Kaaba. This was a mountain with an ancient history that went back to Adam. Shia lore indicates that the location appeared in a dream to faithfuls foretelling the martyrdom of Imam Husain. Since then, the mountain has gone into history – literally. It was razed to make way for skyscrapers.

The Kaaba neighbourhood now has Hiltons within 100 m of the Holy of Holies, where one can order a thin crust margherita pizza from a 35th floor hotel room. If you didn’t see the Kaaba, you could well be in Times Square, New York, or Ginza, Tokyo.

As an 18-year-old, I had walked through meandering 8 ft lanes in the hinterland of Masjid e Nabavi (Prophet’s masjid) in Medina. The lanes were pedestrian-only. You encountered old homes, ancient brickwork and weather-browned doors. By 2008, the entire hinterland had been bulldozed off the map, replaced by acres of marble. Grandeur had displaced the intimate.

I saw this ‘improve upon heritage’ mindset play out within my community’s Kolkata masjid as well. Consecrated in 1921, when electricity was at a premium, the architect designed 66 stained-glass sheets into the arched windows. These windows were not just embellishment; they represented the masjid’s character. Each window comprised three glass sheets that contained 99 calligraphed names of Allah. These glass sheets cast a red tinted sweep across those attending the waaz (discourse) inside. They evoked a maahaul.

Fifteen years ago, the masjid was refurbished. The stained glass was replaced with white-frosted glass. Of the 66 pieces that had survived around 90 years, I could trace only two in the last few months. Any attempt to restore the stained glass was met with the standard forward defensive, ‘Hamna humnay beeju baoo kaam chhey’ (At present, we have a lot of other work to do’). The lime and plaster pillars were pasted over with marble and now wooden veneer. The distinctive has been replaced with the cookie-cutter.

However, we live in hope inspired by islands of responsible conservation. Heritage walk entrepreneur Iftekhar Ahsan acquired and restored a crumbling north Kolkata property into an inspiring boutique hotel, The Calcutta Bungalow. Businessman Harsh Neotia chanced upon the demolition of a 200-year-old State Bank of India (SBI) building, brought all its bricks (earlier used in Gaur, Bengal’s ancient capital), and used them on the facade of the Ffort Raichak hotel, transforming the property’s brand.

Ranjitsinhji’s room in Jamnagar is preserved the way it was the day he died in 1933. The Mona Lisa is yet to be painted over to suit evolving viewer taste. Everything — down to shoes and toothbrushes – has been preserved in Auschwitz ‘as it was’, since no one returns from the concentration camp-turned-museum in Poland saying, ‘How nice.’

The world needs more of ‘Just leave it alone’.



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