Come, Khusro, let us go home

Can culture become a catalyst for development? Can a living culture – that spans seven centuries – be transformed into an engine of growth and regeneration? Can a blend of music, ritual, food, crafts and local traditions be harnessed to improve the quality of life? Can a local community that has, despite occupying the beating heart of a much-venerated spiritual space, be made to shed some of its isolation? Can the effects of long years of disempowerment and disenfranchisement be remedied through confidence-building and inclusive growth plans? Going by preservation and resuscitation work currently taking place in the Basti Nizamuddin area of New Delhi, such goals seem to be entirely possible. A slew of recent initiatives in the vicinity of the Nizamuddin dargah has shown that cultural revival and urban renewal can become two sides of the same coin of development.

The area surrounding Basti Nizamuddin is indeed a special one. Literally dotted with remains of a rich and varied past, a testament to a pluralistic, multicultural society, it holds an embarrassment of riches. While Humayun's Tomb – a short distance away from the dargah – has been declared a World Heritage Site, little is known about the seven centuries of heritage and the many gems hidden in the surrounding area. The earliest Islamic palace building in India, the Lal Mahal, built by Ghayas-ud-din Balban during the 13th century, caused this area to be known as Ghayaspur. And it was to this locale that Hazarat Nizamuddin Auliya came to stay and built his hospice. The area came to be known as Basti Nizamuddin, basti meaning 'settlement'.

Nizamuddin also built a modest retreat a short distance away, now located near the boundary wall of Humayun's Tomb and known as Chilla Nizamuddin. Here, he would come for periodic 40-day retreats, a practice known as chilla khichna. But it was in the basti that he lived and preached a message of love and compassion and came, in turn, to be loved by the people of Delhi as Mehboob-e-Ilahi, the Beloved of God. It was here, too, that he found the rarest of disciples, Amir Khusro, whose life revolved around his master's, and together they witnessed the passing of a turbulent era, which spanned a succession of short-lived reigns, each more tempestuous than the other. The very first qawwalis were composed here, and it was here that Khusro handpicked a group of singers – the qawwal bachchas – and trained them to sing in a new way. As a mark of syncretism and a celebration of pluralism, the festival of basant came to be celebrated with joy, during which time the whole locality would be decorated with yellow flowers – a practice that continues to this day to mark the end of a bitter North Indian winter, and the herald of a balmy though short-lived spring.

During his lifetime, which coincided with a tumultuous period in the history of Delhi, Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya saw many sultans come and go as successive dynasties rose and fell. Through it all, Nizamuddin's fame spread far and wide, and his hospice flourished, attracting large numbers of people. When the saint died in 1325 at the age of 87, Khusro, mad with grief, wrote:

Gori sowe sej par mukh pe dare kes

Chal Khusro ghar aapne, rain bhayi pardes

The beloved sleeps upon her couch, her face covered with her tresses

Come, Khusro, let us go home, for night falls in these strange lands.

Seven centuries later, Nizamuddin's grave continues to be venerated. People continue to flock to the bustling dargah that came up around the grave, and to the small shrine of Amir Khusro, who is buried nearby. While structures were erected over the graves of the saint and his disciple shortly after their death, a cluster of buildings also came up, crowding the space around the dargah. These include the baoli step-well and the Jamaat Khana mosque, Chaunsath Khamba, the grave of Princess Jahanara, Kali Masjid, the tomb of Atgah Khan, the mausoleum of Mirza Ghalib and, a little further away, the Nila Gumbad, Batashewala Complex, the Bu Halima's garden enclosure, Azim Bagh (now known as the Sundar Nursery), Arab ki Sarai and, of course, the spectacular buildings inside the Humayun's Tomb complex.

With princes and sultans vying to be buried close to the Sufi saint, the area soon acquired a dense mosaic of Islamic architecture dating from the medieval period to the present. And with this profusion of building activities, a warren of congested human habitation also appeared in the area, around a network of narrow lanes and higgledy-piggledy houses.

Today's basti

Infested by drug lords, Basti Nizamuddin's narrow lanes have bred petty criminals and wasted youths with little or no option for education, recreation or employment. Despite being located in the heart of plush South Delhi, despite drawing pious pilgrims from distant corners of the world, and despite being redolent with a heady combination of history and culture, the Basti Nizamuddin area is one of the most congested, most underdeveloped, most poorly served ghettos in this otherwise prosperous part of the Indian capital.

Despite its antiquity and veneration, successive governments have chosen to turn a blind eye to this locality, paying no heed to its unique social dynamics and ancient historical linkages with the rest of the city. Used to living in abysmal living conditions, the local population has put up with scanty civic amenities, overflowing sewers, inadequate waste-disposal systems and poor drinking water, enjoying none of the amenities that neighbouring colonies take for granted, such as parks, community health services, even government-run milk and fresh-vegetable outlets. In the absence of government initiative, the community has preferred to wear its backwardness as an impenetrable cloak of defeat and nihilism, wary of any initiative towards change.

Into this dismal scenario, in 2007, stepped the Aga Khan Trust for Culture. In collaboration with several state agencies (including the Archaeological Survey of India, the Municipal Corporation of Delhi and the Central Public Works Department), the Geneva-based private foundation initiated a series of modest changes in the basti. Hopefully, each of these will eventually snowball into something both meaningful and lasting, while also offering a template for similar projects in cloistered communities elsewhere. As Ratish Nanda, the project director, says: 'The future of historic cities can only be assured with greater private sector and civil-society involvement in urban decision-making.' Nanda believes that any success on the part of the project thus far can be put down to support from the Dargah Committee, which manages the shrine, community volunteers and success in attracting national and international donors.

'The Basti Nizamuddin project is based on the premise that heritage is often the only resource available to communities,' adds Nanda. 'By linking conservation of built and intangible heritage to socio-economic development components, such as providing health, education, sanitation infrastructure, [it is possible to] significantly enhance the quality of life in the local community.' Partnerships with diverse organisations bring along additional advantages. For instance, collaboration with the Archaeological Survey of India and the Municipal Corporation of Delhi has allowed the project an interesting double opportunity: both to conserve significant ancient monuments and to build facilities such as public toilets for visitors and locals alike.

The thrust here is on restoring and maintaining the socio-economic and cultural fabric of the Basti Nizamuddin area, and to make changes sustainable. Historic structures are thought to be 're-animated' in the context of on-going social and economic change, rather than as an isolated process. The landscaping of the Chaunsath Khamba complex, for instance, the largest open space in the Basti, has been reworked as an open-air theatre, attracting both local residents and citizens from all parts of Delhi. Importantly, developmental initiatives are not foisted from outside. 'Everything happens according to the people's wishes,' Nanda says. 'Street meetings and discussions with community groups are held before undertaking any project components.'

Conservation work on over 30 monuments of national importance is taking place. But most of the work has focused on the conservation of Mirza Ghalib's tomb to create a tranquil setting – where his admirers can pay their respects or even hold mushairas in his honour – and on the baoli, which suffered significant collapse in 2008. Not only has this damage now been repaired, but 8000 man-days of work were required to remove some 700 years of accumulated sludge.

Revitalising dignity

Beyond the conservation work, the projects undertaken in Basti Nizamuddin focus on literacy, livelihood, health, women's empowerment and environmental sustainability, all highly customised to local need. For instance, 400 youths and adults have been involved in a programme that included adult education, career counselling, vocational training and skill enhancement. Another 500 families were targeted to reach roughly 1000 children in an early-childhood-development programme, where an existing municipal school was taken over and turned into a model school with state-of-the-art classrooms, well-trained staff and a new approach to education.

To make the programme truly broad-based, the project has added not only a dispensary and diagnostic centre but also a focus on improving hygiene standards. As with the school, an existing, poorly run municipal clinic was transformed into a polyclinic with a gynaecological section and increased visits by specialists. An outreach programme seeks to enhance the capacity of community health workers and train volunteers to go into the community and speak about issues such as water-borne diseases, malaria and dengue. In 2011, nearly 7500 patients attended outpatient sessions at the polyclinic.

With infrastructure being the first casualty of any overcrowded area, the project managers identified a slew of urban-improvement approaches for the Basti Nizamuddin area. Beginning with a master plan, repair and upgrading of sewage lines and access to sanitation facilities went hand in hand with more general beautification plans. The Municipal Corporation of Delhi has sanctioned USD 2.9 million for the upgradation of streets in the basti over the next three years.

Thus far, improved streetlights, recharge pits and water-harvesting systems, open spaces for cricket games, community toilet complexes, a gymnasium and a string of cultural events have done much to revitalise the basti. Groups of trained volunteers now take visitors on heritage walks, further instilling a sense of pride and ownership for locals. The first Jashn-e-Khusro programme last year showcased the basti's rich cultural life and long history, drawing the chatterati from all over Delhi. In addition, a 'women's only' zenana park is being built; work is in full swing to build a community wedding hall; and trees, flowers, benches and swings will soon replace the notorious adda of drug-peddlers.

During a recent visit, I spotted a refurbished community toilet and a new night shelter. Everywhere there were signs of a community being urged, gently but decisively, to be more proactive, more open to change. I came across a deaf-and-dumb, one-armed artist busy making a roadside mosaic from bits of coloured glass. A former drug addict, he had been hired by the project managers. In his rehabilitation can be seen a glimmer of the hope and dignity that has long been denied to the people of Basti Nizamuddin.

~ Rakshanda Jalil is director of culture and media at Jamia Millia Islamia University, New Delhi.

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