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Nizamuddin Basti: Centuries-old Delhi urban sprawl lives in secular harmony

Thursday June 28, 2012 02:56:59 PM, Madhusree Chatterjee, IANS

Dastangoi at the Chausath Khamba - a historic performance space restored in Nizamuddin Basti.

New Delhi: As the summer heat settles on Hazrat Nizamuddin Basti every morning, the 700-year-old urban sprawl in south Delhi comes to life blurring the boundary between the past and present. It is a strange cluster of old Mughal buildings, archaeological relics and new concrete homes that exist in secular harmony in the Indian capital.

The government schools open shutters, a gymnasium for Muslim women sees its first batch troop in to get into shape, the health care clinics, vocational training schools and computer centres begin their grind for the day.

Last weekend, 240 women and youths of Nizamuddin Basti were awarded certificates for successfully completing job-oriented skill training.

A universe of contemporary livelihoods flourishes around the 16th century mausoleum of the scholar-king Humayun in the Nizamuddin Basti, restored to its original glory by the Aga Khan Trust for Culture under a 20-year integrated project.

"The Nizamuddin Urban Renewal Initiative" is a not-for-profit public-private partnership project of the Archaeological Survey of India, the erstwhile Municipal Corporation of Delhi (the South Delhi Municipal Corporation now being the implementing authority), the Central Public Works Department, the Aga Khan Foundation and the Aga Khan Trust for Culture which is using regeneration of heritage and culture as a tool for sustainable development and modern living in a historical site.

The initiatives cover every sphere of life to empower residents and connect heritage conservation with urban sustainability and living cultures to guarantee the lease of life.

Occasionally, the sprawl, known as the birthplace of Islamic religious musical tradition of qawaali, resounds with the music of Sufi saint Hazart Amir Khusrau, the founder of the genre. The 14th century qawaali is witnessing a revival in the basti with the help of festivals, discussions and recorded music discs in a parallel revival programme co-funded by the Ford Foundation.

The government, on its part, is seeking Unesco heritage status for the music.

"The trust's support to historic communities demonstrates how conservation and revitalisation of the cultural heritage - in many cases the only asset at the disposal of the community - can provide a springboard for social development," says Aga Khan, founder of the trust and a culture crusader committed to revitalising ancient Islamic cities and cultures.

The cultural philanthropist says "such integrated projects can have an impact beyond conservation, promoting good governance, the growth of a civil society, rise in incomes and economic opportunities, better stewardship of the environment and greater respect for human rights".

Zainab, a young woman from the Nizamuddin Basti, has found a new dignity. She teaches at a government school, speaks English and works in an anganwadi centre for mother and child welfare near her home.

"I learnt English at a six months' training course sponsored by the mission. They recommended me for two months of training at the British Council after which I took up a teaching position at the local school," Zainab told IANS.

Later, government instructors trained her in anganwadi and nursery education projects at her basti.

The conservation programme has also changed the life of Masooma, a young woman with a computer degree, who works at the local primary school with 600 students. The school is supported by the renewal project.

"I was not allowed to go far from home to work. The school gave me sustenance," Masooma told IANS. She stays at the school, away from her family which lives nearby.

A group of 40 women has brought back to life the traditional paper-cutting art of Sanjhi - trained by masters craftspeople from Mathura. The women sell their paper wares in the market.

The project is cashing on the locality's secular cultural traditions of theatre, classical music and Sufism for heritage awareness campaigns.

"On July 7, the renewal mission will collaborate with the Urdu Academy to stage a play at Chausath Khamba, a historical performance space. The play is about the restoration of a 13th century 'baoli' (stepwell)," a senior project officer told IANS.

Arts is central to life in the sprawl. The primary school in Nizamuddin Basti ensures that every child gets six hours of arts every week in the regular school module, the officer said.

"The project, through a not-for-profit public-private partnership and in partnership with the local community, is striving to develop a model for urban development of our historic city centres," said Ratish Nanda, conservation architect and the country head of the Aga Khan Trust for Culture.

The trust would take up a similar project in Hyderabad in the future, the project director said.

(Madhusree Chatterjee can be contacted at





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