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
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 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
"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
"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
"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 firstname.lastname@example.org)