Sarover Zaidi, who has been associated with the ETIC project for a while now, hosted an unusual discussion in Room 003, School of Arts and Aesthetics, JNU. For once, I happened to be in the right place at the right time.
The first part of a series of ‘Happenings’ under the rubric of the Love in the Time of Choleric Capital (LITTOCC) exhibition, ‘Working with Language and Architecture’ offered a refreshing view of the city. Zaidi led with a question that I am sure many of us have wistfully considered and resignedly let go: where do lovers go in a city–in this case, Delhi.
The panel was formed by an interesting mix of people. Zaidi has been writing on architecture and the city for a while now. Her focuses lie at the intersections of material and visual cultures, texts, aesthetics and religion. Briana Blasko, Zaidi’s partner on a recent project, made her presence felt through her photographs taken around Delhi, especially in the Lodi Gardens. She has done very interesting work with textile.
To share their experiences from daily and literary lives, were Mohammad Sayeed, a sociologist and anthropoligist based in Delhi, who has worked on congested areas in the Batla House neighbourhood. And finally, to charm with his reckless love for Urdu poetry was Saif Mahmood, lawyer by day, and “a late 18th century Urdu poet, walking the streets of Delhi” generally.
As the audience trickled into the room they saw on the screen the results of Zaidi’s Google search for places for young couples in Delhi. She described how she and Briana had embarked on a project to document these spaces. Exploring certain parts of the Lodi Garden, of instance, they had photographed and spoken to couples who were spending some private time there. Needless to say, the photographs were taken with permission, and in a few cases at least, the participants in the study had requested to be photographed with their faces turned away. Zaidi clarified in response to a question from the audience that although the focus of the few photographs that were shared was on heterosexual love, that was only a partial representation of their intention. They had spoken to groups who identified as queer, but so far they had not expressed desire to be caught on camera. Perhaps as the project evolves and grows in size, it will come to represent a more inclusive range of sexualities.
Sayeed offered us three stories–anecdotes, notes from fieldwork, call it what you will–through which he tried to convey the kinds of encounter that couples in urban spaces have to engage in. He spoke of his uncle who had come to visit Delhi and appeared to be unaware of the specific urban codes of conduct that govern each city. While this appeared to cause Sayeed some embarrassment on occasion, until he caused the story-teller even more embarrassment by getting involved in a fight between a guard at the Purana Qila and a couple who were enjoying a moment of privacy in the premises. While recalling the story, Sayeed did of course question his immediate response to this intervention, and his narration of the story was evidently tinged with a kind of grudging admiration for his uncle.
He also recalled the time when during one of his field surveys conducted in the congested and densely populated locality near Batla House, one of the residents, who had reason to fear for his life, had shared a story of voluntarily disappearance at night. The person he was dating had told him that her parents were away for the night, and what is a young couple to do? When he did not return till late, his friends searched for him, and as will be known to anyone who followed the series of incidents, it was not a safe time for the residents there. He came back much later only to reveal that he had not been to his partner’s house at all, but had spent their night on the streets of Delhi, because the anonymity was a greater source of comfort and security than any home.
For the next half hour Saif Mahmood mesmerized the audience by travelling back and forth in time, not simply reciting shayaris, but in fact speaking in and through them. Mahmood, who is working on a book on Urdu poets in Delhi, displayed an astonishing familiarity with his favourite poets–starting with the earliest laments for the changing nature of the city of Delhi to the most recent ones–still, lamenting the changing nature of the city. Weaving beautifully in and out of monuments, present and absent, verbal and marmoreal, Mahmood brought out the nuances in the range of expressions of love in Urdu–going so far as to cheekily claim that it is difficult to think of another language where one can express these emotions.
A point that Zaidi made initially was borne out by the discussions–the confusing interface of history (architectural or verbal) as carefully preserved past, and usable present. How do we read acts of inscribing sweet nothings or emphatic declarations of love on historic monuments, for instance? How do we justify the appropriation of our built environment by agents of historic preservation in favour of their use by citizens. This is a phenomenon that is observable in cities around the world, whenever there is shortage of private spaces for the couples. And this is not restricted to young couples–or indeed limited to couples only. Zaidi spoke of an elderly lady who had volunteered to be photographed near Lodi Garden, who would visit these places on family picnics but find for herself quiet benches and shades.
One of the audience members also pertinently observed that these spaces–gardens, premises surrounding historic monuments–could also be read as constructions based on aesthetic negotiations. The lines of sight or placement of foliage would in the past be determined by movements such as the picturesque. The question is whether such choices are informed by principles in art today, and if so, how this added layer of meaning being imposed upon a space negotiates with the existing tussle between history, memory and private use of public space.