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Why Lutyens’ neighbourhoods like Khan Market are way more inclusive than you think

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In her book ‘Connaught Place and the Making of New Delhi’, Swapna Liddle talks about how areas that house the political and social elite are open to all. Read the book excerpt. 

New Delhi, or Lutyens’ Delhi as people often call it, cannot completely shake off its aura of power and influence. It is, after all, where many of the richest and most powerful of the country live, in large bungalows, as others did when the city was first built. From time to time this very character is questioned—why is so much space being ‘wasted’? Would it not be a more economical use of land to replace the bungalows with denser built-up areas, even maybe high-rises?

The bungalows of New Delhi do house a political and social elite, but the neighbourhood they live in is still much more inclusive than, say, gated apartment complexes. There are wide pavements that anyone might walk on, enjoying the shade of the large avenue trees. Though the boundary walls have risen higher in this age where ‘security’ is an important concern, one can still admire some of the bungalow architecture, such as that of Mohammad Ali Jinnah’s erstwhile house on 10 Abdul Kalam Marg (until 2017, Aurangzeb Road). Some houses such as Teen Murti House, which was originally the Commander-in-Chief’s residence and then that of the first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, is now open to the public as a museum.

There are upmarket shopping areas, such as Khan Market, but they are more inclusive than shut-off air-conditioned malls. In Khan Market, you will find fashion designers cheek by jowl with old-fashioned ‘general stores’ as well as itinerant fruit-sellers. There are also small neighbourhood markets, such as that on Krishna Menon Lane, off Krishna Menon Marg (originally Hastings Road). When I first met my husband, many years before we got married, he used to patronize a barber in that market, which was right next to his home on 8 Krishna Menon Marg. This sprawling bungalow, one of a series that were built on this road for Secretaries to Government, had an intriguing sandstone fountain in the back garden. Like many others, my husband’s family were transient occupants and moved out a few years later. Only many years afterwards did I find out, through a photograph of the house preserved in the collection of the Royal Institute of British Architects, that Herbert Baker had lived in this bungalow when it was newly built!

Each of the large bungalows still contains its numerous ‘servants’ quarters’. In an age when the numbers of domestic staff have shrunk to levels much below what the British officials were accustomed to, they are occupied by a somewhat more diverse population, which often has a life independent of the life of the bungalow. Long after my husband’s family moved out of Krishna Menon Marg, the dhobi who lived in one of those quarters, continued to do so, and ran a service that took in laundry from a wide network, including our family. The back lanes, on to which these quarters open, have a character of their own, not always visible to those who drive down the main avenues. The market on Krishna Menon Lane is very much a part of that world.

Connaught Place too has evolved, though it is still popularly called that. The official name, Rajiv Chowk, did not take, except perhaps in the context of the Metro station located there. The Metro has connected it to far-flung areas in the National Capital Region, and a variety of visitors pour in, shoppers and restaurant-goers from Delhi’s colonies, Civil Lines, or Old Delhi, as well as students from the North Campus of Delhi university. A partial makeover and restoration was initiated in preparation for the Commonwealth Games in 2010, and it has corrected some of the problems with the aging structures.

Though many of the older retail outlets have closed, many new ones have opened in their place—such as high street brands for whom ‘Connaught Place’ is a desirable address to have in their list of outlets. Some of the old restaurants, such as Gaylords and Volga, have closed down, but there are some old survivors like Wenger’s, Kwality’s, or United Coffee House, which has been revamped. There is a plethora of restaurants, bars and coffee shops that flourish, and new places like Junkyard Café, Bombay Brasserie, Tamasha and Lord of the Drinks, are very popular with the young crowd. The closing of the venerable Regal, which shut its doors in 2017, is a sad loss for the nostalgic, but new screens and multiplexes have been replacing the old, rather worn infrastructure, leading to a revival, and attracting a new crowd. Both the old Plaza and Rivoli cinemas have been bought over by PVR Cinemas, and are now stylish multiplexes. The Odeon Cinema, once a regular halt for lmgoers, on the other hand, has metamorphosed into a bar and multicuisine restaurant, named Odeon Social.

Connaught Place has managed to reinvent itself, to keep pace with the times, and give the new swanky malls that have opened up around the city, a run for their money. Connaught Place offers some distinct things few malls have. Apart from the shopping, eating and movie watching, it is a public space, though its details have changed over the years. The very British bandstand was removed after Independence, to be replaced in 1970 with a system of fountains which ran for a while. Today the grassy green expanses in the middle are a refreshing oasis for visitors; a hangout for the young on most days, and for families on weekends. The corridors and pavements fronting the buildings are the place to browse among hawkers’ wares and eat street food. It is a happy, more inclusive, reinvention of a space where once only those shopping at the establishments proclaiming themselves ‘by appointment to the Viceroy’ trod. A long-standing tradition has been to ring in the New Year with a joyous party in Connaught Place, though fears that these revels will turn raucous often leads to police precautions and restriction

Connaught Place, or for that matter New Delhi as a whole, have come a long way from the days of the British Raj. Contrary to what one might imagine, they are not places for those essentially seeking nostalgia. They have been reimagined to serve the needs of a democratic state and for an Indian people. That is what gives them continued relevance in the twenty-first century, and for new generations.

This excerpt is from the book ‘Connaught Place and the Making of New Delhi’ by Swapna Liddle. It was published by Speaking Tiger in 2018. 

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3 COMMENTS

  1. Dhobhi and the barber and other menial service provider in the neighbourhood is no sign of inclusiveness .. patronizing view. Truly khan market and lutyens type woman.. glorifying the tyrannical mughal period..

  2. Like much of New Delhi, Connaught Place – CP to generations of young Delhiites -was imagined on a magnificent scale. No modern builder could possibly recreate something like this in a conventional residential complex. The Metro has given it a new lease of life.

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