If and when the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) announces Delhi as a world heritage city, credit would have to be given to INTACH and a special acknowledgement to the indefatigable young men and women of Shahjahanabad, who demonstrated patience and perseverance in helping experts document every labyrinthine lane, monument and haveli of the Walled City through images and maps.
The two-year-long work entailed clearing doubts of reluctant proprietors of havelis that they were not surreptitiously working for a private builder who was eyeing their properties, that capturing their mansions on cameras was a well-intentioned exercise which would eventually pave the way for Delhi getting the prestigious world heritage city tag.
INTACH — the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage — took the help of these youngsters belonging to weak socio-economic backgrounds in compiling a voluminous dossier that was submitted to UNESCO earlier this year. These youngsters know Shahjahanabad like the back of their hands. They are members of TALENT, an acronym for Team and Association in Learning Education and Natural Theatre.
As practitioners of the art of kissagoi, they are struggling to earn their livelihood. They want to continue the traditions of narrating stories of the bygone era inside the premises of iconic monuments like the Jama Masjid and Lal Qila.
As expert raconteurs, they narrate interesting unheard stories, part of our oral traditions. In their own peculiar way, they glorify the heritage of Shahjahanabad and try to bring alive the grandeur of this ancient city. They use masks and face painting and wear colourful costumes like embroidered kurtas, fancy hats and accessories while reciting stories of the forgotten world.
These 40-odd members from marginalised families hope their source of income rises to a respectable level. As custodians of the intangible heritage of Shahjahanabad, they want domestic and foreign tourists to patronise their services.
“Lack of money for the excellent work done by us is the biggest challenge. Where are the resources to give to these youngsters who dropped out of schools in order to become traditional storytellers? They killed their aspirations to become a lawyer or media personality in order to support their large families and educate siblings. Whenever Delhi bags the coveted title of world heritage city, we hope poverty would vanish from our lives and there would be all-round prosperity with opening up of guesthouses and better off tourists hear our centuries-old stories,” says Irshad Alam, TALENT founder.
Irshad lives in his ancestral Haji Ibrahim haveli, which falls under Shahjahanabad but unfortunately could not be included in the dossier because recent renovation work had altered its basic structure.
Hailing from a family of tongawallahs, Irshad founded the group in 2000. He went against the wishes of his grandfather, who would narrate riveting anecdotes and lullabies whenever the Walled City was engulfed by darkness, to become a professional kissago.
Living in Chandni Chowk, Isha Bharghav was assigned the task of scripting the intangible heritage, while Zohra Sayeed, who excels in draughtsmanship, was required to do cultural mapping of Shahjahanabad. This was a physically taxing job as it meant walking each and every lane criss-crossing the city built by the Mughal ruler Shah Jahan.