Sketching many faces of the city, Kavita Iyengar talks about her new book, “Delhi, Old and New”

Kavita Iyengar’s new book, “Delhi, Old and New” (Bloomsbury India), contains within its pages many different versions of the Capital. Delicate, intricate and detailed ink-line sketches of historical monuments and modern-day scenes, complemented by snippets of trivia and tantalising quotes, pay tribute to the changing face of the city, and Iyengar, an economist by profession, uses her recently found love for art to offer readers a peek into the fascinating history of Delhi.

Excerpts from an interview:

A little about this book, its conception, and how it came together

During my first group show in 2011, I was encouraged by friends to put together a set of pen and ink drawings, possibly for the next exhibition. I decided to do a series on the monuments of Delhi, as I grew up in this city, deeply rooted in its architecture and history. It was also the centennial of the city. Alongside, I also began doing short write-ups, as captions. When I had completed about eight drawings, I suddenly visualized it as a book. It came together in my head, as a chronological story of the city, told artistically and easily, to the interested reader. Rathin Mitra and Samir Biswas have done this for Kolkata. I had not come across such a book on Delhi and I decided to pursue the idea. I let everyone believe that I was working on my next exhibition. It took me a year-and-a-half to complete the drawings. I then put it all together.

An economist by profession and an artist by choice, that's how you are described. A little about that?

I was interested in drawing and painting even as a child, and as I grew older, the interest grew, but I never thought about it as more than a hobby. When it was time to decide what to study further, I decided on economics as I enjoyed it as a subject at high school. I got my BA at Lady Shri Ram College and my MA at JNU and then went on to the US for my PhD. But the ‘hobby’ stayed, surfacing in various ways such as occasional painting, regular visits to museums, constant doodling, and following contemporary artists and their works with a genuine curiosity. Finally, one day about five years ago, I decided I had to learn it more seriously before my life passed me by.

There is something timeless about using inkline. The lack of colours lets a reader put in their own. Why inkline? Tell us a little about working with this medium, and the freedom and restrictions involved?

I follow a simple rule, I do what I enjoy. Why inkline? Because I get absorbed in the drawing, the detailing, in the image appearing gradually as I see in my mind’s eye, or sometimes emerges quite differently and take a life of its own. One of my early inklines was my husband’s ancestral home in Bengal. I find it fascinating to capture the ambiance of buildings and places.

For me, ink pens do not have restrictions. It is a fairly easy medium that allows me to move contours outlines as I please, and shadow out things I don’t like. It is also convenient because I can carry my sketchbook and pens when I travel on work.

And the places and texts you picked? What prompted those choices? The collection is a tribute to the city. Could you talk about your own relationship with this city?

As I said earlier, I grew up in this city. I chose to draw the places that would encapsulate the story of the city, in its different layers…My father used to take us on holidays to see not just the well-known monuments and museums but also to the lesser known ones. There’s not a place you can go to in the city without passing these magnificent medieval structures. You almost take it for granted. I grew up in Hauz Khas with the tank and its beautiful surrounding buildings and Siri Fort being places where we often walked across to and played. My brother and I passed by the eerie Chor Minar on the way to school, imagining thieves being beheaded. We marvelled at the spectacular Ala-i-Darwaza but laughed at Khilji’s failed attempt at trying to build a more glorious Ala-i-Minar near the Qutub. I can almost create my own sound-and-light shows in these places… And then, there’s New Delhi. I go for meetings at the Ministry of Finance in the North Block and almost gawk each time I walk through the fabulous, imposing corridors.

There's a sense of juxtaposition and coexistence about this city, with ancient monuments and modern architecture rubbing shoulders everywhere. Do you see rapid urbanization overwhelming the city's history in the future?

Yes, there is a unique juxtaposition and coexistence in the city. There are living historical neighbourhoods of Nizamuddin Basti, Hauz Khas village, Kotla, and Chandni Chowk adjacent to the modern residential areas of Nizamuddin East, Green Park, South Extension, and Civil Lines. Delhi, old and new… I now live in Gurgaon in the high-rises. Growth and population necessitate creating more job opportunities, more housing, and more office and commercial spaces. The current architecture is global, glass and steel structures. However, I do not see the city’s past being swallowed up by the future. There is a keen sense of history amongst the administrators and the residents and ancient monuments are preserved in heritage sites. Connaught place will still stand with new offices around and the metro running underneath. You can still go for a walk in Lodhi Gardens and Said-ul-Ajaib. The coexistence, the charm of the old, will remain.

What is the connection to Salaam Balaak Trust?

I try to connect people who need help to those who can provide it. In the case of my book, I knew the royalties should go to some section of people of this city and Salaam Balaak Trust just seemed an appropriate choice. Do join the walks to see the city from a completely different perspective, that of street children. And you’ll see the human side, too.