History & Culture

Cultural glimpses of Qila-e-Mubarak

ONE OF A KIND: The Red Fort was a city within a city  

Ever since Jawaharlal Nehru chose the ramparts of the Red Fort in Delhi to unfurl the National Flag and address the nation on Independence Day, the building has become a visual performative space for the national festival as much as a symbol of freedom, and democracy. The fort is known as Qila-e-Mubarak - The Exalted fort, associated with a trajectory of national struggle, events and, in free India has come to be synonymous with the idea of ‘the best’, a brand value appropriated for products like rice, jewellery and restaurants.

The architectural plan, design, and functionality of the heritage ecosystem comprising the Red Fort along with the city of Shahjahanabad, and the river Yamuna was so grand that James Fergusson in his book, The History of Indian and Eastern Architecture, wrote that “The palace at Delhi is, or rather was, the most magnificent palace in the East — perhaps in the world — and the only one at least in India….”

The veil

However, an irony exists between the ramparts where the Tricolour is hoisted by the Prime Ministers and the original design of the fort conceived during the reign of Shah Jahan.

The rampart wall near Lahori Gate is called the 'ghoonghat ki deewar' (the veil) and was built later by Aurangzeb. The intention of the original design without the said wall was to create an inclusive structure of the fort with the city and citizens in front and with the river Yamuna on the other side. This inclusivity of the Fort is evident in several written and oral accounts.

It was here that Bahadur Shah Zafar, the last Mughal emperor living in the Red Fort, was declared the leader of the revolt or the First War of Independence of 1857. The emperor, as known, was exiled and died in Yangon (Myanmar). Delhi was captured by the British and became representative of suppression. In the 1940s, Subhash Chandra Bose set up the headquarters of his resistant force – the Indian National Army (INA) in Yangon and gave the clarion call ‘Dilli Chalo’ (March to Delhi), removing the century-old collective amnesia to declare that the idea of freedom was linked to the Red Fort.

The Red Fort INA Trials (1945-46) contributed to the metaphor of the fort as a symbol of the Freedom Movement. Some captured INA officers charged with several crimes including treason were tried for some time and were housed for the entire period in the Red Fort.

In 2000 and 2001, there were terrorist attacks on the Red Fort and on the Indian Parliament respectively, both incidents led to affirm although negatively the symbolism of the building with the idea of democracy.

Synthesising practice

The detailed research work by Anisha Shekhar Mukherji in her book The Red Fort of Shahjahanabad provides descriptions of the 17th Century complex which was constructed simultaneously with the Taj Mahal. The palace reflects “synthesising practice of absorption, adoption, and adaptation of ideas and forms from the regions of Transoxania (from where the Mughals came) and the regions of India (from Gujarat to Bengal which came under the Mughal rule).”

Comprising palaces, halls, orchards, gardens and pavilions, it was a city within a city and more than just a palace for an emperor. After the defeat of the Indian forces in 1857, the British completed their occupation of the fort and soon ordered the demolition of 80% of the structures, replacing them with barracks for the British Army.

Built at a cost of almost 10 million rupees over a period of almost nine years, it had integrated the best architectural designs, construction methods, details, and skills which even in its present depraved state reflects the grandeur and magnificence which has gained it the status of a UNESCO World Heritage Monument.

Lively disposition

Snippets of cultural events indicate the lively disposition of lifestyles in the course of the fort’s history. For instance, documented in writings and paintings is the wedding of crown prince Dara Shikoh. Mukherji cites from a historical writing that at the close of day, numerous fireworks set up by the future bride's relatives ignited along the banks of the Jumna creating delight among spectators... Not to be outdone, by His Majesty's commands, the gardens beneath the royal chambers and the grounds below the audience balconies, as well as the boats upon the Jumna were illuminated with lamps and fireworks.

On the other hand, some courtesans associated with court musician Miyan Tanras who lived in the city described, “Once in a while, dancers and musicians performed not in the Rang Mahal with its mirrored walls, but on houseboats on the Yamuna. We were told that the sight was like the Indra Sabha (the court of the Heavenly God Indra) in Lucknow!”

The 18th Century “Muraqqa-e-Dehli” describes colourful personalities and events associated with the fort and the city. “Court Sufi musician qawwal Taj Khan with a voice delicate like that of the petals of flowers on every seventh of the lunar month organised house concerts to which came an eclectic well-informed audience from the city. He sang in a state of ecstasy songs that had the magic of nightingales.”

The fascinating account goes onto describe the gay couple Allah Bandi and Rajji as supreme singers and transgender Sultana who had long passed his youth, performed before the courtly audience of men in an extraordinary manner with zangola (ankle bells) on his feet. There was Taqi, a talented actor who ran a mobile theatre and performed both in the court and as a street performer.

Known to have a rich collection of costumes and acting paraphernalia, he was a favourite of courtiers, had access to the King and was popular in the city. Mimics, technically called Naqqals, Khawasi and Anotha ,were popular in the court and so were the Gup-baaz or gossip mongers, who were much in demand to entertain in the hamams and ladies quarters. Zafar, the Mughal emperor himself a poet organised poetic meets in the fort and the last of them which was attended by illustrious poets is captured by Mirza Farhatullah Khan in his work “Dilli ki Aakhari Shama” which says, Mirza Arif, an eminent Urdu Poet, came to be called “Dehli-Ka-Ek-Yadgar-Aakhri-Mushaira”–1846 – (Delhi’s Memorable Last Poetic Gathering). “Farhatullah Khan was his name. He has falsely been called Farhatullah Baig. He was the grandfather of my mother; a small lane near Lal Kuan is named after him.”

Theatre of grandeur

The Red Fort represents a seminal cultural geography of the 20th Century Delhi which goes beyond the national narrative. In his diaries, young Chand Khan, the doyen of Dilli Gharana of Music, described the three-day All India Music Conference at the Red Fort, which formed part of the celebrations of the Delhi Durbar of 1911. In more recent times, the ground of the Red Fort became a cultural space for fairs, circus and Ram Leelas. It must be mentioned that it was Zafar who first patronised an annual large-scale enactment of the Ram Leela in the vicinity of the fort, although there were communities who earlier performing Ram Leelas in the city.

The frozen motifs of flowers, fauna, and gardens on the walls of several structures inside the fort remain as idioms of the Garden of Paradise where the theatre of the grandeur of the Mughals conjured up a glittering cultural magic, one which needs to be recreated as a glorious page in the annals of Indian heritage.


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Printable version | Jul 18, 2021 8:58:35 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/society/history-and-culture/cultural-glimpses-of-qila-e-mubarak/article24687207.ece

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