Historian, author and translator Rana Safvi writes on the culture, history and monuments of India. She has authored several books on the history of Delhi along with translating various accounts of the city from Urdu to English.
Her latest book titled 'A Saint, A Folk Tale and Other Stories' hit the stands in December 2021, and has received much critical acclaim since then. The book "takes the reader into secret, hidden parts of India beyond the usual tourist destinations." It takes you back in time and on a journey to explore the vast architectural heritage of India.
We talk to Rana about her dedication to documenting disappearing heritage, the role of monuments in history, and the importance of restoring and protecting buildings for the future.
From your blogs, social media posts, books, or articles in newspapers/ magazines – the one thing that shines through is your love for history and storytelling. Can you tell us more about your love for history and passion for writing?
Like most children I grew up on stories and my mother was a gifted storyteller. I must have unconsciously imbibed that art from her. History is my field and while studying for my Master’s degree I was trained in writing well researched papers using primary and secondary sources. As a non-academic writer of history, I have the luxury of combining that training with storytelling to write about our built heritage and culture in an engaging way and raise awareness amongst the public.
The Hora Mahal shorn of all it's trappings
You have a desire and dedication to document the heritage and the disappearing culture in India. Why is this important to you?
The importance of our built heritage has never been fully appreciated. As in the case of Delhi whenever a new city was built, the old was stripped to provide readymade building material.
My primary research has been on the monuments of Delhi, which have faced and continue to face various challenges. A case in point is Qila-e Mubarak now famous as The Red Fort built by Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan 1648. Its magnificence was a symbol of power and stood grandly testifying to the might of the Mughal Empire. The city of Shahjahanabad, now called Old Delhi, was built around this Qila.
The Red Fort - the Prime Minister addresses the nation on every independence Day from here
The Uprising of 1857 saw the Mughal emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar exiled to Rangoon (now Myanmar) and the formal taking over of the Mughal empire by British East India Company (EIC). By the Government of India Act in1858, power was transferred from the EIC to the British Crown and India became a British colony. In the aftermath of the Uprising, the Muslim population of Shajahanabad (Old Delhi) was specifically targeted as the British perceived the Uprising of 1857 as a “Mohammedan conspiracy making capital of Hindu grievances” against them. As documented by Zahir Dehlvi in Dastan-e Ghadar the Muslim populace of the city, was severely punished and those who escaped punishment fled from the city to find shelter in other cities. The character of Shajahanabad changed. The old order gave way to the new.
The Red Fort of Delhi was turned into a British army camp. As many as 80% of the buildings inside the Red Fort were demolished to give way to barracks. The ones which remained were stripped of their precious stone decorations and defaced. New roads were created and residences and residents were removed to provide easy access to the British army in case of another ‘revolt’.
In 1947, India was partitioned to create two independent countries: India and Pakistan. This was a particularly bloody and tragic partition, displacing millions and seeing an unprecedented loss of lives. This transfer of population also affected monuments as some original caretakers/ owners left for Pakistan.
With the advent of refugees, a new culture was introduced especially in Awadh (erstwhile state of Awadh) and Delhi.
I grew up in the 60’s and 70’s when there was a lot of nostalgia and an urgency to preserve our culture and I grew up soaked in it. However, by the 90s there was more emphasis on modernity and in the race for learning new ways and adapting to the fast-changing world, that urgency was replaced and so our connect with our past was put on a back burner.
It is only in the past decade or so that the realization dawned on me that unless we document our culture and heritage it will be lost for future generations. Preservation is not the only issue, transmission of that culture is equally important.
Thus began my journey of documenting Delhi’s built heritage I have expanded my research interests now, so that it is pan-India in scope. I firmly believe that it’s only when we add a human touch to our monuments that people will feel an affinity for it, a sense of public ownership if you will, and help in preserving them. The neglect of many precious monuments is costing us dearly.
As far as our old cultural practices are concerned, it needs urgent documentation for that has been forgotten in the rush to keep pace with the world. Thus, I began writing about the culture of Awadh where