Building Histories

Mrinalini Rajagopalan’s Building Histories, is at once an ambitious and intimate study of the meeting points between monuments and the construction of historical narrative. Ambitious in the scale of her enquiry into the deep myth-making propensities that can be traced from the lives of buildings, as well as the vastness of influence that they have on the communities that surround and are bound to them. Intimate in the disciplined focus on five specific monuments in a city – Delhi – bursting at the seams with historic architecture. Rajagopalan’s scrutiny of her subjects – the Red Fort, Rasul Numa Dargah, Jama Masjid, Purana Qila, and the Qutb complex – is richly detailed, and the historical tales that unfold demonstrate a depth of research that is exemplary, even as some of the revelations are surprising. Equally effective is her devise of anchoring each monument to a specific event in order to traverse the larger historical dynamics that are at play.

Rajagopalan reaches into the complications that challenge the apparently straightforward and stable relationship between monument and history, particularly in a city with as long, complex and fraught heritage as Delhi. Rajagopalan’s choices are not accidental, though by her account, the way that each monument’s story has come to be accepted as received wisdom are sometimes the result of strokes of immense coincidence, but mostly the consequences of human machinations – politics, bureaucracy, religion. The temporal parameters within which she confines her study, from the mid-1800s to the late 1900s, means that she is dealing head-on with a period that spans the height of colonialism, its decadence, Independence, the Partition, and modernisaton-globalisation.

That all five monuments are Islamic in origin means that their place in the built history of Delhi will always be characterised by their condition of contestability. What emerges – in Rajagopalan’s telling – is a story of disquietude, trauma, resistance and collective patience. Successive rulers in India’s history realise, often too late, that they ignore – or worse, rile – the masses at their own peril. Here, the notion of appropriation becomes a useful lens with which to examine the concurrence of state and non-state impetuses regarding the meaning-attachment to, and of, these monuments in particular, but also as they relate to the wider narrative of their correspondence with national, local, communal-tribal, and personal, consciousness about identity context. These find a place in the manner by which historical meanings are subject to the instrumentalising compulsions of social and political calculus.

Archival and preservation work, for example, comes up for early consideration by the author. While they have a positive role in the wider processes of recording and maintenance, archival and preservation are also implements of state that ultimately nudge towards control and, by implication, exclusion: “as a colonial project, institutionalized preservation in India sought to continue the work of other imperial missions of archiving that allowed the colonizer to both ‘know’ and ‘possess’ the colony.” (3) Yet, this is no less troubling than the work of, for example, the Archaeological Survey of India, a post-Independence behemoth, whose task it is to assume the role of regulating archaeological activities and, by inference, asserting control over the use of the country’s ancient monuments. By extension, this also means that it holds and withholds meaning and meaning-making relating to these monuments. Given the very intricate and complex histories of the monuments under study here, the wielding of such powers raises various considerations, not the least of which is the possible effacement of historical details that do not fit the neatness of official narratives. Political exigencies often prevail; so, too, economic ones. Consider, for example, the World Heritage status of the Qutb Complex, and (latterly) the Red Fort. The tourism benefits and other “soft power” values that can be derived from them are considerable, and these in turn necessitate the prevalence of curatorial imperatives that ultimately take the form of power and control imposition.

In Building Histories, Mrinalini Rajagopalan successfully works through her arguments by setting the consideration of source and consequence of the master narrative alongside what are, by all intents, micro-narratives. She does this without an over-reliance on the convenient tropes of hegemony/subaltern, David/Goliath. Instead, she allows her architectural texts to articulate the very human stories that resonate with every wall, gate, courtyard – in all their glory and dilapidation. And it is these stories that defy institutional control by asserting their own archival spirit. Thus, the story of community-led efforts to defend Rasul Numa Dargah; and of the Qutb Complex’s survival and endurance despite – or perhaps because of – its history of violence; and of the ambivalence of Jama Masjid as the site both of communal solidarity and schism; and of the insistent but ultimately baseless attribution of Purana Qila as the site of Indraprastha, that most mythical of cities in the Mahābhārata. This book’s achievements suggest that, beyond Delhi, there is an even bigger story to tell about India, and I can think of no better teller to tell it.

Mrinalini Rajagopalan
. Building Histories: The Archival and Affective Lives of Five Monuments in Modern Delhi. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016.

Lim Lee Ching

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