It was over a year ago that I was asked by Raqs Media Collective to explore the infrastructural landscape of Delhi’s latent cultural present, with a new set of questions emerging from the expansive field of contemporary art. The premise was to ask: How do certain places fall off, or even disappear from, the cultural imaginary of the city? And what are the conceptual, procedural and material transitions one can facilitate to re-think and re-imagine their lives today, beyond the frames of heritage and obsolescence?
Being a relatively new migrant to this city of immigrants, and to its cultural alignment, this encounter was an opportunity for me to (re) discover the city through the annotations of Raqs, as well as other colleagues and collaborators, and to share their affinities with its urban memory.
The working idea was to conceptualise a curatorial axis involving spaces as diverse as Delhi Public Library, All India Fine Arts & Crafts Association, Shankar’s Doll’s Museum, Pearey Lal Bhawan, among others that played a prominent role in shaping and serving the cultural needs of Delhi’s public during the second half of the twentieth century. This axis was directed at triggering an imaginative cluster of claims over the city’s contemporary topography, and for thinking beyond the binary of what may be realisable, or not, on site.
Over time, a range of experiences enriched this encounter. A very young annotator/reader who walked me through the children’s section of the Delhi Public Library asked me about my familiarity with children’s literature, curiously probing my intentions for researching the library. My enthusiasm in visiting Pearey Lal Bhawan Association, a prominent performance venue till the early 90s, grew obliquely after learning about its current popularity as a venue for accountancy classes for college youth, and by large-scale businesses for meetings. This cultural complex, which technically functions as a trust, also houses offices of real estate builders within its premises.
Some of the places – incidentally the abandoned ones, such as 22, Barakhambha Road (Skipper Tower), a city landmark, and Rabindra Rangshala, tucked away in the Central Ridge forest – turned out to be entangled in a mesh of legal dispute and confused regulations over ownership and wild life encroachment. My physical access to these sites was initially verbally barricaded by concerned authorities and local police, who spun yarns of mystery and rumour around them. Repeated requests to Sangeet Natak Akademi (National Academy of Museum, Dance & Drama) for the accessing Rangshala, the open air theatre with a seating capacity larger than the Colosseum in Rome, were either left unanswered or addressed only through the language of security.
A diversity of such encounters slowly configured an expansive index of memory, familiarity and rumour, rearranging existing points of approach towards the fabric of the city and the infrastructure of its everyday life.
This opening up is also a facilitation of the idea of duration, a method that can transform the relationship one has with a place, into an inhabitation envisioning a range of artistic, architectural, curatorial and poetic intimacies. It intensifies the drive for inventing modes of articulation for these otherwise dormant places, allowing them to be seen and thought not as mere memoirs of a latent present, but as sites that can fuel new possibilities of an imaginary future.
In a conversation with me around the material unfolding of public infrastructure, architectural historian Venugopal Maddipati observed, “In conventional architectural terms, a site has always been understood as the process through which an unnamed open space is sent to a destination called the named place. This means that site is seen as an in-between journey through which point A (origin) reaches point B (destination).”
An inversion of this logic would mean seeing a site as an ongoing process of re-thinking and even renaming places, and with destinations that are unknown and boundaries that are porous. It also implies sliding away from a sense of permanence that a place inhabits, and towards flexible forms of being in the world.
Working with duration procedurally facilitates a place to translate into a site. Place-ness then becomes dispersed out of its institutional frames of regulation, and enters a fluid and speculative terrain, proposing new perspectives for making sense of the city and its cultural landscape.
These new models of engaging with the city foresee a common ground, where a variety of impulses can work together, proposing points of transition, speculation and re-imagination. Our call for a common ground however, is not a destination that has a fixed postal address, but is, rather, an intangible horizon that constantly rearticulates its stakes in the present that we live in, and a future that is yet to arrive.