Most of the pictures on Varun Kapur’s cult blog, Sarson Ke Khet, make us think that we’d appreciate Delhi’s architecture a lot more if we only looked up sometimes – dilapidated mosques with intact arches in old Delhi’s nondescript streets; art deco motifs decorating the balconies of West Delhi houses, all so easy to miss off the heritage walk trail. That’s why Varun says it’s not about looking up as much as it is about simply looking.
For Varun, an architectural historian by profession, noticing buildings is just how he looks at the world. As we walk through Connaught Place, he suddenly stops and points at a mosque we’ve never noticed before – a green door, set in the white walls of CP’s inner circle. “You should peek in, its alignment is totally different from the rest of CP!” And so we do, but all we find is an ordinary room, somewhat thrown off because the raised platform for mosque-goers is oriented towards Mecca, which happens to be at a diagonal to the door we just entered through. However, Varun, who follows right behind us, exclaims, “They took it down! It was a Mughal era mosque and they took it down!”
In the ten years or so that he’s been running a blog on Indian, mostly Delhi’s, architecture, this kind of thing has only happened a handful of times. For the most part, the buildings Varun has discovered and re-discovered – by getting lost in old Delhi’s bylanes and hopping over private walls in the Siri Fort area – remain untouched, probably because they remain unnoticed.
Sarson ke Khet, ironically named for a blog about urban architecture, came into being when Varun decided to quit his PhD programme at Berkley and follow his true passion – exploring and documenting Delhi’s historical buildings. Armed with an old Nikon that he describes as “just a fancy point-and-shoot with manual settings,” Varun started photographic monuments and their forgotten contemporaries at a time when such pictures were hard to come by, especially for free. His goal was simple, to create a freely accessible archive for people as interested in architecture as he is.
While there are several (hundred) ways to organise the city’s architecture, Varun’s take on Sayyid and Lodhi-era tombs, our most Instagrammable mausoleums, divides them by structure. For instance, by his count, there are six octagonal tombs spread across Delhi. The first is Khan Jahan Tilangani’s tomb built in the late 14th century. The second, in the mid-15th century, was Sayyid sultan Mubarak Shah’s tomb, “which is now surrounded on all sides by the urban village of Kotla Mubarakpur.” The next two are in Lodi Gardens. And Varun’s favourite octagonal tomb is Isa Khan’s, which was built in the late 16th century in what we know now as the Humayun’s Tomb complex. (The final one, Adham Khan’s tomb in Mehrauli, is stylistically different from its structural predecessors but still finds mention in Varun’s collection.)
Apart from historical structures, Varun’s fascinated with what he calls ‘desi deco’ – hyper local takes on art deco motifs that are surprisingly ubiquitous across India. Buildings all over Delhi sport aesthetic additions like circles with three horizontal lines coming out of each side, expanding sun rays originating from a singular point. These are not “canonical art deco” according to Varun, but they were never meant to be. The masons who create these aren’t “speaking to the idea of [Western] art deco… they’re talking to each other.”
Although Daryaganj’s buildings are now well-known and well-documented examples of the indigenous style, areas like Kamla Nagar have some gems of their own. Wealthy merchants who couldn’t settle in the colonial and princely parts of New Delhi, used their wealth to build desi deco monuments of their own. According to Varun’s post, the buildings in this area “often combine designs and motifs from art deco, colonial neo-classicism, indigenous traditions and haveli architecture.” They are, he says, a record of a “20th century idea of modernity in architecture that was in vogue before modernism took hold in Delhi and elsewhere in India.” Varun’s pictures show yellowed buildings with circular balconies jutting out from flat buildings with rounded edges; white lines running horizontally across each floor of the building, forming an impressive mishmash of shapes and styles.
Although he’s a fan of explorations himself, guiding others through areas he’s already been through becomes boring for him. As for the blog, Varun is tight-lipped about its future, promising only that his followers should expect posts from different parts of India soon. Meanwhile, his habit of curating entire neighbourhoods in blog posts makes it easy for us to plan our own expeditions. We’ll try to cut the mustard.
Getting there: See Sarson Ke Khet here.
This story was contributed by Nehmat Kaur, a culture writer based in Gurgaon and New Delhi.
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