Mrinalini Rajagopalan. 2016.
Building Histories: The Archival and Affective Lives of Five Monuments in Modern Delhi
Chicago: University of Chicago Press
An extraordinary metamorphosis occurred in the obscure south Delhi neighbourhood of Humayunpur sometime in March 2018. A medieval tomb of Tughlaq provenance, close to 600 years old, suddenly took the mantle of a Hindu temple. Hitherto smeared with blackened and faded plaster, it now shines bright with a vigorous coat of white and saffron. No matter that it is included in the Archaeological Survey of India’s list of Delhi’s monuments as ‘Kali Gumti’,[i] no matter that it was scheduled to be renovated by the Delhi chapter of the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage.[ii] The residents of the village which has come to surround the Gumti claim that it has always been a temple and that its recent whitewashing should not be politicised as a communal issue.[iii]
Between history and legend, between archive and affect, this is where the meaning of Delhi’s many historic structures – buildings classified as monuments – is generated. Mrinalini Rajagopalan’s provocative new thesis, presented as Building Histories: The Archival and Affective Lives of Five Monuments in Modern Delhi, operates from within the tense, murky interstices of various contestations over the semiotic quality of heritage, monument, and history. It is a bold new book for our troubled times, venturing innovatively into a territory of urban studies shackled as much with a surfeit of project reports as with an acute lack of sound scholarship. As an aspirational, aggressive India seeks to remake its image, the work of scholars such as Rajagopalan acts as a timely reminder of the deep flux of association and meaning which comes to inevitably frame the affective contours of our cities’ many pasts.
The past as palimpsest
There are many ways of looking at Delhi’s rich architectural history. It can be considered parasitic, a tradition of unscrupulous siphoning of stone and brick from the homes and habitats of one’s ancestors. It can be thought syncretic, a slow and unsteady experimentation of form and content occurring through dramatic sociopolitical revolutions in aesthetics and aspirations. Whichever way one chooses to regard it though, the city as it exists today is deeply layered and fractured: no one set of meaning can constitute its built fabric, the nexus of notions which emerge from it cannot be singular.
It is this polyphonous plurality that Rajagopalan engages with in Building Histories. Her narrative peels through the variegated layers of Delhi’s past as apparent in and through five of its many monuments: the Red Fort, the Rasul Numa Dargah, the Jama Masjid, the Purana Qila, and the Qutb Complex. Far from being obvious in a chronologic or generic sense, these choices reflect Rajagopalan’s attempt to understand the ongoing tussle between the archontic power of ‘modern bureaucracies of preservation’ grappling with ‘indigenous appropriations’ of belonging, identity, and affect. The Rasul Numa Dargah, for instance, is presently little known outside its neighbouring community, though the vignette Rajagopalan presents of its tryst with imperial New Delhi makes for a fascinating study on the subversion of hegemony at its best. Similarly, the story of the Qutb Complex is known popularly, but Rajagopalan’s careful investigation of the insidious discourse of ‘Muslim pathology’ which has given composite meaning to various elements of this meticulously documented and preserved site proves to be a pertinent intervention in the larger narrative of heritage, preservation, and community.
Many meanings of preservation
One of the key theses advanced by Rajagopalan in Building Histories relates to the subversive interrogation of preservation, the governmental expertise and power claimed by institutionalised state apparatuses. The Archaeological Survey of India recurs throughout the text as one of the primary agents of this power, instituted on the profoundly racial premise of Indians’ supposed unwillingness and inability to preserve their built heritage and tangible tradition. Tracing the affective lives of these five monuments, Rajagopalan also tracks the steady usurpation of legitimacy and power by agents of both the colonial and the postcolonial state.
This is vividly apparent, for instance, in the abiding ‘archival mythos of Indraprastha’. The identification of the Purana Qila as the site of the fabled city Indraprastha of Mahabharata fame happened over the course of almost a century of British rule in Delhi. It served to bolster the vulnerabilities of the Raj, even as it provided a ready reckoner to all those seeking to project an autochthonous antiquity to Delhi. Today, the value of the Purana Qila as a symbol of Delhi’s heritage lies in its assumed significance as the civilizational fulcrum of its antiquity, of India’s distant yet palpable past. However, even as the bureaucrat acts as expert, creating canons of knowledge which both draw from a city’s ‘collective consciousness’ even as they contribute to its constitution, the insurgent insistence of affective communities to stake claim to this archontic wisdom necessarily brings a degree of heterogeneity to the processes of preservation. In other words, what can be preserved and how is not just a simple matter of scientific schemas: vested local interests and considerations always seek to be in active consort with the iterative power of the state.
A mixed bag of hits and misses
On one hand, Rajagopalan must be commended for boldly transgressing disciplinary boundaries and making good use of a wide range of urban scholarship. Her notion of archive, for instance, draws from Michel Foucault as well as Jacques Derrida, to make it both a source of disciplining power and a tangible, corporeal place centrifugally acting as the seat and site of that power. Likewise, her usage of affect, object, and iconoclash pertinently recalibrates the work done by Sara Ahmed, Jane Bennet, and Bruno Latour on these subjects in vastly different domains. On the other, though, her propositions often seem stretched and loosely worded, or slide into the same conceptual traps she seeks to critique. Her reading of Derrida, for instance, seems selective, limited to only the first few chapters of his iconic Archive Fever: if archive is an identifiable place early on in this text, it is also spectral as the argument proceeds. Similarly, in referring to the creation of New Delhi as ‘possibly the biggest land-grab in the history of Delhi’, she displays insufficient awareness of systems of precolonial land acquisition. Then again, the reference to ‘Islamic calligraphy’ on the mihrab of the Sultan Garhi mosque belies her own measured critique of the communalisation of subcontinental heritage and history.
Furthermore, though Building Histories is very well produced, with its many maps, sketches, and photographs having the strength to become points of reference in their own right, the text suffers from many unfortunate lapses in proofing: too many, alas, to gloss without a note of regret. Likewise, despite some sections of inspired writing, the narrative dips in many places, becoming tepid and verbose – lost in speculative quibbles – in comparison to the strength and depth of the argument. Lacunae such as these make Building Histories a mixed bag: while it is undoubtedly an interdisciplinary delight, the likes of which have not really been produced on Delhi, it also leaves one wanting for more as a scholar and as a reader. Nonetheless, even in doing as much, in linking all these various scholarly and historical threads together and creating a powerful critique of what it means to be a monument, what it means to derive meaning from a monument, Rajagopalan may well have anticipated a trend in the study of South Asian urbanities.
[i] Alphabetical list of monuments – Delhi, Archaeological Survey of India, http://asi.nic.in/, accessed 7 February 2019.
[ii] Somya Lakhani, Tomb to temple in two months: In south Delhi, a monument changes colours, The Indian Express, 7 May 2018, https://indianexpress.com/article/cities/delhi/tomb-to-temple-in-two-mon..., accessed 7 February 2019.
[iii] DNA Web Team, Row erupts over tomb in Delhi: Have always known it as a temple, say Humayunpur residents, DNA India, 5 May 2018, https://www.dnaindia.com/india/report-row-erupts-over-tomb-in-delhi-have..., accessed 7 February 2019.