The Succumbing Heritage Of Old Delhi, And A Leader Who Fights To Protect It

Abhinandita Dayal Mathur, a Delhian and an AAP Leader says, “For me, Delhi is my village. At least 10 generations of my family have lived in Delhi. I have a feeling of the motherland with Delhi.”

By Team Mojo, 17 Apr 2023

Wires hanging down the roads, little spaces in between lanes that only a photographer or traveller’s lens could admire, leaking drainage pipes, and houses that need urgent renovation are what one would find if they went deep inside the maze of Old Delhi.

Abhinandita Dayal Mathur on the other hand does not see it this way. “I am a ‘purani dilli’ girl. I was born there and have lived my whole life. I do understand why a person feels, but the point is, the place seems so because little attention has been given by the authorities to develop the area. Measures could have been taken much earlier, but now we are just running late to protect the heritage.”

Mathur has taken an active interest in the field of art and culture. Currently, she is a part of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), which looks into outreach and communication besides culture and women empowerment. From journalism, photography, activism, to entering mainstream politics, Mathur has come a long way.

“I was the founding member of the first Sufi Qawwali Society of Delhi formed by the Qawals themselves. It tries to look for their social security,” says Abhinandita talking about how she has been vocal about art and culture since the very beginning. This was back in 2010, much before she became the Cultural Advisor for Manish Sisodia, former Deputy Chief Minister of Delhi.

She travelled for a brief stint with artists who were not very savvy but were preserving the bandishes and other cultural and folk art. Mathur says, “I have not just been a practitioner but have always strived to bring in an impact, which is why working alongside Sisodia was great.”

“The idea was to make art more inclusive and involve more people in it. This is the reason why I ensured that we have a scholarship for Hip Hop, which is quite unlikely when it comes to the Sarkari scholarships in art. Hip Hop and other such art forms are not even considered legitimate for a wide audience even today and are often looked down upon. Till date, it is a practice known to be away from the upper caste,” she added.

How Caste Plays A Role In Art

Talking about how she sees caste playing a role in art, Abhinandita says “My relationship with art and culture is not just with the Delhi Government but otherwise as well. I have lived here all my life. Hegemony finds different ways. Good art or elite art has always stayed with the upper caste. When I got to work with the State budget, all of it was being spent on upper-caste artists. State patronage or everything supports the Savarnas. There is a very clear categorization between folk and classical. Both have the same traditional values but the economics of both are much different.”

This is not because of who is the custodian of the art form and who is practised by more. Looking at art politically is very important as it reasserts the hierarchy. Art should be transcending boundaries and should be challenging the problematic differences but till now, it’s much more promoting it. Giving an example of the same, Mathur narrates, “When there’s an art show in a fancy gallery where people look at the different pictures of poor kids or anything that highlights grave problems like poverty, they do so while drinking fancy wine and having a fun chat with others.”

Now if we want to give folk artists the same place as the other art forms, then we first need to bridge the class difference. Digging deep into the economics of art, Mathur highlights how promotions are being done and what marketing is being done, all play a role here.

“If there is a fair going on, there’s a side stage given to folk artists. Classical music is promoted, and performed at different big events, somehow considered superior but folk has been restricted to inaugural events. There is an oriental lens to it. As an artist, one should not be discriminating.”

Representative Image

Ignorance Of Folk Arts

Documentaries today focus on biodiversity and several other factors around us, but the same is not done for Shastriya Sangeet or any other folk art whereas this is the need of the hour. Such examples prove that the art forms that are marginalised today are not because they could not adjust with time, but because they were not kept on the same stage by the stakeholders.

In order to bridge such gaps and to promote more of local art, Abhinandita from the government funds even organised a rap battle in Delhi’s Connaught Place a while back.

“I ensure that I do all this while I teach the students as well as via cultural policies”, she added.

With the internet, the levels of creativity have just increased so much. Someone who is doing MA in visual art focuses completely on their education and gives their whole lives to excelling at that art, but look at the people who are doing so much on the internet without formal training.

Abhinandita says, “We constantly try to motivate the students as they feel that they made a mistake choosing the course altogether. This is not actually their fault, it is the government that has not been investing in these courses and has rigorously failed to build good policies for the growth after doing such courses.”

Feelings For Delhi

Delhi is a place that has people across States and countries being the capital. However, for the ones who have always lived here, it is their only motherland. “For me, Delhi is my village. At least 10 generations of my family have lived in Delhi. I have a feeling of the motherland with Delhi.”

For people who do not have any other origin, it is really difficult to convince other people who always look to put people like me under a label.

Therefore, in terms of my political role, “I feel a responsibility toward my city and my people. The relationship that I have with my city is very organic, it’s not forced. I call myself ‘Chandni Chowk ki beti’ and I do not have to force it,” she added.

Giving an example, Mathur talked about how once the vyaparis were annoyed, and there was a fight. “I went there trying to resolve it and told them how I knew the place. They initially thought I was from the party and hence just wanted to get rid of them. But when I built a personal connection with him and once he realised how well I knew the place, he calmed down and we eventually resolved the issue.”

Mathur looks at her role in Delhi politics as very vital since she believes that a person who is not really connected to the people of Delhi, someone who does not relate to the history and culture of the place, cannot be on the ground and connect with the people, and hence will always be a step behind from doing better politics.

Poor Knowledge Of A City

People think there is no specific folk art in Delhi. But if you look at the songs that the women sing during the weddings, ones who have stayed here for generations, it is something that should be preserved, it has traces of Delhi’s own culture, and of the people whose origin is the national capital. It’s an intangible heritage of Delhi, and it must be brought in front of a wider audience.

“I would love to work with the women of Delhi. I would want to collect the remains, research on them, and pass them on to a wider audience,” says Mathur as she passionately gets into the details of the folk art in Delhi.

Since Amir Khusro founded Sitar in Delhi, there have been several tunes that he left here. “If you look at the diaries that the old ladies have in Old Delhi, you would see how rich the Delhi culture is. They are just amazing but unfortunately have failed to penetrate the digital world. All because there has been nobody who could bring it to the forefront,” said Abhinandita.

She feels that the ‘Dadis’ and ‘Pardadis’ (Grandmothers) who are still alive have lots to say via their diaries. She has a collection of them all and wants to get it to a wider audience.

The needs of Old Delhi are not much different from that of the other sub-urban and rural problems of the country. Projects in Chandni Chowk for sustainable development are of immense importance to save the culture and the people there. If the Civic problems of the people are not solved, others will still be a far-fetched dream, Mathur explained.

A usual trait and an unfortunate pattern that can be seen in old Delhi is that due to the clustered spaces and households, people have been migrating to different areas of Delhi.

“All of this is because of a lack of initiatives. Had the people been catered to and solutions are given to their problems, this would not have been the case,” added Mathur.

A city should be alive and it has to come through good governance, and an amalgamation of culture with politics for the people. There has to be food security, and development projects for the people. All of this, in the presence of a connection with the people, that is independent of all bias and greed.