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The Jama Masjid. Photo: Virendra Singh Gosain/Hindustan Times
The Jama Masjid. Photo: Virendra Singh Gosain/Hindustan Times

Lounge preview: Delhi 6, through the lives of its ‘begums’

'Delhi 6Through A Feminist Lens' is being organized in collaboration with GoUNESCO, an initiative that started in 2012 as a travel challenge

Chandni Chowk is every Dilliwalla’s favourite area.... But have you ever wondered about the women of Chandni Chowk?"

This is how Anna Menon and Aakriti Suresh, both 21, are introducing the heritage walk, which they will host this Sunday, on their Facebook page. Called “Delhi 6—Through A Feminist Lens", their walk is being organized in collaboration with GoUNESCO, an initiative that started in 2012 as a travel challenge. It is supported by Unesco, with participants being encouraged to travel to all the World Heritage Sites in one country in one calendar year. Menon is currently head of communications with India Pictures Gallery (Ipxl.co), and Suresh, who has interned with GoUNESCO earlier, is doing a master’s in history from Delhi University (DU).

This will be their first walk as hosts. “Walks, here in Delhi, are pretty common. So adding a feminist angle to it is something that we thought would give us an edge," Suresh says. Over email, they tell Mint Lounge how they came up with the idea, what they learnt on their reconnaissance walk, and more. Edited excerpts:

What do you both do? How do you know each other?

Menon: I’m currently working as head of communications with India Pictures and she is pursuing her master’s in history from DU. We graduated from Lady Shri Ram College in history and were classmates.

Suresh: Even in college, we weren’t that close in the beginning, but later on we discovered our mutual love for history, politics, parties, and travelling.

Aakriti Suresh and Anna Menon (in blue) pose for a selfie in Old Delhi.
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Aakriti Suresh and Anna Menon (in blue) pose for a selfie in Old Delhi.

How did you come up with the idea for this walk?

We think the angles we will cover in our walk, is a portion of the place’s history which has been ignored. Delhi 6 is our favourite place…. (We love) its people, food, the architecture, everything. We have read so much about it and (realized that) all those lesser-known parts and versions of its history never really reach the people. So we want to share those stories.

What role does GoUNESCO play in this?

Suresh: GoUNESCO is a non-profit organization affiliated to Unesco Delhi. It was started a few years ago by this very passionate man called Ajay Reddy, with a view to sensitize and make people appreciative of the heritage around us, be it man-made or natural. This “Make Heritage Fun" walk happens once a year. A date is set and volunteers across the globe are encouraged to conduct and organize innovative events at some heritage place of our choice, trying to involve as many people as possible.

So our walk in Old Delhi is a part of that initiative.

How did you plan the route and pick the people whose stories you want to tell?

Menon: Red Fort was a no-brainer for us. In our classes on Mughal India in college, we have discussed so many stories about the fort that we knew we had to cover it. Because we are doing the walk from a feminist perspective, we realized the many havelis of Chandni Chowk were solely managed by women. Some were even built by women, so these stories automatically became a part of our narrative.

We are planning to focus on the people of Shahjahanabad who have not been given enough importance in history—the begums, the eunuchs, the illegitimate children of the royal family, the role of sexuality, and the harems too.

You’ve just done a preparatory walk. Anything that struck you as important?

Suresh: In theory, we had read a lot about the Mughal women and their role in both public and private spheres of medieval life. But when we actually went and tried to find evidence of these stories in real life, it was so disheartening that we couldn’t get far. Though all the “male chambers" of the Red Fort have been preserved beautifully by the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), the zenanas or the female chambers are falling apart and don’t receive any attention. It was difficult to digest the fact that of all the structures that are a part of this grand fort, it was, somehow, only the zenana that the authorities found best suited for “aimless" and misguided whitewash, making it feel totally out of place, and transforming it into an ill-maintained museum.

Also, the havelis that we tried to locate are in such bad condition. It just reminds us of how insensitive we are towards our heritage and legacy.

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