Home / Opinion / Connaught Place: a Life in the Day

A quarter of a century ago, a soft-spoken economist stood up in the lower House of India’s Parliament and made a speech that was t o change the course of India’s economic history. Finance minister Manmohan Singh’s budget proposals, aimed to free up a protected economy, unleashed what he would later call the animal spirits.

He succeeded only partially—because while it was in his power to do as he wished with the economy of a nation staring at the abyss, he was powerless to do anything about its politics. The politics of the nation saw Singh off.

Mint is marking the 25 years of India’s liberalization with a series of articles, called Days of our Lives—stories of how ordinary men and women have experienced liberalization. Some are grateful for it, others have misgivings (where has all the time gone, a shop assistant wonders), and for yet others at the bottom of India’s heaving pyramid, nothing has changed at all.

It is the shop assistant’s testimony that got me thinking—about the changes that have swept Delhi’s majestic Connaught Place (CP) shopping district. There is no place quite like CP anywhere in the world for its combination of sheer architectural splendour and an increasingly egalitarian shopping experience.

The latter of course is a product of the Indian consumer revolution that has followed the policies proposed by Singh in his July 1991 budget speech.

The Connaught Place—that definite article only adds to its grandeur—is, I would argue, the centrepiece of the New Delhi conceived and built by the British architects Edwin Lutyens and Herbert Baker. It is far more accessible, and is accessed by far more people than, for instance, the imperious Rashtrapati Bhavan, where the Indian President lives.

CP, named after the Duke of Connaught after he visited Delhi in 1921, is a 1,100-foot diameter circus “with pure white colonnades, palladian archways, rounded pillars and symmetrical two-storeyed buildings", in the words of veteran architect-town planner A.K. Jain in his 2010 book ‘Lutyens’ Delhi’. Modelled after the Royal Crescent of Bath, with its imposing Georgian architecture, Connaught Place is a shopping arcade built as two concentric circles.

“Wide verandahs were provided for shoppers to stare at show windows. A park was laid out in the centre to absorb dust and to provide a place to the shoppers to recover from the shock of high prices… The white-skinned were the first to be skinned. Native aristocracy followed," Jain writes in his impeccably researched book, laced with dry humour.

The Connaught Place I grew up to know and love was where my father took me for my haircuts as a child. The shop was called Roy & James and was roughly where a Bose showroom stands today. It was very large—or so it seemed to me—and it had red leather barbers chairs. Children were sat over a wooden plank (also red leather topped to cushion the rear) that was placed on the two arms of the chair.

Roy & James has long disappeared, but a handful of others from the era survive—Wenger’s the confectioners, Snowhite, once clothiers to the very rich in suits, Embassy restaurant, Ram Chunder and Sons toy shop, and Mahatta and Co., which specializes in photography.

More than any other shop, it is Mahatta that is eye-catching for its meticulous attention to the original design and décor of the shop, established in 1948—a few months after India’s independence. I asked Pavan Mehta, who inherited his father’s shop and love of photography, what changes he has seen overcome CP in the last 25 years.

On the upside, he said, “It’s a happening place now in the evenings." That’s because scores of bars and restaurants have sprung up catering to the young, so that the outer circle is ringed with parked cars most evenings.

And the downside? “You are losing your identity here. With all these multinational companies coming in and opening stores, these chain restaurants, where’s the old charm? Now it’s like any other market—Nike shops are all the same, whether it’s Nike in CP or Nike in a south Delhi shopping mall. There’s no character left."

What keeps him going? “Things are getting difficult and challenging. I had to shut down a part of Mahatta’s selling adventure goods. But we have evolved with time. The first colour print in the India was done at our place. We introduced the first computerized machines to do printing in 1972 and digital imaging in 1986. Now hardly anybody is printing. It’s the world of instant gratification—put up a photo on Facebook and get 100 likes.

“More people are shooting than ever before but they are not buying cameras. The phone is good enough. Fortunately, the weddings have become bigger. And art printing and exhibitions. Photography is now taken as an art form, so our archives are much in demand by museums around the world.

“You know, our archives are paying back."

That is entirely in the fitness of things—that history should come full circle in a heritage marketplace, even as it bursts with new life from all classes in post-liberalization India.

Dipankar’s Twitter handle is @Ddesarkar1

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