Public Meets Private in Delhi

Public Meets Private in Delhi

Outdoor cots filling an empty lot; people occupying them, resting.
Rented cots at a public park near Jama Masjid, by Altaf Qadri for New York Times, March 28, 2017.

In a public park in the vicinity of Jama Masjid, there is an encampment of homeless citizens. A 2014 photograph for The New York Times shows rows of cots, with some people sleeping and others lounging. This photograph was taken at a public park in the vicinity of Jama Masjid, located in Shahjahanabad, colloquially referred to as Old Delhi. It captures an encampment of homeless citizens sleeping and lounging on cots. There, cots are rented out to the homeless on a daily basis for about ten to thirty rupees a night with the option to rent a blanket for an additional fee. The parks surrounding Jama Masjid where homeless citizens often reside, located in Shahjahanabad, colloquially referred to as Old Delhi, are Urdu Park, Netaji Subhash Park, as well as parts of Meena Bazaar. In his paper, Shahjahanabad – Old Delhi: Tradition and Planned Change which was published 1982, Douglas Goodfriend examines the merits of preserving the original architecture of Old Delhi. The urban anthropologist goes on to explain how the Jama Masjid Community Square scheme affected this particular area of Old Delhi:

The Jama Masjid Community Square scheme was carried out in 1975. It significantly decongested the area around the mosque [Jama Masjid] and created both a pleasant park area as well as less congestion in the crowded Urdu Bazaar area. The Kuccha Bazaar was made more permanent in a new Meena Bazaar, sensitively built at the foot of Jama Masjid in such a way as to not detract from the majesty of the mosque. The shopkeepers who had been located in the Kuccha bazaar surrounding Jama Masjid were, by and large, relocated in the new Meena Bazaar. This involved minimum disruption and loss of customers.”1

This scheme is what led to the built environment surrounding the Jama Masjid today. Altering the architecture to create less congestion and more open space is what allowed for citizens to build makeshift camps. Placing these cots in the areas around Jama Masjid, which creates a makeshift camp, is an example of how public space can be appropriated for private use; certain citizens decided to take control of public space for the purpose of using it for their own economic ventures. The act of using public land for private business, as well as using public land for personal dwelling, is a perfect example of how architectural spaces in Delhi can adopt uses different than those originally intended. In the background of the image there is a clothesline; the line runs from the side of a building to a telephone or light pole. The people living in this camp have made use of the public space in a way that encourages private appropriation of public architecture. The group of cots in the photograph completely changes the public landscape; they transform the public park into a semi-private living space. The built form of Shahjahanabad responds to the social and cultural demands of the population; citizens transformed a public park into a place of personal dwelling.2 This area was constructed as a public park and built with the intention to provide a space of leisure where the local population could relax and enjoy their surroundings. However, this public space evolved into semi-permanent homes based on the way local citizens interacted with the architecture. Dwelling in public spaces encourages private encroachment onto public land and structures; when urbanism like this is normalized, it becomes a part of the culture of a city. This particular example of appropriation of public space is not limited to this single park. Examples of public spaces across the city being appropriated for private use can be seen everywhere from public parks to public sidewalks.

The unique features of a plot of land as well as the architecture of a space determine the kinds of activities the public pursues there. The area shown in the New York Times photograph shown above represents few different key aspects of the park that encourage private use of public space. One of the most prominent aspects is the large, flat expanse of ground covered in brick or concrete. These types of materials with high thermal masses ensures that the space is kept cool during the day and warm at night, which is ideal for sleeping and living. The combination of the flat expanse of space and regulation of temperature contributes to the significant number of people sleeping on the ground itself. In the bottom of the photograph there is a raised portion of the ground that a man is using as a headrest while he sleeps. The median that he is using also serves as a way to section off the space; the raised part of the median is used for cots while the depressed sections are used for those without. There is also a brick building with a few walls that can be seen; any kind of walled facade creates a sense of security and exclusivity that make the built space an ideal location for living. The walls help to cordon off the space and separate it from the rest of the landscape, evoking a sense of privacy. The makeshift shelter in the background of the image is also another factor that contributes to the appropriation of public space. Physical structures built on public land, such as the one shown in the image, conjure the idea that using public space in a private way is acceptable. This particular structure also offers those living in the space even more of a sense of enclosure and security, much as the brick walls and buildings around the park do.

The ambiguities of public and private space are common in New Delhi, a city where private appropriation of public architecture and space is common. Old Delhi contains “irregular structures, narrow winding lanes, and courtyard houses” which makes it difficult to ascertain what is considered public and what is considered private space3 Different architectural forms often evoke a sense of openness or closeness that contribute to whether or not spaces are perceived as private or public. Physical architectural forms aid in determining the public and private, but social practices also contribute to their use. In cities, the public space is often considered simply as the outdoors, or the space outside one’s own home versus the inside of private buildings. However, public and private spaces in Delhi are often more complex than this. For years, the people of Delhi utilized the public space outdoors to celebrate religious events, conduct business, socialize, and hold political rallies. There are public architectural spaces that have been deliberately constructed for public use, and there are other architectural spaces that are not necessarily created for public use that have been appropriated by the population for private use. The public realm usually includes parks constructed as public spaces as well as bazaars and town squares. However, public spaces also include sidewalks and streets that connect private and public entities, such as the roadways that lead from homes to bazaars. These places are often filled with people celebrating religious or personal holidays, buying and selling goods, and conducting business.

An outdoor shop on a street in Old Delhi (in black and white)
Shop on a street in Old Delhi (2000), by Joyti Hosagrahar, in Negotiating Architecture and Urbanism(2009)

In Jyoti Hosagrahar’s Indigenous Modernities: Negotiating Architecture and Urbanism, an image of the sidewalk in front of a storefront is a perfect depiction of private appropriation of public space. Shop owners often utilize public streets to sell their goods, extending their stores outside the entrance. Using tables and benches, shop owners are able to make the city conform to their private needs. In this image, a shop owner has built extensively into the street. The shop has placed benches outside the storefront and has used what looks like a piece of tin as a roof extension. The extension serves the practical purpose of keeping goods placed outside the store, as well as the benches, safe from rain. It also helps to distinguish the public space that is being used as part of the store; it designates the once-public space as private. There is also a tarp that is attached to a steel beam, or a telephone pole, which extends across the road and is attached to another structure. The tarp covers part of the roof extension as well as the width of the road. Like the roof extension, the tarp extends into public space and creates a space that feels private and closed off.

The public and private realms can simply be viewed as social constructs that were put into place in order to polarize the domains of the everyday. This polarization serves to draw a distinction between our own private living rooms with the street outside our house. In many cases, the public and private realms also serve to draw a line between the less obvious public and private of the architecture of a city. The social construct of what is public and what is private is what ultimately determines how certain architectural spaces are viewed and used in the everyday.

People grouped around an outdoor food stall, marked by a camouflage umbrella.
Food stall on sidewalk in New Delhi (2012), by Blaine Wolfson Jarvis

Street vendors provide another example of one of the ways in which public space can be appropriated for private use. The photograph above shows a man with a makeshift stand selling food on the side of a busy road. Although there are no specific signs that denote the area as public, it can be assumed that the sidewalk he is on is for public use. The owner placed the food stand on a public sidewalk close to a brick wall. He further appropriates public space by placing nails into the brick wall and hanging bags of goods off them; he has claimed this space as his own private shop and altered the public architecture to suit his needs.

When the British inhabited Delhi, there were significant changes made to the laws that regulated building codes. The codes were put into place under the guise that they were to improve the aesthetics of the city as well as aid in up keeping public health when in reality it was more about attempting to “curb ‘private’ encroachments of ‘public’ space.”4 From a local perspective, these new laws served to infringe on the long-standing building traditions and social order of the community. Streets and property lines were traditionally negotiated through verbal communication rather than written proposals. The British municipality attempted to polarize public and private uses of architecture through the new building codes. Controlling urbanism was yet another way for the British to govern the native population. In her book Indigenous Modernities: Negotiating Architecture and Urbanism, Jyoti Hosagrahar studies Delhi through its evolving urbanism. Hosagrahar is currently a professor at Columbia University and the chair of the PhD program at Srishti School of Art, Design, and Technology in Bangalore, India. She examines the historic aspects of Delhi along with the present modern aspects of the city. Hosagrahar explains how “parks, squares, and streets had often been privately owned. Customary use and meaning reinforced and expressed complicated social and spatial structures of public-ness and privacy.”5 Regulation of architectural practices and urbanism was a way in which to control social interactions. Marking previously private spaces as public opened up a new way for the people to interact with the architecture. However, it also gave more control to the British municipality who ultimately attempted to control the way the local population interacted with public architecture. Designating spaces as public increased the span of British control.

There was sharp contrast between how the British and local populations viewed private appropriation of public architecture; the British saw “apparent disorderliness of Delhi’s inner streets was symptomatic of social degeneracy,” while local populations accepted it as a part of their lives.6 What the British were truly witnessing was a different type of interaction with the city’s architecture; they were experiencing an urbanism they were not used to. Hosagrahar explains how “customary spatial practices in Delhi did not conform to the simple polarity of private and public that the British officials sought to construct.” 7 The lack of perceived discipline of the built space was the opposite of control; the British strived to control the way the people of Delhi communicated with local architecture through the physical remodeling of the city and the implementation of laws to regulate architectural alterations. In cases where a privately owned building faces a public street, the lines between the public and private are blurred. In the colonial era of Delhi “building regulations aimed to govern the public face of private property . . . however, efforts to impose a preconceived vision of orthogonal order and predictable regularity proved extremely contentious.”8 British attempts to control the laws that dictated the physical architecture of the city did little to change how people interacted with their built environment. The imposition of regulations to alter and control urbanism presumed that the citizens of Delhi would change their lifestyle according to the new legislation. In the case of Delhi during the colonial period, “The law [was] understood historically as part of the ideological apparatus of the bourgeoisie in its desire for control of urban spaces.”9 This understanding of colonial laws that attempted to alter urbanism in Delhi was born out of the fact that the general population had an inclination to ignore or push against the laws that were enacted. The British believed that they were superior, therefore they imposed their own idea of order, in relation to urbanism, in an attempt to further control the general public. One way to understand colonial urban codes is to view the law as a tool for social manipulation or a route that the British took to control the population of Delhi.

Another example of the ways in which the British were able to control the urbanism of Delhi was through the acquisition of private property; more specifically, their acquisition of Safdarjung’s Tomb Complex. The British sought after this piece of property due to its charbagh layout, which entails a garden expanse divided into quadrants by watercourses. The tomb garden was also an expansive area with few buildings, making the whole complex “spatially amenable for remodeling.”10 The British wanted open spaces for recreational use, as they were of utmost importance in sustaining an ideal and healthy lifestyle, and this made the architectural features of the complex of significant interest. Jyoti Sharma explains the British lifestyle in her article The British Treatment of Historic Gardens in the Indian Subcontinent: The Transformation of Delhi’s Nawab Safdarjung’s Tomb Complex from a Funerary Garden into a Public Park when she writes, “The recreational pursuits were at variance with those of Mughal royalty and nobility, who had been sustained by private gardens providing an ambience for languorous and sensual pleasure.”11 While the British did not identify with the Mughal way of life in regards for their affinity for spaces built for relaxation, they were able to use these spaces to suit their needs. Gardens that were once built with the purpose of aesthetics in mind turned into spaces that also allowed for recreation and socialization. The aim of making the gardens public altered the built space to address the needs of the British lifestyle, but it also preserved the physical monument within the gardens. The British appropriation of the complex and gardens saved the tomb from being destroyed or left to deteriorate. Opening the gardens to the British public was yet another way the British sought control over the space in Delhi. Sharma explains how the “conception of the garden as a space for leisure altered the original character … of the garden.”12 The significance of the monuments shifted; publicizing the complex encouraged people to view it as an aesthetic piece of architecture rather than one of religious and cultural significance. Opening Safdarjung’s Tomb Complex to the public changed the urbanism surrounding it. Safdarjung’s Tomb is an example of a way in which it is possible to change the urbanism surrounding an architectural structure through public perception of a monument.

The ways in which people discern between the public and private range from the implementation of signs stating whether or not that area is to be used by the public, to more nuanced social cues that don’t necessarily offer clear distinctions. Rather than existing in black and white opposition, private and public built spaces tend to operate on a myriad of levels that create areas of gray. In Delhi, it can be argued that, there are rarely spaces that can be considered completely public or private. Instead, many spaces fall on the spectrum between public and private. The urbanism of any given place explores the relationship between the public and private realms of society and how the architecture of a space affects those realms. Ultimately, the architecture of any given place serves as an important factor for what types of social interactions—whether they be public or private—are carried out within the built environment. Citizens of any given city utilize the architecture in ways that suit their needs, however, the needs of citizens are constantly evolving. The high, and increasing, population density in Delhi also means that more and more stress is being placed upon the architecture and physical built spaces. As populations fluctuate, as infrastructure changes, and as technology advances the needs of a population are bound to change simultaneously, therefore changing the physical aspects of architectural spaces around them as well as the uses they adopt.

  1. Goodfriend, Douglas E. “Shahjahanabad – Old Delhi: Tradition and Planned Change.” Ekistics 49, no. 297 (Nov. & dec. 1982): 427-75.
  2. Goodfriend, Shahjahanabad – Old Delhi, 473.
  3. Hosagrahar, Jyoti. Indigenous Modernities: Negotiating Architecture and Urbanism (London: Routledge, 2009), 65.
  4. Ibid, 65.
  5. Ibid, 66.
  6. Ibid, 68.
  7. Ibid, 65.
  8. Ibid.
  9. Nair, Janaki. “Is There an ‘Indian’ Urbanism?” In Ecologies of Urbanism in India: Metropolitan Civility and Sustainability, edited by Rademacher Anne and Sivaramakrishnan K., 43-70. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2013.
  10. Sharma, Jyoti P. “The British Treatment of Historic Gardens in the Indian Subcontinent: The Transformation of Delhi’s Nawab Safdarjung’s Tomb Complex from a Funerary Garden into a Public Park.” Garden History 35, no. 2 (Winter 2007): 210-88.
  11. Sharma, The British Treatment of Historic Gardens in the Indian Subcontinent, 213.
  12. Sharma, The British Treatment of Historic Gardens in the Indian Subcontinent, 215.
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