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Modelling Dilli

Capital idea


A Delhi design firm looks to make the city's history come alive by designing detailed 3D reconstructions of many of its most famous monuments.

All that Satvinder Singh Channey really remembers of his visit a few years ago to Delhi's Qutub Complex (which, as the name suggests, houses the famous Qutub Minar, and is one of India's most visited heritage sites) is that his group was led by a tour guide.

"Although there was someone explaining the history, the architecture, and the dynasties, by the time we exited, everything was a muddle. A lot of the story was lost on me," says Channey, founder of Design Route, a New Delhi-based branding and information design firm.

What bugged him was the fact that if he, a graphic designer, found it hard to visualise the history of an era from the tour guide's spiel, what would other tourists make of it? "I knew there was a lot of story there but because you don't understand the heritage, you can't appreciate it fully."

The lack of good maps, inaccurate information, stories made up by local guides and touts, defaced plaques/plates and bad basic infrastructure often welcome tourists to most Indian heritage sites.

So the design team decided to try to change at least one thing - the maps. Much of Delhi's history is in crowded complexes that have numerous buildings as dynasties have built new structures beside and over older ones. Add to it, the years of erosion, damage and subsidence, and it becomes near impossible to visualise what the original monument might have looked like in all its pristine glory.

This is where the team brought to bear their expertise by coming up with monument maps that it indulgently calls "conjectural reconstructions". The team has completed maps for Delhi's Qutub Complex and Jantar Mantar and is in the process of finalising maps for the city's Red Fort and the Hauz Khas madrassa complex.

"The problem is that no one gives an overall picture, a larger context of the architecture or a bird's eye view of what happened. We are trying to visually aid a visitor's imagination so that he or she can imagine what it looked like when, say, half the buildings did not exist," says Channey.

These maps are much like the 'dramatic reconstructions' of real events we see on TV news. Except that the maps use text and illustrations. And it is the small details on the map, such as the key guide to various dynasties and kings at the bottom of the map, marked differences between current paths and past, that make it delightful. Even the back of the map is divided into various, delicate designs of the kind of 'jaali-work' used on the monuments.

"The designs of jaali-work are a nice touch. Innumerable such designs are found in Delhi's Qutub Complex, Humayun's Tomb and in Agra's Taj Mahal;each and every part is different," says Praduman Kumar Sharma, former professor, National Museum Institute, who assisted Design Route with research inputs.

Similarly, the map for Delhi's Jantar Mantar - a set of giant astronomical instruments erected in the 17th century - has a mini pop-up model that lays bare some of the workings of these old instruments. Design Route's maps are midway between a Google satellite image and an information brochure. "A good map should tell you what it looks like in three seconds. It should not be intimidating like a history book and its purpose is to lure the visitor into the monument," says Channey.

The four-fold maps are handy and user-friendly in the sense that they don't follow a strict, linear sequence of information through the map. They aim to be useful to both a discerning visitor as well as a casual browser.

While Channey emphasises that his maps should not be taken as the ultimate word on the history of a monument, considerable time has been spent on digging out older maps, illustrations and accurate information on the sites. Saumyaa Naidu, content designer and design researcher with Design Route, is working on the reconstruction map of the Red Fort. She says that as a first step, they looked at books and Gordon Sanderson's drawings. "While a lot of the map is based on Sanderson's drawing of the fort but details of smaller buildings cannot be figured out because of the scale of the sketch. The proportions cannot be matched and for maps we need precise measures. So we are also collecting documents from the ASI and the National Archives, " she says. The archives, according to her, had older plans and drawings but these were oversimplified maps of Shahjahanabad. "Even though they gave a good idea about the city, extracting Red Fort's drawings was difficult. But what was helpful are the details on the structure. Descriptions are also key. We read a lot of old travel accounts to understand what it might have been like. For instance, one major problem was with the zenana structure in the Red Fort, which is completely destroyed. It is supposed to be like a labyrinth but there is no account and no drawing because visitors were not allowed in as it was only for women. Finally we found some maps the ASI had compiled and took the final layout from that."

The details on the map - the engravings, the attention paid to the colour and kind of stone used for the reconstruction - are also based on secondary sources. The maps also look considerably cont emporary because of the 3-D rendering. Channey pulls out the day's newspaper to point at one of the ubiquitous real estate ads featuring a skyscraper. "Look at the 3-D style of this building. Today, most architectural drawings look like this. Maps need to maintain that sensibility, " he says. But 3-D is also time consuming, and more so for monuments because of the lack of precise measurements of past buildings. "But, " says Naidu, "the toughest part is to fit it all in the context of a time gone by because we still think in contemporary terms. We can't imagine life in those times and even if it is conjectural, it needs logic. " Each map's gestation period is quite long - almost a year. The Hauz Khas map draft, for instance, is in its 30th version. And because the mapping is more a passion project than a revenue-generating one for the firm, it is often on the backburner. The first map, Qutub Complex, however, was received well when it was sold on site by the ASI for a year. That contract has expired and the firm is looking to renew it.

After Red Fort and Hauz Khas, the firm wants to map the numerous but mostly neglected step-wells (baolis) of Delhi and the Ferozeshah Complex. Channey says, "Citizens need to feel a sense of pride in their city's heritage. A sense of ownership can lead to respect and better upkeep. By no measure do we call ourselves the guardians of history but I hope these maps can play a small role in how we navigate the city. "

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