When Firoz Shah Tughlaq built the madrassa in Hauz Khas Village in 1352, the neighbourhood was teeming with intellectuals and scholars. Six centuries later, the madrassa might have fallen out of favour, but the village continues its affair with Delhi's cultural intelligentsia.
Hauz Khas had its first chic-meets-village makeover in the 1980s when designer Bina Ramani was credited with turning it into a fashionable place.
But just when you thought Hauz Khas' moments as a popular hang-out were over, it has reinvented itself once again.
Towards the end of the 2000s the ruins began to ignite a revival of interest among the city's art and design community. This time around, it's not high-end designers who swarm the place, but young, edgy shops and labels that have earned the Village a name as Delhi's own "Soho" neighbourhood.
Tucked away in an alley adjacent to the old Bistro complex, design studio Cell Design and restaurant The Grey Garden are part of the less commercialised side of the village. Shani Himanshu of Cell Design reminisces about the time he moved from Milan to set shop in Delhi in 2006. "When we leased this building, there was no electricity or sewage in most of the village. We got lucky because the owner, an engineer, had built the space in a planned manner."
Stores such as Yodakin, with regular book readings, brought an entirely different kind of audience to the village, helping it expand beyond its design-centric appeal. Restaurants such as The Living Room Cafe and Gunpowder also did their bit to make Hauz Khas accessible to a larger consumer base.
The Greenhouse, a project supported by Goethe Institut, hosted events like yoga classes, book exhibitions and the Open Studio event that involved many stores and studios in the village.
The Original makeover
In 1987, when Ramani found this pocket of land, she fancied recreating a vibe similar to New York's Greenwich Village in Delhi. She rallied to get the roads fixed and the sewage system put in place so she could open her second store 'Twice Upon A Time'. "Soon, young graduates from NIFT were setting up stores in the area. It showed promise of becoming a creative hub," says Ramani.
With that influx, the Village became a first of its kind pocket in the city that housed exciting new design and art. The day wasn't far, though, when real estate developers swooped in, jacked up the rents and drove the young bunch out.
Back to the future
Most weekends, once again, the Village is teeming with Delhi's culturati taking in the vibe. But can this second coming of our artsy neighbourhood be sustained?
Nikhil Gupta, owner of Navratna, a shop that deals in lithographs and antiques, believes that "the area has not yet passed the litmus test. In the 11 years that I've been here, I've seen shops come and go at an alarming pace. It has a long way to go before it really owns up to the ‘Soho' tag attached to it. At the moment, it stands the danger of becoming commercial and losing its appeal."
A search for Hauz Khas Village on Google supports Gupta's hypothesis: most portals refer to Delhi's "Soho" neighbourhood as an "artsy shopping hub".
Himanshu says the village needs "sustained and organised development with special attention to things like no traffic inside the village."
Restaurateur Satish Warrier of Gunpowder says the infrastructure can't sustain an entirely commercial space, a blessing in disguise. Another issue is escalating rents. A throwback to the issues in the 90s, most commercial inhabitants of the village await the time when leases will be renewed, "the future of the village will be sealed by that," says Shruti Sharma of Kunzum cafe.