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Breathing life into New Delhi

In design, the makers of Her Majesty's new Capital in India had thought of everything.

delhi Updated: Aug 29, 2011 13:18 IST
Avishek G Dastidar

In design, the makers of Her Majesty's new Capital in India had thought of everything.

They had chalked out a township that had provisions for taking care of all businesses of grave importance to run the country with utmost convenience. The wide, tree-lined roads, the giant office buildings — all made sure that the new city could serve its purpose, which it did, since the Capital was shifted here in 1911. But for years, something was amiss.

For the new city to be complete and 'real', New Delhi needed a hub to put life into the brick and mortar town, which was nothing but office space till then. It needed a place where the inhabitants could have all the trappings of the good life — shopping, entertainment and fine dining — and where a city could come alive beyond office hours. Like London, New Delhi needed its own Piccadilly Circus.

In 1929, the British commissioned the construction of a central business district. So basically a ridge, where the nobility from Kashmere Gate would come to hunt partridges on weekends, made way for a unique colonnade complex with shops of fine European lifestyle — a first in Delhi.

And like many other great architectural masterpieces in British colonies across the globe then, this was also named after the Duke of Connaught.

Dating, shopping and foot-care
By 1931, Connaught Place's construction was in full swing. The ground floor, which was supposed to be commercial establishments, had been allotted, while the first floor meant for residences was still being made.

By the mid-1930s, Connaught Place earned popularity among young army men from the barracks at the Red Fort.

Old timers say that young army men would bring ladies, mostly Anglo Indian, from Kashmere Gate and head to Connaught Place, where, among other things, the soldiers would get on-the-fly pedicure from roadside chirpodists.

"The whole circular corridor of the Inner Circle had chiropodists waiting for soldiers, who would come to remove bunions from their feet to be able to wear their army boots comfortably," said historian and author RV Smith.

"I remember Ramlal, one of the last of the lot, would wait for his clients outside United Coffee House," Smith said.

Connaught Place had the distinction of introducing Delhi with lifestyle options — through the shops that catered solely to British tastes — that were not known to a city with mostly medieval roots.

Decades of use and abuse
By 1938, most of the residential quarters were full with tenants from the old city, Punjab, Shimla and a host of other places. And the later years saw increase in patrons as new eateries, cinema halls and other establishments kept springing with new offerings.

"The popularity of CP could be gauged from the fact that through the decades commercialisation multiplied at an alarming rate, and that took a toll on its original character," said Ramesh Raina, chief engineer of New Delhi Municipal Council, which took up a project to restore CP a few years ago.

Originally, the central park was supposed to be nestled in a circular green patch, surrounded by a circular road. That space slowly gave way to parking lots. The green patch became a circular road around a much constricted Central Park. The NDMC is trying to revive the old character of CP.

"The wood used in construction was inferior. We are using better quality material... without losing its original character," Raina said.