Delhi’s oral history: Now, government will archive your memories, traditions

Did you know Mughal emperor Shah Jahan spent Rs 32 lakh on his eldest son Dara Shikoh’s marriage? Or a Holi festival was held on Yamuna banks? Department of Archives is launching a project to record people’s memories and experiences
A street barber in Delhi.(Bettmann Archive)
A street barber in Delhi.(Bettmann Archive)
Updated on Feb 05, 2018 01:30 PM IST
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Hindustan Times | By, New Delhi

Museums and libraries in the city have stacks of its records — rich with tangible heritage, tales of rulers and their nobles. However, it does not have much to offer in terms of nuanced personal accounts of places in Delhi, past events and its citizenry.

This ‘vacuum’ has captured the attention of the department of archives, which has planned to launch ‘oral history project’ to gather and record people’s memories and experiences.

The idea is to document the lifestyle of Delhiites, their stories and perspective, particularly of the previous century that is unavailable in written form, said a Delhi government official involved with the project.

“Delhi has a culture of extravagant weddings since Mughal times. The fifth Mughal emperor Shah Jahan is believed to have spent Rs 32 lakh on his eldest son, Dara Shikoh’s marriage which was solemnised in 1633. Be it a wedding function or other celebration, mujra dancers were invited to perform. These nuggets from Delhi’s history have almost been forgotten, or are known to a handful of people. Through this ‘oral history’ documentation project, the department will try to uncover more such trivia of city’s culture and its history,” said the official.

The department is compiling the list of interviewees and as soon as it gets formal approval, it will engage experts and professionals — working specially in the field of heritage conservation — to conduct interviews or hold discussions on specific subjects.

A group of camels gathered outside the city walls of Old Delhi . (Popperfoto/Getty Images)
A group of camels gathered outside the city walls of Old Delhi . (Popperfoto/Getty Images)

We plan to talk to freedom fighters, authors, lawyers, dancers and artistes of the city. Also, we will record memoirs of common men and women and their observations and perceptions about historically-significant incidents. For example, the 1857 uprising or influx of migrants from Pakistan after Independence,” the official said.

Information collected in this manner will be accessible to researchers and history enthusiasts, who want to know about Delhi and its past. Once the compilation of oral records gets completed, the department plans to organise exhibitions as well.

“Oral history records, in the form of audio-video clips and their transcription, will be available online. We will also be focusing on Delhi’s folk and musical instruments. Rituals were performed during various occasions like festivals and weddings. A very few of them are practised now. The current generation is unaware of such rituals,” said the official of the department.

Explaining the Delhi government’s initiative, deputy chief minister Manish Sisodia said that with the documentation of oral history through anecdotes, stories and experiences of citizens, the Delhi Archives shall bring forth the true voice of Delhi.

“It is important to question and understand what constitutes our knowledge of history. An oral history project is a step towards inclusion. The elderly are a treasure trove of stories; custodians of our history,” he said.

Delhi Archives comes under the department of art and culture and Sisodia holds its charge.

The oral history project will be the first initiative of its kind to be launched by a government department in Delhi.

In 2013, the Centre for Community Knowledge (CCK) of Ambedkar University, Delhi, started city-wide oral history projects that is nearing completion.

The university has conducted 250 interviews so far and collected 4,500 photographs.

“We have been doing this audio-video documentation of people for five years. By September, our archives will be complete and can be accessible online free of cost. We have spoken with a variety of people from daily wagers to upper-class urban residents,” said Surajit Sarkar, associate professor and coordinator at CCK.

Tourists at Qutub Minar. (Toronto Star via Getty Images)
Tourists at Qutub Minar. (Toronto Star via Getty Images)

Conservationist OP Jain, 89, praised the department of archives’ decision, terming it ‘crucial’.

He said city’s heritage preservationists had been batting for a Delhi museum for long and an oral history project might go a long way to achieve that goal. “Across the world, cities archive their oral history by involving people. We feel differently about it. We need to understand that intangible heritage is equally important. Several European city museums have dedicated section for oral history. Oral documentations by the government may become part of the proposed Delhi’s contemporary museum,” he said.

Endorsing the idea of recording narratives of individuals and their stories, noted Punjabi author Ajeet Cour, 83, said, “Sadly, no one seems to care about the city and its monuments anymore. I hope this initiative (by the government) will help to garner respect for our historical buildings.”

A few unknown nuggets found in oral history

Holi celebrations

In the Mughal era, festivals of Hindus and Muslims were celebrated with equal zeal.

Like Eid, on Diwali, Janmashtami and Holi, special arrangements were made at Lal Quila.

On Holi, a mela (fair) was held at Yamuna banks behind the fort. Dance troupes and nakkals (mimics) would perform at the fair. The king, queens and princes would watch the performances from the fort and best performers were rewarded by the king. Author Maheshwar Dayal in his book on history and culture of Delhi, ‘Dilli: Jo Ek Shahr Tha’, has mentioned that a royal Holi celebration was organised at night in the fort which included dance performances and poetry recitals. In the city, people would gather outside the houses of wealthy residents and nobles and mock them. These symposia known as ‘Kufr Kachehriyan’ (courts of unbelief) continued throughout the day.

On the occasion of Dulhendi, a fair was held at the garden on the northern side of Chandni Chowk which was built by Mughal princess Jahanara. The area is now known as Gandhi Ground. Song and dance programmes were held at nobles’ havelis (mansions) and dharamshalas (hospices) in the evening which were specially decorated for the festival.

Night strolls

In rainy season, people, mostly in groups, would set out for a night stroll. Yamuna bank, ruins of Feroz Shah Kotla, Dhaula Kuan, Safdarjung Madarsa and Humayun’s tomb were their favourite venues. People in quest of calmness would go to Hauz Khas. These activities were strictly for men. They would carry kerosene petromax lamps and containers of kerosene oil. “Yamuna bank was popular because of its water melon and musk melon cultivation. People would relish them with home-cooked food. It continued till 1950s,” said Haji Fayyazuddin (79), who runs a guest house opposite Jama Masjid in the Walled city.

Favourite pastime: Swimming

Water sports events were frequently held at Yamuna bank, Hauz-e-Shamsi and baolis (stepwells). Swimmers and spectators would throng these sites in large numbers. On a rainy day, swimming enthusiasts would go to Majnu Ka Tila to perform their stunts. “Also, there used to be diving competitions in baolis. My grandfather participated in one at Gandhak Ki Baoli in Mehrauli,” said Sohail Hashmi (67), a Delhi based filmmaker, who organised heritage walks.


Street vendors would invite women customers by singing. This practice started in Delhi when Mughal Emperor Shahjahan built his capital — Shahjahanabad. According to Dayal’s book, in some areas of Old Delhi, women hawkers would sell fruit chaat.

Wedding ceremonies

Hindu wedding ceremonies were primarily close-knit family affairs. Only relatives and few friends were invited. All functions were organised at home. Women were not part of the baraat procession.

Home-cooked food was served. The feast started with sweets which were served in a large thali (plate). Usually, the sweets had five different varieties such as Petha, Imarti, and Baloo Shahi. “Rich people would serve seven or 11 varieties including namkeen (snacks). The food would be simple like Kachori, Bedmi and Samosa,” said OP Jain (89), a heritage conservationist.


    Parvez Sultan writes on heritage, urban-civic issues, Delhi government, and politics. Earlier, he headed hyper local bureau — South Delhi — at Hindustan Times. He has earlier reported on Delhi government, political parties, municipal bodies, Delhi High Court, Lokayukta and Central Administrative Tribunal.

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