Connaught Place (CP), named after Prince Arthur, the third son of Queen Victoria, Duke of Connaught and Strathearn, was to be the shopping and economic hub of Lutyen’s New Delhi. It is modelled on Bath’s Royal Crescent, but perhaps because it was designed and built by the Public Works Department, the plans were altered. The central park is ringed by inner, middle and outer circles, cut into segments by eight radial roads.
The architecture is colonial Georgian/Palladian, with no Indian influences. It has two stories with an open a colonnade to provide shade. The whitewashed buildings are looking sad in places, spattered with betel juice, collapsing in others. Some have been repaired and refurbished. Part of CP has been pedestrianised, which makes it a good place to have a game of cricket.
I wanted to learn more, so I joined KLODB – Knowing and Loving Delhi Better – a weekend walking group. We met outside Rajiv Chowk metro station at 7:30am on a Sunday morning, but didn’t get started until after 8am. The guide was Dhruva N. Chaudhuri, aged 84. He was an author and photojournalist who bought his first camera, a Voigtlander, in 1957 from a camera shop in CP. He promptly stepped outside the shop and the first photograph he took won a prize. The subject was a bullock cart coming along the inner circle.
Dhruva told us stories about the Regal Cinema, where he had bought tickets for a box as a young boy. The ticket seller was amazed that someone so young could have the cash to make the purchase.
As we strolled around the colonnade, he told us about the original shops which occupied the premises. Some have persisted, such as Wenger’s, selling pastries, cakes and Swiss chocolate. Upstairs is the original restaurant. Around the corner is Keventer’s milk shake shop (rather too sweet for my taste). The Jain Book Agency, one of the original shops, is still a popular store.
But I felt uneasy about the proliferation of American Express, KFC, Adidas, Lee Cooper, Van Heusen and others taking over the prime sites. When I spoke to my colleagues, they said that India is developing fast and as part of this process, globalisation was inevitable. Perhaps not. When I first came to India in 1978, Coca Cola was banned because the company would not reveal the secret recipe. Instead, the Indians produced soft drinks such as Campa Cola, Thumbs Up and Limca. But Coke succeeded eventually (very few people buy diet or caffeine free cola; they enjoy the full sugar experience – maybe that’s why the banning order was reversed, to satisfy India’s sweet tooth).
There was no better place in Delhi to sip a cold beer in the early evening and watch the world go by. Unfortunately, there have been some problems with the city authorities introducing hefty rates for restaurants and bars with seating in the open air on the top floor. The bar owners have objected, but we will have to wait and see what happens. An Indian compromise, perhaps.
Dhruva talked to us about the architects and the builders, showing us his books of period black and white photographs. After three hours of jogging his memory, we dispersed. Unfortunately, his voice became weaker as the morning continued, so it was not possible to hear all he had to say. Some folks recorded him on their smartphones, so perhaps the script will be published on the KLODB website. Oral history needs to be preserved.