Delhi’s streets were not alleys but pages of a painting. Every face that appeared seemed like a masterpiece,” reads lines from an Urdu poem by Mir Taqi Mir, which he penned about Delhi—his beloved city. As a city that has seen empires and civilisations thrive and fall, Delhi remains an account of several memories that start as personal but eventually evolve to build a historic narrative of the city. Inspired by this idea of personal and collective memory, Anukriti Gupta and Tanuja Bhakuni, two doctoral students at the Centre for Women Studies at the Jawaharlal Nehru University started Zikr-e-Dilli—a digital depository of material and spatial memories, history, and accounts of the city —in June 2020 on Instagram.
Both Gupta and Bhakuni arrived in Delhi around 11 years ago, and thus began a complex relationship with the city that has kept evolving with time. First prompted by their “different yet similar” lived experiences, Zikr-e-Dilli was created as an attempt to go beyond the homogenous realities of the city and look at the alternative narratives intertwined in its memory. The project also seeks to archive, preserve, and interpret the Capital through the “recollection of memories and narratives around city spaces as well as material objects.”
“For me, Zikr-e-Dilli is an experimental project where I articulate personal histories, ideas, anecdotes, perceptions, and memories of Dilli [Delhi] while situating these in the larger historical, socio-political background,” Bhakuni comments.
Inspired by memory
A city is a site of memory or as Gupta mentions, “It is a living being, and we should tend to it as such.” The abstraction for Zikr-e-Dilli is to look at people’s experiences through the idea of zikr (an Urdu word for narration or remembrance). It aims to address the questions of time, space, as well as material through recollections of the past so as to convey a holistic perception of the city.
“The idea is to present an alternative narrative of the city and provide the readers with a new lens of looking at Delhi—not just one Delhi but multiple Delhis that interact with each other in interesting ways,” Bhakuni says.
Under Zikr-e-Dilli, Gupta and Bhakuni also run a section called ‘Living Museum of Delhi’, a digital archive of the lives and experiences of people about Delhi. In this title, the ‘Living’ suggests how a city is an ever-evolving space of countless memories, generated through people coming from different walks of life. “One may not remember the historical details of Humayun’s Tomb, but they will always remember when they first saw it, who was with them, and other personal nitty-gritty. This is the idea behind calling our archive ‘Living Museum of Delhi’, as the city is continuously evolving, moving, and living,” Gupta explains.
Talking about the research into each post, both Gupta and Bhakuni attribute a great deal of the work to their academic training that has exposed them to many sources. While curating posts, they delve into personal experiences and also conduct extensive research via books, literature, letters, etc. Apart from this, they often receive submissions or interview interested participants.
“Sometimes, a visual from an online archive clicks, and I then look into the history and politics around the account, which then leads to weaving an elaborate narrative around the image,” Bhakuni says. With over 240 posts and a website that launched in April this year, Zikr-e-Dilli has already moved beyond being just an Instagram page. The project now plays a significant role in creating a public record of our lived history in this city. The page also routinely indulges in topics and narratives that are unacknowledged, and pieces of unexplored history and presents them in a manner that a reader can “peek into this kaleidoscopic city”.
AN ODE TO DELHI AND ITS STORIES
Zikr-e-Dilli aims to address the questions of time, space, as well as material through recollections of the past so as to convey a holistic perception of the city of Delhi.