In a bustling metropolis such as Delhi, where change is the only constant, Anica Mann, an archaeologist and a “true Dilli wala”, is a documentarian of the city’s architectural heritage. With a passion for history and an eye for detail, she navigates its streets, mapping the evolution of Delhi houses on her Instagram page, @delhihouses, which she started in 2022 and which has 19.5k followers. “Archiving Modern Delhi houses,” her Instagram bio reads. “Modern houses,” says Mann, “are not just structures, they are living remnants of Delhi’s rich history.”
For Mann, modern houses are those that have stood the test of time, seamlessly integrating into the urban fabric while retaining their original charm. In one of her recently archived houses from Chandni Chowk, Mann points out the distinct characteristics of old houses, such as the towering sandstone staircases deliberately crafted to “slow down” the foot-traffic.
Over time, however, the many renovations, like the use of cement, or a new staircase, have been ways of introducing diverse architectural elements with each reflecting its era. These, according to her, are the features of a modern house.
Chronological time is not what differentiates “modern houses” from “contemporary” ones. The former are those that have gracefully weathered the passage of time; they also influence the architectural styles of other buildings. “The Khazanchi’s Haveli of the Mughal Emperor’s treasurer in Chandni Chowk is one such building whose architectural style has served as inspiration for the Rashtrapati Bhavan, a building that marks the modern period of Delhi,” she says.
An archive of memories
Contemporary houses, says Mann, emerged around 2012, in response to the city’s growing population. “The year marked a shift towards elevated constructions, supported by stilts, in order to accommodate the city’s growing populace. The traditional bungalows and kothis gradually gave way to the towering apartment complexes that characterise Delhi’s skyline today,” she says. And it is amid this evolution of the city that Mann is trying to turn the history of private homes into a memory archive.
“One of the houses I photographed was gone after three months and was replaced by a bigger apartment. I do not want to lose the history of houses. It is an architectural movement. Just because these houses are private homes, nobody thought of documenting them,” she says.
Deep Delhi roots
Despite being born in Jamshedpur—her father is a Delhiite and her mother is from Bihar—her earliest recollections are intertwined with the streets of Delhi. Childhood for her meant frolicking amidst the untamed Narela farms or a walk with her grandparents in Vasant Kunj. While studying at Lady Shri Ram College, Mann also frequented the Delhi University hangouts of Majnu Ka Tila, while passing by the Wazirabad bridge.
“I have travelled the length and breadth of this city, from witnessing the coming of highly ornamented, baroque houses of Greater Kailash, to long routes of Jamunapaar (the colloquial term for East Delhi) leading to Ghaziabad, and the airport amid the little jungle-like area of Gurgaon (now Gurugram).” She has witnessed the city’s evolution first hand.
“Looking at houses in different areas of Delhi, I would say to myself that ‘this house was probably built during the ’60s’, ‘this one during the ’80s’, and so on.” For Mann, documenting houses is nothing short of a labour of love – a testament to her unwavering devotion to the city she proudly calls home.
Key spots, ground rules
“I am intrigued by the external appearance of a house because it offers an insight into the intention of those who live there and how they wish their home to be perceived by the world,” she says. While each aspect of a house has its own significance, the kitchen holds a special place in her heart. It is the “beating heart of the home”, a place where nourishment, warmth, and conversations intermingle. Mann also seeks out the cosy corners of a house—spaces that offer comfort, whether it is a veranda, where residents gather for morning tea, or a snug interior, where curtains are drawn to create an intimate ambience—or where the eyes don’t go, such as the back lanes of houses.
“I want to know the story behind each house, whether it is the owner or a tenant, every inhabitant adds a layer to its history,” she says. And it is this personal connection that enriches her work, transforming these structures into living chronicles of Delhi’s past. But there are some ground rules to follow. She documents houses that are situated along main roads, visible to the public as they contribute to the visual landscape of the cities. “I photograph them openly as the houses are already on display for the passersby,” she says.
However, while posting, she does not reveal the exact location to respect the owners’ privacy and reaches out to the occupants if they express interest in more intimate documentation. One of her recently documented houses is in the Anand Lok colony, where the landlord occupies the ground floor and leases out the upper floors to families, while the first floor is rented to bachelors.
Among the many individuals who were drawn to Delhi in pursuit of fresh opportunities, this building now accommodates a young artist. As new inhabitants come and go, these houses adapt and evolve, reflecting the changing needs and aspirations of the city’s residents. Through her work, Mann captures this ongoing narrative of transformation.