City Monument – The Jali, Gurgaon & Elsewhere
The world of screen.
[Text and photo by Mayank Austen Soofi]
Look at this derelict building. The central pattern is as intricate as an embroidered fabric. It is made of entwined quadrangles and circles, multiplying several times over, and spanning across the tall facade. Perhaps a housebound Charulata might be standing behind this narrow jali, or screen, at the moment, her prying eyes curiously investigating the forbidden outdoors through these holes.
That is unlikely. The building is uninhabited, almost in ruins, here in Gurgaon’s New Basti, near Hotel Moonlight. Even so, the roadside edifice represents an aspect of architecture that once richly furnished our cities. Welcome to the endangered world of the jali.
The jali is likely to have descended from the more elaborate stone screens and jharokhas of our centuries-old monuments. No surprises then that Delhi’s great 20th century architect, who would drew his inspiration from India’s past, most creatively indulged in this legacy of jali. All the Joseph Steins in the capital have the jali as their common motif. In the corridors and staircases of Stein’s Triveni Kala Sangam, the jalis casually spill the straightforward daylight into rounded gold drops, which litter the floor like pearls fallen from a broken necklace.
Other places, other jalis. A jali of significant note adorns the first floor gallery of Ghalib Academy in Hazrat Nizamudddin Basti (architect, Fasiruddin Siddqui)—two patterns within the same frame collide midway, infiltrates into each other’s domain, yet stay distinct. Nearby, in an iconic sufi shrine, marble jalis surround the grave chambers of mystic Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya, poet Amir Khusro, emperor Muhammed Shah Rangila and princess Jahanara.
Besides being ornamental, the jali was a natural air conditioner in Delhi’s hostile heat. The tiny openings fanned the air within the house, and also shielded the rooms from the unforgiving summer sun. The jali’s decline is a consequence of many causes, including the climate change. These perforations of air and light are no match to the all-powerful AC in withstanding the unprecedented heat waves of May and June. Additionally, in Delhi’s increasingly toxic air, the jali is helpless in keeping out the poisonous PM 2.5. It is also no barrier to the killer dengue mosquito. And any housekeeper will tell you that the jali keeps the room dusty.
Indeed, stranded amid the haunting beauty of this empty building in Gurgaon, the jali appears to have found its metaphorical grave.