The Kashmere Gate metro station, with its corrugated green tin roof, big blocks of concrete and commercial feel, is a crossroads: between different metro lines, between the corporate and the governmental, between public and private. And it is mega. There’s no other word for it. Highly corporatized with its Nirulas and McDonalds, it is somehow both public and private, semi-public and semi-private. If our notion of what constitutes the “public” and “public space” is based around an idea of something that is distinct from both the Market and the State, then the Kashmere Gate metro station leaves precious little room for it: enter and you find yourself subjected to extensive security checks and police surveillance, and you also find fast food and advertisements. Lingering in the space between the metal detector, the platforms and the burgers is not permitted. The place is huge and easy to get lost in–be sure not to leave from the wrong exit if you plan on visiting the Kashmere Gate artists’ sites–I had to ask several times the way to the actual, historic and eponymous Kashmere Gate.
It dwarfs its namesake monument, looming over the old double-barreled gateway like the end of history, like a mountain range or a frozen tidal wave (tidal mall?). But the gate itself is still there: pigeons with iridescent collars roost in the gaps in its brick facade, low-slung and heavy and pock-marked. The parapets above the gate look like the cauliflower nose of an old boxer. Go through the gate, to the south side and you will find a small monument here to the soldiers wounded (on the British side) during the famous dawn charge on the fourteenth of September, 1857. The list includes Toola Ram, Bis Ram and Madhoo, miners and sappers who blew a breach on the right side of the gate, and made possible the imperial troops’ entry into the walled city. The only shells that hit it now come from the other side of the fence nearby, from where the local boys play cricket and hit sixes.
The site itself is under ASI protection. That this is so one can tell not only from the usual piles of rubbish, building materials and decommissioned brooms but also from that blue sign with white lettering, that same sign that stands guard all over India:
PROTECTED MONUMENT: this monument has been declared to be of national importance under the ancient monuments and archaeological sites and remains act, 1958 (24 of 1958). Whoever destroys, removes, injures, alters, defaces, imperils or misuses this monument, shall be punishable with imprisonment, which may extend to 3 months or with fine which may extend to 5000 Rs or with both. Further, under sub-rule 32 of the ancient monuments and archaeological sites and remains rules, 1959 and notification issued in 1992, areas up to 100 meters from the protected limits and further beyond it up to 200 meters near or adjoining protected monuments have been declared to be prohibited and regulated areas, respectively, for purposes of both mining operation and construction. Any repair, addition or alteration and construction/reconstruction within these areas needs prior approval of the ASI.
I’ve seen these signs a hundred times or more, but never paid much attention. This time I read it closely, with an eye towards understanding how the Indian state legally frames its custodianship of a site like Kashmere Gate. It is, in a sense, “public”: it belongs to the people of India, it is officially open to visitors with certain restrictions, it is not to be used for private gains (no mining allowed). And yet, clearly, reading through this legalese it becomes clear that the state of being “public” requires strict vigilance. It is the opposite of laissez-faire. What is public must be kept separate and sanitized, must be protected with a buffer zone, enforced with fines and imprisonment, guarded by gates and watchmen. Preserving the space as a “public” good means constantly warding off private operators. An instructive comparison could be drawn with the equally regulated, restricted and secured “public” space of the Kashmere Gate metro station. In neither case is the condition of being “public” a natural one, in neither case does it come easy or unmixed.
Atul Bhalla’s installation for 48c will occupy both spaces. His intervention in the visual space of the metro station will use, appropriately enough, the advertising light boxes available on hire there–he has reserved and paid for them just like any other advertiser. His major piece, however, will consist of the erection and operation of a chabeel–a tradition in the Punjab practiced by Hindus and Sikhs that involves the distribution of water or, more often, a kind of lassi to the public on religious festivals, especially during the height of summer. Bhalla will construct a large white tile kiosk in the shape of the plastic water jugs pilgrims use to transport water from the Ganga and hand out glasses of drinking water to anyone who comes by, provided they are willing to fill out a questionnaire: how long have you been in Delhi? when was the last time you saw the Yamuna? when was the last time you touched the Yamuna?
We were talking about the traditional chabeel as a kind of public institution. Like the langar it is open to all, but one could make the case that the intentions behind the traditional practice of distributing water and lassi on auspicious occasions during the summer months spring from a rather more private set of motivations: the accumulation of religious merit, or punya. Either way, it is a salutary reminder that the notion of what exactly constitutes a “public” or a “public space” is highly variable and context-specific. The metro station, the ASI-protected site of national importance, the chabeel: all can lay claim to the word “public” but all come freighted with very different types of baggage, different rules, different motivations, different participants.
Meanwhile, just visible across the way, a digitally printed banner that hangs above Nirula’s glass-fronted fast food parlor reads: OPENING SHORTLY Parsvnath Metro Mall-Kashmere Gate.