In the winding lanes of the walled city of Shahjahanabad, the humdrum of life rings out a unique melodic beat. Yet, on this balmy summer evening, a different kind of music is at play. Inside the airy courtyard of a haveli in Kucha Pati Ram, a set of percussion instruments—drums, tambourines, tablas, cymbals, etc.—build a slow and steady rhythm. Their thrum bounces off the old brick walls and high ceilings, encompassing centuries of history in their fast beats. Soon, every person in this intimate gathering is on their feet, swaying. Once the excitement has simmered down, the attendees move across the narrow slip of road to the haveli’s twin. Here, under a neem tree, they partake of the delicacies Old Delhi is known for—chaat, samosas, mithai, kulfis, mohabbat ka sherbat...
The setting is the Kathika Cultural Centre (KCC), a new, non-profit space that aims to showcase the cultural heritage of Old Delhi and offer an exclusive stage for performing arts, workshops, screenings, culinary experiences and interactive panels—the kind of space that has become rare for the congested area. The purveyor of this mood is Atul Khanna, its founder.
On this particular occasion, we are listening to the Delhi Drum Circle, a specialised group of percussion performers, but every weekend brings with it a new experience. “In the past, it was common to have baithaks hosted in intimate settings. I am trying to recreate that atmosphere by organising these mehfils,” explains Khanna, who runs an agricultural imports business and is a restorer of havelis by passion.
Kathika, which opened in May, isn’t his first project. Around 15 years ago, Khanna, whose family is from Katra Neel in Chandni Chowk, decided to follow his passion for restoration by purchasing a haveli in Rajasthan’s Shekhawati region; it now operates as the popular Vivaana Culture Hotel. In 2015, he heard about a couple of crumbling havelis in Shahjahanabad. “I had a look at these havelis that were owned by different families and I really wanted to restore them. It wasn’t easy to close the deals but it was all worth it when I saw these 19th century buildings come back to life,” he recalls. Along the way, his wife and daughter-in-law joined his self-financed venture of love.
Drawing on the storytelling traditions of dastangoi and kathawachan, the term “Kathika” denotes a collection of short stories that reflect the history of their surroundings, especially the city’s age-old Ganga-Jamuni tehzeeb. Khanna’s experience with the Shekhawati project helped him curate the KCC, which plans to offer interactive exhibits, immersive audio-visual presentations and live storytelling performances across mediums.
At its core, Kathika Cultural Centre is a repository of curios, a performance space, as well as a place to unwind and feast on local fare. Soon, a reading room and video screening area will also be added. Meaningful collaborations with like-minded organisations have helped bring Khanna’s vision alive. Iconic black-and-white photographs from Delhi’s famed Mahatta Photo Studio line the walls of one room. These include a variety of images capturing the capital city in its pre-independence glory. There are striking photos of Jama Masjid at Eid, the giant Ferris wheel at Ram Leela Maidan, Delhi’s trams and more. The upcoming library will consist almost exclusively of a selection of publications that focus on subjects of history and culture.
Other art and artefacts in the museum are pieces from Khanna’s personal collection or those that have been donated by friends and family. Raja Ravi Varma prints adorn walls alongside specimens of popular calendar art. Stained glass work is offset by Japanese tiles depicting figurines of Indian gods and goddesses. Relics from the past, including weighty account books, moulds bearing typically Indian designs, decadent chandeliers, intricate woodwork screens, velvet-laden furniture, ornate mirrors, typewriters, and more, abound in every nook and cranny. Nothing conforms to a pattern, yet everything fits together seamlessly.
“I’m not a perfectionist,” asserts Khanna. “I’ve always been influenced by Spanish architect Antoni Gaudi. Things don’t always have to be made in straight lines. There is beauty in being crooked too. My idea of restoration is to create things that are aesthetic but have a distinctive look. I’m happy to mix different cultures or something contemporary with something historic. Fortunately, people love this experimentation. With all my projects I have made my own rules.”
One haveli contains the performance space, reading room, AV room—not yet ready—and museum. The second haveli, built around an old neem tree, has an outdoorsy focus and is used as a food space.
The KCC, a five-minute rickshaw ride from the Chawri Bazaar Metro station, opened with the launch of author and historian Swapna Liddle’s book, Shahjahanabad: Mapping A Mughal City. On 8 July, an art workshop by Amrai Dua paid homage to the 116th birth anniversary of the artist Frida Kahlo. On 16 July, it hosted historian Sohail Hashmi, who spoke on the depiction of India’s most beloved fruit, the mango, in art, culture, poetry and textiles; this was accompanied by a mango-centric feast. So far, all events are free, though registration is mandatory to get a sense of numbers.
A collaboration with the Gurugram, Haryana-based Museo Camera has been planned too. Over multiple weekends, photographer Sundeep Bali will conduct a workshop that will see participants capturing Old Delhi in their frames.
For Khanna and his team of five, a narrative element to every performance is crucial. “The idea is to reach out to more people and so we try not to restrict our cultural programming to a particular historical era. We believe it’s vital to engage with the audience,” says Alishah Ali, creative director (programmes and culture) at Kathika.
Noor Anand Chawla writes on lifestyle.