Romance with the past: A Delhi museum bringing old to the new

- August 6, 2023
| By : Neha Kirpal |

Kathika Cultural Centre, which recently hosted a monsoon festival, is looking to promote the art and culture of old Delhi

FOR THE RECORD: Pictures of different people and areas of old Delhi on the walls of the Kathika Cultural Centre

Kathika Cultural Centre, a museum-haveli in old Delhi, recently hosted Mausam-e-Monsoon, a celebration of the rainy season with the reading of poet Abhay Kumar’s book Monsoon followed by monsoon ragas sung by Ananyaa Gaur. 

Poet-diplomat Abhay Kumar read excerpts from his playful, long winding love poem Monsoon inspired by Kalidasa’s Meghadūta. During the pandemic, Kumar was posted in Madagascar, where he started reading and attempted to translate Meghadūta from Sanskrit to English. The poem takes the reader along on the path of the monsoon – from Madagascar, where the monsoon originates to various other places, highlighting their biodiversity, customs, rituals and mythologies among other aspects – and ends in Srinagar where the poet’s beloved is. 

Through the poem, the poet invokes the monsoon to carry his message from Madagascar to his beloved in the Kashmir valley. A huge part of the poem talks about various prominent locations in Delhi, including its havelis, institutions, parks, monuments and markets. 

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Musician, composer and documentary filmmaker Ananyaa Gaur then delighted the crowd with her curated playlist of traditional monsoon music – Raga Malhar, Kajari, Dadra and folk music – evoking sights, sounds and tastes of the monsoon season. In between the songs, she made references to Teej, a traditional monsoon festival, as well as swings and other symbolic aspects associated with rains. 

Over the course of the evening, guests were also treated to a sumptuous Dawat-e-Monsoon, consisting of aam panna, pakoras, masala chai, suhaal (a rusk-like savoury snack served with potato curry), kulchas, corn bhel, anaras ki goli and jamun kulfi

Kathika Cultural Centre is housed within two 19th century adjacent havelis (mansions) in the historic old Delhi neighbourhood of Kucha Pati Ram in Sita Ram Bazaar. Its owners are Atul and Ashna Khanna, true Dilliwalas themselves. Born and brought up in Delhi, Atul Khanna belongs to one of the original families of Katra Neel in old Delhi. 

He runs a consulting firm that promotes agriculture. At some point in his life, he felt the need to start following his heart. 

“I thought that working with heritage would be something interesting,” he said. 

That was when he discovered the magical region of Shekhawati in Rajasthan, where he owns two heritage hotels – a museum hotel and one which has been converted into havelis. Currently, he is also in the process of creating a museum in Shekhawati. 

COLOURFUL: Paintings displayed at the Kathika Cultural Centre

In the meantime, Khanna also thought of doing something similar in the city of his birth, Delhi. 

Somewhere along the way, he came across a newspaper report about the crumbling havelis of Shahjahanabad. One of the pictures in the article was that of one of the havelis within which Kathika is housed today. Khanna went on to restore two adjacent havelis, each more than a hundred years old, which had fallen down. That was how his project of Kathika Cultural Centre began. He acquired the two havelis in 2012, restored them using lime and other elements till about 2016, and finally opened Kathika to the public this summer. 

“There is a huge divide between new and old Delhi. This is what we want to bridge, particularly for the younger generation. The idea is to promote art and culture, especially in old Delhi,” he said. 

TIMELESS: An old-fashioned timepiece at the Kathika Cultural Centre

The quaint artefacts at the museum-haveli all belong to the family’s personal collection, and include several decorative antique curiosities, such as a clock, typewriter, landline phone, radio, gramophone, phonograph, musical instruments, sewing machine, paintings, textiles and crafts.

Apart from these, there is also an exquisite array of vintage black-and-white photographs of Delhi that have been procured from Mahatta Studios, one of the country’s oldest studios. 

“I am overwhelmed with everything that is here and the ambience of the place. It is a very interesting initiative to connect cultures and take people back in history. Otherwise, these things will be lost,” said Sakshi Sahu, an architect who has studied in the Chandni Chowk area, and could relate well to the architecture of the place. 

OLD IS GOLD: Musical instruments and timepiece from times of yore

“The place is really stunning. It’s full of really well-chosen, beautiful artefacts. It’s like a piece of living history,” added Emma Wright, who works at the British High Commission.

“We would want Kathika to be a kind of an interpretation centre where we can showcase history and where people can explore things to do in old Delhi,” said Khanna. 

Since it opened in May this year, Kathika has hosted classical music and dance performances, photography walks, heritage baithaks, book releases and discussions. 

LETTERS: Books to read on the shelves at the Kathika Cultural Centre

Upcoming programmes include a lineup of interesting workshops, screenings, culinary experiences with famous chefs, story-telling sessions, heritage walks as well as other community initiatives. 

Apart from that, Kathika also aims to support local artisans and craftspeople from Delhi. 

“I want to tell people how beautiful and grand old Delhi used to be by creating a similar environment through the cultural experiences that we offer,” concluded Khanna.