Whatever happened to the Son et Lumiere at Red Fort and Old Fort? One is in suspended animation and the other plays to thin audiences. tourism suffers
In the city of monuments, one may marvel at different architectural styles but it is the back stories which are more intriguing. At Red Fort and Old Fort, a Son et Lumiere (sound-and-light) show is supposed to narrate the history of Delhi in a magical way. Incidentally, this form of night entertainment was first conceptualised in 1952 by Paul Robert-Houdin, curator of France’s Château de Chambord on the Cosson River.
After sunset, the lighting at Lal Qila (Red Fort) makes this Indo-Islamic architectural marvel more aesthetic. The illuminations are alluring. Unfortunately, that’s all you get now. The Fort used to stand silent witness to one of Asia’s oldest sound-and-light shows but with time, the demand and the audience dipped. Fifteen months ago, the show was suspended temporarily, ostensibly to enable a ‘revamp’.
Najma, a tourist, recounted to Patriot her experience of witnessing the show at the Red Fort. She recalled, “We heard the sounds of horses walking towards the Diwan-e-Khas, kings entering, sounds of celebration and the queens peeping from inside the fort, a tale which could be re-imagined. But now when I am here (at the Red Fort) again and the show has been discontinued, it disappoints me.”
The multi-media show was much more impactful than a simple history lesson or even a movie as you feel you are in the centre of the action. Najma elaborates that after she, along with her friends, witnessed the show, it had a “long-lasting effect.” She cautions, “One needs to know about the history in advance to relate to the light-and-sound show, otherwise it is useless.”
The official website says the show at Red Fort, which was organised by The India Tourism Development Corporation (ITDC) was “suspended with effect from June 11, 2018 until further order due to upgradation of the show.”
A guard at the Red Fort says, “It closed down a year ago and now a new show — the laser light one with 3D pictures — will come up.” When asked about the possible reason for closing, he guessed, “It was an old show and there were issues in the lighting. With time, it lost its relevance and hence, something new was required. Although the footfall remained due to the historic relevance of Red Fort but people were not satisfied with the show, and used to ask ‘What was that?’ Now the development work is underway and we hope that it will restart in six months from now.” That means after winter, the best time to be outdoors in Delhi.
At ITDC, an official explains, “The sound-and-light show at the Red Fort had closed due to some upgradation and changes. It was 50 years old, so we stopped its operation for renovation and relaunch with new technology.” But the project is no longer under the ambit of ITDC. The official said, “The Fort is now being managed by Dalmia Bharat Group and hence, the ITDC is no more involved in Red Fort’s sound-and-light show.”
An official source at the Dalmia Bharat Group tells Patriot on condition of anonymity that “The group is revamping the entire light and sound show at Red Fort under the adopted heritage scheme, where a 3D projection will be used to narrate the history of Delhi.” The source further adds, “The Dalmia Group wanted to launch the revamped show at Red Fort on August 15 but Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) didn’t provide clearance. Although the Ministry of Culture is pretty excited about it, the No-Objection Certificate has to be given by the ASI.”
When Patriot contacted the ASI, the organisation had a different tale to narrate. An official of the Archaeological Survey of India said, “We have given approval to the Dalmia Bharat Group regarding the show. The terms and conditions along with the script have also been approved. Although the Dalmia group is yet to present the demonstration, all further jobs like creating the scene, lighting, 3D projection and narration of story is still pending. Completion has to be done by them.”
While the revival of the show at Red Fort remains uncertain, it is very much on at the Old Fort (Purana Qila), though with a thin audience. Around 25 people were watching the one-hour show on a Saturday evening, which is a considerably low number. At the Old Fort’s sound-and-light show, entry for both Hindi and English shows is priced at Rs 100 for adults while for children (3-12 years), students, differently abled and senior citizens, it costs Rs 50. Every day, two shows are held. The Hindi one is scheduled at 7-8 pm and the English one at 8:30-9:30 pm.
The show, titled Ishq-e-Dilli, revolves around the history of India, starting from the period of Prithvi Raj Chauhan and ends with the launch of Delhi’s lifeline, the Metro. It narrates how Delhi was destroyed seven times and rebuilt. One of the prime narrators of the story is actor Mukesh Khanna, who is famous for his TV serial Shaktimaan.
On site, an official said that a lot of factors contribute towards footfall like “weather, humidity, weekdays and weekends.” A guard admitted that “Footfall is never constant. An overhaul is required.” Another guard at the entrance said, “Sometimes around 50-60 people come to see the sound-and-light show, which is a good strength.”
Post the show, the audience seemed to be mesmerised but had complaints about the ambience. A person from the audience said, “Although the show was good and gave a sense of history, no fans or coolers were installed, which made it difficult to sit through. If someone is organising such a show, all these things must be taken care of.” Children below the age of 10 were restless, unable to settle down at a particular place due to the humidity.
A girl from the audience opined, “Even though it was entertaining and knowledgeable, the history remains obscure. One cannot claim to know everything after watching this.”
For the English show, which was scheduled at 8:30 pm, very few people were seen at the ticket counter while the other side of the Old Fort, the lake seemed more inviting. The fountains were lit up with different colours under the moonlight, appearing attractive and ethereal.
A group of three friends could be seen entering the Fort without any plan. One of them suggested watching the sound-and-light show but the other guy said, “It would be quite similar to that at Akshardham temple which we saw the other day. Hence we should go for sight-seeing around the lake.” Finally, the group got three entry tickets for the lake area.
Although an official at the ITDC claimed, “Footfall increases during October- November, when it’s pleasant outdoors” in the same breath he also cautioned that “Footfall falls when there’s extreme heat, humidity, rains or winter season.”
Patriot approached Ravi Pandit, ITDC Vice President (Engineering) for more insights. In a mailed response, Pandit wrote, “Sound & Light Show was installed at the Old Fort in the year 2010 wherein Ministry of Tourism (MoT) had sanctioned an amount of Rs 500 lakh (around Rs 5 crore) to ITDC for its implementation. Since then, the show is being operated and maintained by ITDC regularly.” He adds that the life of a sound-and-light show generally hovers between 5-6 years and here at Old Fort, an “immediate upgradation is required.”
Regarding this, “A revised estimate was put up to MoT against which an amount of
Rs 14.04 crore has been sanctioned. This amount includes operations as well as maintenance cost for next five years.”
Further, the Vice President accepts that footfall has fallen, saying, “The show has lived its life and needs upgradation.” Asked for exact data, Pandit said, “Monthly footfall is close to 2,000-plus people. Yearly footfall was 24,000 for 2018, while for 2019, it has been 15,000 from January to September.”
Giving details about the new format, the ITDC Vice President said, “The upgraded new show will have multilingual audio, LED lights and laser projectors as per the latest state-of-the-art technology. The script will also be revised and it shall be implemented within a period of nine months.”
When will the new show at Red Fort resume? Only time will tell. The fact remains that the shows goes on at the Old Fort irrespective of low attendance and old material. Meanwhile, tourists are being deprived of a memorable experience at Red Fort.