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The rich history of Bhopal, in central India, peaked during the rule of the Begums in the 1800s, both in terms of the uniqueness of a female monarchy, and the era of prosperity ushered in by them. During this period, a new urban center was established here, called Shahjehanabad. Three lakes formed the center of this precinct, around which an administrative and palatial complex was developed. New bazaars were laid out, and the Taj-Ul Masajid, India’s largest mosque, was constructed.
Today, the city has expanded manifold. This old core is densely populated, with most residents involved in small-scale economy, from the local cuisine to metalwork. The women are associated with traditional crafts like pottery and weaving. This way of incremental living often wrestles with the residues of its process. The once bustling markets have fallen into disarray, and few outsiders know of these handcrafted artefacts, bought cheaply by financial houses. Coupled with the threat of homogenization in our ‘modern’ world, there is a gradual loss of this traditional knowledge and identity.
Benazir Palace was built in 1875 as a summer-palace and durbar, strategically placed to receive winds cooled by the lakes during the hot Bhopal summer. It is a beautiful exhibit of Indo-Saracenic architecture, but a lack of funds and public-interest has delivered it to the dark abyss of anonymity. Hordes of tourists visit the Taj-Ul Masajid, but rarely do they happen upon this architectural jewel.
Where do conservation and adaptive reuse intersect?
We propose the creation of a maker-space or an ‘Urban Haat’, where the learning, making and selling of traditional handiwork, mostly done by women, is brought together to allow cultural dissemination through crafts and community. The responsibility of action within finances nestles back to the neighborhood, starting a butterfly-effect. The lively atmosphere transforms the place into an urban attractor for both urban-dwellers and tourists. By allowing this structure to add value to the community, there develops small-scale business opportunities, a place to socialize, and a sense of being part of a larger community. This in turn activates the urban fabric and rejuvenates the lake and pathway.
The structure of the Benazir palace is kept intact to the maximum degree. The main pillared hall serves as the covered market area, where craftspeople set up temporary stalls to sell their creations. Rooms flanking this hall and the rear courtyard serve as spaces for vocational training in these arts, enabling a new generation with this knowledge and helping to sustain these traditions. The major concern for most working women is the safety of their children. The enclosed semi-private rear courtyard provides a solution for the same. The main courtyard transforms into a public place, with the rooms around it becoming workspaces for these crafts, visually connected to the visitors. The presence of a raised platform allows for various events or festivals to take place here, increasing footfall and exposure.
Our aim is simple, giving back the past to people through physical dimensions by tapping into the collective memory of the community.
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