New Delhi [India], May 1 (ANI): Connaught Place, the world's largest one-mile round market is part of New Delhi that Lutyens designed. Name changed to Rajiv Chowk, yet it is still known as Connaught Place. It is a unique shopping centre of its kind where shoppers can walk under comfortable shade of a wide verandah during the terribly hot months of Delhi's summer. Lutyens used Georgian style of architecture and made this market unique in the world. A lively busy centre, it is today almost a ghost town under the lockdown in the wake of COVID-19. In my years I have never seen it like this, not even when curfew was imposed during the 1947 riots in Delhi.
It is a centre that has seen history of sorts and many changes since it became active by 1940s, replacing the famous Kashmere Gate Shopping Centre, where the rich and elite of the city used to go. Several English stores opened here and along the Queensway, now known as Janpath. Raj Path was the Kingsway where a superb statue of Kind George was installed under the now empty canopy. Perhaps the only statue that can now adorn the canopy could be one of visualised Bharat Mata in her all finery and flowing Sari.
We lived in the outer circle of Connaught Place in Tropical Building. As a young boy, one would go to the famous Keventers shop in Connaught Place. They sold chilled sweetened milk. Right opposite was Wenger's, a great pastry shop. Wengers has retained the taste of some of its products even today.
When Americans joined the World War 2, a large contingent of US troops and other army paraphernalia came to Delhi and were housed in temporary barracks- many of these along Janpath in the vast open plots behind where the footpath market is. This gave a great fillip to business for Connaught Place where the US troops could go as they were living right there. There were some lovely formal restaurants like Wengers, Davico's and others. Kwality, with their ice cream, came on Parliament Street and was hugely popular with US troops for its ice cream as was Nirula's in the outer circle.
Restaurants in those days insisted on their customers coming in formal clothes. At night for dinner, the insistence would be on Dinner Jackets. These restaurants, particularly Davico's, had live band for ballroom dancing. The restaurants would offer other entertainment like cabarets. Connaught Place had quite a few ballroom dancing schools as in that era we loved it.
It was a different world in which Connaught Place was. The capital not being as populated as it is today, there was two-way traffic in Connaught Place, and parking of cars in the middle divided the two-way traffic. Bicycles were not allowed in Connaught Place, and tongas, ferrying people from Old Delhi to Connaught Place, were not permitted to go beyond Odeon Cinema because, I suspect, the horses could dirty the road. The road and verandah of Connaught Place were swept and washed every morning. The place was kept sparkling clean.
Dead as Connaught Place is today, it suddenly became a nearly dying Shopping Centre during the summers of 1946 and 47. End of World War 2 saw the US troops leave as did many others who came with them. With the country moving steadily towards freedom, many well-known stores closed or changed hands. The general supply Army-Navy stores that also had branches in Bombay, Calcutta and London also shut shop, only to be replaced by the Khadi Gram Udyog building. Rankens, the famous tailoring shop on Queensway, survived a while as did many others like Hamiltons, Cooke and Kelvey, Lawrence & Mayo and Sutherland- named after a city of that name in North England- sold some very fine China crockery.
Then came independence. Delhi steadily became a Punjabi city. Many new restaurants opened in Connaught Place. Tandoori cuisine became a craze as it was introduced by the people who came from the North-West Frontier Province. The market flourished and has continued to do so since then.
We would go around for a walk around Connaught Place in the evenings and have tea or a drink at the l'Boheme. Once I was on such a walk with my friend, Krishan, from college. Both of us dressed in our NCC uniform were suddenly accosted by the two officers of the military police, which used to patrol the CP (Connaught Place). First they ordered us to down our sleeves, then wanted to know which unit we were from. On telling them we were from NCC, they let us go, warning us not to roam around in uniform. What a relief we both felt!
Connaught Place began deteriorating in the mid-70s and continued till 80s as the owners hardly looked after the buildings, and NDMC (New Delhi Municipal Corporation) stopped washing it every day. The place had become too crowded. In fact, the government still owns Connaught Place as most of the plots for buildings were given only on lease. The Urban Affairs Ministry has failed to enforce the terms of leases. It was finally at the initiative and cost of the NDMC that the front of Connaught Place was repaired and restored. The CP thus got a great new look.
In spite of so many shopping malls opening in the sprawling city of Delhi, Connaught Place continues to be lively. It is now taking the trend almost of London West End's Mayfair with so many restaurants and bars opening. No longer the shops close for lunch at 1 pm and open after siesta at 3 pm. The shops remain open all day till late around 9- 9:30 pm and then the nightlife wakes up in the bars and restaurants. Connaught Place is not dead- it lives even at night now.
COVID-19 has dealt a serious blow to Connaught Place as it has done elsewhere. I mentioned earlier, it has never been as dead as it is today. It is a haunted place. As you go around, one wonders where all the shop owners and customers have gone. What happened to its nightlife, the bands, the noisy diners, dancers et al? It will all come back soon. In its closure CP is fighting the demon of Coronavirus. When the virus is beaten, Connaught Place would rise to its glory perhaps bigger and better.
The author of this Opinion piece is the Chairman of ANI, Mr Prem Prakash. (ANI)