On the edge of Delhi, a dynamic cultural scene takes shape

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On the edge of Delhi, a dynamic cultural scene takes shape
Customers peruse retro Bollywood posters and other items at the AllArts shop in the Hauz Khas Village in New Delhi in September 2022. Beneath an ancient tower, contemporary galleries, studios, bars and clubs are popping up in three Delhi neighborhoods, drawing art lovers, fashionistas and nightlife seekers. Poras Chaudhary/The New York Times.

by Finn-Olaf Jones

NEW DELHI.- “Delhi is a soldiers’ town, a politicians’ town, journalists’, diplomats’ town. It is Asia’s Washington, though not so picturesque,” wrote Jan Morris, the acclaimed British travel writer, half a century ago.

“The only culture in Delhi is agriculture,” went another put-down.

But art and culture follow money, and for the past two decades Delhi has experienced a sea change. Thanks largely to a real estate boom and the rise of the high-tech suburb of Gurgaon, Delhi has doubled its number of high-net-worth individuals in five years, built a metro system rivaling New York City’s in size, and nurtured a burgeoning cosmopolitan class.

To find where this creative crowd gallery-hops, shops and otherwise chills, go south. The rising neighborhoods of Hauz Khas Village, Lado Sarai and Mehrauli’s “Style Mile” teeter on the edge of Delhi’s Outer Ring Road, almost equidistant from Gurgaon’s call centers and the central city’s ziggurats and domes.

“It’s a very dynamic location,” said Bhim Bachchan, who returned to Delhi after a career in U.S. investment banking to run an e-commerce studio and resort wear store, Ramola Bachchan, in the Soho-esque Hauz Khas Village. “There’s a new class of hip, young, often wealthy people from both the suburbs and central Delhi that congregates around these hot spots on the edge of town. They’ve been cooped up during COVID. Now they’re out.”

‘The East Village of Delhi’

The 13th-century, 238-foot-high Qutab Minar hovers over these neighborhoods: a fluted, sandstone tower that is illuminated after dark like an epic lighthouse for navigating the meandering streets. Here and there, medieval ruins poke like dinosaur bones through modern developments.

Visitors coming by taxi to Hauz Khas Village — the most northerly and established of these neighborhoods — get dropped in a parking lot a few yards from the village’s three main streets that circle into each other, next to a reservoir and deer park where sultans once hunted.

Now, teens in heavy metal T-shirts, munching on the local street food, golgappa (syrup-filled puff balls), sit astride the broken domes of madrassas where Muslim scholars once studied, while bars and galleries adjoin weathered walls and terraces. The name Hauz Khas is Urdu for “Royal Water Tanks,” which still surround the village like sentinels standing guard against the smog and clamor of the city beyond the deer park.

Strolling Hauz Khas’s alleys, one comes across little treasures like Bana Studio, which sells one-off vintage tribal jewelry amid framed pictures of former clients, including George Harrison. Or AllArts, an Aladdin’s cave of Bollywood film posters and lobby cards. For much-needed relief I wandered into the Blossom Kochhar spa, cafe and natural beauty boutique, an upscale flower child’s nirvana, for an outstanding aromatherapy massage followed by masala tea and scones.

At night, the action moves upstairs, where popular bars and nightclubs vie for Delhi’s grunge-chic youth. Currently, Social, with its industrial scrap-metal aesthetic, and the rooftop Imperfecto, drowning in sangria and rum drinks, are the winning spots.

Although Hauz Khas is brimming with tiny arts studios lorded over by Lokayata Art Gallery, with its rooftop, bus-size, fiberglass iguana, a more cutting-edge contemporary art scene is flowering a few blocks east of the Qutab Minar, amid the tire shops and hardware joints of the Lado Sarai neighborhood.

“This is like the East Village of Delhi,” Shaji Punchathu, the founder of Gallery 1000A, in the heart of Lado Sarai, tells me, referring to New York’s historically edgy downtown neighborhood. The area, he said, is now home to the first concentration of contemporary art galleries the city has ever had.

On a recent summer afternoon, Punchathu and his assistants were in the midst of setting up a multimedia exhibition, “Molecules,” featuring works by five Indian artists, including remarkable, illuminated, icon-like engravings of what appeared to be mutating cells by the Delhi-based artist Amit Das. His engravings were so unusual that I couldn’t tell how they were produced. “It’s a novel method he developed using needles to embed the ink on the paper,” Punchathu said. “Our artists often use local artisanal techniques that aren’t well known in the West.”

I crossed the street to Latitude 28, one of the pioneering galleries that anchored Lado Sarai over a decade ago when rents here, far from the city center, were still a lot cheaper. “They’ve since caught up,” Punchathu said. The gallery was exhibiting a multimedia show called “The World Awaits You Like a Garden,” featuring five artists celebrating fuel-choked Delhi’s oft-overlooked background as a lush, flower-scented city. Some of the most striking works were by the Gurgaon-based artist Gopa Trivedi, depicting highly detailed illustrations of invasive botanical plants based on Mughal court miniatures.

“The Indian contemporary art scene has been rocketing since COVID,” said Bhavna Kakar, Latitude 28’s director. Kakar is also the editor-in-chief of Take on Art magazine, one of Asia’s most authoritative contemporary art magazines, which is published out of the gallery. “People have been spending a lot of time in their homes and want something good on their walls. They’re not looking as much overseas anymore.”

Window-shopping and tandoori portobello

I was looking for lunch, having already breakfasted on a Paris-worthy croissant and coffee at Miam Patisserie down the street, but here I found Lado Sarai’s great weakness: no grazing, because there are few restaurants. “We have a dozen of the best galleries in Asia, but only a French patisserie to feed us,” Kakar said.

Outstanding food was only a 15-minute walk away on the Kalka Das Marg, which circles the base of the Minar, called the “Style Mile” by Indian cognoscenti. As with many spots in Delhi, one needs to scratch the surface to find the shiny things, and at first glance the Kalka Das Marg seems to be a charmless street. But then, wandering down alleys between grubby buildings, you emerge in a modern courtyard lined with remarkable shops and restaurants.

Down one such byway, I discovered the whitewashed cubist pavilions of the Ambawatta One complex, where I gaped at the high-end fashion stores, cafes and galleries that struck me as the Delhi version of Rodeo Drive. Unlike Mumbai, which only has a single tropical season, Delhi has multiple seasons and hence a broader diversity of high fashion peeking out of the windows of its shops, whose designers, such as Rohit Bal, Ritu Kumar and Tarun Tahiliani, are as familiar to Delhi’s high fashionistas as Michael Kors, Tory Burch or Diane von Furstenberg are to New York’s.

The Style Mile is especially charming at sunset, when the birdsong of the surrounding parkland overtakes the traffic din and the stunning sunset across the city is gradually replaced by the lit-up Qutab Minar, which hovers above like a celestial chandelier.

One of the hardest dinner reservations to get in Delhi is at Rooh, in the Style Mile, where at night the young and bejeweled risk scratching their Bentleys and Range Rovers in the cramped parking lot off the Kalka Das Marg. From there, they step up to the rooftop dining terraces (insiders know not to pick the less scenic interior of the restaurant) to feast on unlikely but surprisingly great fusions of Indian and Italian dishes.

Platefuls of zucchini spaghetti with tomato dum sauce, or tandoori portobello with black garlic butter pao, were accompanied by an impressive wine list and even more impressive bartenders. Here, suspended between gnarled treetops, colored lanterns, vast ruins of the old sultanate below and the surreal Qutab Minar against the stars, I finally sensed the fantastical garden city celebrated in Latitude 28’s exhibition. Over the course of the languorous evening, the bright saris and dark suits, the constant clinking of glasses and the formidable gold jewelry offered up a uniquely glamorous sense of the city’s newfound wealth and confidence.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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