[ SUNDAY, NOVEMBER 28, 2004 03:21:39 AM ]

Monumental magic at Aga Khan Awards

NEW DELHI: As the Humayun tomb glowed like a jewel, the 9th Aga Khan Architecture Awards were presented by the Aga Khan in the presence of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.

During early dusk, the cacophony of the birds trying to find their perch for the night almost drowned out the Aga Khan’s speech. Behind him, the serried arches of warmly lit red sandstone stretched and deepened.

The tomb rose to etch its domed silhouette against the sky. It was the perfect backdrop for the content of the Aga Khan’s speech which dwelt on the motivation behind the award and what it has achieved.

He realised that there was a loss of cultural identity and the built environment in much of the Muslim world. This was a particularly tragic loss, considering that Islam draws much of its character from its monumental buildings.

The Aga Khan spoke of the great cultural diversity in the Muslim world and that this is something to be celebrated because it would be very boring if we all ate the same biryani and combed our hair in the same style. He added with a touch of humour that his own comb finds less and less work to do these days.

The PM spoke of the pride he felt in the fact that this was the first time that the awards were being presented in India.

And with this Delhi was linked with the other historic cities of the world where the earlier awards were held. He commented that perhaps it was the embarrassment of riches that led to our indifference towards our monuments but, "we have to remember that our generation is only the caretaker and not the owner of this heritage. We have to safeguard it, not only for the future generations of India but for the rest of the world."

Only a minor distraction was provided by the privileged coil warding off the mosquitoes from behind the chairs of two powerful symbols of secularism, economics, faith and culture.

The awards ranged from a primary school in Gando, which is in Burkina Faso, where the village boy went on to become an architect and returned to upgrade his former hot and dingy classroom; to the revitalisation of the old city of Jerusalem; from the restoration of the library of Alexandria to a private weekend retreat in Turkey.

One of the more innovative winners was the prototype for shelters made out of sandbags by Mr Nader Khalili. In the audience was an eclectic mix of religious leaders from Jerusalem and the village chief of Gando, in addition to the predictable stylish architects such as

Cesar Pelli — also an award winner — who has built the Petronas Towers of Kualalampur. This was followed by a fabulous concert featuring musicians from the Aga Khan Music Initiative in central Asia and the Silk Road ensemble. The mix of exotic notes from unfamiliar instruments and voices which sounded as if they were used to warbling through mountain passes and ricocheting off the ranges.

The guests, extremely reluctant to leave the magical atmosphere, and the rare frontal view of the bejewelled tomb, had another treat waiting for them. They walked through a fragrant rose-petal strewn pathway to the Arab Ki Sarai and partook of a candle-lit, sit-down dinner featuring a mix of dishes as global as the Aga Khan’s Ismaili community.

From Mulligatawny soup to Brocolli Gratinate and Safed Maas and Malabar Fish Curry, rounded up with the fusion of Teramisu flavoured with south Indian Arabica coffee. The full moon had plenty of competition from the illuminated monument and the star-studded evening but it still succeeded in asserting its sway as it smothered the dome in its glow.

It was a perfectly orchestrated evening and even the creaky rattle of the trains to Nizamuddin did not jar but merely but merely added its own exotic note to the evening.