Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Two Toilets and Two Cities

Two public toilets. In two cities, 175 kilometers apart. 

One at UNESCO World Heritage Site, and the other at a Historic Palace, slowly crumbling from government apathy and public indifference.

What first struck me was the sheer disregard and almost un-thought(if there is such a word!) placing of the toilet complex at the Humayun’s Tomb, (a monument much in the news for its recently completed restoration by the ASI, Aga Khan Trust for Culture, and the National Culture Fund). The toilet complex  stands left of the entrance gate to the Char Bagh  at the centre of which is placed the tomb.  The placement surprises me. After the 650,000 USD that were spent on the restoration, a toilet so callously placed seems to leave a jarring note. It’s not just the placement that irritates, but the almost everything about it seems to spell some sort of absolute architectural incapacity and blindness or administrative apathy, or worse oversight of the conservation exercise in the first instance ( thereby requiring of the administration of the ASI to add a toilet as retrofit). 

Frankly I am not concerned with how it came about, but what really does annoy is that IT DID come about.  The toilet seems to have been designed with the opinion that all structures in historic precincts must be built in rubble masonry, and all roofs, slabs etc. must be camouflaged with an over-pink plaster. Of course that the doors are of aluminium frame with cheap white PVC infill panels, with rudely scrawled “ GENTS” and “LADIES” in black paint is something we have come to accept of all municipal toilets strewn across the city. The huge vinyl poster on the side wall does little to apologise for the toilets presence. 

It doesn’t really stop there, when you exit the toilet, you are greeted by the ghastly site of the water coolers. I could go on and describe that ugliness  but I shall let the one picture suffice.
If the experience at Humayun’s Tomb had been an isolated incident, I might not have been so bothered by it. But 175 Km south of Delhi, in a town still quite unpopular with tourists stands another  public toilet of similar consequence. 

This is the Sulabh  Toilet Complex  at the  City Palace of Alwar, the earstwhile  seat to Sawai Jai Singh, Maharaja of Alwar.
When one  enters the main gate of the palace compounds, this would arguably be the most prominent structure you see. Its stands before the main entrance ( marked by a blue sign board over a dark door way leading into a winding corridor) to the Alwar Museum and Law Courts and other district machinery . Ways and directions are hard to figure out in this complex, but the toilet, a red, ugly, edifice sits centre stage and calls the visitors attention with little other competition. One could argue this toilet as the centerpiece of the fore-court!
I could rave and rant, I am sure, and I would not be un-justified in doing so. But I fear the argument might be lost. So I will just let the pictures do the talking.

There isn’t much that separates the two toilets. Both ugly, both badly placed, and both impressive and unforgettable.  

The placing of toilets, and their consequence on the public memory of the (public) place seems to be a worrisome reality in the realm of the historic landscape. A reality I have no idea how/ or by what process it is arrived at. And a reality I am quite certain we should want to alter.

p.s.  The derelict Alwar Museum houses a fascinating collection of artifacts, miniatures and weapons. A sliver Dining Table, a vast collection of Persian manuscripts, and Sawai Jai Singh’s  all chrome bicycle are amongst a fascinating collection of exhibits.

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