Looking at the Mausoleum of Dr. Zakir Hussain in the middle of the campus of Jamia Millia Islamia, I couldn’t help but think about how artificial the concept of time is and how the past and present, at some point of time, become merged into a sort of ubiquitous wetness that is time, where one cannot tell them apart.
Dr. Zakir Hussain Mausoleun and Museum, built by Habib Rahman and completed in 1971, stands as a beacon of rationality and modernism: perched atop a raised mound, it stands for the scientific ideal of a human being, a human being who is not bound by history but is standing outside of it, dictating his life according to his needs. Habib Rahman built three mausoleums in his lifetime: one for Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, which stands next to the Jama Masjid in Old Delhi, one for the former President Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed, which is in Raisina, and the mazaar of Dr. Zakir Hussain, in the campus of Jamia Millia Islamia. These men, it can be argued, were the champions of his cause: they represented the conception of man that drove modernist architecture; learned, wise men who were not only aware of the history of this land and their communities, but wanted to move past them and add into this culture of scientific rationality that dominated the early years of Post-Independence India. And it is according to these basic scientific needs that this tomb was built: land, water, light. Its relation to history is only functional: it uses curving walls, inspired by some Tughlaq tombs built almost 700 years before it. The mazaar, with its curved walls with rough-cut marble surfaces, stands right next to the Jamia School campus, the first buildings to be erected here in the early 30s, which are more inspired by the buildings of Jacob Swinton, who believed in building according to how the ancestors of this land built — something that is now called the Indo-Saracenic style. Behind the tomb is the Jamia Central Mosque, which represents some other architectural ideal for a religion, with its white minarets and huge domes.
The more I think about it, the more I believe that the past and present are two indistinguishable entities, existing not in a straight line, but side by side, telling us that we need to question what we perceive about time itself. Life, as most of us perceive it, is a constant process of unfolding, and there are certain things — in this case, buildings — that challenge this notion that we carry about life. The building will continue to stand there affirming the Heraclitan idea of time as a flowing river, unless we look at it as something that was built in the past and is just a passive reflection of the kind of thought that prevailed then, while we are comfortably grounded in the present, which remains a distinct entity from the past. But the building says something else. It was built according to the fundamental needs of humankind; needs that to some degree give a sense of order to our lives. The needs that Habib Rahman had in mind back are intrinsic to human nature: we have always needed to build according to land, water and light and these needs will remain at the core until our species inhabits this planet. The ideas of building here have been stripped to the bare minimum. Only the necessary is beautiful: the mausoleum and other modernist structures have been stripped of all their ornamentation — which to Ruskin was the principal part of building — and it is in this stripping of a building’s very medium that our brain perceives the beauty of it. The mausoleum and the museum right next to it are a testimony to the culture of scientific rationality Nehru enthused into this nation, a vision of which Dr. Zakir Hussain was a huge part. He lies buried along with his wife under the fragile dome that is supported by the structure, for this was a fitting tribute to the life he lived.
Someone told me a story about how when Hakim Ajmal Khan was in Germany on his medical mission, he asked Dr. Hussain, if he took him to a barren piece of land in Delhi and tell him this was Jamia would he follow him, to which the answer was a simple yes. It was in 1926 that the latter came to Jamia Millia Islamia, when it was facing closure due to a paucity of funds, and remained its Vice-Chancellor until 1948, and left the University with a singular legacy: one of a relentlessly nationalist institution, dedicated to preserving its culture and educating its people in it, and as a singular voice against communalism, things that he took to personally. And maybe now, more than ever, his vision of what Jamia should be is coming to life. Jamia was instrumental in the efforts of the Indian state to safely rehabilitate refugees during the Partition: minibuses of students would go from the university to the refugee camp in Purana Qila with aid. He believed in Jamia as a carrier for a great spiritual renaissance, one that represented the awakening of India and her people into their own. Jamia was India’s awkward foray into the truth of its own identity, of its own people. In 1948, he was appointed the Chancellor of the Aligarh Muslim University, after which he went on to become the Governor of Bihar, and later, the third President of India and during his tenure he also acted as the Chancellor of the University. He had once written about how he would dedicate his life to Jamia; it was decided when he died that he would be buried in the University he built with his own hands.
I visited Dr. Zakir Hussain’s mausoleum on a cloudy Tuesday afternoon. It stood there, with the kind of loneliness that a lot of modernist and brutalist buildings exhibit in solitude, with only a few people idling by at the museum nearby. Apart from a murder of crows, nobody really visits it. There is a certain beauty in the solitude of modernist buildings, for they often stand alone, like the ideas they once stood for. Jamia, and maybe even the country, are not what they were anymore. Maybe the temporal context in which the building stands has changed. Our needs are still the same, but we have created an illusion of reality for ourselves, a reality where we are more complex than our own inherent natures. Looking at this building made me look inward, onto my own needs and how there are certain things about our species that transcend all kinds of distinctions of the past and the present.
Srajit M Kumar