Delhi is Dil (heart) of India and CP heart of Delhi….as they say… seems no exaggeration….
Connaught Place (CP) the Central Business District (CBD) of Delhi is panache in crown of Delhi. It still stands tall despite increasing craze of Mall culture/Mall-mania with its old Georgian architecture, centred on ring of colonnaded vintage buildings. Fewer people would have known CP by its new nomenclature Rajeev Chowk (1995) but for metro interchange station (in 2005) named as ‘Rajeev Chowk’. Far fewer know that Connaught Circle (Outer Circle) was renamed Indira Chowk long back. But for Delhites like me, it is simply CP… ‘Dilli ka Dil – CP’
After shifting of imperial British capital in Dec 1911 to New Delhi from Calcutta by King George V during reign of Viceroy Harding, need for central plaza based on European renaissance was felt to reflect power of British Raj. But, due to preoccupation of Edwin Lutyen and Herbert Baker (designer and architects) with Imperial capital and its more important buildings like Vice Regal House (Rashtrapati Bhavan), Council House (Parliament / Sansad) and Secretariats (North and South Avenues), All India War Memorial (India Gate) etc, the responsibility of designing of shopping plaza fell on Robert Tor Russell, then Chief Architect of PWD (Public Works Deptt). Three villages namely Madhoganj, Jaisingpura and Raja ka Bazzar made way for the grand project and local residents were evacuated to nearby barren land, known as Karol Bagh now. Glitzy razzmatazz shoppers paradise now was nothing then but ridge with wild vegetation of keekar/babool trees, jackals, pigs, neelgais etc. Hanuman Temple, Jain Temple and Jantar Mantar are few structures survived the spruce up onslaught on the historic Qutub road connecting Shahjanabad and Qutub Minar then.
The inspiration behind Connaught Place, named after the First Duke of Connaught and Strathearn – Prince Arthur, was the Royal Crescent building in the city of Bath in England. Further, the Royal Crescent — believed to have been inspired from the Colosseum in Rome — was built by John Wood in 1774. The only difference between two arcades is – CP is Circular and two storied structure while Royal Crescent is semicircular with three storied; although both are studded with colonnades, archways and are whitewashed. CP also resembles Nash’s Crescent, London as per some observers. Circle and Crescent combo represent sun and moon as per the Wood – the designer. Circular structure symbolises ‘eternity’ as per German architect Volwahsen. Planned originally with seven radials and two concentric circles, it was supposed to be connected at first floor with arches which were broken, subsequently to give it a grander look and feel. The construction of the imposing plaza started with the help of renowned contractors like Sardar Shobha Singh (father of Khushwant Singh) in 1929 and physical structures were ready by 1933.
Airy, stuccoed colonnades, punctuated by Palladian archways are made to protect shoppers from rain and sun alike. Outer and inner circle were planned for shopper’s movement and middle circle was a service road, meant for merchandise to move into the shops from the rear. Land was sold at Rs. 2/- square yard at that time with very few takers. A large fountain was placed in the middle of the central park and several smaller ones were located on the inner circle for aesthetic purposes but also to cool the place during the harsh Indian summers. The central park also had a band stand. Central part was initially planned to have the railway station too but it was shifted to nearby Paharganj village. Although, underground Metro station again opened in 2005 after removing original fountain in the Central Park. Delhi Metro has redeveloped the area with four big and 21 smaller fountains, amphitheatre and second biggest Indian flag standing proudly in the middle.
During 1934-38, shop owners of Kashmiri Gate like Keventers, Galgotia, Snowhite, Wengers etc started shifting their shops at ground floors and residences at first floors, as planned. The Spencer, opened in 1926 by Swiss couple Mrs. and Mr. Wenger at Kashmiri Gate, shifted to A-block in CP as Wenger’s (one of the first shops) which was biggest restaurants and confectioner of Delhi then. It is still famous for pastries, tarts, mousses and Swiss roles evoking sense of nostalgia for old timers. Maharajas and their queens from the nearby royal mansions at King’s way (Rajpath) flocked the CP shops for everything from designer clothes, artefacts, shoes etc. Restaurants- Devicos and Standard (now closed) and Embassy were other famous eateries in CP. Regal, first theatre in CP, built by Shobha Singh and designed by Walter Skype George in 1932, hosted renowned artistes of Western Classical music, Russian ballet and British theatre groups which were some of the biggest attraction for cine-goers, including the Viceroy before 1947. Along with Odeon and Rivoli, another theatre – Indian Talkie House (now closed) opened in 1938. The heritage hotel – Imperial hotel started in 1931 on Queen’s way (now Janpath) became happening place for princes, political class and nobles. ‘Akoi’ family has now converted ‘The Imperial’ from backpacker’s hotel to one of the costliest ‘Art deco’ hotel with more than 5000 art pieces without loosing the old charm of Raj era.
After independence with the influx of refugees from Pakistan, lot of densification, defacing and encroaching of CP changed its character to some extent. It necessitated emergence of new markets at Janpath, Shankar Market and Yusufzai Market to accommodate the refugees. In late 1970, only block left vacant in CP was utilised to construct – hap underground and first A/C market of Delhi – ‘Palika Bazar’ to add to the attraction of CP. The imposing controversial red stone ‘Jeevan Bharti’ building – designed by famous architect Charles Correa – opposite low rise CP was criticised by traditionalist in 1990s but it seems to have been amalgamated in overall landscape of CP now.
In the late 90s, CP started to loose its charm due to traffic congestion, filth, dilapidation and new competing market-places in South Delhi. But, DMRC (Delhi Metro Rail Corp) made CP as biggest interchange (hub) in its hub and spoke architecture. Metro has again bought back youth to CP from far flung area. A new ‘shop, entertain and eat’ culture has started by inception of more than 150 restaurants at first floors replacing lot of residences, new branded stores, revamped theatre screens. Madame Tussaud’s opening in Dec 2017 in Regal building is partial testimony to this changing landscape. Major redevelopment of CP was planned by NDMC in view of Commonwealth Games in 2010 but executed by 2013-14. Though, lot of delay in execution but it has helped in restoring the lot of past glory of Georgian shopping arcade.