In Asar us-Sanadid, published in 1847, Sir Syed Ahmad Khan describes the Naubat Khana as a grand building and not the armless, standalone building of today where the visitors’ tickets are checked. “The building is made of red sandstone with a huge doorway in the middle. It has two apartments and two floors on either side,” wrote Sir Syed. “In front of the apartments are well-niches indicating the direction of Mecca and steps leading up to the drum-house. There is an arched hallway on either side within which is located the section that mends and repairs all the musical instruments (naubat karkhana), and from where music for the royal family is played, and that is why it is called the drum-house (naqqar khana) too.”
The book goes on, “The sound of the kettledrums (naubat) that play day and night remove all sorrows and instil a sense of happiness. It intoxicates not just people but also djinns, animals, birds and inanimate objects.”
A decade after the publication of Sir Syed’s book, the Revolt of 1857 broke out. In September that year, the British re-conquered Delhi and demolished many buildings in Red Fort. The arcades were demolished and only the Naubat Khana was left standing. Matching the sketch of the structure in Asar us-Sanadid with what exists today leaves a deep sense of loss.
Naubat Khana saw a new dawn in the 20th century. As World War I drew to a close in 1918, the British Raj was asked by the government in London to collect and send objects to commemorate the Indian war effort in the National War Memorial that had come up the previous year in Britain. Today, it is called the Imperial War Museums.
A memorandum titled ‘The Indian War Memorial’ printed in Shimla in 1918 chronicles that besides collecting the material for the London institution, the viceroy decided “the government in this country should institute a corresponding memorial for India to commemorate the part taken by India in the War”.
The decision was communicated to the Indian press on April 10, 1918. The site chosen was the Naubat Khana. In a way perhaps it made sense: the Mughal drum-house that once played martial tunes as the emperor rode out to war would now host a tribute to the valour of Indian soldiers in World War I. Later that year, the Indian War Memorial Museum came into existence. It was perhaps the only war museum outside military regimental centres that was open to the people.
The artefacts to be displayed were grouped under 11 categories: trophies from the enemy; specimens used by the Indian forces; munitions; photographs; objects to illustrate the participation of the princely states; medical corps documents; recruitment documents; war posters and documents of war loans; exhibits of countries occupied by Indian forces; books, dispatches and maps; and portraits of eminent men responsible for the Indian war effort. It had Mughal weapons like swords, muskets and bows, later British-made weapons of war; ordnance used in the two world wars; war trophies like seized machine guns and a captured flag of imperial Germany.
These are now being moved out. “The entire collection, along with that from the museum that was once housed at Mumtaz Mahal, is being relocated to the new museum at L5 (British-era barrack),” an ASI official disclosed. The Indian War Memorial Museum may get a new name after it moves to L5.
So, what happens to the Naubat Khana after it ceases to be a museum? “It will be open to the people but won’t have any displays. It will be an open monument just like the Mumtaz Mahal is today,” the official said, adding that the conservation work will be completed in around three months.
Last Sunday, the Mumtaz Mahal was opened to the public by Union culture minister Prahlad Singh Patel. It was the second oldest ASI museum after the one at Sarnath.
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