It’s 7 am and Delhi’s historic Nizamuddin basti is slowly stirring to life. At this hour, a handful of dry leaves, sapped flowers and a mud-caked dog are the only ones on the street. Wait, there is someone else too—a man in rags sweeping away the remnants of the previous night’s devotion. He flashes a dazzling smile as sleepy flower sellers wave out greetings to him. Stories about him have become legends in their own right. There are not many in the basti who don’t know of 54-year-old Om Pal.
If he could talk, he would probably have brushed off all this fuss over him. But Om Pal was born with a hearing impairment, as a result of which he can’t speak either. Now, he communicates through his art. The early morning mist fades away and the dust settles to reveal intricate patterns on the ground right outside Mirza Ghalib’s tomb. Mosaic designs studded with materials such as buckles, dice, bottle caps and tiles. All created by Pal.
If you go down the street, you will notice arrows made of similar materials leading right up to the Nizamuddin dargah (Sufi tomb), close by. Even people who know him can’t fathom Pal’s inexplicable genius. “He is illiterate and has never studied art. All these designs come from within him. He is blessed,” says Mohammad Ismail, a flower seller and Pal’s friend. Piecing his life together is like working on a jigsaw puzzle. Everyone around him narrates a different aspect of his life—some about what his existence was like before he came to Nizamuddin, some about his attachment to the dargah and others about his everyday chores.
One of the best authorities on Pal is Shakeel Hossain from the Aga Khan Trust for Culture (AKTC). Hossain has been working in the area as part of the Hazrat Nizamuddin Basti Urban Renewal Project, which aims at improving the quality of life of people in the area and saving its rich culture and heritage. The project integrates conservation, socio-economic development and urban and environmental development objectives in consultation with local communities.
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