Ahmedabad’s Bhadra Square was a fertile ground to exchange commodities, as also new social ideas

A Village Market Scene: Unknown Painter

By Juzar Shabbir

Ancient in origin, a public square must have come to life where people must have gathered to share the bounties of nature. From an open market to an open theatre to an open ground, the square is multi dimensional place where,  people ‘reproduce themselves materially and culturally.'[1] Where people from different regions pour in with an ease of a ‘snake in the chalice of leaves.’ [2] Bhadra Square at Ahmedabad, is one such living heritage.

In time people come to create a common language of communication, arrive at a social consensus. The tone of this language is never final or complete. New people join in. New words get coined daily. New idioms follow. In a way, language lives by the square. It’s how a Banyan tree grows, it’s how cultures merge and widen. Language lives by the square. To name a few, poets like Kabir, Nazir Akbarabadi and Akha Bhagat composed elegant verses in the language of the square.

As known, Gujarati language has more than six thousand words in its vocabulary from the Persian language. An everyday Gujarati word like ‘darwajo’ has its roots in the Persian ‘dar’, meaning ‘opening’. Common to many languages, the word ‘maydan’, with roots older than the Aramaic, the language that Christ spoke in, signified the Central market square of the town.

Although in a state of despair and disrepair, the monuments enclosing the Maidan-E-Shah are a mirror to the people who build them. Ahmed Shah was not alone in the endeavor of building the city, people joined in. Weaving in time a distinct cultural pattern of the place. Any sort of exclusion would have meant the failure of the whole political economic enterprise. From the Jama Mosque to the Rani Sipri Mosque, it took nearly a century to evolve into a distinct architectural style of building.

Never was this exchange only an exchange of commodities, but of ideas and convictions as well. Gandhi’s anti-colonial movement of noncooperation spread out in the Indian sub-continent through these squares where daily and weekly markets were held. The first Gujarati newspaper ‘Budhwaariyu,’ printed weekly, and the first Gujarati magazine ‘Budhhi Prakash,’ printed monthly, has had its origins in the square at Bhadra. The first girls school in Ahmedabad was established near the square. Apart from providing people with a place to exchange fruits of social labour, the square was also a fertile ground for new social ideas.

People are not a numerical homogeneity. Each one of us have our biases and eccentricities. Yet the daily necessity of living a decent life in a decent body, binds us together into a social body. A man or a woman singly cannot produce a meal, weave a cloth and build a house by himself or herself. However simple these needs may appear, a day’s meal; a pair of clothes; a shelter to sleep, require social labour. Eating a decent meal will involve, apart from acquiring all those ingredients needed to cook a decent meal, which in itself is a long chain of tasks, will also involve acquiring the know-how of cooking. What is the right fuel for fire and where to find it? Which is the right vessel for cooking? How to differentiate between things harmful from useful ones? What is the sequence of tasks to be carried out? These are real questions in front of someone trying to cook for the first time.

A Market Square: Oil on Canvas by Ablade Glover

Rome wasn’t built in a day. Nor was the bicycle. Beginning with the invention of the wheel, a modern bicycle entails a mesmerizing history of social co-operation. Someone must have thought of aligning the wheels next to the other and the journey of the cart began. Aligning the wheels one behind the other must have taken somewhat more imagination. Someone then tried to free the axial movement of the front wheel for the bicycle to turn left and right. Someone added paddles for the ease of movement. Someone thought of the seat for sitting comfortably. Someone thought about the braking system. Finally, to the ease of riding a bicycle in an open field. Today this bicycle must seem too familiar an object. Yet it speaks of the way in which, familiar objects get created.

The square evolves with its people. The working and reworking on a common language of the square is a daily process. No one can claim ownership of the square. The square belongs to all and none at the same time. Even a passing onlooker has a role to play. During the day, people assemble in small and big numbers at these squares for the age old purpose of everyday exchange. One can marvel forever at the sense of order they jointly achieve.

Each one has a place in the open theatre of the square. From pigeons and pigeon towers to lovers and tattoo engravers, to small time florists sitting next to a mosque or a temple, to the garment sellers and shoe sellers selling things cheap, to the tea stalls and food stalls, to stalls selling cheap cosmetics and jewelries, to common drinking water stands, to the mud lamp sellers and the sellers of ritual ingredients, to an old man selling hand crafted cotton strings, to a person selling perfumes, to people buying and bargaining.

At night, groups of elder residents settle by the square. Unwind their day. Some boys play cricket. Some simply run about. On the eve of the festival, the square turns into a glittering labyrinth of swaying people. On a festive day, the square is a spectacle.

Listing every act and activity, and describing their daily rhythms and compositions calls for an active engagement with the daily life of the public squares.


1. Unknown? Anand Yang: Bazaar India
2. Walcott Derek: Selected Poems

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