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The Story of the Humble Square: Shaheen Bagh to Tiananmen Square and beyond

Plaza, piazza, platz or the maidan, call it what you like, the public square will always support the hopes and carry the collective conscience of a community.

by Freddie RibeiroPublished on : Mar 31, 2020

Authoritarians don’t realise what a dangerous thing it is to have a city square
- David Remnik

It is difficult to explain the meaning of the word maidan, which has come to connote different things to varied cultures. The word has been borrowed, inherited, appropriated and usurped across history and geography. The subcontinent is very familiar with the word, as is most of the East. Extensively used in the Central Asian tongues of the Turks or Tartars, there is evidence that it can be traced back to Aramaic. More recently, western journalists covering the Ukrainian uprising translated it rather simplistically to mean ‘town square’. While that term might not do justice to what it means to the community, nor do most other definitions. The town square has never managed to confine itself to a particular use. Trade, military exercises, concerts, celebrations, royal weddings, public executions, floggings, and expressions of political might are just some of the duties carried out by the overworked and humble city square.

For a square to work, there has to be an inherent flexibility in design that permits it to perform its many tasks. It needs to be porous: a receptacle to be supplied by multiple streets, alleys, aspirations and thoughts. Its physical emptiness is usually balanced by one or more iconic structures that surround it and which define the form of the space. The square offers a human scale while being draped by the imposing, but its true beauty lies in the nature of the void. That void is filled with an ever dynamic but shared notion of civic identity. As the surrounding urban fabric and its socio-economic status changes, so must the square. Eternally living and breathing, it continually adapts and is never finite. Even though the dissemination of news and information—traditionally a preserve of the square—is now effectively performed by social media, the maidan remains as important in the digital age as when Plato ran around the Agora convincing people he had something important to say.

The power of the void | Maidan or Town Square | STIRworld
The power of the void Image Credit: Shubhajit Bagchi, BDP

The elite of ancient Greek society would come together at the Agora to discuss the affairs of the (City) State. Representative power could be conferred, justice dispensed and authority challenged. Here was the genesis of some of the modern world’s most enduring ideas like self-governance and democracy. The Roman Forum too, like the Agora, originated as a marketplace which acted like a magnet for people, enabling other activities to follow.

As the colosseum gained importance, the Forum as a place for civic activity fell into decline as Rome went from Republic to Empire. Our square, however, made a triumphant return with the Italian Renaissance, now formally designed along Vitruvian principles and adorned with public art celebrating local nobility. The Holy Roman Church, now competing with political power, controlled squares as exhibition spaces of ecclesiastical authority. By the 18th century, the wealth of capitalist Europe and the absolutism of monarchies were on display through avenues leading to grand spaces with edifices as ostentatious as the gardens and fountains located in them. A visual extravaganza, these squares were marked by the absence of its most important component – the common man.

‘You are not alone’: the human scale | Maidan or Town Square | STIRworld
‘You are not alone’: the human scale Image Credit: Andrew Gook, Pexels

The modern post-colonial public square redressed this exclusion, as we have seen in the more recent times. With varying degrees of success, dramatic political uprisings across the world over the last five decades found their locations in Azadi Square in Tehran, Rynek Glowny in Krakow, Tiananmen Square in Beijing, Revolution Square in Bucharest, Euromaidan in Kiev, Tahrir Square in Cairo and Taksim Square in Istanbul. In each of these cases, and many others like them, spaces designed to be the ceremonial centre of political or spiritual power were transformed into an arena of political confrontation. After all, history has borne out that sites of protest are not just selected on the basis of the volume of space available, but their cultural significance to the people who are protesting and the political importance to the governments they are protesting against.

Taksim Square, Istanbul, in more festive times | Maidan or Town Square | STIRworld
Taksim Square, Istanbul, in more festive times Image Credit: Divyajyoti Sharma

In my own city, New Delhi, the 250-year-old sundial known as Jantar Mantar, a popular tourist attraction and historical monument, has become, over the post-independence history of the Indian capital, synonymous with protest. Situated down the road from the Indian parliament and the Prime Minister’s Office, Jantar Mantar has an enviable pin location for those who want to be heard. On the other hand, there are times when the protesting multitude decides to simply occupy a public space, even just an important arterial road, in order to make its point. Shaheen Bagh in Okhla, New Delhi, is a round-the-clock sit-in on one half of a public road, organised and managed by local women of all ages, and protesting against a Citizenship Law promulgated recently by the Indian parliament. In the making of this iconic protest, a dispassionate motorway has been transformed into a safe space to enable people to speak up and have their voices heard in a non-violent and compassionate environment.

Making a point in a public space – Shaheen Bagh, Delhi | Maidan or Town Square | STIRworld
Making a point in a public space – Shaheen Bagh, Delhi Image Credit: Freddie Ribeiro

It is often said that a city without a public ‘place’ isn’t a city but a mere collection of fragments. Plaza, piazza, platz or the square, call it what you like, the maidan will always support the hopes and carry the collective conscience of the community that has built itself around it.

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