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What is the future of heritage conservation?

The understanding and language of conservation in India is changing, led by the creation of archives and citizen participation in restoration projects

Hall of Nations, 1974, Architect: Raj Rewal. Photograph courtesy Madan Mahatta Archives / PHOTOINK
Hall of Nations, 1974, Architect: Raj Rewal. Photograph courtesy Madan Mahatta Archives / PHOTOINK

Nayana Kathpalia has lived across the road from south Mumbai’s iconic Oval Maidan since the day she was born. Over time, from the window she still sits at, the 77-year-old watched it transform from a recreational ground into a dump for construction debris and a spot for drug peddlers and drunks to gather. People’s eyes would only fall on the detritus, missing the beautiful Victorian and Art Deco designs of the cinema halls and residential buildings in the area.

After the state government came up with ideas for shopping complexes and an underground car park that would have eaten into swathes of this heritage ground, residents, who were part of the Oval Cooperage Residents Association (Ocra), formed a trust in 1995 to save the 22-acre maidan (ground). “We fought back, after which the government dropped all plans, including for the car park,” says Kathpalia, a social activist and one of the trustees of Ocra and its Oval Trust. In 2018, the Oval was the centrepiece of the Unesco World Heritage Site status awarded to the precinct, with “the two (Art Deco and Victorian) ensembles present in the area bearing testimony to the phases of modernisation that Mumbai has undergone in the course of the 19th and 20th centuries”.

Just like the Oval Maidan precinct, there are countless examples of living heritage spaces in urban India in various states of disrepair or danger of being built upon, often neglected by the local administration, and in need of similar community intervention.

What has made urban built heritage a talking point again is the plan for the redevelopment of the Central Vista in New Delhi, and the demolition of the Hall of Nations pavilion at the Capital’s Pragati Maidan in 2017. When it was built, the Hall of Nations was seen to embody the essence of a young nation state, and was described as “a new step in the development of modernity...” by Aurélien Lemonier, the curator of the department of architecture at Centre Pompidou, Paris.

Nayana Kathpalia (top, left) is part of a group of local residents who worked to restore Mumbai’s iconic Oval Maidan. Seen here with members of the Federation of Residents Trusts (FORT). Photograph courtesy Abeer Khan
Nayana Kathpalia (top, left) is part of a group of local residents who worked to restore Mumbai’s iconic Oval Maidan. Seen here with members of the Federation of Residents Trusts (FORT). Photograph courtesy Abeer Khan

The discussion about architectural heritage gained traction once again with the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad’s (IIM-A’s) Expression of Interest to demolish 14 dormitories designed by American architect Louis Kahn in the 1960s. The IIM-A proposal was withdrawn in early January following widespread opposition by the alumni and architects’ organisations.

Rapid urbanisation and poor city planning have taken a toll on neighbourhoods and built heritage. Neglect, vandalism and demolition are the other threats that heritage buildings—not necessarily monuments but also public spaces that people use and enjoy—face. “Despite the intensification of urban growth in India’s cities, restoration efforts to safeguard valuable heritage assets remain visible at only a few places of historic significance, and cultural heritage issues have not been mainstreamed into the overall urban planning and development framework,” observes the Urban Heritage Conservation And Rapid Urbanization report published in March 2020 by members of the School of Science, Engineering and Environment, Salford University, UK, Sardar Vallabhbhai National Institute of Technology, Surat, and the department of civil engineering, Indian Institute of Technology, Delhi.

In the case of the Oval Maidan, the Oval Trust sought and received financial help from companies, trusts and citizens, while architects such as Rahul Mehrotra and David Cardoz volunteered their services. A set of rules was drawn up for the use of the space; the state government agreed. These can now be found on the maidan gate, written in English and Marathi. Apart from seven cricket pitches, the maidan also features an earth track, used by athletes and the public. “On Sundays, I can see thousands of people coming to the maidan from my balcony,” says Kathpalia. “It is such a fulfilling feeling.”

This project is one of a kind, for it was the first instance of a state government allowing a citizen-led NGO to restore public land. “This is not a monument. This is an urban living space, with the various buildings still functioning for the purpose they were designed for. They continue to be lived in, and hence this is unique,” says Kathpalia. This aspect of restoration is often forgotten—that buildings and public spaces can be renovated, and remain open for everyone to use.

According to Khushnu Panthaki Hoof, partner, Studio Sangath, based in Ahmedabad, there is a need for open debates as well as a more comprehensive interdisciplinary approach on how a particular building can be restored and reused more creatively. "This won’t just come by floating tenders,” she add. "We need to ask ourselves how have we arrived at this stage? It is natural for buildings created 50 to 60 years ago to wear down over time, but if regularly maintained that too can be avoided.”

Delhi-based architect, writer and artist Gautam Bhatia finds the intent behind the idea of demolitions particularly disturbing. “Unlike the US or Europe, we don’t have crores and crores worth of infrastructure. How do you justify destroying swathes of city structure? In the last 50 years anyway, we have built so little of architectural value that we can be excused in not knowing what is worth saving and what isn’t. We need to ask ourselves what buildings should be upgraded and what discarded,” he says.

In the recent past, people believed pucca architecture, or that made of concrete, was low-maintenance. And today, glass, steel and aluminium have become the new materials that people gravitate towards. "But look at any building in the last 10 years. The facades are beginning to wear down and the structures look terrible. These materials are in fact much more difficult to maintain. Are we going to break the buildings down every time things change? They need care. And we need to redefine our engagement with them," says Riyaz Tayyibji, who helms Anthill Design in Ahmedabad.

Things are changing bit by bit. A small group of architecture institutes, conservators and citizens are trying to rescue these structures from ignominy in their own ways.

According to Deepthi Sasidharan, director of the Delhi-based Eka Archiving Services, the community-led approach has triggered a seminal shift in the way some organisations are approaching conservation. Earlier, people would look at a ruin or broken structure and restore it to a known silhouette. "But now projects don’t just map the building but also the community that lives around it, the built and natural landscape,” she says. “And they see how the topography has changed in the context of the city. Moreover, today’s conservation teams are not just limited to the field of architecture but are multidisciplinary, comprising storytellers, oral historians, archivists and more.”

Conservation’s secret sauce

Tankshal ni Pol in Ahmedabad’s Kalupur Ward 1 is witnessing some unusual activity these days. Researchers and architecture students from CEPT University’s Centre for Heritage Conservation (CHC) are busy conducting surveys and collecting testimonies from residents of the neighbourhood to better understand the way they use the space. The structure they are engaging with, in the Pol, is listed as a Grade IIA heritage site by the Ahmedabad municipal corporation. It is a rare example of a timber mosque in the World Heritage Site of Ahmedabad—the only other such known timber mosque in Gujarat is believed to be in Khambhat.

Researchers and architecture students from CEPT University’s Centre for Heritage Conservation conducting surveys and collecting testimonies at Tankshal ni Pol in Ahmedabad. Photo: Zeus Pithawala
Researchers and architecture students from CEPT University’s Centre for Heritage Conservation conducting surveys and collecting testimonies at Tankshal ni Pol in Ahmedabad. Photo: Zeus Pithawala

For the past month, research associate Nigar Shaikh has been visiting the site to understand why it is in disuse. “It used to be a place of worship until 1985, when riots broke out in the area. Like many other places in the historic city, many residents left and the neighbourhood turned into a commercial area, with wholesale shops for paper and stationery coming up,” she says.

Most of the newer inhabitants of the lane understandably don’t recall the architectural significance of the mosque and have never stepped inside. But they wouldn’t mind if it’s repaired and used again.

“When you step away from the lane adjoining the Pol, the dialogue becomes different. People there want to see the structure repaired but they wonder, what will happen after that? So we are trying to understand what will make the structure relevant to them in today’s times. Will they visit the place if we put up temporary exhibitions or have workshops? We are planning many community engagement activities to get deeper into this question,” says Shaikh.

The CHC has now entered into an agreement with the structure’s custodian, the Ahmedabad Sunni Muslim Waqf committee, to initiate a conservation process and set up a Conservation Site School there.

The premise for the school is that many heritage sites highly valuable for their historical importance are neglected due to lack of active use or a paucity of funds and resources. The responsibility for conserving such sites and structures lies collectively on citizens. These sites are a great repository of historical knowledge and present an opportunity for conservation training and knowledge sharing.

“As part of the new school project, we have identified the Pol as the first of the abandoned buildings,” says Jigna Desai, executive director, CHC, which was set up in 2019 as part of the CEPT Research and Development Foundation. The centre will be adopting these structures for a certain number of years, for conservation as well as educational purposes. The team will set up a temporary centre at the Pol for training programmes, lectures and exhibitions, as well as community sensitisation workshops.

It is perhaps this aspect of “reimagining” existing heritage spaces that is missing from the current discourse on conservation. “The question is always to demolish or not to demolish. It is perhaps time to complicate the discussion,” Desai says with a smile.

Experts believe there is a need to use history as a springboard and usher historical structures into the 21st century. In fact, Desai feels that conservation should be about the spirit of the place and not just about materiality. “We connect conservation with propagation of the past, whereas its objective could be to understand history and move forward with self-awareness.” She adds that the conservation process ought to upgrade the structures in the context of present-day concerns: climate change, disasters, inclusivity for gender and marginalised communities.

What is heritage?

One question that comes up is whether structures built around the time India became independent should be classified as “heritage”. Does that term extend to urban public places as well, or is it applicable only to historical monuments? For instance, in the case of the Hall of Nations, the heritage conservation committee (HCC), which comes under the Union ministry of housing and urban affairs, maintained that obuildings older than 60 years could be considered for heritage status.

Kaiwan Mehta, a theorist and critic in the fields of visual culture, architecture and city studies, believes the approach to heritage needs to be reworked in a modern context. The struggles and arguments around 19th-early 20th century heritage used to be different in the 1980s and 1990s. The discussions focused on issues such as land prices and economics. “The argument was always about development versus heritage,” says Mehta, who chairs the doctoral programme at the faculty of architecture, CEPT.

The demolition of the Hall of Nations has moved the argument beyond this, to include ideology. “When it comes to the redevelopment of the Central Vista, one of the key arguments for me is about the symbolic shift in buildings. By proposing South and North Blocks to be turned into museums, we are museumising and relegating a living history of politics to a numbed past,” he adds. When talking about heritage in such a scenario, then, it’s crucial to create an environment of conversation and argumentation rather than jingoism.

Parliament House, 1977, photographed by Raghu Rai. Photo courtesy Ojas Art Gallery
Parliament House, 1977, photographed by Raghu Rai. Photo courtesy Ojas Art Gallery

Experts believe that it may not always be necessary to restore an older building to mimic its original structure. Through this prism, it is important to restore spatial qualities, which affect life, rather than mimicking older symbols. “For instance, in the case of the IIM-A dorms, Kahn’s ideas of spatiality, its open spaces and communal living, are embodied in the building. All attempts should be made at conserving the building. If by any chance the building is found to be structurally unstable, any renovation attempt must make sure that its spatial qualities are preserved and not destroyed,” says Rupali Gupte, professor at the School of Environment and Architecture (SEA), Mumbai.

Desai concurs, and feels that in order to do so, it’s important to delve into history to better understand the dynamism of these spaces. For instance, urban and rural maidans were used for different purposes at different times even until three decades ago: political meetings, rallies, markets, festivals. The chowk could be a food place at night and host shops during the day.

“Now we only think of converting these heritage places into plazas and vistas, which take away from this dynamism. We should bring back discussions on inclusivity,” says Desai. These plazas and vistas, though envisaged as pedestrian areas meant to bring the public in, have become so gentrified that they are no longer as democratic as they were intended to be.

She cites the example of Bhadra Maidan in Ahmedabad, situated within the old walled city, which has been converted into the Bhadra Plaza. In its heyday, it was the venue for political meetings, rallies by labour unions and women. “Instead of simply focusing on its built glory, we need to identify the value of it as a dynamic maidan, embedded with histories of feminist, labour and independence movements. We are losing out on these embedded histories if we don’t create possibilities for including these diverse groups of people in the discourse,” Desai says.

It’s also important to move the conversation on conservation out of the world of architects and into the public sphere. Memories and traditions associated with spaces need to be built in collaboration with communities for them to cherish it as heritage.

“Architects are equally responsible here. For instance, they have wonderful stories to share about, let’s say, Le Corbusier’s buildings. When I speak to my friends, who are not from the profession, they are keen to know such anecdotes, but never get to hear them. Without stories, how can we expect associations?” says Tayyibji. When a layperson sees an exposed brick building, he or she wonders whether the institution didn’t have money to plaster and paint the walls. “Architects haven’t found a way to share the value of this exposed brick wall in simple terms,” he adds.

Creating stories around built heritage

It is to create such narratives, and make them easily accessible to the public, that institutions are creating archives. At present, there is no consolidated archive of urban heritage in India. All we have are anecdotal snippets, which come together to create small parts of a larger picture that remains elusive. When some of these stray archives are exhibited, they create a bridge in people’s minds between the past and the present.

One such exhibition of an archive was Delhi Modern, a showcase of the Madan Mahatta archives. Coming from one of the biggest and most well-known family-run studios in north India, Mahatta’s architectural photographs span the period from the late 1950s to the mid-1980s. “It presents a remarkable record of the building of New Delhi at the height of Nehruvian modernism. Madan worked closely with two generations of India’s best-known modern architects.... His photographs of their works are an equal part of the legacy of a great period in Indian modernism,” states a note by PHOTOINK, Delhi, which showed works from the archive in 2012. This was followed by Delhi That Was, another display of architectural photographs by Mahatta, architect Habib Rahman and photographer Raghu Rai, at Ojas Art, Delhi, in 2019.

Connaught Place, Delhi, photographed by Madan Mahatta in 1970. Photo courtesy Madan Mahatta Archives/Ojas Art Gallery
Connaught Place, Delhi, photographed by Madan Mahatta in 1970. Photo courtesy Madan Mahatta Archives/Ojas Art Gallery

These exhibitions created a connect with contemporary built heritage among the youth, says Anubhav Nath of Ojas Art. “It was really heartening to see them listen attentively to anecdotes about how modern Delhi was built. For instance, we got to know that Connaught Place, envisioned and built in the 1920s and early 1930s, was meant to connect Old Delhi with central Delhi. The idea was to be able to see all the monuments of the walled city in a single line. Later, in the 1980s, high-rises acted as a visual obstruction.”

Archives also help architects understand how we arrived at the modern-day city plan, and identify the gaps that need to be addressed in conservation. “If you live in Juhu, Parel or Sion in Mumbai, how does one know of the history of these places from even 20-30 years ago? Architects are realising this need now,” says Sasidharan

Mumbai’s SEA is also working on an archive of South Asian architecture, for the institute’s own research requirements as well as its pedagogical programme. A growing archive, it started in 2017 and seeks to locate shifts in architecture in countries like India, Bangladesh and Nepal, from the 1940s to the present, superimposed on political and economic shifts across the region. One of the preliminary findings is that the boundaries—between public and private, indoor and outdoor, and between various functions—in South Asian architecture are fuzzy . “At SEA, we emphasise both on the archive and the field—the city—to draw new conceptualisations from,” says Gupte.

Artist Ram Rahman is building the archive of his late father, Habib Rahman, documenting his journey from the time he started work as a government architect in Bengal in 1946 and built Gandhi Ghat on the banks of the Hooghly. It was inaugurated by then prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru in 1949. “Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru saw his work and asked him to shift to Delhi, which he did in 1953. He worked as a Central Public Works Department architect throughout,” says Ram.

According to him, Habib Rahman completed nearly 80 projects before coming to Delhi, such as a new campus for the Bengal Engineering College and West Bengal government’s new secretariat building. In Delhi, his first buildings were in the Income Tax Office (ITO) area, such as the University Grants Commission building, the Auditor General building, and later, Rabindra Bhawan and the Post and Telegraph building. In 1955, Rahman was the first architect to be awarded the Padma Shri. Yet, when Ram visited the CPWD to source his father’s drawings and models for the archive, he couldn’t find them.

Since Rahman was a keen photographer, however, it’s possible to glean information about his work, and Delhi’s growth as the capital of a new nation state, from the images he made. “Another source of archival material comes from his long interview with Malay Chatterjee, which was published in 1989. It’s a critical and opinionated narrative about his own history plus observed history in planning and architecture,” says Ram.

One snippet from the interview, which might be of interest in the context of the current redevelopment plans of Delhi’s Central Vista, is about a meeting between architects J.P.J. Billimoria (who designed Nirman Bhawan), chief architect Ganesh Bhikaji Deolalikar, and Nehru. “He (Rahman) mentions that Nehru was critical of the look of a couple of office buildings. But Deolalikar said that it was too late as the construction had already started. And Nehru let it go. The Central Vista was reflective of this loose democracy that we had. The government didn’t have a lot of money, hence buildings were practically and simply built, except for the National Museum, which was more expensively constructed as a solid, ornate structure,” says Ram. Which is why it comes as a shock to him that the museum is among the buildings to be demolished as part of the redevelopment plan.

Making conservation meaningful

There is now a strong case for looking beyond the anatomy of heritage structures to understand their embedded histories, lived experiences, and involve the local community in the actual restoration process. Take, for instance, the Kala Ghoda Association (KGA), formed in 1998 by various art galleries, patrons and concerned citizens with the object of maintaining and preserving the heritage and art district of south Mumbai. Another case in point being the transformation of the 700-year-old Nizamuddin Basti in Delhi by the Aga Khan Development Network or the AKDN in partnership with the Archaeological Survey of India, the Municipal Corporation of Delhi and the Central Public Works Department (CPWD). In the 1990s, unemployment and illiteracy reigned high, streets were strewn with litter and drug peddlers had taken over the public parks.

The Kala Ghoda Association was formed in 1998 with the aim of maintaining and preserving the heritage and art district of south Mumbai. Photo: Alamy
The Kala Ghoda Association was formed in 1998 with the aim of maintaining and preserving the heritage and art district of south Mumbai. Photo: Alamy

“Conservation should not be done for conservation’s sake. It should generate livelihoods and make meaningful improvements in the way people live,” mentioned Ratish Nanda, project director, Nizamuddin Urban Renewal Initiative by the Aga Khan Trust for Culture in a 2015-interview to Business Standard. “The involvement of community not only bestows pride and pleasure but also a sense of responsibility and ensures participation in maintaining the conserved areas besides providing employment and income to many in the community,” says Deepika Sorabjee, head of the Arts and Culture portfolio of Tata Trusts, which supports conservation at Humayun’s tomb in Delhi, carried out by AKTC.

For conservation architect Abha Narain Lambah, engagement with the local communities has been central to her practice. In the past she has worked on restoration of various Unesco World Heritage Sites like Ajanta Caves, Golconda Fort. Several of these —Crawford Market, Royal Opera House, Asiatic Society of Mumbai, Knesset Eliyahoo Synagogue —are located in urban living spaces, and that brought her in close contact with the locals. “Also the work on the 15th century Maitreya Buddha temple that I worked on in Basgo, Ladakh, where the local villagers helped with the labour. While working on the Jaipur Metro, we unearthed two water kunds. The locals worked with us to create nightwalks from Chaura Rasta to Johri Bazar. Thus they become stakeholders in the restoration process,” she says.

What has helped citizen-groups and NGOs in Mumbai lead from the front was the change in heritage and conservation laws in the city in 1995—a fight that was again led by citizens. According to Lambah, it is one of the first cities to have such heritage regulations, with 632 heritage entries. “It didn’t just look at buildings but at open spaces and 18 precincts as well. Entire neighbourhoods were brought under its ambit. And Mumbai has been periodically reviewing this list, with additional surveys being carried out regularly,” she says.

Lambah herself was on the committee in 2006 to review half the list to include suburbs as well. “After Mumbai, cities like Hyderabad, Kolkata, Delhi, Pune and Aurangabad came up with their own heritage listings,” says Lambah. “It’s sad that some states with amazing heritage structures have not notified their heritage structures, like Shekhawati havelis in Rajasthan.”

It remains to be seen how architects will take learnings from the archives and community-led restoration initiatives and use these to craft a modern-day typology of urban planning. What kind of built heritage will we leave behind for future generations? Experts hope that the values of dynamism and inclusivity, as seen in Charles Correa’s Bharat Bhavan in Bhopal, will be taken forward, especially in the Central Vista redevelopment programme in Delhi.

“In a democracy, you have to be public in all that you do. You can’t be creating a citadel, cordoning off the administration from the rest of the city like the castles of medieval times. When you withdraw, it becomes a problem. And that shouldn’t happen,” says Mehta. “We need an architectural language which celebrates democracy.”

Many feel that the language of the future will emerge from public intent, as architecture is a symptom, or a reflection, of the times. “And there has never been a clear public intention. Historically, we have not appreciated the value of cultural space,” says Bhatia. “In the name of public spaces, we have had temples. Mughals gave us royal spaces and the British legacy is of bureaucratic spaces. We now have to think of forms of engagement outside of malls and restaurants that cater to family-led activities of eating and shopping. Urban public spaces will be informed by what the public wants to do in them.”

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