“Education and training in design without emphasis on repair as an adherent art and science has led to present situation that we bemoan here. The ‘jack of all, master of some’ Engineers had it in them making heritage conservation also a normal way of civic life”, says Ravindra Gundu Rao, Principal Architect, Ravi Gundu Rao and Associates
Ravi Gundoo Rao-min
You are in a city known for Palaces. How much influence the Palaces of Mysuru have on your profession?
Like most cities, the Palace is often an extension of the humblest form of house construction. Raj Wada of Ahilya Devi Holkar fame or Shanivar Wada of Pune is also a ‘Wada’ made of the same materials as that of the most common man in the town, of mud, timber poles, some bricks and pot tiles, with some decoration on the timber, especially near the temple areas and places the ruler met important visitors. If anything different from the others, it was for functional purposes. It was only since the advent of the Moghuls (not for nothing the word becomes an adjective) British empire all this changed where house of the rulers grew exponentially ostentatious, disproportionately large, often obscenely decorative and quite out of place, distancing itself from its people. The Original Palace of Mysore whose model exists in V&A museum is a case in study this phenomenon, when a certain Henry Irwin who may have been pressed on to the royal family (whose king was all of 6 years old) produced the Mysore Palace as we find it today, as did Fitchley who did Lalit Mahal, la Paladium. They built what they knew and had to adopt to local materials of mud, timber, bricks and techniques, teaching the fine art of ‘camouflage’ to the simple honest locals.
All this had very little, if any impact on my professional initiation and rooting, though much later, also based on one’s ‘English’ (York, to which I am eternally reverential to) education one is able to understand these buildings better. One was also instrumental to the restoration of one of the Palaces of the royalty, which now is a public property, where one could see the curious marriage of various thoughts, traditional materials being presented in an hitherto alien forms (mud, brick pieces tied with coconut coir and lime surki mortar, all very local, producing an English Urn, for instance). One became intimate with ‘Madras Terrace’ a transcontinental device born from intermingling of two civilizations, that produced several square (it all became square gradually, leaving the rounded sub continental form’s!) miles of floors and roofs.
Do you think conservation architecture is given enough prominence in syllabus? What steps need to be taken to popularize conservation architecture at the graduation level?
This is my favourite rant and needs a book of the size of Homer’s Odessey. In as short a form as possible here it goes.
Repair of buildings and repair in general of any and everything leads to reduced wastage and recycling (conservation) and an antidote to use and throw economy that we live it. Education and training in design without emphasis on repair as an adherent art and science has led to present situation that we bemoan here. The ‘jack of all, master of some’ Engineers had it in them making heritage conservation also a normal way of civic life. Everything was repaired and reused till the very last when it was still reused for something else. Waste was a non existing term for the masses to the King. Then repair was a skill derived from observation and sound knowledge of the basics of construction etc.
Presently repair has become ‘restoration’, a summary act of unattended repairs piled up waiting for the non existing expert to rise and solve the problems. It is obvious to me that the education and training in Engineering, Architecture shall embrace concept of how things deteriorate and how it can be addressed as an artistic science. Over 80% of our national built stock being in no cement, non RCC compartment – a mere glance of the technical education shows close to nil component of deterioration process, diagnostic ability of the same and time tested methodology of repairs et al. How may we expect these technocrats to address the issue of diverse typology of heritage buildings (forts, roofs, walls, floorings, door windows of a few hundred hews) unique to their locations changing every 100km away from each other?
Respect and dignity has to be returned to repair as a craft and its practitioner, lest our heritage mouments will face the same fate as a used cigarette bud, Bislery water bottle or a Reynold pen.
Do you think there is more awareness about heritage structures and their conservation among the people now?
No. I think its getting worse. Awareness is what I expounded in earlier section about gaining knowledge and I don’t see it happening. I do see increase in tourism with increased material wealth but devoid of curiosity and add the google insta knowledge; there is an increasing fake knowledge. The per cent of genuinely interested people may be the about the same since the past 2-3 decades, which is worrying, a bit. I could be wrong-a survey by (la psephologists!) may be in order to get a hold on the stats.
You are one of the proponents of mud architecture. Tell us about the benefits of mud as building material vis-a-vis modern building materials? Do you think mud can be used for building affordable houses?
Mud is lovely, adorable, simple, honest, humble, ductile, malleable, workable, adoptable, harmless, literally cool, warm too if you need it to be, can be built without builders, brought down without monster machines, and so close to earth, why it even smell good! It is prehistory and ever lasting if done well (ever is a couple of life times while we only have one). It can be a no cost materials (depending on where you are), it can go back to where it came from.
Comparing this with factory-made modern materials of construction is comparing chalk and cheese, salads and steak, Mars and Venus. Broadly, former needs time, human skills, patience and mercifully has its limitations, while psalms have been sung in praise of the latter in magazine advertisements and bill boards. It’s the difference between hand made and machine made fabric, cottage industry V/s factory produce, intimate V/s indifferent, CAD drafted straight line V/s hand drawn curve, slow cooked cuisine V/s Mxxxxxxxxx fast food.
I do not believe that Mud architecture has anything to do with low cast or cost and clubbing the same on these lines caused considerable damage to the dignity and acceptability during 1980’s by planners and NGO. Oranges cost what they may as does apples depending on where one buys them.
Which conservation project you are happiest about and why?
Not intending to be self focused but focused on one’s own work all the while in search of one’s bread and butter, I have no hesitation in wearing my pride of my long association with Richard Holkar and Ahilya Wada, Raj wada, Fort walls, Ghats of the gear Narmada in Maheshwar, my eternal home away from home. Narmade Har, praise be with Ahilya Maa sahib whose blessings have held me and my family in good stead.
Happiness is caused by an amalgamation of several happy memories, such as nearly smooth communication between the quick learning (of the not too easily acceptable demands of authenticity as against quick fix convenience driven options more often found across the shelf), minimality of available funds (trust me it helps!), no hard pressures of dates for inauguration (normally a great bane of govt projects where a certain minister wants to inaugurate the work in his time table), reasonably trusting Richard, the blessed & unrushed, timeless river and the settlement easing the nerves, 24X7 festivities on the river ghats with sounds of the river and its people (Bum bhole, narmade har, hara hara mahadev, Moharam Tazia’s), cheering you all the time, knowing every one is matter of hours on intimate basis, worlds best legendary hospitality in the Holkar wada though there was very little those days save history, bats and cob webs and perhaps many reptiles, the joy of putting a some what newly experienced team in an alien environment (coming from Bombay, yes it was yet Bombay in 1997), unlearning all formulae and working with eyes, nose, ears and feet, growing and becoming a Maheshwarian and integral part of the family, and after years (all of the 7 year itch) of working without any other thought, suddenly to find the work being appreciated as seemless out put effortlessly combining inputs of style, experience, elan, among other attributes of the royal under mention, the sufi saint with Doon accent towering on us with his benevolence, with craftsmanship of our Mallapuram timber wizards (who had never heard or seen Mahwa tree, or Kalia poles!), our hardworking ultra sincere workers turned specialist conservation craftsmen from Jharkhand, some locals who merged into this team and presently carry on the tradition in the Rajwada, our Keralite supervisor who learnt on the job, absorbed any pressure there was, and handled the man management issues marvelously often under 50 degree Celcius, our Engineers and Architects. Making life time friends with many a Maheshwar lovers. All these and more. Yes sir I am drunk on ambrosia for good.
Lastly, the happiness is seeing happy use of the rejuvenated place brimming with activity 365 days, Ahilyafort.com becoming a sensation world wide, even accepted to Indians, to quietly reminisce 2,000 km away that one was a tiny part of this! One more Narmade Har is due for my learned friend philosopher and guide, late Arshad Rashid Saheb. Praise be with Allah and may he keeping blessing me from the top floor.
Tell us about some of the conservation projects you are presently involved in?
We have put our hand in the bee hive of conservation called Jaisalmer where I don’t know who has not done so in the past 2-3 decades. A largish team of specialists from quite a few areas and locations have embarked on a ambitious task of understanding the problems/issues of the 400-plus year old fort and a labyrinth of palaces added vertically, horizontally, every which way by a plethora of chandravanshi Maha Rawals, all from the family lineage of Lord Krishna himself. One hopes to get some where at the end of the tunnel.
We are working on a British cemetery in Lawrence school, Love Dale, Ootacamund, with small and big repairs to 140 or so tombs of Indian British who lived and died in Ooty under the caring patronage of who better than a Parsi Zarir Batliwala, Rukhmini Krishnan the President of Old Lawrentian Association (with some illuminary names on the list). Small project bringing big happiness to many.
Nearly (for ever) completing works for the famous Velankanni Cathdral in TN.
Guiding (a term for ‘surely on the retirement’ mode) GH Heritage Matters, a ravishing and young bubble team of who knows how many conservation architects and Engineers based in Bangalore but are confirmed nomads, in some serious and interesting projects in British Residency (now Women’s college) Koti, Hyderabad, Gagan Mahal, a state-owned heritage building of unknmown antiquity and past use in Anegondi (across Tungabhadra river in the more famous Hampi), and some more on cards. I enjoy working with these lasses and lads who bring verve, zest and steam into my blood stream.
On the bucket list of wishes is to take to training aspiring professionals in this line to acquire soft skills (la finishing school) of man, quality management, client relationship, nuances of managing a project with smiles all around (to enjoy a project), team buildings, and getting paid for one’s work. I intend using all my failures (and a bit of success to be fair) to other benefit!
Manasagangothri has approved restoration/renovation of Jayalakshmi Vilas Palace. As you were involved in its restoration in the past, what comments you would like to make?
May whoever is going to do it succeed. I also pray for them.
Do you think corporates need to be roped in for conservation and maintenance of heritage structures in the country?
Why not? Jayalaxmivila Palace and many such projects were funded by Infosys foundation selflessly without seeking any credit. Sure; the corporate can and shall, so long as they don’t demand outlandish boards proclaiming their generosity, or use it for low level gains (publicity beyond their contribution).
Any suggestion or advice for young architects who want to take up conservation as main specialization?
They shall have to learn to not stay shy of brick and mortar issues, of dirtying their pretty and delicate hands, not trusting the so called ‘Structural Engineer’ who could jolly well be an irrigation or sanitation engineer or still worse, even a structural engineer from a heady top university who has never seen inside of a madras terrace or wattle and daub wall while searching desperately for a formula in theory of structures, who tends to think through his/her glorious institutional hats, there will be exceptions and find them and stay glued to them if you did. Start small do some little work, and you will grow up before you realize. Skip brochures of product suppliers and state-of-the-art materials. They are not targeting you and you are a collateral damage. Learn your basics of sand, lime, bricks, timber, local additives and traditional tools, and befriend your workers as your esteemed colleagues and don’t treat them as workers. If you come across elder traditional works in any area, chain yourselves to them and shift to their house bag and baggage included.
Start large (remember that you can’t start small enough!) and chew more than you can eat and choke to death (you or the monument).
Does the UNESCO world heritage tag for a heritage site in India make a difference in its conservation/ preservation/ upkeep/usage by common man? How does the organisation in-charge work towards keeping it upto the world heritage standards?
Although I have benefitted from specific education from one of the pioneering Institutions, under masters in the field of architectural conservation, I am and my small organization is merely a diagnose and repair oriented unit (totally based on my education in this field and as per the laid out global charters of conservation, one hopes), thus do not claim my views to hit the bulls eye not be accepted by all stake holders. My views on general but pertinent questions are one’s own thoughts not based on any serious experience in such broad areas.
One has worked in and indirectly experienced the environment of UNESCO World Heritage sites such as VT in Mumbai, Churches in Goa, some monuments in Hampi region, and the aspiring one’s such as Belur, Halebidu, Sravanabelagola in Karnataka, and visited as a tourist several others in India. It appears on the peripheral vision that the Government officials seem to take the tag a bit seriously initially that seems to fade out with the passage of time. Committee’s are appointed, experts visit and hold meetings, voluminous vision documents that adorn the inaccessible shelves of the state, national and international seminars are held in cozy auditoriums well attended by ‘stake holders’ presided over by a Minister or two, and at times complicated guidelines are prepared by well intentioned experts based on a few days visits of several hundred square kilometers area. Before one wakes up, the monuments receive a ‘brassy’, loud sign board each, which at times is bigger than the monuments main door, and all letter heads and calling cards get the logo printed in the top right hand corner.
Permissions for those seeking it with due diligence (small numbers indeed compared to those who don’t) will become more complicated and the paper will need to move in more tables in more than one location, even if the matter is a simple one like a bore well for drinking water which may or may not have any bearing on the well being of the monument around which the same is needed. In any case, the ‘Acts governing Ancienst Monuments’ are thoroughly disliked by the average common man perceived as a negative law depriving him/her the prerogative of doing one’s own thing with care of a few hoots to the aspect of conservation of the said monument. One assumes that the department of Culture gets a wee bit more budget sanctioned initially that get translated to some more locked toilets, waterless fountains, massive square footage of ‘interlocking concrete blocks, another layer of the ubiquitous chain linked fencing to the parking lot, colour wash to all quarters and buildings housing some amenities (for the staff offcourse), and an occasional chemical wash using the latest materials whose name is non disclosable by the secrecy rules, and some more lawns. In reasonable time the governance of such monuments, precincts attain staus quo and the ‘famed tag’ is forgotten in a matter of time. In any case, in my opinion there is no need for the upkeep of any monument and a world heritage one to be any different. It may cause more footfall and cause more concerns, if any.
At best, there is a certain sense of pride in certain circles and more people may keep an eye on the health of the site/monument drawing some media attention.
There are few projects in India that have successfully implemented heritage projects with involvement of the general masses, Pondicherry is a good example. But heritage is still thought as a subject for the elite. Will this situation change?
Pondicherry is more of a free style architectural environment with community is formed and think and work freely often producing interesting results differing from dogmas of our traditional upbringing. It has not much direct relation to heritage conservation though traditional (thus indirectly related to heritage, so to speak) materials and techniques are revisited albeit with the view of experimenting (an antitheses of field of conservation of heritage) and evolving newer, relevant forms and techniques for contemporary use. The heritage buildings are readopted for various functions in an aesthetically pleasing ways while some might be adhering to the principles of authenticity too.
Historically most heritage ‘projects’ of say jeernodharan of temples, lakes and such semi public places were invariably done under the care of the general masses (un paid experts) though the credit may have been attributed to a local chieftain or the titular head. One has read scores of situations of the past where the local traders, community funded, built, repaired such public buildings and precincts using self help groups involving some technical persons. Recently local residents of an urban village just skirting Mysore city recovered an ancient temple tank that was under ground for centuries, and did it very well without damaging any part of it, and suggested to the govt that it recovers a vast temple of which this was a part of while the authorities are yet to respond.
Eventually, I see the state handing over the responsibility of upkeep of the heritage properties to private sector gradually due to its inability to do so with its limitations of funds, technology and the initiative by the state players, thus bringing in the ‘masses’ back to heritage upkeep. One is not sure if that’s the right way or not, though.
In a developing country like India, development overtakes heritage issues more often and there is a huge lack of information about heritage and it’s preservation. What can we as the ones interested/invested in heritage do to fill this gap?
We will perhaps find our balance after desperation for ‘development’ is satiated and the true meaning of same is absorbed and learn our own ways of respecting and recycling heritage gainfully, meaningfully. An ancient country like ours may be a casualty of excessive heritage stock thus under valuing the same and from an economic perspective, some loss may become profitable after some time!
With the vast history and built heritage in India, why are very few places hogging the limelight for example Taj Mahal, shore temple et al.? What can we as conservation professionals do to reach the masses and instil the importance of other built heritage sites- sites that unravel the history of common men??
Much of tourism is perfunctory and quite useless like a selfie. Nothing is learnt and no purpose is served without knowledge exchange and mulching, educated observation from various angles of art, science, sociology etc. Domingo Paes, Abdul Razak or Ptolomy were not ‘bloody tourist’ but were there to learn deeply and to share. Some of them lived long years to the places they visited, chronicled, contributed and intermingled and became one with the toured places. An hour at the Taj and the Shore Temple merely tires every out including the great monument itself (of monumental ignorance and pettiness of the toured). It’s the tick off list that makes the ‘masses’ flock the Taj who might have visited a great historical place a few hundred meters from their home.
Primary education shall fill in these holes by kindling the sense of awe and curiosity of learning about their past, the art and craft of the monument built by their forefathers, reasons and circumstances under which it was built, and about what to do with these. It is not enough to know that General Dyer shot hundreds in Jalliawalla baug but to revisit the circumstances, his socio-logical thinking, physical situation causing the gory incident, and more, so as to learn in a wholesome and somewhat dispassionate way. After all, history has a tendency of repeating and such incidents are avoidable only by learning from the past. Hidden and apparent education of building science and craftsmanship is a fathomless ocean where the present and future generations can draw endlessly. For, there is no need for reinventing a wheel, though other forms may be derived from it.