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Lunch with BS: Ratish Nanda

Building on heritage

Rajiv Rao  |  New Delhi 

One of India’s most important architects on how inclusive conservation can be both an important developmental tool and mean cash for the government.

Ratish NandaRatish Nanda, project director at the Aga Khan Foundation and arguably India’s most important architect, beats me by reaching Blanco – a Khan Market restaurant in south Delhi – a few minutes ahead of me and has picked a nice window table for us. He’s dressed in his trademark kurta, with an equally trademark ink-pen sticking out of his front pocket, the hallmark of someone who writes or sketches for a living, says Rajiv Rao.

We exchange pleasantries and order fresh-lime sodas. Nanda looks around apprehensively as if he’s being stalked. Once he finds out that this is a feature on him, he becomes even more nervous about the lunch. When I mention that I need a photograph from him for the sketch-artist, he’s about to bolt out of the door.

Somehow, we settle down and almost immediately start chatting about his project: revitalising three of Delhi’s most-treasured sites, Humayun’s Tomb, Nizamuddin basti and Sunder Nursery into one unique heritage precinct. I tell Nanda that my wife and I, just a few weekends ago, took our kids to Humayun’s tomb and it was a fabulous experience, with its lush Mughal gardens and waterworks, liberating our trapped urban souls with its sheer size, greenness and grandeur.

I’ve said the right thing apparently since Nanda sheds his inhibitions, whips out a pen and notebook and elegantly begins sketching the inner sanctum of the tomb with firm, concise strokes. The project is the first privately-funded restoration of a World Heritage Site in India, he tells me, spearheaded by the Aga Khan Trust for Culture and in collaboration with several state agencies, including the Archaeological Survey of India, the Municipal Corporation of Delhi and the Central Public Works Department. This kind of public-private partnership is the future of conservation, he says.

We decide to order. Nanda says he eats anything, having spent four years in Afghanistan working on Babur’s tomb. Since the menu doesn’t feature roast goat, we stick to prawn and fish: I go for the Spanish prawn skillet with a hint of basil, Nanda suggests a Goan fish-curry and we both hone in on a crispy red snapper in thai chilli-sauce.

Nanda sketches out the basic issues that confront his field today. “Our heritage is disappearing bit by bit, but this is somehow not a scandal,” he says. In Britain, Nanda points out, there are 600,000 protected buildings versus a paltry 7,000 in India. However, the British had a mummified approach to conservation in India, he says, which failed. “It completely ignored the local population,” he adds.

Nanda’s – or should I say the Aga Khan Foundation’s – work in the Nizamuddin basti is an example of the rewards of an alternative approach. The landscaping of the Chaunsath Khamba complex, for instance, the largest open space in the basti, has been re-configured as an open-air theatre, attracting both local residents and citizens from all over Delhi. “Until local communities can enjoy it and benefit from our heritage, it is of no use,” says Nanda.

Then there’s the issue of local craftsmanship — age-old traditions and material that we have totally abandoned. “Why are we building with glass and steel?” asks Nanda. I mention Jeb Brugmann, author of Welcome to the Urban Revolution, whom I met a few years ago and who talks about the Indian infatuation with aping Western structures that has sidelined traditional design concepts, like the “chowk”, which are far more suited to the Indian way of life. Nanda couldn’t agree more.

“Why aren’t we using sandstone?” asks Nanda. “Our craftsmen need to get work but our architects don’t know how to use tile work. The consequence is that the ceramic tile trade has died out and the same applies to stone craftsmen and even certain kinds of masons.” This is something Nanda says the foundation is trying to revive, especially when renovating structures like Humayun’s tomb.

The food arrives. The Spanish shrimp is surprisingly good – though small – the basil, a subtle touch and the red and green peppers nice and crunchy. The Goan fish-curry is decent, but nothing more. Nanda and I are hungry so we stop talking and attack with single-minded purpose.

After some spirited gorging, we lean back, wipe the sweat of our brow, and get back to the business at hand. Nanda, a Delhi boy who went to Modern and was a gold medallist at the School of Habitat Studies where he did his BA, once again emphasises that conservation needs to step out of its isolation and become sustainable. “Heritage is actually the only asset that locals have,” he says. The Aga Khan’s projects in basti Nizamuddin bear this out. Hundreds of youth and adults have been involved in a programme that included adult education, career counselling, vocational training and skill enhancement. The project has also improved streetlights, rebuilt water-harvesting systems, built open spaces for cricket games and community toilet complexes.

Clearly, culture can be a tool for development. But heritage also makes good business sense. “There has been a 1,000 per cent increase in ticket sales in just four months of Humayun’s Tomb being opened,” says Nanda. Meanwhile, we’ve dug into the Red Snapper and something seems rotten in the state of Delhi. I have a chat with one of the servers. Oh, that’s how Snapper is, he tells me confidently, with a broad grin. Both Nanda and I inform him gently that we both cook, buy fish regularly at the INA market and that it would be a good idea to remove the offending plate and tell the chef to check his batch before someone keels over, never to wake up again. The plate vanishes.

Wrapping up, I ask Nanda for what he thinks we need in India for conservation to succeed. Understand that conservation is cash, especially when it comes to the linkages between tourism and our economy, he says. “Instead we look at it as a burden rather than an economic asset,” he adds. I pay and we both leave, but not before I’ve secured a private tour of Nizamuddin from the man who brought it to life.

First Published: Tue, October 04 2011. 00:09 IST