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Lunch with BS: Ratish Nanda, Conservation architect

The monuments that matter

Sunil Sethi 

Ratish Nanda
Ratish Nanda

After a walk through the Qutb Shahi tombs and a delectable south Indian meal, Ratish Nanda, the conservation architect, tells the author that his biggest learning in 15 years of conserving heritage buildings is the rediscovery of a remarkable range of surviving artisanal skills

It is a sultry, bright, cloudless morning in Hyderabad, and Ratish Nanda, possibly the country's best-known conservation architect, is walking me through a great but neglected site of the Deccan: the 16th-17th century Qutb Shahi tombs at the base of Golconda Fort set in a derelict 106-acre park. Most visitors overlook them on their way to climb the acropolis of Golconda, perhaps because of the sepulchral air their onion-shaped domes soaring from high plinths and archways exude, or because the site's grandeur is in direct proportion to its steady decay.

Since 1999, Nanda has been the key figure behind the widely-applauded revival of Humayun's Tomb and its precincts in Delhi - what began as a 26-acre garden restoration on behalf of the Aga Khan Trust for Culture (AKTC) today encompasses nearly 300 acres, including Nizamuddin basti's urban renewal, Sunder Nursery and several other monuments in a public-private partnership among 25 state agencies, Indian and foreign donors. From 200,000 visitors in 2000, Humayun's Tomb now gets two million a year; ticket sales have shot up to Rs 8 crore annually. For five years betwixt and between, he was dispatched by the AKTC to supervise the restoration of Emperor Babur's tomb in Kabul - the Bagh-e-Babur today is a haven in a city on the edge.

Nanda, therefore, is a not a man given to casual hyberbole. But he genuinely believes that Hyderabad's Qutb Shahi complex is without parallel. "There is no site quite like it in the world - an entire dynasty's necropolis built over 169 years - with 40 mausoleums, some on the scale of Humayun's Tomb, but also 23 mosques, six baolis (step-wells), a hamam, pavilions and garden structures. No other ensemble in the Deccani kingdoms, from Bijapur to Bidar, achieves its epic, stylistic complexity." It is what convinced the AKTC and major donors like the Sir Dorabji Tata Trust to aim for their next big heritage project in Hyderabad.

On our walk, the 41-year-old architect - who is part historian, site manager, archaeologist and ardent bird watcher - unfurls an abbreviated history of the seven magnificent sultans: the dynasty's founder Quli Qutb Shah (1518-1543) expanded Golconda Fort to its apogee of grandeur but his tomb is relatively modest. The double-storeyed tomb of the fourth, Mohd Quli Qutb Shah (1580-1612), who crossed the Musi river, built the Charminar and established modern Hyderabad, is the grandest, with elaborate tiling, plasterwork and colonnaded porch, and a dome that soars 48 metres higher than Humayun's Tomb. In 1687, after a bitter eight-month siege, Aurangzeb accomplished his conquest of the Deccan, using this tomb to store cannon from where he launched his attack on Golconda. The dynasty's last ruler, Abul Hasan "Tana Shah", was taken prisoner and died in Daulatabad. Nanda describes his unfinished tomb as "austere, simple, almost childlike." The funerary complex, however, also contains tombs of powerful consorts such as Hayat Bakshi Begum, assorted princes, nobles and hakims.

Nanda's ambitious scheme is more than just unpeeling older layers of restoration, made by the Salar Jung in the 19th century, or replacing damage caused by cement repairs with original lime plaster; it is to dig centuries' old accretions to show that the tombs were once part of splendid garden enclosures. At the entrance to the complex he has established a site office, where architects, engineers and planners beaver away at computers, and also a small museum, to explain to visitors what is going on. His battle includes fighting off encroachments and implementing efficient coordination. Even as negotiations with the state government to start work in 2013 were progressing, four monuments partially collapsed.

Ratish Nanda
After a few hours of wandering I am beginning to wilt in the heat. Hyderabad is a city of discerning gourmets, and foodie friends have recommended "Simply South", a restaurant in Film Nagar, as the ideal place for lunch. This well-priced, stand-alone eatery, presided over by Chef Chalapathi Rao, is a delight. There is a pan-south Indian menu - choice dishes from Telangana, Hyderabad, Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Kerala - served in gleaming copper-lined thalis and bowls at well-spaced tables. That eating is taken seriously here is evident from a chorus of satisfied murmurs and sighs and an absence of noisy, peak hour chatter.

We start with kozhi saaru, a delicate chicken soup from Chettinad, flavoured with pepper, fennel and star anise and move on to a Telegana kodi roast, chicken marinated in spices and green chillies. We continue by mixing and matching with abandon - and a little bit of help from the chef who bustles in with suggestions: chapa vepudu, shallow fried river fish, Andhra style, accompanied by Hyderabad's classic khatti dal, before moving to a final course of steaming appams and vegetable stew from Kerala. The restaurant's specialties are served with a delectable array of homemade chutneys and pickles, including a yellow cucumber pickle and ground peanut chutney. Like many satiated customers, my guest and I lapse into silences. It is a good moment to broach Ratish Nanda's own history.

Armed with an architectural degree from Delhi at the age of 24 ,he won the Charles Wallace fellowship to Britain to study conservation. After his course, he landed a job with Historic Scotland, a major conservation body. But he couldn't imagine spending his life studying and documenting Scottish graveyards and decided to head home. As luck would have it, within hours of reaching Delhi in 1999, he was approached by the AKTC to take on the Humayun's Tomb job. "It was initially a small project with a limited budget, but it was the first scientific garden restoration to be assigned to an external agency."

Breaking off to order dessert, we pick on sheer korma, Hyderabad's version of seviyan kheer served on auspicious occasions. Over steaming cups of filter kaapi, he explains that his biggest learning in 15 years of conserving heritage buildings, is the rediscovery of a remarkable range of surviving artisanal skills. "The Archaeological Survey of India has often resisted age-old conservation processes. Widespread use of cement, which is dangerously corrosive, instead of stucco or lime plaster, which is painstaking and labour-intensive to produce, has caused irreparable harm to our monuments. It is four times stronger than cement and far longer lasting. We reward our master craftsmen and handloom weavers but we do not sustain the genius of our masons, brick layers, plasterers and stone carvers. They created our architectural marvels and their skilled livelihoods cannot be allowed to perish."

The AKTC's gambit in Hyderabad has paid off, with Finance Minister Arun Jaitley earmarking funds in his Budget for the Qutb Shahi restoration as one of eight heritage projects to be undertaken in the country. The Telangana government plans an outlay of Rs 200 crore till 2018, when it hopes the tomb complex and Golconda Fort will become eligible to compete for Unesco's world heritage site status. Nanda's own view encompasses a larger vision. Conserving monuments, he believes, makes all-round development sense: it enhances tourism revenue, generates employment, benefits local communities and generally improves the quality of life. To encourage investment, heritage conservation is included in corporate social responsibility schemes since last year. "Take it from me," he says, "ten years from now, people will come to Hyderabad only to see the Qutb Shahi tombs. Just like many cannot leave Delhi without visiting the Humayun's Tomb."

First Published: Fri, May 29 2015. 22:26 IST