Back from the dead

Last Updated 13 May 2017, 18:53 IST

While her fellow students at the School of Planning and Architecture in New Delhi were busy drawing up blueprints for erecting new buildings, Aishwarya Tipnis was always more interested in restoring and reusing the old ones. A Master’s degree in European Urban Conservation from the University of Dundee in Scotland further strengthened her resolve to work towards the preservation and conservation of historic buildings.

After all, “Heritage is an integral part of our identity and it would be foolish to let it crumble or fade away,” believes this spirited conservation architect who has pioneered several urban conservation and building restoration projects in the country. She also adds, “In today’s day and age, heritage and culture in general must remain relevant to all, not just artists and experts.” Sunday Herald got her talking about two of her projects, which received the UNESCO Asia-Pacific Award for Cultural Heritage Conservation last year.

One of them happens to be the 18th century Maratha citadel, the Mahidpur Fort in rural Madhya Pradesh, located on the banks of River Kshipra, about 50 km from Ujjain. While not much remains of the original construction, it is still home to a small community that lives amongst the remnants of the medieval fort. Till about a few years ago, before any conservation efforts were initiated, it stood in a dilapidated condition — vandalised and almost on the verge of collapse. The building construction activity for the largest Jain temple in the region further posed a threat to the fort, as the ruins were being dismantled for the expansion of the temple and its activities.

The fort, or Qila, as it is popularly known amongst the locals, does not fall on any popular tourist trail due to its remote location and the lack of awareness about its historical past. We, perhaps, wouldn’t have heard about it if it wasn’t for the initiative undertaken by the Department of State Archaeology, Government of Madhya Pradesh, and the World Monuments Fund, New York.

Unknown to many, the town of Mahidpur is one of great importance. It was once a prosperous trading town on the Dakshinapatha trade route, but more importantly, it marks the site of the decisive Third Anglo-Maratha War (1817-18), also known as the battle of Mahidpur, that was fought between the British East India Company and the Maratha Holkars. It is said that the Marathas were almost on the verge of winning, when they were betrayed by one of their own generals, which led to their defeat. And ultimately, it resulted in the fall of the Maratha Empire and the subjugation of central India by the British.

Mahidpur is also believed to have great archaeological potential as several excavations have already been undertaken by the Archaeological Survey of India, which have led to the discovery of remains dating back to the Chalcolithic period. It thus became imperative to initiate a plan to preserve the remains of the fort.

The protection and conservation efforts made by Tipnis and her team involved the structural stabilisation and restoration of the walls and the bastions. All of it, which happened in a methodical manner, spanning over a period of two-and-half years, included the documentation and mapping process, a careful assessment of the condition of the archaeological remains, and on-site supervision of the execution of the works.

However, it wasn’t as easy as it sounds. Apart from the remote location the architect’s team worked in, language too posed a problem. “The challenge was to distill the ideas in the simplest way and explain it to the local contractor for implementation,” says Tipnis. At the same time, she adds, “Although challenging at various levels, finding accommodation in the village and working within the constraints of the site helped us in building trust with the local community. Initially they were extremely wary of what we were doing, but as time progressed, they came to help out, engaged themselves, and offered suggestions on how things could be practically done.” In the process, many unemployed youth were trained in building crafts, which in turn provided them with a vocation for a sustainable future.

According to Tipnis, “A cultural heritage resource is not a liability, and if restored with care, and with a vision, it can do wonders to enhance the image of a place.” Mahidpur Fort has proved to be a fine example of this belief. “The success of the project and its impact on the community can be gauged by the fact that other similar communities have now expressed interest to the local government to restore their living, unprotected monuments.

The Qila has now become a local tourist attraction and every member of the community is aware of its historical importance,” reveals Tipnis. Even the Jain Temple Trust now considers the fort as an asset and not just old ruins that can be broken down for expansion. Now the locals have another reason to be proud of — Mahidpur Fort is the first recipient of the UNESCO Award of Merit, for Cultural Heritage Conservation, in Madhya Pradesh.

The other project that received a similar award is the Doon School, a premier educational institute in Dehradun, Uttarakhand, established in 1935. Tipnis and her team worked on the structural stabilisation of the main building, its facade restoration, and the introduction of a pilot for a ‘smart classroom’ within the historic building. What is commendable is that even though the state of Uttarakhand or the city of Dehradun does not have any statutory legislation for protecting heritage buildings and sites, the school took on the restoration project without any government funding.

To this, Tipnis says, “It is a rare example in India where a comprehensive conservation and restoration project for an unlisted historic building has been undertaken, primarily for the love of its heritage, by its own community.” Summing up, she adds, “The project has gone on to demonstrate via practice that intelligent design and sensitive solutions can make a historic building relevant to contemporary times. It is a benchmark for many other unlisted historic buildings across India that demand to be conserved rather than being razed to oblivion.”

St. Olav’s Church

The city of Kolkata develops linearly along River Hoogly in eastern India. Heading north from Kolkata for an hour-and-a-half along River Hooghly would lead you to the pre-colonial town of Serampore on the West Bank of the river. Known as Frederichsnagore during the mid-17th to 18th century Danish colonial period in India, Serampore is now a part of the Kolkata Metropolitan Development Authority.

Serampore is home to many historical buildings dated to this period, especially St. Olav’s Church built in 1806, bearing the monogram of the Danish King Christian VII. The church, locally known as the Danish church, is owned by the Calcutta Diocesan Trust Association, and is headed by the Bishop of Kolkata. The architectural conservation work carried out on the church was recently awarded an ‘Award of Distinction’ at the UNESCO Asia-Pacific Heritage Awards 2016.

The Lutheran church was initiated by Ole Big, the head of the Danish Trading Post of 18th century Serampore.

The church plan was drawn by the British church builder Robert Armstrong. The nave was completed in 1806, while the portico and the bell tower were added later in 1821. The church’s architectural features are very similar to British churches of this period and closely resemble the neoclassical St Martin-in-the-Fields Church in London.

The neoclassical church design has a pediment that is supported by four sets of Ionic twin columns that form the entrance portico. This is followed by a straightforward, three-aisle, rectangular plan intercepted by columns periodically, which is approached through a set of broad steps. This rectangular structure is topped by a bell tower that has a clock on its external surface.

Periodic neglect had dilapidated many features of the 211-year-old church. The wooden members of the roof had given away due to dampness and an attack of white ants. The church had also suffered from constant exposure to dampness and misguided conservation works like cement plastering.

Conservation work

The main intent for the conservation of the church was to reclaim the space as one that could be beneficial to the community. The significant location of the church provided a space for cultural and public activities, irrespective of religion. While the Danish Ministry of Culture supported the conservation work financially, the principal conservation work was done by Architect Manish Chakraborti of Continuity Architects in Kolkata. The preliminary step taken by the architect was to initiate an emergency shelter over the building to protect the interiors of the building from exposure to the outside environment. The next was to arrest the rising dampness in the building.

The conservation work was carried by meticulously repairing only the parts of the building that were vulnerable. This is a philosophy that British historian William Morris from the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings (SPAB) stresses upon. Original material was reused where possible, and materials and paints were carefully chosen to integrate with the older material.

Chakraborti attributes the success of the project to careful budgeting. For instance, instead of investing in heavy waterproofing material to arrest the dampness of the building, site drainage issues were attended to, and the money thus saved was kept for future maintenance requirements. The scaffolding was designed specifically to be cost-efficient and more productive for the conservation process. Even the plastering was done in parts and layers, only where it was necessary. Flemming Aalund, consultant architect from the National Museum of Denmark, paid two visits a year to consult on the project. The interior of the church has been updated with better sound and lighting in such a manner that the authenticity of the architecture is not compromised upon.

The recognition

The Asia-Pacific Award for Cultural Heritage Conservation specifically supports local communities and the private sector in protecting their heritage, highlighting the importantance of local communities in safeguarding heritage.

India is a treasure trove of heritage structures. Often, privately owned heritage structures suffer hugely due to management issues and lack of funds. “In the field of architectural conservation in India today, ingenuity in architectural work is important and restoration is neither elitist nor for the privileged. It can be an economically viable option,” says Chakraborti.

According to him, the conservation of the church has not only increased the footfall for the church, but has also brought the community together. India offers many such opportunities, and Chakraborti has other exciting projects on hand, like the renovation of a dilapidated tavern in Serampore into a coffee house, which will be called the Danish Tavern.

The restoration of St. Olav’s Church will be showcased at the prestigious Best in Heritage conference in Dubrovnik this September.

(Published 13 May 2017, 15:22 IST)

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