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The old and the beautiful

Six Unesco awards in seven years. Clearly, Mumbai is setting new standards in heritage conservation, under the watchful eye of the city’s heritage watchdogs.

india Updated: Aug 29, 2007 04:52 IST
Chitrangada Choudhury

"Mumbai is 20 years ahead of the rest of India when it comes to conservation practice, and protecting its heritage,” states Delhi-based Amita Baig, who works for World Monuments Fund, a New York-headquartered organisation that publishes global lists of endangered monuments and allocates grants for their restoration.

The 2007 Unesco annual conservation award — announced last week — proves her point. Since Unesco instituted the awards seven years ago, six heritage structures in the city have made it to the winner’s list. This year, it was Mumbai university’s 132-year-old convocation hall, along with a 15th century Maitreyi temple complex in Ladakh.

Mumbai-based conservator Abha Narain Lambah led the teams that restored both these winning projects. She pulled together public and private funds, coordinating and overseeing work.

Through these projects, the city is setting new standards, altering the top-heavy practice of conservation —“aggrandizement”, Baig terms it — undertaken by government, like the central Archaeological Survey of India (ASI).

In fact, Mumbaikars started taking matters into their hands in 1992, when Mumbai became India’s first city where involved citizens listed over 600 unprotected buildings in a heritage list and suggested rules for their preservation.

Four years on, the government made the list law.

City historian Foy Nissen who helped draw up the list says, “We did not bother about what the BMC or officials said. The important thing was to document what was of value and faced threat.”

Getting here has not been easy. Conservation architect Vikas Dilawari (42) remembers his meeting with a civic commissioner in 1992 to discuss restoration of a BMC-owned building. “The official kept referring to me as conversation architect,” grimaces Dilawari, who oversaw the restoration of Bhau Daji lad museum — it won the Unesco award in 2006.

Attitudes are changing. Tasneem Mehta, Mumbai convenor of Indian National Trust for Art & Cultural Heritage (Intach), says: “Initially, the government saw us as a bunch of elitist busybodies. But with tourism and the marketing of India to the world gaining importance, heritage has taken centrestage.”

Dilawari believes Mumbai’s wealth drives its conservation movement. “You have a Bajaj Foundation that is willing to put down a crore for restoring a museum,” he observes.

More recently, the city’s former Rajya Sabha MP and filmmaker Pritish Nandy allocated over Rs 70 lakh from his fund to help restore David Sassoon library and J.J. School of Art.

Mehta believes the city’s lineage and talent also drive conservation. “Look at some of our buildings; citizens who cared built them aided by contributions from all communities,” she says.

Access to good legal advice has helped as groups have filed public interest litigations, for example, the removal of hoardings obscuring heritage buildings, protecting Oval Maidan and the textile mills.

What’s important is how the largest custodians of India’s heritage, the government, keeps pace with the conservation movement. The ASI has 3,650 listed ‘protected’ monuments, state departments have 2,500 more. Of these a few hundred are ticketed, most stand in ruinous neglect.

The only way forward, argues Baig, is through a fusion of public and private forces. Superintending archaeologist in Mumbai A.S. Narasimhan believes they are already being pushed to reform. “We never used to expose ourselves to people, or tell them what we were doing. Now the onus is on us to engage with the public and involve talent from outside,” he says.