Star conservation architect Abha Lambah picks her five favourite projects
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Star conservation architect Abha Lambah picks her five favourite projects

The architect’s whose work on the Royal Opera House in Mumbai is getting continued applause. She picks five out of her many projects

brunch Updated: Aug 26, 2017 22:42 IST
Shikha Kumar
Shikha Kumar
Hindustan Times
Abha Narain Lambah,Moorish mosque,Chowmahalla Palace
It took Abha and her team two years to ensure that the Royal Opera House was safe for restoration(Aalok Soni)

What do the Ajanta Caves, Mahabodhi Temple, Charminar, Qutb Shahi Tombs and Royal Opera House have in common? They’ve all been restored to their former and even finer glory by Abha Narain Lambah and her team of conservation architects and consultants. A graduate from the Delhi’s School of Planning and Architecture, Abha embarked on a career conserving some of India’s oldest monuments and spaces in 1995. She’s received the maximum UNESCO Asia Pacific awards for heritage conservation and is counted among top architects today.

Now, Mumbai-based Abha has taken on conservation work for Chandigarh’s iconic Capitol Complex and is waiting for legal approvals for the restoration of the Durbar Hall at Raj Bhavan in Delhi. She lets Brunch in on her most cherished projects over the years. Over to Abha...

A pilgrim’s progress

Maitreya Buddha Temple, Ladakh (2006)

Abha worked on Maitreya Buddha Temple in Ladakh from 2004 to 2006, because weather conditions meant they could only work between May and October (Shutterstock)

This 15th century mud temple is perched on a hilltop, at an altitude of 11,000 feet. I worked on it from 2004 to 2006, because weather conditions meant we could only work between May and October. The roof of the temple hadn’t been touched in 500 years. Every time it leaked, locals would throw more mud on it. The massive build-up of mud layers overloaded the structure. It was sagging, the columns were askew and the wooden brackets had cracked.

We worked with the local villagers and craftsmen, and used mud blocks, willow wood and birch bark for waterproofing. The idea was that it belonged to the community – they built it 600 years ago, so you have to respect the materials and the knowledge systems of that community. The art conservation team worked on restoring the wall paintings and cleaned the soot deposits. In 2007, the site won the UNESCO Asia Pacific Heritage Conservation Award Of Excellence.

Royal treatment

Chowmahalla Palace, Hyderabad (2007)

When Abha first visited the Chowmahalla Palace in Hyderabad, there was knee-high grass and stagnant pools of water, due to drainage from surrounding houses

For this project, I was the conservation consultant to Rahul Mehrotra Associates, and Princess Esra, the wife of Prince Mukarram Jah. We worked in phases for six years from 2000. My daughter literally grew up at Chowmahalla – from the time I was pregnant till she was about five years old. When I first visited, there was knee-high grass and stagnant pools of water, as the drainage of the surrounding houses was ending up there. We first did emergency stabilisation and then restored the interiors, the furniture and chandeliers. There was a local craftsman who’d dismember every little piece of the chandelier and spread them out on the floor. I was on tenterhooks, wondering how he’d reassemble it without numbering or markings. But he did it intuitively. With black-and-white photos of the palace, we couldn’t establish the colour of the walls. But Princess Esra had a crystal clear memory of how the building looked. When she’d visit, I’d have 20 shades of limewash on the walls for her to pick from.

Staging success

Royal Opera House, Mumbai (2016)

The steel girders of the Opera House had eroded to the level that they could be flaked off with nails

This is very close to my heart because I had the nicest clients: Maharani Kumud Kumari Jadeja and Maharaja Jyotendrasinhji Jadeja of Gondal. When I took on the building it had been declared unsafe by the BMC and had been shut for 20 years.

The steel girders had eroded to the level that they could be flaked off with nails. There were sections in the basement where you couldn’t step in because the jack arches could collapse on your head. It took us two years to ensure that the building was safe. The balconies had to be dismantled and recast. We found black-and-white pictures from the year it had opened in 1917, and I watched Prem Kahani (1975), whose climax had been shot inside Opera House. We restored it as close to the original as possible.

Holy presence

Moorish mosque, Kapurthala (2017)

The biggest challenge while restoring the Moorish mosque in Kapurthala was to get back the glazed ceramic tiles in the original aqua hue

Two years ago, we got to work for the Punjab government on the Moorish mosque. It’s the only mosque in India which is designed by a Frenchman. It’s a copy of a Moroccan mosque and we’ve just completed its restoration. It had sloping roofs with glazed ceramic tiles in a beautiful aqua colour. The biggest challenge was that a lot of these were broken and missing, so to get the same glazed tiles back in the same shade involved experimentation.

The fountain cisterns in the marble-lined courtyard had stopped working, so we recharged and regenerated the whole fountain and the water system. The marble arch of the minbar (the steps that go up into the prayer hall where the muezzin is supposed to sit) was missing. Halfway through the project, we were able to find a broken piece of the marble arch, and a new one was made exactly to the same design. The present maharaja, Brigadier Sukhjit Singh of Kapurthala, was a great source of help. He helped us pick the right shades as he remembered all the colours. He had photographs of the chandelier, so a new one was made to order, exactly matching the old one. Old records said peaches, apricots and pears grew in the orchard so we’ve also replanted them. We’ve done both the building conservation and the landscape conservation.

On the tracks

Jaipur Metro (To be completed in 2018)

When I took this on, it seemed like a boring urban transportation project. We came across 19th century photos by Raja Deendayal of Badi Chaupar and Choti Chaupar, that showed a stepwell there. None of the citizens knew of it. We took the photographs to Vasundhara Raje and she said undoubtedly, save the stepwell. So we realigned the drawings, and after the excavation began, we found two layers of stepwell, a central fountain and even marble gaumukhs along, the edges from which water would have spouted. Each gaumukh has been kept in safe custody in the Albert Hall Museum. Every stone has been numbered and moved so that when the train station is ready, it’ll be put right back where we found it.

This will be the only station in India where you will exit out of a metro and instead of coming out onto the road, you will walk through a museum.

(Note: Restored pictures are unavailable as the project is in progress)

From HT Brunch, August 27, 2017

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First Published: Aug 26, 2017 22:39 IST