Bus terminus to a cultural hub: Delhi’s Bikaner House shows the restoration path
For over a year now Bikaner House has been bustling with cultural activities. Every week, its grand ballroom, art gallery and rear lawns come to life with events ranging from book launches to art exhibitions to jazz performances.
The erstwhile residence of the maharaja of Bikaner at India Gate hexagon, which served as a bus terminal for decades before being restored to its original glory and opened to public, has emerged as one of city’s hottest cultural hubs. These days it attracts a steady stream of a whole new kind of visitors — art lovers and those who want to have a guided tour of the former princely palace.
Not just art, Bikaner House, restored by Abha Narain Lambah, a conservation architect, also plays host to haute couture events. From Rohit Bal, who organised India Couture Week 2016’s finale to Tarun Tahiliani, who launched his range of handmade carpets last month, the place has emerged as the top choice for famed designers.
“We are a multi-art, multi-conference venue. We have had a variety of events, but we ensure that every event has a strong cultural component. Our art gallery is booked till March 2018,” says Priya Pall, curatorial director of Bikaner House. “We stand somewhere between a museum and an art space.”
The cultural space, managed by the Bikaner House Management Society, an independent body that gets grants from the Rajasthan government is set for the second phase of restoration on the first floor. “The first-floor restoration will be complete by the year end,” she says.
Many like well-known author William Dalrymple, whose book Kohinoor was launched at the Bikaner House in December 2016, believe that it is the most beautiful venue for cultural events and can serve as a model for restoration of other neglected princely houses. “It is a classic place, a wonderful addition to Delhi’s cultural landscape. Delhi is short of beautiful auditoriums that can host cultural and literary events,” says Dalrymple. “I could not have got a better setting for the launch of my book,” says Dalrymple, who along with co-author, Anita Anand, presented photographs, paintings, and illustrations from the book, which traces the story of the world’s most coveted diamond.
Post Independence, princely palaces in Delhi became victims of India’s outright rejection of its colonial legacy. As a result, very few Delhiites know the history of the palaces, some of which became government offices, courts, bus terminals.
“I always thought they were like any other government building. But the restoration of Bikaner House got me interested in their history. These palaces are so grand and give a peek into the lives of erstwhile royalty,” says Smriti Goyal, 45, an artist, who visited the restored Bikaner House with his children. “Princely palaces are an integral part of the city’s history. They must be restored and converted into public spaces.”
In 2007, the Union tourism ministry came up with a plan to turn the area around India Gate lawns into a world-class museum hub. The proposal made a case for shifting all government offices in India Gate area and convert them into theme museums. The ministry made a pitch for converting Baroda House (presently the Northern Railway headquarters) into Rail Museum, the Princes Park defence officers’ hostel into Space Museum, Patiala House (currently district court) into War Museum, but nothing came out of that proposal.
Ironically, while the government has put up information boards outside former princely palaces such as Patiala House and Baroda House with QR codes for more information about their history, nothing has been done to conserve them. The history of the grand royal residences was well documented in a recent book Princely Palaces in New Delhi, by Sumanta K. Bhowmick. Full of anecdotes, it gives insights into the lives of the royal families who lived in these houses for a couple of weeks in February when they come to Delhi to attend the meetings of the Chamber of Princes.
Conservation architect Lambah says that the restoration of Bikaner House was quite a challenge. “I must give a lot of credit to the Rajasthan chief minister. She had a very clear vision about what she wanted Bikaner House to be. The idea of converting what had served as a bus stand into a cultural hub was quite a challenge. We needed to restore the building to its old glory and bring in freshness at the same time. I did a lot of archival research to understand the original intent of the building,” she says.
The restoration of Bikaner House seems to be spurring a change. Taking a cue from the restoration, the Kerala government plans to turn Travancore House, an eight-acre property on the Kasturba Gandhi Marg, into a cultural hub. The government offices operating out of the place, including that of resident commissioner, have been shifted to Kerala House on Jantar Mantar Road.
The government of Kerala has sanctioned ₹4.1 core for the restoration of Travancore House built in 1930 as the Delhi residence of the ruler of the erstwhile state of Travancore.
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Its façade, built in neo-classical style, has been restored. “We want to convert it into a cultural space that will host art exhibitions, have an Ayurveda centre and host a range of cultural activities,” says Vishwas Mehta, resident commissioner, Kerala. “Conservation experts have approached the government. We are considering their proposals,” adds Mehta, who visited the Bikaner House to understand the nuances of restoration
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