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The restoration man

Chetan Raikar has rebuilt a number of heritage structures. He is now working on the Taj hotel. A report by Mini Pant Zachariah.

india Updated: Dec 19, 2008 23:21 IST
Mini Pant Zachariah
Mini Pant Zachariah
Hindustan Times

By his own admission, Chetan Raikar is a short-tempered man. But his wide smile and calm demeanour camouflage this trait pretty well. Even when he talks of walking into the Taj Mahal Hotel on December 1, two days after the terrorists’ siege ended, to assess the structural damage to the building, he manages to sound calm.

“My blood boiled at the sight, at what the terrorists had done to the people and the place,” the 43-year-old structural engineer recalls. “But the only way I could fight back was by restoring the Taj to its original beauty.” And that’s what Raikar has been roped in to do. A civil engineer by training and the managing director of Structwel Designers and Consultants, Raikar’s team is busy with the structural audit of the 109-year-old hotel which bore the brunt of the terror attack from November 26 to 29.

By a strange coincidence, for the past seven years, Raikar’s firm was engaged in restoring the Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus. The sloping roofs and flat terraces have been repaired to add life to this “living world heritage structure that sees three million people cross its precinct everyday”. Raikar’s 175-strong team has been busy with the conservation of the external walls made of 13 different types of stone, and the exquisite stained glass windows. Fifty-eight people were gunned down at the busy railway station on the night of November 26, but there was very little damage to the 120-year-old structure.

Restoration runs in the family. His father, Ramesh Raikar, was head of Structwel Designers and Consultants for 41 years until his death last year. As recently as 2002, the company restored the iconic Rajwada in Indore that was destroyed in the arson that followed Indira Gandhi’s assassination in 1984.

Raikar may have inherited the passion for structures and science from his father, but he owes his natural musical talent — he plays the mouth organ, flute and harmonium — to his mother, one of whose family members was a radio artist.

There are purists who carp that Raikar is not a conservation architect and hence not qualified to undertake conservation of heritage buildings. To counter these, Raikar has enrolled for a master’s course in conservation at the University of Heriot-Watt in Edinburgh. Earlier, in 1987, he had done a six-month course in materials testing and non-destructive testing at the Indian Institute of Technology, Mumbai which involved the testing of archaeological materials like lime, stones, etc.

But Raikar feels that degrees are just an academic seal on what he has learnt from the experience of having worked on projects like the conversion of the 475-year-old Goa secretariat building in Panaji into a fine arts centre, the restoration of the Cabo de Rama Fort in Canacon in south Goa and, of course, the restoration of the Mumbai mayor’s bungalow abutting the Arabian Sea.

That project involved Raikar in a controversy when he installed a lift in the renovated bungalow in 2005 at a cost of Rs 10 lakh. Objections were raised to the squandering of public money on the elevator, but Raikar is firm, “If even one visiting dignitary, someone like former prime minister Atal Behari Vajpayee or Nobel laureate Mother Teresa, uses it once, it is justified to install a lift there.”

Ask Raikar about the extent of damage at the Taj or the time it will take for the heritage structure to be restored and his lips are sealed. “All I can say is that there is nothing that cannot be restored back to its original glory.” That is reassuring.