ONE WOMAN ARMY

With eight UNESCO awards for ef­forts in preser­va­tion, meet ar­chi­tect ABHA NARAIN LAM­BAH, the keeper of In­dia’s her­itage build­ings

Harper's Bazaar (India) - - BAZAAR - By Naresh Fer­nan­des

IF YOU CLICK THROUGH CON­SER­VA­TION ar­chi­tect Abha Narain Lam­bah’s elegant web­site, you’ll come across a map of In­dia with lit­tle red dots mark­ing the 20 or so her­itage sites she’s helped re­store over her two-decade ca­reer. They cover the en­tire ex­panse of the coun­try, from the Maitreya Bud­dha Tem­ple in north­ern Ladakh to a bou­tique ho­tel in a tea es­tate in the southern re­gion of Mun­nar in Ker­ala; from Vic­to­rian build­ings in Mum­bai on the west coast to Shan­tinike­tan in the east­ern state of Ben­gal. Lam­bah has worked in di­verse places, on a daz­zling va­ri­ety of struc­tures. Only one thing seems to unite them: “There’s no di­rect flight to get to most of those places,” she says with a laugh.

As a con­se­quence, get­ting to work has in­volved eighthour drives in ar­eas with non-ex­is­tent roads, trekking up the Hi­malayas and bob­bing along the Tung­hab­hadra in a cor­a­cle. Lam­bah’s gone ex­tended pe­ri­ods with­out proper toi­lets and clean drink­ing wa­ter, camped out with­out elec­tric­ity or cell-phone con­nec­tions, and once es­tab­lished a per­sonal record by not hav­ing a bath for five days straight.

Along the way, she’s won the San­skriti Award, an Eisen­hower Fel­low­ship, the At­ting­ham Trust Fel­low­ship, a Charles Wal­lace Fel­low­ship, and has es­tab­lished her­self as one of In­dia’s most prom­i­nent con­ser­va­tion ar­chi­tects. But more re­ward­ing by far, she says, has been the op­por­tu­nity to help In­di­ans ne­go­ti­ate a re­la­tion­ship with their past on en­tirely con­tem­po­rary terms. “We have such a mag­nif­i­cent wealth of his­toric build­ings and ar­chi­tec­tural her­itage, and yet they re­main ne­glected, aban­doned, mis­used and abused,” she says. “That is some­thing that I am very pas­sion­ate about.”

Lam­bah has a lot of say about the way In­di­ans re­late to his­tory, and, by ex­ten­sion, the her­itage build­ings she’s spent her ca­reer restor­ing. “Our con­nec­tion with our past is like a very dis­turbed child­hood kind of a story,” she sur­mises. Some In­di­ans, she says, view his­tory like “some­one who’s had an abu­sive re­la­tion­ship, hates his father, and yet he can’t deny that his DNA is from that per­son.” This is es­pe­cially ap­par­ent in the way we treat British-era struc­tures—which is to say al­most all the hos­pi­tals, courts, and rail­way sta­tions in ev­ery lit­tle town. “In an al­most Oedi­pal way, we spat­ter paan on them, we de­face pil­lars by putting up tube lights where they weren’t meant to be,” says Lam­bah. But for other peo­ple, Lam­bah thinks, his­tory is like the re­la­tion­ship we have with our mothers—“we make it holier than thou, we clad them in a white sari like Niru­pama Roy”.

This at­ti­tude re­sults in mon­u­ments be­ing main­tained as dead spa­ces. “We want to put a fence around them, not adapt them for reuse,” she says.

As Lam­bah sub­mits to ques­tions in the taste­fully ap­pointed liv­ing room of her seafront apart­ment in Mum­bai’s Ban­dra neigh­bour­hood, you’d think that the con­gested city in which she now lives, with glass tow­ers sprout­ing across its length, would be a con­ser­va­tion ar­chi­tect’s worst-case sit­u­a­tion. Over the last two decades, the city’s real-es­tate de­vel­op­ers have glee­fully pre­vailed upon politi­cians to al­low them to tear down old struc­tures across the me­trop­o­lis. But, it turns out, Lam­bah be­lieves that the fi­nan­cial cap­i­tal is that rare child who has struck a bal­ance be­tween the vi­cious father and the adored mother.

“Bom­bay is still the only city in the coun­try in which you have an in­ti­mate re­la­tion­ship with her­itage,” she ex­plains. “As a typ­i­cal Bom­bayite, there’s a nine to one chance that you were born in a hos­pi­tal that was a her­itage build­ing, that you went to school that was one. If you take a train from Ban­dra sta­tion to Vic­to­ria Ter­mi­nus, they’re both her­itage build­ings. If you have to file a com­plaint, the po­lice sta­tion and the court are also her­itage build­ings.”

Mum­bai’s den­sity, which some view as a prob­lem, is ac­tu­ally its redemp­tion. “We’re too crowded to have the lux­ury of be­ing able to close off a mon­u­ment,” says Lam­bah. “We’ve got to use ev­ery build­ing there is, be­cause of the square footage—or the lack of it. That’s why we don’t de­ify her­itage, the way they do in Delhi or Agra. We’re bet­ter at con­tem­po­ris­ing his­toric build­ings.”

Lam­bah has been fas­ci­nated by her­itage struc­tures since she was a child. One of her ear­li­est mem­o­ries is of be­ing taken to the Vic­to­ria Memo­rial in Kolkata, when she was per­haps three or four years old, and be­ing awed by its white enor­mity. (She also re­calls be­ing fed the crunchy street snack, jhaal muri, for the first time on the grounds.) Over the next few years, as her fam­ily moved through Chandi­garh, Jammu, and “just about ev­ery­where” to the last post­ing given to her govern­ment- ser vant f ather, Lam­bah com­pen­sated for the im­per­ma­nence by de­vel­op­ing an in­ter­est in ar­chi­tec­ture. “I found a great com­pan­ion in old build­ings,” she says. “I just loved go­ing away to ru­ins and ex­plor­ing them.” When she even­tu­ally de­cided to study ar­chi­tec­ture, it seemed nat­u­ral that she would spe­cialise in con­ser­va­tion.

Last year, it all seemed to come full cir­cle. Lam­bah was ap­pointed to the men­tor group ad­vis­ing on the restora­tion of Vic­to­ria Memo­rial and the nearby In­dian Mu­seum, which cel­e­brates 200 years in Fe­bru­ary. “It was bizarre go­ing back af­ter nearly 40 years,” she says. “I re­mem­ber think­ing that it was re­ally crazy.”

De­spite her hec­tic sched­ule, Lam­bah says that her zeal is far from flag­ging. “Our gen­er­a­tion has in­her­ited such a wealth of ar­chi­tec­tural her­itage and yet we are los­ing it on a day-by-day ba­sis,” she says. “If we can man­age to even save and con­serve a frac­tion of this for our fu­ture, I would feel that my work has been of some value.”

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