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