As conservationists work feverishly to restore parts of Humayuns Tomb,the 16th Century monument and a World Heritage Site in the heart of New Delhi,to its original glory,the new look due to fresh coats of lime plaster has sparked a debate in heritage circles. Conservationists,heritage enthusiasts and historians are sparring over the authenticity of ruins,whether a ruin should look like a ruin.
In a letter to conservationists,historians and heritage enthusiasts,artist Anjolie Ela Menon raised an alarm: The great tomb of Humayun is virtually being desecrated with white paint. At this wonderful world heritage site,the North Gate and a beautiful wall on the East have already been totally painted white! The inside of the arches surrounding the tomb are also being painted stark white.
Over-zealous restoration will destroy the mellow aesthetics of the hallowed ancient stone. Unlike stone which grows more beautiful with age,this white paint will eventually peel and fall apart leaving an utter mess and in need of periodic maintenance and is already an aesthetic nightmare, she wrote.
Her mail triggered a chain response and Menon told Newsline on Wednesday: The purists say I dont know what I am talking about. I am ready to be proved wrong. I am told it is not white paint but lime plaster. But the fact remains that the North Gate and the eastern wall looks like a freshly painted PWD building. I am sure conservationists working on the site have researched well but they seemed to have gone too far in giving it a completely new look.
Historian Nayanjot Lahiri echoed Menons concerns,saying the monument with its fresh plaster looks hideous. When you do lime plaster,it should be made to look a little weathered instead of appearing bright white. Why cant the lime plaster be done in such a way that it looks as it it already has a patina?
The Aga Khan Trust for Culture (AKTC) has been working on the monument since 2008. Ever since,a million kilogram of cement concrete has been removed from the roof laid there during the 20th Century to prevent water seepage officials said it only ended up accelerating the decay process.
Ratish Nanda,Project Director,AKTC,said: There is absolutely no white paint being used anywhere at Humayuns Tomb. What appears as paint is in fact a 1 mm coat of lime plaster mixed with marble dust. The Mughals used it here and even at other stone buildings such as the Diwan-i-Aam at the Red Fort to give a marble like appearance to plaster/red sandstone. The white coat of plaster also serves as a protective layer to the lime plaster below in which organic additives such as jaggery and bel fruit pulp ensure patina returns quickly.
Nanda said the efforts to remove cement layers and replace these with traditional lime plaster layers used by the Mughal builders,including the significant final layer,will no doubt give a new look until a few good monsoons restore the dignified patina.
It will ensure better preservation by protecting the underlying layers and allowing the porous sandstone to breathe which the impervious cement layers did not,and which resulted in accelerated deterioration, he said.
Architectural historian Ebba Koch,in a peer review of conservation proposals in 2010,noted: The facing of the building expresses the architectural self understanding of the Mughals and this has to serve as a guide for the restoration of the niches of the platform. I would strongly support white chunam which tunes in with the overall red and white philosophy of the structure.
Supporting the conservation technique,Amita Baig,India representative of the World Monument Fund,replied to Menon: I want to assure you that especially as this is a World Heritage Site,AKTC and ASI have ensured both technical and scientific rigor in the processes they have adopted to restore Humayuns Tomb. It is my firm conviction that in Asia we differ from the European paradigm in how we restore our sites and thus mediate the future of our culture. Culturally our monuments are a part of our here and now,unlike Europe where they are frozen in a historic past and where they are seen as artefacts and not heritage. Our monuments must be part of our contemporary culture; therefore our response requires to be dynamic and inform our conservation interventions. It is this fundamental difference which is the challenge facing our monuments and sites,many yet with policies still frozen in its 19th Century legacy of preservation; and largely orphaned.
Town planner and conservation architect AGK Menon said: It is a controversy to the extent that the monument looks different. The lime plastering is done as a protective layer. The idea of the aesthetic look comes from the British idea of appreciating a ruin. But,we must understand that our cultural response to a heritage building is very different. Why be more British than the British themselves?