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Conservation architect Abha Narain Lambah, who is working on restoration of the municipal head office building, the Bombay High Court building and the Crawford Market roof, is also working on Grade I monuments in Punjab as well as on the Teen Murti Memorial in Delhi. At an Idea Exchange, she speaks about finance for conservation of private heritage buildings, about the need to alter government policies on these structures and more. Excerpts:
SHAJI VIKRAMAN: How do you make heritage buildings more accessible to the public? The Convocation Hall, for example. Common Mumbaiites still cannot gain access inside.
We completed the (work on) Convocation Hall 10 years ago. That’s the first time I insisted that there will be an annual maintenance contract given out and that continues to date. Basic maintenance is very important for public buildings. We also said the university should open it for cultural performances.. there was a (Hindustani classical vocalist) Shubha Mudgal concert, some TV shows happened there, the German Chancellor was hosted there. So the university was earning some money meant to go back into the corpus for maintenance. But that was 10 years ago — when you do a conservation project it is like giving up your baby for adoption. How the foster parents look after it is up to them.
SHALINI NAIR: Why is it that in Mumbai, barring a few public buildings, most of the heritage buildings are in a complete state of disrepair? What is lacking in the policy?
There are two things. In Delhi, for example, pretty much every historic site is government-owned and its repair falls under the purview of a government organisation. Unlike Delhi and other cities, in Mumbai, the bulk of our heritage buildings are private or trust-owned. And the biggest bane has been rent control. Politically, there has been no will to scrap rent control because vote bank politics would never allow it. But because of that problem we have had tenants not responsible for maintaining the building, the owners don’t get enough money to put it into restoration and it creates this logjam where everybody thinks they can spend Rs 10,000 per square ft on the interiors of their office but they will not spend even Rs 2 to maintain the staircase that leads to their office. The government must fix the maintenance responsibility equally on the tenants, either through amendments in rent control or at least some incremental change in rental values for commercial buildings. Also, there are no financial support mechanisms for privately-owned buildings. There are no soft loans for old buildings’ maintenance, no incentives and getting even permissions is terrible.
SHUBHANGI KHAPRE: In the previous Assembly session, the government said there were massive space constraints. Government offices in heritage structures are finding it difficult to go for expansion, they are seeking more FSI. How do heritage laws come in between?
It is only in our country that we feel that we feel it’s a problem that we are in a heritage building. If you were in a heritage building in Central London, you would command a premium. Second, our policies are so crazy that under MHADA’s cessed buildings reconstruction norms, Grade III buildings can be demolished and reconstructed. So you have lost out on Grade III buildings that lend to the urban character. Policies need to be changed. Consider the MHADA Repair Board, which looks after these tenanted cessed buildings. When you walk around, whether in Gamdevi or Girgaum or Mhaterpakady or Kalbadevi or Mahalaxmi, in Mumbai’s architectural vocabulary there will be cast iron railings, Burma teak rafters, Minton floor tiles. MHADA has no specifications regarding replacing Minton tiles with either Minton or even Bharat Tile. No provision for replacing Burma teak with Burma teak. Or replacing a cast iron jaali with cast iron. So by the time you take a typical Khotachiwadi building and go through MHADA repair board, the building will not look the same. Repairs through the repair board’s permissions simply mean the end of the building as you knew it. These are policy issues.
TANUSHREE VENKATRAMAN: Residents in Chembur are wary of their precincts getting the heritage tag. How do you allay their apprehensions and encourage them to embrace the heritage tag?
If getting a heritage tag will not get them any funding or incentives and instead force them to stand in line for every small permission, they will oppose it. If the government announces incentives for people whose buildings will come under the heritage tag and and single-window time-bound permission for work in their buildings, people will ask for the heritage tag. Who would not want to buy a flat in a heritage building or rather in an airy Shivaji Park building that still has the old carpet area and front garden view. Everyone knows the quality of life is better in heritage precincts, but the issue is the policy that does not give incentives to people living in heritage buildings.
SHALINI NAIR: How are the architecture sites in Mumbai unique as compared to their Delhi or European counterparts?
Mumbai has been the Gateway of India even to architecture. You can see it in the Portuguese buildings in INS Angre on the eastern front, which is sadly closed to public. On the Victorian neo-Gothic buildings, remember that in the 1870s and 1860s, the capital was Calcutta and Bombay was not getting imperial funding. So it is amazing that there was so much innovation. Then governor Henry Bartle Edward Frere decided to auction lands and the auction money was used to build civic buildings like the Bombay High Court, the secretariat and other civic buildings. At that time, the greatest architectural style in vogue was Gothic because architects Budgen and Ruskin said that was the English style but Calcutta was then being built in the neo-classical style. Bombay became the pioneer in design and began building in Gothic tradition, followed by Shimla and Matheran. In the 1920s, the Backbay Reclamation scheme was visionary and it was only in 1930s that Art Deco comes into Bombay. Bombay has always been an international city looking at international style. Art Deco was emerging the in Tel Aviv and Miami and at the same period in Bombay. The city was at the cutting edge of design.
ALAKA SAHANI: The theatre and studios in South Mumbai especially are of such heritage value. Is there any proposal to restore them?
Theatres are the unfortunate casualty of time but have such fabulous heritage. Edward Theatre, Liberty, Eros, Regal are such great heritage structures but some of them were not even listed as heritage structures till 2012. Unfortunately, these theatres cannot compete with the mutiplexes of today, with their recliner seats and ACs and so people stopped going to these theatres. As a private owner of such a theatre, you ran into losses for 10 years. But there was no policy to restore these buildings and one cannot change the land use or lower the capacity less than a fraction. With no one pumping money into them, so many theatres shut down as they were not viable. Under the cultural policy, we plan to revive Marathi and Parsi theatres. Let’s also revive the physical theatre structures that were the wombs of the theatre movement. There is a need for more discussion and deliberation between theatre owners and government.
SMITA NAIR: In 10 years, will we see the death of balconies in the city?
Balconies of old buildings are the first features that get damaged structurally. They sag and they are propped up and eventually when nothing works, they are removed. And in new buildings, you hardly find balconies. You don’t see people sitting out. Another thing we are missing out on are the high ceilings. When I first came to Bombay and was living in a decrepit building on Napean Sea Road, there was a wooden ceiling almost 20 ft high. It gave a sense of space. The new flats adhere to the bare minimum height required for human habitation. I wonder where the Burma Teak rafters are gone and also the sloping roofs. They were found all over the Island city — the terracotta tiled roof — but they are also slowly disappearing.
ANJALI LUKOSE: When you see forts in other cities and here, the condition in the latter is bad. Why?
In Mumbai, the Archeological Survey of India only has Sion fort and Vasai fort, all others are owned by state. Look at the slum encroachments in Mahim fort. All secretaries are so busy. For improving the condition of that fort, you need municipal commissioner, MHADA’s CEO, SRA in-charge because the slum needs to be moved, you also need secretary of culture, director of archeology, and
urban development secretary. Will they be able to have such a meeting together to work on the fort?
SMITA NAIR: Is there any heritage place in Mumbai that people do not know about?
Almost every artefact in Mumbai has been written about. There is, however, one such amazing Portugese sundial and gateway with statues of men wearing pantaloons with one man holding a globe inside the INS Angre Townhall. We will never get to see it as it is in Naval territory. The Eastern side of the city seems to end with the Naval dockyard wall and we never get a glimpse of what is happening inside. When I and Sharada Dwivedi were writing a book on Naval heritage we were worried if the Navy would approve as we had put up pictures and aerial views of the area. The Vice Admiral, however, said we could go ahead. What we should get as citizens are more opportunities to get into these areas. There are some buildings and a lovely fountain gifted by Cowasji Jahangir inside INS Aswhini beyond Afghan Church that no one gets to see. The non-Navy people do not go to this side and a lot of Naval heritage goes unseen.