Bringing the past back: A 165-year old Delhi haveli shows the way

How does one hold on to yesterday? It was time for the haveli to ring out the old and step into the new, but without compromising on its principle architectural values.

Written by Shiny Varghese | Updated: December 27, 2015 3:44 pm
The Seth Ram Lal Khemka Haveli was restored with traditional building techniques, which also gave the home a contemporary edge (Express photo by Oinam Anand) The Seth Ram Lal Khemka Haveli was restored with traditional building techniques, which also gave the home a contemporary edge (Express photo by Oinam Anand)

Conservation can sometimes turn into conversions, where reluctant non-believers are given a taste of ancient wisdom. One such convert is Deoki Nandan Bagla, 60. His grandfather’s haveli in Kashmere Gate in Shahjahanabad not only needed a new coat of paint, but a complete makeover, with glamorous marble flooring and state-of-the-art amenities. After all, his sons’ brides would arrive soon and they couldn’t be living in a house that’s nearly 165 years old, without any modern facilities.

Seth Ram Lal Khemka Haveli sits in Chotta Bazar, Delhi, with a grand imposing archway and projecting balconies onto the street, where wholesale motor parts are sold. The colonial hybrid architecture of the three-storied haveli is offset by a large courtyard that pulls all the spaces within the house closer. This had been home to Bagla’s grandparents since 1920. The traditional Marwari household had nearly 40 residents, remembers Bagla. “I was about six or seven years old and the central courtyard was where the children spent their time. It was the hub for many functions – the baraat for my wedding left from here,” he says. Today, it houses the couple and their three sons and family.

Unlike most havelis, which sit in the liminal space between the past and the present, this one would become a purveyor of conservation in Old Delhi. Architect Aishwarya Tipnis and team entered the scene to do the restoration, sympathetically, without straining the aesthetics of the space. After many rounds in and out of the offices of the Archaeological Survey of India, the Heritage Conservation Committee and the Municipal Corporation of Delhi, work began in late 2013. This was two years after Bagla finally got full possession of the co-owned house and obtained permission to work on the heritage structure. Paras Constructions in Ghaziabad came on board as contractors and interior designers for the project.

It was time for the haveli to ring out the old and step into the new, but without compromising on its principle architectural values. It would change the design compass for Bagla, who moved away from his stance of contemporary finishes to cooperate with Tipnis and her team towards honouring traditional methods of building. The most important part was lime mortar plastering. If Bagla’s intent was to preserve the memories of his childhood home, where festivals meant old songs and ghee-laden food, “the lime mortar recipe is pretty much like making a dal”, says Tipnis.

Her research led them to various craftspeople and scholars who advised on adding everything from urad dal and gur to methi seeds and bel fruit to the lime. It led to setting up a mortar mill in the courtyard. After many samples with various ingredients, a traditional lime plaster was ready to be caked on the walls. Bagla, who until then was a “cement man” became a “lime-plaster convert”, says Tipnis, as he learnt the nuances of slaked lime.

“The fireplace in the living room revealed distinct layers of traditional brickwork while foundations of 19th century walls were visible in rooms indicating that these were extended later,” says Tipnis. In many places, the cement plastering had to be removed and the masonry was allowed to breathe.

Subsequently, coats of lime mortar were applied. The family continued to live in the house as work was being done. There were other details to be managed as well, such as the cornices, which were lime plastered;the fanlights, which got new textures; stained glass windows; and the chequered black-and-white flooring, which were similar to the original.

Air-conditioning had to be fixed, and bathrooms and kitchen overhauled. Since it was a joint family, two adjacent rooms, which were used as a store and an office, were joined to make way for a large kitchen and wash area. After strengthening the structure, laying the lime concrete floor and retrofitting gadgets and amenities into the kitchen, one couldn’t tell this brand new kitchen was done without any cement.

Tipnis and her team went scouting for traditional Victorian tiles, surveying old patterns of design in already restored havelis, like the Chunamal Haveli in Chandni Chowk and even trying Jaipur Blue Pottery tiles. Finally, they arrived at Khurja, around 85 km from Delhi, where they could customise their 4×4 inches handmade ceramic tiles in blue and white. These tiles would go up on courtyard walls and in the bathrooms. Bagla’s business as a stainless steelware exporter had its benefits too. Much of the intricate grillwork on the balconies and railings were done under his supervision, keeping traditional patterns intact.

While the haveli gets the final touches, it stands testimony to the owner’s pursuit for holding on to memories and the architect’s conviction in traditional ways of building. But for Bagla, nothing has changed in his grandparents’ house, and yet everything has.

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