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‘Heritage conservation should connect it to present and preserve it for future’

"The first step is to understand the context. I start with the question of why a particular structure, area, heritage," said Rahul Chemburkar.

Written by Sanjana Bhalerao | Mumbai |
December 13, 2021 1:21:02 am
Mumbai-based conservation-architect Rahul Chemburkar.

Driven by the desire to preserve forgotten relics of the city’s history, Mumbai-based conservation-architect Rahul Chemburkar is working on creating cultural heritage spaces. Chemburkar speaks to The Indian Express about his latest work.

What is heritage conservation?

Going by the definition, it is to conserve a heritage entity, which can either be an edifice, a small statue or antiquity which has come through inheritance. Thus, it becomes heritage, what we call “Varsa”, “Dharohar”. Preserving, restoring and conserving it is what we would term heritage conservation. But heritage conservation should also be connecting it to the present and preserving it for the future. If we take ENT hospital as an example. It housed offices of Bombay City Improvement trust (responsible for planning and execution of public works in Mumbai), from where the city grew. Later it was adapted to be used as a hospital. When it came to us for conservation, we had to reinstate its heritage value — preserve the architectural character and at the same time do justice to its contemporary use.

What are the approaches to heritage conservation?

The first step is to understand the context. I start with the question of why a particular structure, area, heritage. For instance, take conservation of Sion Talao (lake). I started with visiting the place and listed the original remnants and what was added over the years either incongruously or comprehensively. Then I documented the talao in its current setting. Narrative is key in heritage conservation. Everyone wants a structure to be spick and span. But that’s not heritage conservation. Technical restoration is obvious, including repairing dislodged stones, replacing stones, but what next? We start with collecting oral history. It’s about integrating heritage into today’s context. The idea of oral storytelling is important to the building up of the city’s narrative.

Documentation is scarce. We have to start documenting also, that even means taking physical measurements. Sometimes the original plan is available. And sometimes there are surprises also. Take the restoration for Cooperage bandstand, we found notes stating the name of the lamp-post companies, notes from the bandmaster and maps.

In our projects, we also document the process of conservation, which can be photographs, or small reports. At the end of the day, this documentation of the process can be used years later.

How did the Mumbai Pyaav Project come about?

I coined the term for social media to campaign for restoration of the 28-odd colonial-era drinking water fountains in the city. It started in 2008, when our firm Vaastu Vidhaan was empanelled with the BMC and we were appointed as consultants for the conservation of some water fountains. At that time, I also came across a book by historian Dr Varsha Shirgaonkar exploring the water heritage of Mumbai. What surprised me was there was no formal record of pyaavs, or water fountains, in the city. Out of interest I started noticing and documenting the pyaavs in the city, wherever I came across them. Then I was approached by a trust to restore Kessowjee Naik Pyaav, built in 1876. It was restored in eight months. From there the idea came to prepare a report to make it a ‘heritage circuit’.

Varied in form and nature, these pyaavs are spread over the city and are being conserved and revived in the form of a heritage pyaav circuit by Vaastu Vidhaan for the civic body. We are involved in documentation, restoration and promotion of these pyaavs to convert them into cultural pause spaces in the urban landscape. The drinking water dispensing system in Mumbai is unique because there is piped water supply to these fountains. Some of the fountains are even open to animals. The original designs included troughs near the base to collect water that gets spilled. I don’t want to create tombstones; the idea is to restore the water supply to these pyaavs. I am striving so that a documentary can happen around pyaavs and a book as well.

What is the Mumbai Milestone Project?

Milestones dot Mumbai’s streets and have been part of its growth for centuries. The heritage department said that they want to restore the milestones and the discussion was how to give it an identity. The zero mile was counted from St Thomas Cathedral Church in Fort, which, three centuries ago, was the centre of the city. The city has grown since. The city limits were till Sion Fort and we see these milestones till Sion. Vaastu Vidhaan along with BMC is creating a heritage circuit to map the 16 milestones that were once road markers in British India. The work is excavating, cleaning, and reinstalling them on a raised cobblestone granite platform, with an information plaque next to the stone. They will also have QR codes that will link them to an integrated BMC portal, where tourists can find more information.

What are the challenges in restoring the city’s heritage?

We marvel at big edifices, grand Gothic architecture, but neglect the small structures that also make the city beautiful. Pyaavs and milestones have the potential to become unique cultural attractions. The city needs to understand the heritage we have. We are the custodians of it. The awareness, passion, cultural and commercial importance of the heritage is increasing. For example, the community has embraced the revived Keshavji Nayak fountain renovated in 2014-15. It has become a local identity, it is printed on local grocery store brochures, and even became a venue for video shooting.

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