Conservation must improve lives: Ratish Nanda of Aga Khan Trust for Culture

Illustration by Binay Sinha
It’s just past noon. Sidewok, a pan-Asian restaurant at Khan Market in New Delhi where we’ve decided to meet over an early lunch, is empty. Soon diners will trickle in. Khan Market — originally a market-cum-residential area for Partition refugees, now often counted among the most expensive retail high streets of the world — is not far from Ratish Nanda’s “on-site office” at Sunder Nursery. 

Within six months of being opened to the public, the stunningly restored 90-acre nursery complex with water bodies, Mughal-era monuments and lush green patches was listed on Time’s 2018 list of the world's 100 greatest places to visit. Near Sunder Nursery, the Humayun’s Tomb and several other monuments within the complex that houses it are listed as Unesco World Heritage Sites — courtesy the restoration efforts of the Aga Khan Trust for Culture in India, of which Nanda is chief executive. And, across the busy Mathura Road that runs past the grand tomb is the Nizamuddin basti, where the community is reaping the benefits of the mammoth conservation exercise. While at Humayun’s Tomb the visitor numbers have increased dramatically since the restoration in September 2013, within the basti the conservation has meant employment and better quality of life for the local population.

“Conservation and development go hand in hand — you can’t have conservation by turning your back on the people,” says Nanda, as we place our order. For starters, som tum — “I don’t know why I am so hooked on raw papaya salad!” he says —to be followed by shredded lamb in hot garlic sauce (one of my favourites), Thai red curry and steamed rice.

At the Nizamuddin basti, the trust started by fixing a school as part of a conservation effort and providing a pathology lab that has served some 460,000 patients till now — which says something about the success of the initiative, that has reached out beyond the catchment community of 20,000. It built women’s toilets long before building toilets became a movement in India, created women’s parks, introduced a women and child health programme and also looked to provide economic opportunities to women. 

Nanda slides his yellow diary towards me. “This,” he says, “is made and sold by the women of Nizamuddin at Humayun’s Tomb, of course with permission from the ASI (Archaeological Survey of India), which manages the tomb complex.” On the hard cover is a pattern from the Humayun’s Tomb. Another such self-help group, Zaika-e-Nizamuddin (flavours of Nizamuddin), runs a food delivery service with recipes drawn from the area’s 700-year-old culinary heritage. The day I meet Nanda, four members of the group are in Hyderabad preparing dishes at the Park Hyatt kitchen. 

Just as we begin talking about food, the som tum arrives at our table. The papaya is fresh and crunchy, and with the peanuts and the tangy, mildly sweet dressing, it makes for a deliciously light appetiser.

His approach is understated but Nanda is clearly passionate about the work he does. “I would do this job for free,” he says. While he’d rather talk about his work than how he got into it, he relents when I ask. He studied to be an architect at the School of Habitat Studies in Delhi. “Ours was the first batch and we had a subject called Urban History. I got hooked in the very first year.” He used to live in South Extension, “but till I got into college I had never crossed over to Kotla Mubarakpur (which is less than 1.5 km away)”. The day he did, he says he was exposed to 600 years of architecture: baolis (stepwells), tombs, mosques… “I was a bit shocked. When you look around as an architect, our historic buildings in Delhi touch a chord in your heart that modern architecture doesn’t.”

As an architect, the critical question for him was: “What were they doing so different to produce this timeless architecture that we are not?” Traditional architecture, he says, is environmentally sustainable, suited to Indian weather conditions, is beautiful and it represents what we were and where we were as a civilisation.

“Architecture,” he says, “is the mother of all arts. It just started with curiosity about the city — and the possibility of being able to save even a bit of that is a blessing.”

By now, our plates have been changed and the main course is here. The lamb is perfect —tender, shredded long, and slightly on the sweeter side, with just the right amount of garlic so as not to overpower the senses. The Thai red curry is, well, just that — red curry. Though difficult to get wrong, some places tend to overdo the flavours. This one, thankfully, doesn’t. 

Around us, the tables are beginning to fill up and the chatter is getting louder. But Nanda’s focus doesn’t waiver for a moment.

A lot, he says, has changed in the sphere of conservation in India and in the attitude towards conservation since the time he started. “There is a new national policy on conservation (National Policy for the Conservation of the Ancient Monuments, Archaeological Sites and Remains) that came out in 2014. It critically recognises that our traditional craftsmen are key to any conservation effort in India.” 

This, he says, has been the trust’s vision right from the beginning. “What we are doing at the Aga Khan Trust for Culture is model projects. We are not here to take over every building in the country. We are here to demonstrate how conservation can be done and how it can lead to a lot of government objectives being fulfilled, one of which is employment creation.” At the Humayun’s Tomb, for example, 650,000 man days of work has been undertaken by craftsmen using the very tools that their forefathers used centuries ago. “Almost 75 to 80 per cent of what we spend in conservation is paid as craftsmen wages.”

The other change is that the government seems to have realised that even culture needs to be liberalised. “Culture is still seen as the responsibility of the government — of the ASI to be presice. But the government’s ‘Adopt a Heritage’ scheme is now inviting corporations and even individuals to come and fix our monuments.” Corporate social responsibility also allows for spends in conservation. “It didn’t earlier.”

Conservation of a monument cannot be limited to the monument itself. This is the crux of the restoration and conservation projects Nanda has been part of. “What we have been saying since the 1980s was ratified in 2015-16 by the Unesco, which talked about the historic urban landscape approach.” 

The trust’s ongoing restoration of the Qutb Shahi Tombs in Hyderabad, close to the famous Golconda Fort, also follows this approach. Here, besides the tombs, work has also gone into restoring the baolis. 

While the scale of the work is for all to see, its impact isn’t always measurable. Sometimes one just gets a glimpse of it — like when the community of Nizamuddin approached the trust in 2015 to undertake the conservation of their mosque after seeing the work at Humayun’s Tomb. The 14th century dargah, the resting place of Sufi saint Nizamuddin Auliya and his disciple Amir Khusro, is now being restored. “It is a live mosque and it is taking us much longer than we thought because every now and then we have to stop work for Eid, Ramzan or Urs.”

What has happened at Nizamuddin is that the way the community views itself has changed — and that, says Nanda, is how conservation ought to touch the lives of people.

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