The ASI’s ‘modern’ practice of leaving historical buildings untouched is at odds with India’s tradition of restoration

The Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (Intach) is engaged in improving the heritage tourism infrastructure of Delhi. One of the strategies it has suggested is to restore some of the lesser known historical buildings protected by the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), such as Jahaz Mahal, a Lodhi period building; and Bahadur Shah Zafar’s palace, a late Mughal building. Both are in ruins and attract few visitors; restoring them could bring these sites into the tourist itinerary. The proposal to restore these buildings has, however, hit a wall because it challenges ASI’s core beliefs.

To restore or not to restore ruined historical buildings has been the litmus test to distinguish ‘modern’ and ‘traditional’ conservation practices, at least since the 1880s, when John Ruskin and William Morris forcefully declared that ancient buildings must not be restored. In their Manifesto for the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings, they argued that restoration would falsify the authentic characteristics of historical buildings and produce fakes. Their reasoning became the hallmark of modern conservation ideology. Subsequently, Unesco’s Venice Charter in 1964 sealed the issue by stating unequivocally that, “conservation ends where conjecture begins”. Thus, ruins are seldom restored because it involves conjecturing what the building may have looked like when it was originally built. Privileging ‘modern’ conservation ideals ensured the obliteration of traditional practices in the West; the question confronting the Indian conservation movement is whether we, too, should follow in their footsteps.

Outdated

Perhaps it is also necessary to ask what the passionate pronouncements of two Englishmen steeped in their own specific cultural milieu have to do with complex cultural conditions prevailing in India. Do we want to blunt this cultural complexity in order to conform to their dictates? This issue needs serious thought not only in the context of Intach’s proposals, but also as we celebrate the 150th anniversary of ASI. This venerable institution began surveying and recording India’s ancient monuments in 1862 and was appointed official guardian of Indian architectural heritage in 1904. This was the time when ‘modern’ conservation ideology was taking root in the West and, not surprisingly, John Marshall, the founding Director General of ASI, incorporated its ideals in his Conservation Guidelines of 1924, still regarded as ASI’s bible. So overpowering is the influence of Marshall’s Guidelines that even today, the professionals working for ASI are unable to look beyond it.

By most accounts, this severely underfunded and understaffed government organisation has done well in conserving the major monuments of our ancient civilisation, but does that record equip it to chart the future in the management of the country’s architectural heritage? Conservation ideology has evolved around the world and subsequent Unesco Charters reflect a culturally more plural attitude towards restoration: the Nara Document on Authenticity, for example, even permits rebuilding in certain circumstances. Arguably, the Indian context provides sufficient evidence of its exceptionalism to justify drafting an Indian Charter for Conservation and ensure the continuity of its unique cultural practices. In fact, Intach produced just such a document in 2004, which has generated genuine debate worldwide with conservation practitioners acknowledging the way it frames the issues at hand and attempts to address them, but the ASI has steadfastly refused to acknowledge it and continues dogmatically to uphold Marshall’s doctrines. One might consider such institutional longevity and ideological fidelity a remarkable quality in these changing times, but unfortunately it has also bred a sense of self-satisfied complacency that has insulated ASI from the world around it, and not least from the changes taking place in the discipline of conservation itself.

An honest appraisal of the question of whether or not to restore historical ruins will force the conservation movement to face the fact that we are heirs to two deep traditions of engaging with this: one introduced by colonialism, which prohibits restoration; and the traditional practices of maintenance, which have existed for centuries, which permit restoration. The Intach Charter attempted to reconcile these by identifying where one would be appropriate and where the other; its rationale underpins the proposal to restore Jahaz Mahal and Bahadur Shah Zafar’s palace. If the ASI wishes to remain intellectually relevant as the premier agency conserving the architectural heritage of the country, it must awaken from its ideological slumber to confront the challenges of Indian praxis.

Heritage of conservation

In India, both historical buildings and historical ways of building need to be conserved. Together, they constitute the architectural heritage of our society. Thus, ancient buildings are not only historical texts whose conservation has to respond to the imperatives of history writing; they are also evidence of historical architecture, whose restoration will advance knowledge of our architectural heritage.

The latter objective has seldom been explored in India and, consequently, the science of building forensics, an important subject of study abroad, remains a neglected area of concern in Indian conservation practice. Intach’s proposal to restore Jahaz Mahal and Bahadur Shah Zafar’s palace includes a consideration of building forensics and offers an opportunity not only to improve tourism infrastructure but also to provide valuable knowledge of our past.

(A.G. Krishna Menon is Convenor, Intach Delhi Chapter)

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