Abha Narain Lambah, Principal Architect, Abha Narain Lambah Associates
She preserves rambling old buildings and palaces and monasteries and heritage sites and temples all over the country, persuades the government to rewrite heritage protection laws, single-handedly persuades traders on a busy Mumbai road to redesign and recreate shop fronts to preserve the historical identity of the street, writes five books and a newspaper column, finds time to play mommy to her bubbly daughter, and still finds time to listen to Kishor Kumar songs and eat Kashmiri rista and pepper garlic prawns with her husband.
“I grew up in my grandfather’s home in Kashmir, a really old house. Later, I lived in Delhi, very close to Mehrauli. The idea of a weekend for me and my sister would be to pack a picnic lunch and head out with our dogs to the monuments to spend the day there. So I guess there was always a natural affinity to historic buildings. I soon enrolled at the School of Planning and Architecture (SPA) where I attained both undergraduate and postgraduate degrees.
On completing an undergraduate degree in architecture, I was determined to work with Joseph Allen Stein, who was an inspiration for me. I started as one of the junior most architects working on the India Habitat Centre (MCI). During the first week I only folded blue prints. I then gradually began working on landscape drawings. Soon, two of the senior architects took maternity leave at the same time, and that opened a world of opportunities for me. I was most excited about visiting site and soon began working on construction drawings and directly sorting issues at site.
I soon realized that there was not much being done to restore old buildings and that very few architects responded to context in their work. That is when I decided that irrespective of the kind of work I would be involved in, whether it was a new building in a historic setting such as Crawford Market, or the restoration of an old structure, context would play a critical role in my work.”
We have an embarrassment of riches in our country. Indians don’t take their heritage seriously. We are closely connected to religious buildings but public buildings are taken for granted.
Since she first set up her practice, 22 years ago, her biggest challenge has been to get policy makers to protect living buildings and not just dead sites. Last October she completed an eight-year project to restore Mumbai’s Royal Opera House, which was constructed in the Baroque style in the first decade of the 20th century.
“All these beautiful buildings in Mumbai use lime and mortar, not cement. Lime needs patience (to cure) when compared to the quick-fix material that is cement. And the bunch of workers now understands how to work only with this material. Initially, one had to explain how lime works. But now the contractors have become smarter. We use kaarigars from Jaipur to do the gilding work that has been used extensively in the Mumbai University buildings, because they are the best. There are specialists who know exactly how to use wood and iron.”
Winner of seven UNESCO Asia Pacific Awards for Conservation, Abha Narain Lambah is a young conservation architects who heads her practice, established in 1998. She has been ranked amongst India Today’s Top 50 Women for her contribution to historic conservation. She has been consultant to World Monuments Fund for conserving monuments in Ladakh and Hampi and to Global Heritage Fund for master planning of Indus Valley Sites in Lothai and Rakhigarhi. Her firm has also worked on several projects including restoration of 15th century Buddhist temples.