... or why we should(n’t) put the nose back on the Sphinx.
The merits - or otherwise – of historical conservation was the subject of a splendid debate last week at the Foreign Correspondents Club in Delhi.
In one corner was Sam Miller, BBC man and author of Delhi: Adventures in a Megacity, who argued in favour of a gentle sort of conservation that quietly shored up picturesque ruins, preserved only what was genuinely historical without replacing lost elements or incorporating new additions, and that paid full regard to the importance of personal memory and nostalgia. In a sentence, his position was perhaps that old places should feel old.
In the other corner was Ratish Nanda, project director at the Aga Khan Trust for Culture, who contended that the original intent of the creator was the most important factor in preservation, and that on occasion it was appropriate to use traditional skills and materials to restore a site to its original state. In other words, old places could be best served by becoming new again.
The main example both men discussed was the area around Humayun’s Tomb, a sixteenth century world heritage site in Delhi, where Ratish Nanda has been leading a major programme of conservation. His work has been criticised for ‘too much use of the paint pot,’ with formerly crumbling Mughal buildings becoming suddenly dazzling white and red. He showed us a number photos to illustrate the work he has been doing (drawing some gasps of horror from the journalists in the audience):
It was easy to sympathise with those who chorused the restored buildings looked too bright, too new, too like images (as Sam Miller said) on a chocolate box lid.
But Ratish Nanda explained that years of substandard restoration work to the buildings – often using cement – had led to waterlogging, structural cracks, and corrosion. After extensive research, his team had removed the ill-advised materials, and uncovered and repaired many original features. Nowhere had been painted – the bright whites and reds were coloured plaster which exactly replicated how the Mughals themselves had first decorated the buildings. After two or three monsoons, the colours would soften and start to look more mellow and appropriate. But Ratish had resisted calls for the plaster to be made ‘biscuit’ coloured from day one, as white and red was the authentic scheme.
Sam Miller maintained his position that such extensive restoration was a kind of fakery. At the very least he argued that any new materials or repairs should be clearly marked, so that people knew what was original and what was contemporary work. Ratish Nanda agreed that, in some cases, simply preserving what was left would be the best option. But so much of Humayun’s Tomb had survived the centuries, and it was so significant a site and so well-documented, that full restoration in this case, he argued, was the most appropriate action.
After all this discussion and dispute on Humayun’s Tomb, the two men did agree on one thing: neither of them would put the nose back on the Sphinx.