Profile Series: Conservationist Ratish Nanda on his efforts as Indian heritage keeper

Profile Series: Conservationist Ratish Nanda on his efforts as Indian heritage keeper

Ratish Nanda is a noted Indian conservation architect and CEO of Aga Khan Trust for Culture (AKTC), a group of agencies that work towards preserving and conserving heritage sites and monuments in 30 countries across the world. They employ over 80,000 people, all of whom are committed to improving the quality of life of communities through culture and demonstrating how conservation can help India to meet its 21st century objectives.

Through heritage projects, AKTC’s work proves that conservation has many knock-on benefits for a nation, including the creation of employment, increased tourism, educational opportunity, sanitation improvements, keeping craft skills like sandstone carving alive, and much more.

‘iGlobal’ caught up with Ratish for our Profile Series to hear about AKTC’s contribution to some of the most fascinating restorations in the world.

Delhi’s historic buildings

One of the first things Ratish did, upon graduation from studying architecture in Delhi, was draw up an inventory of Delhi’s historic buildings. He became very familiar with them throughout his studies and hoped that the inventory would go towards pitching for legislation and an active preservation effort.

“It was quite a shock to see the state in which many of our monuments have been, especially as we pride ourselves on being such an ancient civilisation, and I became deeply interested.”

After this, he travelled to the UK to study a masters in Conservation Studies at the University of York and he also spent a year working at Historic Scotland before returning. He has now been working with Aga Khan Trust for Culture for 25 years and it has been “quite incredible” in terms of fulfilling his professional obligation as an architect.

“We have been a part of the restoration of important heritage assets, which together with their urban setting, have improved the quality of life of thousands of people around the world. A lot of our conservation work is coupled with health, education, sanitation improvements in historic areas around the monuments, and these are densely populated places.”

In 2007, Ratish was awarded the Eisenhower Fellowship, after having earlier received the Sanskriti Award for Social and Cultural Achievement, Aga Khan Foundation International Scholarship and the Charles Wallace Conservation Fellowship for his contributions to the industry and nation.

The economic value

“Restoring heritage sites is much more economically valuable than we think. Not only does it bring in tourism, but it empowers local communities with jobs, prospects of education and autonomy.”

According to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO), India has less than 10,000 listed heritage buildings. This pales in comparison to the UK where over 600,000 heritage buildings are legally protected.

“The UK recognises the economic potential of heritage and its contributions to improving the quality of life in historic cities. Even New York City has three times more protected heritage buildings than all of India together.

“We pride ourselves on being an ancient civilisation with a golden age, yet when we look at the number of historic buildings that India protects, it’s miniscule because we’ve looked at heritage as a burden, rather than an economic asset. So what we’re trying to do is demonstrate that it’s not so.”

Pride projects

Ratish’s team were instrumental in the restoration of Delhi’s Humayun Tomb in March 2013, which led to an 1000 per cent increase in visitor numbers. This was also first privately funded restoration of a World Heritage Site in India, undertaken by the Aga Khan Trust for Culture (AKTC) and the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), under the National Culture Fund.

They also worked on Sunder Nursey in India’s capital, a 16th-century heritage park, spread over 90 acres and dotted with water bodies, splendid monuments, and greenery. Time Magazine recently recommended the park as “The World’s 100 Greatest Places to Visit” and it brought in over 300,000 visitors last year, even during the pandemic.

Ratish is currently leading a multi-disciplinary team implementing the Nizamuddin Urban Renewal Initiative in Delhi – a project with distinct conservation, environmental development and socio-development components and the conservation initiative in the Quli Qutb Shah Heritage Park in Hyderabad. As well as engaging engineers, architects, historians and researchers into the projects, AKTC also relies on specialists in public health, education, sanitation, urban planning, finance, and more, in order to meet the needs of the social economic projects.

“Nizamuddin has a population of 25,000 people. When we started, we found less than 1% of the local demographic had access to economic opportunity. Now there are self-help groups making food, craft products and so on. One of the groups had a turnover of almost £100,000 last year, and these are women who have never made a penny in their lives. Within each of our projects, we’ve put in a system to ensure post-project sustainability, both financial and managerial.”

Public and partnerships

“No meaningful work in the public domain can be without controversy. India over the last 100 years has been looking at conservation from a very preservation-based view. A lot of the work we’ve done has required restoration and even reconstruction which is frowned upon in India.”

AKTC works closely with the Indian government and in partnership with national bodies. Their work in Delhi is in partnership with the Centre Public Works Department, with the Archaeological Survey of India and the Municipal Corporation.

“Three different agencies with three very different mandates. We often engage academics and conduct peer reviews, sometimes more than necessary. We recently finished a conservation project at Mausoleum of Abdul Rahim Khankhana whose Hindi-dohas are still read in every Hindi publications, and we did almost 60 independent peer reviews over a five year conservation project to make sure we were doing the right thing and were being informed by a cross-section of society.”

Making conservation mainstream

Until now, conservation has been widely understood to be the responsibility of the government, and the AKTC remains the only private agency working on national monuments since it was founded over 20 years ago.

“The liberalisation that India has been through over the last two or three decades has not really touched the cultural sector. Whether it’s a musical performance or any cultural event, it’s mostly sponsored by the government. That needs to be rectified. A lot more people can do the work we do – academic institutes in partnership with the government, resident welfare associations and corporate foundations.”

There are now some steps in place by the Indian government to involve the corporate sector in the maintenance of monuments. Ratish believes the need of the hour is that the private sector gets involved in the actual act of preservation and conservation.

“Our work should be mainstream for a culture that is so ancient and historic, and hopefully it will become so in a generation or so.”

When the Archaeological Survey of India was established in India in 1861 by the colonial government, it was done so before any similar organisation was set up in the UK or anywhere in Europe.

“A lot of the early experimentation with conservation and preservation happened here in India, and it fed into the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings (SPAB) movement in the UK. Ever since independence, we’ve been in a rush to industrialise, economise, catch up, modernise, and that has been at the cost of us turning our back on our heritage.”

Oversees projects and communal harmony

India has now begun to support conservation projects officially in other countries. “We work in the USA through the US Ambassadors Fund for Preservation and have done several projects for the government of India in Afghanistan, including presently ongoing preservation on the fort of Kabul.”

AKTC’s work has required almost 1.5 million man-days of work by master craftsmen. With heritage sites seeing up to 1000 per cent increase in visitor numbers, the knock-on effect on the economy is unrelentless.

“It is important to demonstrate that heritage preservation well done can help to meet the government’s objectives. Our heritage is an economic asset. But that’s not all conservation helps to improve. There are countless opportunities in education and community building. Once we understand each other’s culture through heritage buildings, it also improves diplomacy and communal harmony.”

As an appeal, he adds: “Indians are very generous when it comes to charity or hospitals, but we don’t often think about heritage. The end benefits are countless. Whether it’s the Taj Mahal or the great temples of Khajuraho, these are today major economic assets. These are structures that are priceless, unique, and through not only tourism, but a host of other means and ways, can help India meet its 21st century objectives.”

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