Saturday, May 9, 2009

Rebirth of a landmark
After years of colossal neglect, the Indian Institute of Advanced Study has been given a fresh lease of life as the Government of India has approved a master plan to restore the Viceregal Lodge heritage complex, which houses the institute, reports Rakesh Lohumi

It was a dream of our philosopher President, Prof S. Radhakrishnan to establish a centre for higher learning where philosophers, thinkers and scientists from all over the world could come together, engage in intellectual discourse so as to contribute for the betterment of mankind. The ultimate objective was to establish its identity as an international centre comparable with the best in the world.

Naturally a grand dream requires an equally grand home to flourish. The prestigious Indian Institute of Advanced Study was, hence, set up in a beautiful building called the Viceregal Lodge, originally built as a home for Lord Dufferin, (Viceroy from 1884-1888).

But as is the wont with the dreams, unless nurtured carefully, they tend to wilt away. The historical building, housing the institute, has been on the decline due to lack of proper maintenance as little thought was given to the upkeep of the sprawling property spread over 90 acres.

In fact, the sheer splendour of this architectural marvel became its greatest enemy with successive governments at the Centre and the state reportedly eyeing the valuable property to exploit its charm commercially. Every effort was made to close it down altogether or shift it to some other place so as to pave the way for converting the heritage building into a five star hotel, which, it was pleaded, would ensure its proper preservation.

But there is much more to it than merely preserving an important monument, says Peter Ronald d’Souza, the new director of the institution that has been engaged in a protracted battle for its continuation in these hallowed premises.

The neglect of the imposing edifice was as striking as its architectural magnificence and he felt an urgent need to reverse its physical decline.

D’Souza fought a passionate battle for the proper restoration of the largest and finest institutional estate in the world. He took up the matter with the Government of India and persuaded it for undertaking a major restoration work to preserve this important heritage structure.

So the 130-year-old Viceregal Lodge is now all geared to regain its past imperial glory and ambience with the government giving its nod for the complete restoration of the magnificent heritage complex.

Crumbling heritage

Preservation of the main building, a fine specimen of colonial architecture, has been a matter of concern for past quite sometime. Crumbling stone masonry, heavy leakage from its roof and seepage has, over the years, left the monument in bad shape.

Shortsighted piecemeal measures to plug the leakage, repair crumbling walls and rectify other problems were carried out without taking into consideration the conservation aspect. Obviously these did no good to the heritage complex.

The use of different building materials down the decades, not in sync with the original ones, only undermined the original character and architectural ambience of the building. The thoughtless repair work did not help in enhancing the life of the structure or even solving the problems. It only hastened the degeneration of the grand heritage building.

"There has been an accumulation of materials and forms not coherent with the stature and overall ambience of the building," points out d’Souza, the man behind the restoration plan.

Having got the government approval, a master plan is now being prepared keeping in view the adaptive use of the complex. It will give a fresh lease of life to the structure and ensure that it needs minimal routine maintenance after the restoration.

Considering the highly technical and specialised nature of the restoration work involved, the task of preparing the plan has been assigned to Abha Narain Lambah Associates, a Mumbai-based conservation architects and historic building consultants.

Restoration of a historical complex is not only a challenge but also a great learning experience. The job will have to be taken up layer by layer so as to cover all aspects involving a wide variety of technical expertise, observes Abha Lambah.

Rescue plan

The old building with its magnificent stone masonry structure, the exquisite woodwork in Burma teak, glass work, elegant furniture, sprawling lawns and gardens, the water-harvesting system and the attic spaces designed to house the water pumps, needs special care. The variety in the interiors and ceilings of different rooms, ranging from stretched fabric to woodwork in Burma teak and walnut is nothing short of an encyclopaedia of finishes, explains Lambah.

The lodge had extensive facilities, including kitchens, separate rooms for storing table linen, plates, china and glass crockery, laundry, an enormous wine cellar, a room for empty wine cases, boilers for central heating, running hot and cold water for bathrooms. All these facilities were accommodated in a five-storey mechanical wing, situated on the site of a natural slope below the main lodge’s building. It had state-of-the-art technology, including its own steam generator, making it the first building in Shimla to have complete electric lighting. It also had running hot and cold water, together with a sophisticated system for collecting and storing bath and rainwater, including two huge underground watertanks in the front lawn.

There was an elaborate fire-fighting system with glass casing around sensors that would shatter in case of a fire to allow jet sprays of water to douse the flames. Special water tanks were also placed above the Viceroy and Vicerene’s rooms. All these features will be restored.

Lambah’s company has requisitioned the services of various experts to prepare the master plan on the basis of original drawings available with the Central Public Works Department, which has been maintaining the complex all these years. They include Elizabeth White, Director of the Attingham School and a specialist on historical British interiors and furniture, Dr Michael O. Connor, stone conservation expert, Dr Priyaleen Singh, landscape and architecture, Vijay K. Patil, structural engineering, Arup Sarbadhikary, historical structure rehab advisor, Vikas Joshi, services consultant for historical buildings, Swati Chandgadkar, glass conservator and Asavari Honavar, graphics and signage consultant. The work will start in August.

Without the large contingent of Viceregal attendants and the resources, the ambience of this large estate is quite different from what it used to be in the days of the Raj. Hopefully after the restoration the institute may get back its the perfect setting which acts like a stimulant for lively intellectual debates and discussions.

Royal past

The interiors of the 130-year-old Viceregal Lodge have some exquisite woodwork in Burma teak
The interiors of the 130-year-old Viceregal Lodge have some exquisite woodwork in Burma teak

Perched majestically atop the Observatory Hill, the imposing Victorian edifice of the Viceregal Lodge is among British India’s most monumental constructions, built in a mock Elizabethan style. The hill derives its name from Observatory House built in 1840 by Captain J. T. Boileau which later became the residence of the Viceroy’s Private Secretary. It was Lord Lytton (1876-80), who chose the Observatory Hill for constructing the building that was to be the final Viceregal address in town.

However, the man who took personal interest in the Rs 38-lakh project and persuaded Secretary of State for India Lord Randolph Churchill to sanction it, was Lord Dufferin. The annual upkeep of the complex was estimated to cost Rs 1.5 lakh. The main architect Henry Irwin designed the lodge, while the overall plan was suggested by Dufferin. Actual work on the project started in 1886 and the Dufferins moved into the new premises in July 1988, though work continued till September.

It was the venue for many important decisions, which changed the fate of the sub-continent. The momentous tripartite conference involving the Congress, the Muslim League and the British at which the blueprint for India’s Partition was finalised was held here from May 5 to 12, 1946.

After Independence the estate passed on to the President of India and was renamed as Rashtrapati Niwas. It was used by the President as a retreat just for a few days in a year. But Dr S. Radhakrishnan felt that keeping the huge complex vacant for the President, who merely spent a fortnight in it, for the entire year was a colossal waste. So he conceived the idea of setting up a unique centre of higher learning there.

The original estate extended to 331 acres . The main Viceregal Lodge building and the appurtenant 25 acres of land is to be preserved as a heritage zone and that no alteration or new construction which could effect its architectural ambience should be undertaken. The total built up area is about 3.25 lakh square feet. Apart from the main building there are 45 other structures on the campus. Its library is one the richest in the country with over two lakh books and 60,000 research journals. The institute has also been publishing books and to date it has brought out about 470 titles.