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she had started her journey as a conservation architect 20 years ago, and it was no smooth ride. Young and ambitious, Lambah had landed in Mumbai after graduating in architecture from the School of Architecture & Planning in 1993. But conservation was not even a recognised field back then
What do you do?
Lambah’s Mumbai-based company has worked on a range of projects across India, along with other conservation architects, archaeologists, museum designers and historians. Among the many feathers in her cap are helping conserve 15th-century Buddhist temples in Ladakh and Hampi; preparing masterplans for ancient Buddhist sites in Bodh Gaya and Ajanta Caves, Shimla’s Viceregal Lodge, Raj Bhavans in Nainital and Kolkata; and giving old palaces in Gwalior, Hyderabad, Indore and Patiala a facelift.
Abha Narain Lamba is an ardent protector of Mumbai’s architectural heritage. Lambah’s work in Mumbai covers a range of colonial buildings. She was involved in restoration work for the Municipal Corporation headquarters, judicial buildings of Mumbai, Asiatic Library & Town Hall, Bandra Railway Station, Royal Opera House, University of Mumbai, J J School of Art, Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya, Mani Bhawan Gandhi Sangrahalaya and Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus, among other places. She recently won many accolades for her ongoing work on restoring the Jyotiba Phule Market, popularly known as the Crawford Market, a hub of fruit and food products. This is the market a common man turns to in Mumbai for cost-effective food items.
As a conservation architect, Abha’s job is far removed from the glitz and glamour of, say, the fashion or film world.In her spacious Carter Road apartment, which is littered with knick-knacks collected from her travels to different parts of the world, Abha talks about her love affair with old buildings… and her indifference to the ultra-modern buildings that are steadily changing the city’s skyline.
What did you study? How did you end up in such an offbeat, unconventional and unusual career?
“During my postgraduate years in the School of Planning and Architecture at Delhi, I was greatly influenced by Joseph Allen Stein, and the concept of rescuing and preserving old buildings,” she says, referring to the US architect, who made India his home, and was awarded the Padma Shri.
For an architect, the creation of a building is a work of art; the building itself is a reflection of the ego, the self. But by choosing this niche for herself, Abha had to put aside her ego, and work with the plans laid down by someone else.
“I don’t see this as a problem,” she grins. “It’s a challenge to work with the original plans. Even if the client wants to modernise the building, my job is to ensure that the shell, at least, remains untouched, and keep the architect’s vision in mind.”
Architecture just happened to Abha: “I always wanted to be a writer.” But with six books to her name, she has managed to keep that dream alive.
What do you love about your job?
am left wondering if the common man on the roads of Mumbai even understands the importance of her work for the city. Lambah’s reply is quite heartening. “Once I was travelling in an autorickshaw. When the driver got to know that I was responsible for restoration of the Bandra Railway Station, he was overwhelmed; he went on and on showering praises for the kind of work I was doing. Contrary to general perception, the common man is the most supportive of preservation. They are the people who have grown up seeing these buildings; they share a bond with these buildings; they want them intact; they want them standing.”
And though she’s been in the city for only 13 years, her knowledge of Mumbai would put even the original Mumbaikar to shame. “Mumbai is my home,” she says stoutly. “As a child, because of my father’s work, we were always on the move. Delhi, Chandigarh, Jammu, Kolkata…. But now I am here.” And with a husband and daughter, Abha doesn’t look like she’s going to pack her bags in a hurry. But the constant relocation during her childhood years has given her the poise and the confidence, which many covet.
And while she’s supremely confident about her work and the impact she has, Abha doesn’t believe that she’s managed to straddle home and work life. “God, I’m no super-mom. I’m nothing like my sister who drops her daughter to school, organises parties for her friends…” she tapers off. But the black and white pictures of her husband and daughter that adorn the side table tell a different story. “I’m not the typical wife my Punjabi husband could have imagined. I’m not even fair,” she laughs.
Abha’s family is originally from Kashmir. “We used to visit my grandparents there during our holidays, but we were forced to leave, and I haven’t gone back. My mother, too, hasn’t been ‘home’ for 20 years.” But if there are memories and a feeling of wistfulness, Abha doesn’t let on. The here and the now are what’s important. “And there are enough projects to keep me occupied.”
What are the challenges you face?
Back on familiar territory, Abha talks about her new challenge – the BMC building. “I’ve been awarded the contract, and I can’t wait to restore that building, from the years of damage and ill-treatment it has been put through.” Images of Abha tackling paan stains come to mind. But the work, of course, goes beyond giving one of the city’s most important buildings a good scrub. It would involve an inspection, a diagnosis, an analysis of the structure, before actually getting down to the nitty-gritty.
How does the future look for conservation?
It comes as a surprise, but Abha insists that things have never looked so good for Mumbai’s heritage buildings. “Over the last 10 years, there has been an attitude change. The government is finally realising the importance of preserving the city’s buildings. The allocation of Rs15 crore in the budget this year was a watershed moment.”
Her dream project would be the restoration of Opera House. “It’s such a stunning building. Restoring the building would be a dream come true for me.”
And yes, Abha believes that buildings have the power to communicate. “Each building has an intrinsic character. Take the BMC building for instance,” she says. “There’s no garden or lawn leading up to it. It’s out there, interacting with the people – and that’s the way a municipal headquarters should be.
“Take the Louvre in Paris. I don’t think the glass pyramid takes away from the beauty of the building.” It would be a lesson in history to have Abha as a tourist guide. “Yes, I’m the unofficial guide, when we do manage to go for a holiday together. We recently went to Istanbul. For my mother, it’s as close to Kashmir as she’s going to get.” Abha’s dream is to renovate and live in an old heritage bungalow. “But that can wait. There’s too much to do right now.”
From the windows of her third floor apartment, you get a clear view of the end of the Carter Road promenade. But it’s not a picturesque view – the years of depredation cannot be erased easily. “Things are getting better,” she says gently. “It’s only when we lose something, when we realise that our heritage is fading, that we will work towards conserving it.”