The abundance of ancient buildings in our country seems to lull the Government into complacence on matters concerning their preservation. Official policy neglects the bulk of existing architectural heritage while professional practice becomes indifferent to the imperatives of scientific conservation. This is ironic considering that the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), which protects monuments of national importance and is one of the oldest institutions of its kind in the world, is widely respected and acknowledged to possess considerable expertise on conserving monuments.
There is accumulating evidence, however, of the steady erosion of standards. The public has become accustomed to the poor maintenance of monuments; conservationists, who have been noting this trend, were alarmed at the slip-shod manner in which ASI conducted even such an important project as the recent excavations at Ayodhya. Only part of the malaise can be attributed to the very low priority accorded ASI in budgetary allocations over the years. Paucity of resources may indeed have had a deleterious effect on the functioning of ASI, but it is a matter of record that ASI has operated as a financially constrained institution since its inception in 1904. Until recently, however, it was headed by professional conservators who commanded respect and helped build ASI's reputation inspite of budgetary scarcity. This changed in the mid-80s since when ASI has been administered as any other government bureaucracy led by IAS officers who have neither the professional knowledge nor long-term commitment to the cause of conservation. Unsurprisingly, indifferent leadership of a fiscally strapped institution has taken its toll on the standard of work now being produced by ASI.
This institutional dysfunction is on display at the Red Fort in Delhi. Delhi already has two Unesco-designated World Heritage Sites - the Qutb Minar and Humayun's Tomb - and there is compelling argument to include the Red Fort on that list. But such ambitions require that we conform to the highest international standards of conservation - a requirement that has been severely compromised by the recent attempt at 'beautification' of the Red Fort.
Heritage conservation is a complex technical process that should not be compromised by populist agendas or aesthetic trends. While ASI has the necessary technical expertise, at the Red Fort it appears to have been cowed by Ministerial dictat. The work in progress is clearly contrary to the philosophical underpinnings that guide good conservation work (including earlier ASI projects) and are articulated by Unesco charters such as the Venice Charter of 1964. According to these charters, the objectives of beautification are antithetical to the preservation of the authenticity of ancient buildings. Ancient buildings are historical records in stone and just as one would never alter an ancient manuscript - deleting lines of text or adding stylistic flourishes - so too should we refrain from distorting our architectural heritage in the name of conserving it. In concrete terms this means that, as per international standards, a ruin is often preserved as a ruin, and in all cases where contemporary intervention is necessitated either to maintain structural integrity of the monument or to add missing links, exhaustive research and expert analysis is required to establish the parameters of such intervention. Imaginative and conjectural work is completely proscribed. In the case of the Red Fort, all these fundamental principles have been violated.
After the Revolt of 1857, the Army controlled the Red Fort, only recently handing it over to a civilian authority - ASI. Until then ASI maintained only the few historic structures built by the Mughals in the Fort which were not demolished by the British when they converted it into their garrison. In celebration of the hand-over, perhaps, ASI was asked to undertake a complete overhaul and beautification of this massive edifice. There is even talk of demolishing the barracks built by the British, which would create a paradox since these buildings are over a hundred years old and come within the legal ambit of monuments to be preserved by the Government! Conservation does not distinguish between 'good' and 'bad' history, preserving some monuments while destroying others. It treats all periods of history with equal respect. But none of these issues have been the subject of debate - an essential component of good conservation practice world-wide.
On a recent visit to the Fort, I was dismayed to see old gardens being imaginatively reconstructed after all evidence of the original layout was destroyed. Such 'reconstruction' is vandalism by another name because the new layout is in complete variance with the morphology developed by the Mughals. The Mughal garden operated as a sophisticated hydrological system; one knows this because of the wealth of information revealed recently in the process of re-establishing the gardens of Humayun's Tomb. By destroying the remains of the original layout without first documenting them and disregarding the historical record in its reconstruction work, ASI has perpetuated a travesty and, understandably, provoked the ire of professional conservators.
But it is not only the gardens where the ASI has fallen lamentably short of professional standards. It has been equally callous in its restoration of the Fort's exquisite pietra dura works, where its deviation from the historical record and poor craftsmanship is less visible to non-professionals. Given the considerable advancement in techniques and technology since Mughal times, it was indeed possible to surpass Mughal achievements in the art and craft of pietra dura, but ASI did not attempt this and, in any case, such hubris would have defied the foundational principles of conservation practice. In the end, what is being achieved is a pale copy of the original.
I am not advocating a dogmatic adherence to Unesco standards and practices. Indeed, given the richness of our architectural heritage, the complexity of our socio-economic fabric and the ever-evolving discipline of conservation, there are frequently good reasons to re-examine established international norms. ASI is not seeking any such re-examination in its work at the Red Fort. Nor is it productive to flout international standards while simultaneously seeking international approval in the form of an Unesco-designated World Heritage Site. And, in all instances, contrary to popular belief, conservation does not mean beautification. If we tamper with historical record - as we are at the Red Fort - we are destroying our architectural heritage, not conserving it. In the eyes of some this folly may appear 'beautiful' but, as a civilisation, we will have accomplished nothing to be proud of.
There have been many turning points in the evolution of national consciousness, such as the Silent Valley case which catalysed the environmental movement and the Mathura rape case which galvanised the movement for gender justice. The desecration of the Red Fort - the national icon of our Independence - should similarly highlight the urgent need to change our attitudes towards the conservation of our architectural heritage.