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Another string to his bow

IT was in his second year of architectural school in Delhi that Ratish Nanda found his Karma, or calling.

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''I firmly believe I have my Karma,'' he says, ''and that if I perform my Karma, God will be happy with me.'' He talks of his discovery of building conservation almost as if it were some kind of religious conversion. ''Conservation has changed my life. For me it is sacred. You are dealing with someone else's work. You have to put your own ego to one side. There's a strange satisfaction which keeps propelling you. ''We have so much to learn from old buildings, besides their historic value. They are a link with the past, and any society which breaks its links with the past will not progress at all. Old buildings are somehow so much better than new buildings. It is partly that so much love, as well as pain went into them.'' Nanda graduated three years ago from the TVB School of Habitat Studies in New Delhi, aged 22. His thesis was on the renewal of historic urban villages in Delhi, drawing considerably on the work of Edinburgh-born architect Patrick Geddes (1854-1932), who also spent time in India. It earned Ratish Nanda the Gold Medal. ''As Delhi has expanded it has incorporated 360 villages. There are no building bylaws. A lot of building work has been without restraint. These villages have become like ghettos or slums. My thesis was very much about conserving the historic character in a dense neighbourhood, without the large scale use of the bulldozer, on the lines of conservative sur-gery applied by Patrick Geddes.'' Conservation is not yet part of formal undergraduate education in India. While a student, Nanda worked as a volunteer for several hours every day, for the Conservation Society of Delhi. He took guided walks round historic parts of the city, ''to spread awareness about conservation issues among school and college students and the general public''. He travelled widely throughout northern India as a research assistant to The Agha Khan Programme for Islamic Architecture, attached to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He worked on a project documenting the beliefs, rituals, art, and architecture of Muharram in India and on an exhibition on Ritual Architecture and Urbanity, for the Triennale Di Milano. Most recently, as a consultant to the Indian National Trust for Arts and Cultural heritage, Nanda has been identifying, photographing and mapping Delhi's historic buildings. He has personally inspected and listed more than 1200 buildings, the first complete listing. He thinks that ''a shockingly small number for a city 1000 years old'', the result of a complete disregard for the city's historic buildings for more than half a century. It was on one of the guided walks round Delhi that Nanda met Edinburgh architect Benjamin Tindall. It is entirely appropriate, though perhaps no more than coincidence, that the steps behind Ben Tindall's offices close to Edinburgh Castle are named after Patrick Geddes, and feature some of his small urban open spaces, what have become known alternatively as ''urban wildlife reserves''. Nanda believes East and West have indeed a lot to learn from each other. He had already taken a close interest in the work of Scottish Heritage. ''Unlike Europe, in India conservation has yet to be formalised. There are no solid guidelines and no conservation philosophy. There seems to be a much more professional approach to conservation here, and a lot of healthy debate about practical issues such as how and with what should a building be cleaned. ''In India these sort of things probably just wouldn't be noticed. We have so much of our past with us that we don't realise its value,'' he says.

The Archaeological Survey of India has some 5000 buildings throughout the country under its protection, and State Departments of Archaeology a further 3000. The Indian National Trust, formed in 1985 has listed an additional 25,000 buildings, but most don't enjoy any meaningful protection. Securing their long term future will require the appropriate financial and planning framework, believes Nanda. He sees nothing incompatible between the economic improvement of a country with a population approaching the one billion mark, extremes of wealth, health, as well as housing, and the conservation of historic buildings. Conservation, he says, can and should, be made to pay. ''In Europe, the emphasis is on making historic buildings earn for themselves. Indian industry and commerce are now being encouraged to put money into conservation, but existing resources also need to be better managed. India's planning process does recognise conservation, but only in passing. it needs to be integrated and revised. In India things don't always work according to policy. ''It depends on having the right man, in the right place at the right time. Bombay was the first part of India where planners gave the listed buildings some kind of protection. We are hoping for it to happen in Delhi. The advantage in India is that all the crafts and skills for conservation are still alive, and available at a very cheap price. ''I have been working on the conservation of a twelfth- century building, costing a few thousand pounds, work which might have cost millions in Europe. The major challenge is to preserve those skills. ''The workload of many architects' offices is now so heavy that individual projects often don't get the attention they might deserve, the level of design is generally low and respect for what has gone before minimal. Conservation is still largely considered to be a liability.'' The Hindo Mansara Scriptures make reaching the status of a true architect a challenging but rewarding task. An architect should know the sciences, geography, music, the arts, climate, materials and be well travelled, to say the least. ''A five-year architectural education does not mark the end of the learning process but only the beginning.''

One of the most challenging and rewarding earthly tasks should be designing a new building for a historic context. His first attempt, while at architecture school, was an interpretation centre, next to a World Heritage Site in Delhi. ''It's very difficult to achieve a balance. A bland copy of the existing, historic building and, at the other extreme, completely ignoring the historic context I find equally sad.'' Once back home, Nanda sees himself possibly travelling round India, visiting the various branches of the Indian National Trust, offering to help spread the word. ''As a professional, and someone with a cause I feel I can contribute. ''India has come along way in the last ten years. Now we basically need a big outline heritage plan, a grand vision. Conservation is not yet a very public thing in India. We somehow need to make it a mass movement. I would be happy if by the end of my life we have got anywhere near that.''

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