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‘Spreading awareness and involving local people is an integral part of heritage conservation’

Aditya Jain, who has been involved in the documentation of heritage sites in Ahmedabad, shares how his alma mater AIT-SAP helped develop his interest in conservation

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Aditya Jain with his wife Foram Bhatt

An educator, conservation architect and entrepreneur–Aditya Jain, an alumnus of Apeejay Institute of Technology—School of Architecture and Planning (AIT-SAP), dons many hats. As part of his journey, he has closely worked with state and national-level heritage conservation bodies. The Ahmedabad-based architect says conservation was something he was passionate about since college. He was also involved in Ahmedabad’s Unesco nomination process for World Heritage City and continues to work towards preserving its rich heritage. The assistant professor at Indus University and consultant, Ahmedabad World Heritage City Trust, gives us the deets about his work in an interview. Edited excerpts:

What memories do you have of AIT-SAP? What kind of exposure did it provide?

After the counselling, I got the opportunity to enroll in another college in Lucknow. But I was always inclined towards Apeejay since I knew some seniors and friends from the college. Luckily, I got admission there. The best part of my time at the campus were the interactions we had with our seniors and faculty. Besides, the extra-curricular activities kept us actively involved, especially those associated with the National Association of Students of Architecture (NASA India). From the first to the fifth year, I was part of Louis I Khan (LIK) trophy, as a team member and then as a leader. That was a turning point in my life. Because of this exposure to dealing and working with heritage sites, I got a clearer insight and my orientation towards a master’s degree in Conservation developed. It was all possible because of the environment we got at AIT-SAP, unlike many other institutions. 

Tell us about your work with the Ahmedabad World Heritage City Trust.

When I came to Ahmedabad in 2011 to pursue my master’s degree, the course itself was designed for the preparation of the Unesco nomination of Ahmedabad as World Heritage City. Ahmedabad was recognised as a World Heritage City in 2017. My wife and I were both part of the nomination process. We continued our association by working with Ahmedabad World Heritage City Trust (AWHCT). Since 2019, we have been working as consultants with the Trust for the documentation of more than 2200 listed heritage sites. Meanwhile, we founded our own firm called Credo Architects in 2016 as a proprietorship firm which has now been converted into a partnership. Currently, we are also working with Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH) in Bhopal and Delhi in the Architecture Heritage Division.

What has the experience at Ahmedabad been like?

Ahmedabad is a living city. The houses we go to document are inhabited by people. So, we need to make them feel comfortable to allow the team to come to their house and spend three to four days documenting. The city culture is such that at most of the places, the owners are usually very warm and hospitable. We have been working in a particular area in the city for more than two years now, so wherever we go, people recognise us by our faces.

Are there challenges?

There are a lot of challenges. The biggest challenge is to make people feel comfortable about the entire process. We cannot just walk into someone’s house. We have to talk to them and convince them that our work would only add value to the building which, in turn, is part of a World Heritage City. There are times when people feel offended and do not want any intrusion. So, we must be patient enough to handle these situations.

Do you face any challenge in getting skilled professionals for your work?

Not in Ahmedabad, which is a very well-established centre for architecture learning. The work entails spending hours on-site in scorching summers. So, they come mentally and physically prepared. Architects from other parts of the country like Madhya Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Haryana, etc, have also joined our team. As a city with rich culture and heritage, Ahmedabad has always been very fascinating to researchers.

How important is private participation for heritage conservation? What is the way forward to ensure better involvement?

It is very important. For a lot of owners, about three-fourths of them, these heritage sites are more of a liability because of their own financial difficulties. They try to demolish or sell off some of those artifacts. Finding funds to restore or preserve heritage buildings is a task.

The government has introduced incentives. So, if the property you inhabit is 80-100 years old, you can convert it into a bed and breakfast or a café where you can generate income. A part of this can go into the maintenance of the building while providing sustenance to the owners. Another model is the adaptation of heritage sites by corporates. Besides, a lot of public participation is also required when it comes to sensitising people about the importance of preserving heritage. As consultants, we do events where we put up an exhibition or a small play or organise a walk to make people aware of their valuable heritage.

While restoring a heritage structure, how do you ensure to keep its aesthetics intact?

The guidelines are already set for such interventions. We have a grading system for heritage structures in Ahmedabad—grade 1, grade 2A, grade 2B, and grade 3–which decides the degree of intervention. However, the façade and the spatial organisation are two things that you cannot disturb. In grades 1 and 2A, you are only allowed minimum intervention. Grade 2B allows some alterations in the structure like adding interior walls, toilets, etc. In grade 3, you are allowed major changes. These guidelines ensure that the authenticity and integrity of the heritage structure are not hampered.

Indians tend to take heritage sites and monuments for granted. Are awareness programmes gradually changing that behaviour?

Spreading awareness is an integral part of the conservation process. The objective is to inculcate a sense of belonging towards heritage properties. One has to take care of the monuments just as they take care of their house. For instance, we recently conducted a cleanliness drive at a stepwell in Bilhari, Madhya Pradesh, where we involved the local youth. The initiative was very well-received. So, the more inclusive the process is, the more will people value heritage sites.

How do you look at your overall journey?

The journey has been wonderful. I have had some amazing experiences. After being a part of good projects, I moved to academics with the purpose of sharing my knowledge with younger generations. Now I am encouraging students to take up more documentation-related exercises. It has been a fulfilling journey, and one of the best parts of that is having my lovely life partner as my business partner and colleague as well.

Disha Roy Choudhury is a Principal Correspondent at Apeejay Newsroom. She has worked as a journalist at different media organisations. She is also passionate about music and has participated in reality shows.

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