Edited Excerpts From An Interview
What got you interested in heritage to start with?
I was born in the old city of Delhi — our office was in Chawri Bazar. People would often come to us with their old steel vessels. They wanted to sell them to buy new ones. In Kinari Bazar, women would come and sell their old saris to buy new ones. I saw all this while growing up — how beautiful old objects and artefacts were being sold as scrap. In the 1970s, I also met Mulk Raj Anand and he inspired me to start something to do with heritage. So I established the Sanskriti Foundation in the late ’70s and never looked back.
How did you wear so many hats at once — head of INTACH, Sanskriti Foundation, the Sanskriti Awards?
My major capacity is to act as a catalyst. So I felt it was important to hold the hands of creative people. That’s how I started the Sanskriti Awards. And yes, I was head of INTACH in Delhi for 15 years.
You were one of the first in the country to display everyday objects as art. How did that happen?
I started collecting everyday objects, especially since I had seen them getting sold while growing up. The thought translated into my first Museum of Everyday Art in 1984. People who came and saw this said they never realised these everyday objects could be seen as art.
In the museum where pottery is exhibited, you have the mud from that area also on display. What is that about?
The idea is to accord respect to our craft skills. These are skills handed down to us. My approach with Sanskriti has always been hands-on, which is why at Sanskriti, we’ve written down what the word actually means. It means the process of cultivating, and heritage is its fruit.
Conservation projects are increasingly ending up in court. You’ve taken on the Delhi government to take the metro underground in key heritage zones and won. How did you do it?
I took up the cause of taking the Delhi Metro underground and filed a public interest litigation (PIL), fighting which is also an art. To start with, you need to have a dialogue with different sets of people. With journalists to create public opinion around the issue you are raising. With authorities concerned about the problem. It’s also good to run a signature campaign with eminent people signing it. You need to have a lot of patience. It cannot be an act of pure emotion. It requires a lot of careful calculation and you need at least a year of sustained campaigning to succeed. I have won seven PILs — including removing a police memorial at Shantipath in Delhi that was proposed to be higher than India Gate. I fought a case 12 years ago against the Shahi Imam of Delhi, who wanted to build an ugly building for washing hands on the steps of the Jama Masjid. Abhishek Manu Singhvi won that case for me. In the case of the metro, I met E Sreedharan, who was heading the metro project. He said there were no funds to take the metro underground. I went to the Director General of the Archaeological Survey of India at the time and suggested that he call a meeting of 20 key people from the city and ask them to make a presentation on what can be done. I asked for a population analysis to be done to figure out how a detour could be planned so that the metro would not go around the heritage part of the city. I ran another signature campaign and went to the press with a letter to the prime minister. Eventually, the Rs 300 crore required to take the metro underground was released.
You need to be able to have the tact to deal with the government and also fight them when necessary. There are lots of good people working in the government whose better sense you can effectively appeal to. I had a lot of support in my PILs from within the government.
Why should a generation that lives in a plastic culture care about heritage?
I’m not against anything new. But I tell people that if you have a core strength, you should be able to absorb new trends — malls, chain stores etc, and make them your own. Otherwise you create a disconnect. The key thing is assimilation without being overtaken by what is new.