Aman Nath, you just got back from BrandenburgischeTechnische Universität (BTU) in Cottbus in Germany, what is your connection, what were your impressions ?
Well, the pretext was architecture and restoration which took me to Cottbus because BTU is renowned for its expertise in the field. Their intervention has just led to Göebekli Tepe in Turkey being recognized as a World Heritage Site ! But with me Germany has been a part of my growing up destiny. My family was involved with the manufacture of machine tools ,and those in the high-precision area that India did not manufacture post our independence in 1947, they used to import from Europe. The German companies they represented were Dieffenbacher, Reinecker, Bruck and Treble, which were familiar names over our dinner table. We had German industrialists and engineers visit us and I was most intrigued as a child.
I had first gone to Germany when at college. It was during the world Olympics in Munich in 1972 and I remember hearing the ghastly news of the attack on the Israeli team. I stayed in Hannover with Marga Schmidt from the Goethe Institute in New Delhi. She called me her god child as she had remained single after the World War because there were no men left ! My mother had some special connection with Lufthansa and everyone flew German when they went to the EMO in Hannover.
How did you enjoy BTU ?
I was first very warmly received at Berlin airport by SmritiPant and her husband who ensured that I wouldn’t be lost in trains and buses - and then at the University by Leo Schmidt, head of the department. Besides the talk and student interactions I attended ,they took me to Branitz Park and the Berlin Wall Documentation Centre. I told them I have a chunk of the Berlin Wall in my Neemrana bookshelf !
Historian, author, heritage conservationist, art patron, cultural activist - you are very active in many areas. What is your most important project at the moment?
One is perhaps always most involved with the baby that is just born - to see the fledgling stand on its feet, to teach it to walk and to run. So, I guess it must be Tijara Fort-Palace. I have been at it for 15 years now but the rewards are ongoing. If one sees before and after pictures of it, it seems an impossible feat to most. People describe it as a Pharonic effort. But since at Neemrana we do everything little by little in the greatest detail, when I look back I never think that we even did it. There must be something Indian about creating things anonymously because the act is more important than the result - as the Bhagvad Gita says. Buildings outlive their builders so our concern should be to revitalize them and put them into a viability cycle so they can continue to survive with dignity, even as we disappear.
India has many historical sites and the restoration of old structures is your passion. Asking you as a Founding member of INTACH (Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage): How effective are private initiatives as a complement to state cultural preservation programmes?
Yes, that was decades ago. I was the youngest founder-member of Intach. But it took long to spread in a country as vast as India. I thought my mission was more to act than to keep talking about the act of doing. So I plunged fully into it. First with a haveli ( a courtyard home) in Haryana, followed with Neemrana with two friends O P Jain and Lekha Poddar. Then, when they opted out, Francis Wacziarg joined me. He took our work to South India and Maharashtra while I remained busier beyond Rajasthan with a mud fort, and projects in Uttarakhand in the Himalayan foothills ,and also higher up in Ramgarh where the pines grow. Since 1984 when I began my first project and now, the Indian Government has finally realized that it needs to partner with passioned private sector initiatives to cover a nation so vast. Neemrana have done some of the first Public Private Partnerships in the tourism sector with governments and we really were the Guinea pigs who suffered ,so that better policies could be made for others. Now I feel that the central and state governments feel more secure. They don't any longer think that someone will run away with their architectural heritage!
You live in Nizzamudin, surrounded by cultural heritage sites. Two projects of the “Urban Renewal” in Nizamuddin are also supported by German Embassy (Arab Ki Serai Gateway in the Humayun´s Tomb Complex and Chausath Khamba). Do you notice a new awareness of heritage sites among the residents?
I have lived in Nizamuddin since 1958 which feels like history itself ! And Nizamuddin, which lay by the banks of the Yamuna river, has itself been continuously inhabited since the seventh century. At age fourteen, I used to take a folding bed up to the doorway of the Arab ki Sarai - which the Germans have now part-funded the restoration of - and do my homework and siestas there. There were two frescoed medallions of Christian saints there of which I had made slides, but which have since disappeared. Swallows made nests on the squinches and bats too ate up the lime plaster. This gateway was supposedly given in Akbar's time to missionaries who must have converted it into a chapel as a part of the Emperor's Din-i-Ilahi experiment in trying to create a universal religion at Fatehpur Sikri. Of course the residents of Nizamuddin must have a heightened pride of history since Delhi's best-known monument the Humayun's Tomb is a view from many of our windows. But it's the Aga Khan Trust that is to be given all the credit for this. I also attended the Chausath Khamba inauguration which your government had supported with the Aga Khan Trust. It has woken up beautifully.
You developed the idea of “Heritage (non !-) Hotels” back in the 1980s. What was your motivation?
I don't think I had any grand motive when I restored the first building I acquired in 1984, the day Mrs. Indira Gandhi was assassinated. It was just common sense to me to preserve what my education as a Masters in history, my interest in architecture and my travel exposure had taught me. My family had migrated from Lahore in 1947 and I think I also felt the absence of a physical past. In 1986 when the grand ruin of Neemrana was acquired, I remember my grandmother, who was close to an atheist, actually saying “To think we lost our grand home and were sitting on the pavements of Delhi - when I had once thought of God - and now my grandson has got the ruins of the family of Prithviraj Chauhan !” For me it was none of that. Just the practical sense of waking up dead ruins and putting them to some sensible re-use by injecting life into them. I called them Neemrana 'non-hotel' Hotels because none of the structures we restored had been built to be hotels. In fact a fort is built to keep people out and we had restored it and reversed the end use for welcoming people in ! First people thought that it was an odd - even negative - branding but soon they understood that Neemrana was indeed a different niche and identity in Heritage tourism where it wasn't necessarily the owners who were welcoming guests into their ancestral homes.
Do you have a favourite among the “Neemrana- (non !-) Hotels” you have restored?
I work with equal intensity on all projects but some get more attention because one may be more free at that moment or a certain detail fascinates me personally. But I don't have a favourite child, so to say. I detach myself completely from the possession of such structures because they defy time. We can at best be custodians - and then one must like all with the same eye. The Neemrana team did some 32 projects in 18 states. But not all are hotels today.
As an author you deal a lot with historical topics. How do you assess the general interest/awareness of Indian society in this topic?
Indians have very little sense of history because we live mostly entrapped within the struggles of the present. Dead or dying civilizations want to preserve or hang on to a lost past. So museums give them that feeling of strength when they “possess” the civilizational pasts of other parts of the world. India, is the only great, continuously alive civilizations of the world and it suffers from an overconfidence that it could do anything its ancestors did. It may not be true ,but it keeps people building in their own name - which supposedly brings them more social pride than restoring the works of their ancestors. However, they seem unconcerned that their work will also fall to ruin just as they are letting their own grandfather's work crumble into debris. But as we Westernise in education and thought ,and as the master craftsmen dwindle, there is a consciousness at least among the elites of India that we must preserve what can never be built again. Because the same historical processes shall never unite in the same configuration of patronage and creativity, which the 11th or 16th centuries threw up ,to give the world it's wonders.
You participated e.g. in Jaipur Literature Festival: How is your view on the Indian book market?
It's most interesting that you should ask this, but Neemrana and me are more than ordinarily connected with the Jaipur Literary Festival. The first literary festival organized by ICCR and Namita Gokhale the visionary writer, was held at Neemrana. It was called ‘At Home in the World’, referring to Indian authors who wrote in English as their first language. VS Naipaul, Vikram Seth, Amitava Ghosh… about fifty authors came. Then the Indo-African Writers' Meet was also held at Neemrana Fort-Palace. But clearly, it was a bigger canvas which needed more space and audiences. Jaipur has become the world’s biggest literary festival today and shown that the Indian hunger for writing and reading is unsatiable. At our latest project Tijara Fort-Palace we did a retreat with Indo-Spanish poets. We must now get the Germans there to talk Sanskrit, philosophy, poetry – and business. This should really be an annual process.