M Saleem Beg
The efforts towards preservation of cultural heritage by INTACH, Kashmir have been highly acclaimed by the UNSCO Asia Pacific office and awarded certificate of merit by USESCO Asia Pacific region along with two other projects at Shangxi , China and Mumbai. The citation of Amar Singh College describes the award winning project as under;
‘The restoration of the Amar Singh College brought back one of the most prominent institutional buildings in Kashmir to its former glory. Undertaken with a high level of technical proficiency, the project reversed major deterioration resulting from years of inappropriate additions, poor maintenance, and catastrophic events such as the unprecedented flooding in 2014. The project team’s meticulous attention to original building design and materials involved training a new generation of building artisans in brick and stone masonry. Competently led by INTACH Kashmir Chapter with support from the local government and a group of community stakeholders, the project serves as a noteworthy model for safeguarding a unique 20th -century architectural asset in the Victorian neighborhood of the old city of Srinagar’
Historical backdrop of the college
The first decade of the 20th century is heralded as the decade when Kashmir marched from medieval period madrassas and patshallas into the modern knowledge systems and processes. This momentous shift took place during the reign of third Dogra Maharaja, Shri Pratap singh(R 1885-1925AD ) who was alive to the newer demands of the changing world and for the need to introduce modern education for his people. Kashmir had remained outside of the formal education system that had made a reasonable progress in rest of the subcontinent. This shift seems to have been triggered by Miss Annie Besant, one of the founders of Benaras Hindu University, president of Theosophical society and an ardent member of Indian national congress, who it is believed, persuaded Maharaja Pratap Singh to donate land for a suitable college building and a playground within the city. The Maharaja granted an endowment of land for the purpose on July 7, 1906 and on the same date the foundation stone for Shri Pratap Singh Hindu College building was laid by him. The College was affiliated at that time with Benaras Hindu Central College, thus intending to commence modern system of education and welcoming pupils from all sections of society. However, the subjects taught primarily focused on languages and arithmetic and lacked any technical training support. Since a significant section of the Kashmiri population was related to the arts and crafts and building industry, therefore a pressing need for training younger generations in skills pertaining to carpentry, black smithy and pottery and other technical vocations was felt.
To address this need, about a mile away from SPS College, the Amar Singh Technical Institute was established in 1913. However, it was formally opened by Maharaja Partap Singh on 29th May 1914. Mr. F. H. Andrews, formerly Headmaster of Battersea Polytechnic School, London was appointed as its first Principal. Thus it started as a Technical Institute to teach students art, culture and basic skills like masonry, carpentry etc. This Technical Institute was progressively upgraded as Amar Singh College in June 1942 with many additional streams added to its curriculum commemorating the name of the father of Maharaja Hari Singh, the then Maharaja of Kashmir. The college after its initial operational issues went from strength to strength and became a major driver in imparting high-quality education to the Kashmiri society. The grandeur of the building is suggestive enough that the institution was established with the objective of being noticed in architectural terms as well as in its high academic standards. The main building conforms to the classic colonial style of architecture with exquisite brick work, impressive main foyer and a regal entrance. The building has an unmatched imposing presence in the civil lines area of the city that was evolving into a high end residential area. It has served as undergraduate Arts and Science College and several other streams have also been made available here since and it has also now been expanded as a Cluster University.
The main heritage building which occupies the central position in the campus was facing several issues of maintenance and the Kashmir floods of 2014 only amplified the problems with major issues surfacing both in the open space and the building. In these devastating floods the college library also lost a collection of 40,000 books some of which were rare publications.
The College campus is home to a large number of trees, many of which are the enormous Chinars which may be as old as the building itself. Yet, the most striking landscape feature is the poplar avenue at the entrance that creates a formal vista to and from the building.
INTACH Kashmir initiated documentation of the building as part of its mandate of preservation of built heritage. This process was hampered due to the disastrous flood of 2014 that swept Kashmir in September 2014. This documentation was restarted and a comprehensive post-flood assessment of the building was undertaken leading to a fresh proposal for its restoration. Since the damage to the historic building from the flood was a cause of concern for the college authorities and members of public at large, the project proposal was received by the government favourably. However, it still took about three more years for the college to seek approvals for the project and in February 2018 the restoration of the building commenced with INTACH, Kashmir Chapter acting as both the advisors and implementing agency for the works.
Interestingly, there are some wall murals inside the building of approximately the same age as the building; the project envisaged restoration of these unique murals as well. Therefore, while the building itself has been fully restored as of today, we are currently working on the restoration of these wall murals under the guidance from IGNCA art conservation experts.
The process of restoration
The objective of conserving the building was to restore the former glory of the building and to repair the damages caused by floods of 2014 and earthquake of 2006 and also those damages that were a result of lack of attention. The highly ornamental building is essentially an exposed brick building, stylistically influenced by the prevailing colonial trend in the region. The ornamental gauged bricks used in the building are handmade ‘rubber’ bricks and therefore very soft and predisposed to erosion and defacement.
One of the challenges was to train the craftsmen to restore these ornamental bricks and to prepare new bricks to fill-in the missing ones in the walls. A sustainability issue to be addressed was the site’s low-lying circumstance which made it very vulnerable to water-logging and moisture ingress. The building was facing surface erosion, material degradation, vegetative growth and cracks in its towers. The project involved skills, expertise, and understanding of conservation issues of the historic structures and the behaviour of local materials over time. INTACH has over the years, been able to set up in house expertise with a dedicated group of young and qualified conservation architects who have developed a deep understanding of issues of preservation of built and natural heritage. Broadly the whole project entailed research and documentation, architectural and structural appraisal of the building material and construction technology, all of which entailed measured drawings, archival research and photography. The civil works and Artwork conservation was carried by the local artisans and workers.
The whole project was supervised by Saima Iqbal, senior conservation specialist assisted by Anjum Rafiq, architect and other members of the team.The local artisan team was accessed by Waseem Kathwari, a local building specialist. The mural work was restored under the supervision of Jetendra Singh of IGNCA and Imran Ali Bhat and his team at INTACH Conservation Centre Srinagar
The Department of Higher Education, Commissioner/Secretary Asghar Samoon backed the project all through. The principal of the College, Yasmeen Ashai supported the project and provided unrelenting support and assistance at all the stages along with her colleagues and the team of teachers constituted for the project.
While this award is a recognition of the commitment and professionalism that has emerged over time, the state of built heritage in J&K is desperately in need of attention. A widely acclaimed style, the repository of the built traditions as depicted in the vernacular architecture of Kashmir evolved over the centuries of leanings about the materials, the response to disasters like earthquakes and sympathetic use of decorative arts, is now gasping for survival. Like wise the buildings, public and private, created during the Dogra period depicting a unique and agreeable mix of colonial style, decorative arts of Kashmir and Rajasthan, the murals whose imageries have been taken from the glorious pahari arts are now facing an existential threat due to lack of focus by the stake holders. It is hoped that the attention given by UNESCO to the efforts of conservation also leads to awareness about the treasures left behind by our past generations giving an identity and dignity to our communities.
(The writer is Convener INTACH, Jammu & Kashmir, former Director General Tourism and Member and Chairman National Monuments Authority, Government of India)
M Saleem Beg