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These conservation and restoration experts work tirelessly as the nation’s custodians of cultural heritage
This is a list that reads like an army of treasure hunters, adventure seekers, sleuths, archaeologists, and activists. And rightly so, from bringing life back to crumbling heritage buildings to centuries-old monuments to preserving the country’s fast-disappearing arts and crafts, these are names that understand how much the present and the future are impacted by the past. From antique experts, craft custodians, to conservation architects and restoration masters, we tip our hats to these veritable custodians of our rich legacy.
Rahul Mehrotra is an architect, urbanist, and the principal founder of the architecture firm RMA Architects of Mumbai + Boston. He is also the Professor and Head of the Urban Design and Planning Department at Harvard School.
As one of the most versatile conservation artists in India, some of his projects include the restoration of the Chowmahalla Palace in Hyderabad and the creation of Hathigaon in Jaipur, a community housing project designed for native elephants and their caretakers. An early founding member of the Kala Ghoda rejuvenation movement, he is also affiliated with Mumbai’s urban conservation and design affairs apart from his practice which also includes recycling urban lands and designing commercial and residential buildings.
Sunita Kohli is amongst the few globally recognised interior and furniture designers and conservation artists to work with governments on restoring national institutions, heritage buildings, forts, and palaces. In India, she has played a significant role in restoring and decorating the Prime Minister’s Office, the Rashtrapati Bhavan as well as many famous Lutyens buildings in the capital; for which she was awarded the Padma Shri in 1992.
One glance at Abha Narain Lambah’s long list of completed and ongoing conservation and restoration projects makes it evident she works around the clock and across the length and breadth of the country. For over two decades, her Mumbai-based firm has worked on monuments such as the Mahabodhi Temple in Bodh Gaya in the east to nearly all of Mumbai’s Victorian landmarks and precincts in the west as well as the UNESCO Award-winning conservation of century temples all the way from Ladakh to Hampi.
Brinda Somaya has been an unstoppable force and an inspiration to women architects across India ever since she began practicing out of a makeshift office in a garden shed in Mumbai in 1975. She leads her award-winning firm SNK (Somaya & Kalappa Consultants) with her daughter Nandini Sampat and together they’ve worked on public buildings like the Rajabhai Clock Tower in Mumbai, institutional campuses such as the one for TCS in Indore as well as the reconstruction of the Bhadli Village of Bhuj.
You wouldn’t be able to tell from his earnest and assuming demeanour but architect Vikas Dilawari is something of a Bombay (Mumbai) legend. His dedication to restoring endangered landmarks in the bustling city is unmatched with 17 UNESCO Asia-Pacific awards for Cultural Preservation. Take an open bus tour of Mumbai and you’ll have to thank Dilawari for giving back life to iconic monuments and buildings such as the Flora Fountain, St. Andrews Church in Bandra and museums like the Dr. Bhau Daji Lad Museum and the CSMVS, formerly the Prince of Wales museum.
Leela Shiveshwarkar was amongst the earliest interior and furniture designers in India. Her father N.C. Mehta was one of India’s foremost art collectors, inspiring her love of indigenous and traditional Indian arts and crafts. From the 1950s, she designed signature hand-crafted pieces in sheesham wood inlaid with brass wire patterns that are now a part of collections of famous Indian dynasties like the Gandhi’s, the Birla’s and the Sarabhai’s as well as the estates of Boris Kroll, Pearl Buck and the Vanderbilts elsewhere in the world.
Leela was a fearless interior designer who never shied away from a challenge. She mainly designed for herself—pictured here are a selection of her most iconic designs at her family home in South Delhi.
Since her work in the 1950s, cultural activist and writer Pupul Jayakar has been known as the “czarina of Indian culture”, for her work on the post-independence revival of traditional and folk arts, handlooms, and handicrafts in India. Awarded the Padma Bhusan, Jayakar inspired and founded many of India’s leading art and design institutions like the National Crafts Museum, the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts as well as universities like NIFT and NID.
Along with her protégé Martand “Mapu” Singh, a textile revivalist from the royal family of Kapurthala, she set up the landmark Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH) in 1984. Singh, also a recipient of the Padma Bhushan, is best known for the seminal Vishwakarma Master Weavers exhibitions for the Festivals of India in the 1980s and 1990s.
In the 1960s, Monika Correa started experimenting with fibre, under the tutelage of Marianna Strengell, a Finnish-American Modernist textile designer in Boston and later by working alongside textile revivalist K.G. Subramanyan in Mumbai. Correa’s best-known works are an amalgamation of traditional techniques and modernist sensibilities—she began experimenting with dhurries and tapestries, many mounted artworks by abstracting patterns, playing with scale, and using simplest forms like stripes and solid surfaces. Her works have been acquired by some of the most prestigious art museums around the world like The Met and MoMA in New York to Tate in London. Along with her spouse, Charles Correa, she has a rich legacy working and empowering traditional Indian craftsmen.
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Phillips Antiques is a Mumbai institution with its prime location in the South Mumbai art precinct and a history that goes back over 160 years. Since the 1920s, Phillips has been run by four generations of the Issa family. The showroom has transformed several times since its early beginnings as a pharmacy—in the 1950s, under D.H. Issa, its hallowed shelves held European and Oriental antiques but by the 1980s, there was a gradual shift towards Indian Art including miniature paintings, sculpture, bronzes, folk and tribal art, led by his son Farooq. Today, the company has formidable connections with renowned institutional and private collectors and museums.
From hand-spun fabrics, handmade furniture, home décor and hundreds of tchotchkes, Dilli Haat is frequented by interior design experts and enthusiasts from the world over. The home of all things “Made-in-India”, the Dastkari Haat Samiti was founded by social activist and crafts revivalist Jaya Jaitly over two decades ago as a bridge for crafts people from all over the country to directly sell their wares.
Born in Shimla, Jaitly spent much of her childhood in Belgium, Burma and Japan thanks to her father’s career as a diplomat. In an interview with The Smithsonian magazine, she traces back her love and adoration of the crafts to Japanese woven mats and shibori fabrics that she was introduced to as a child and later as she moved from Kerala to Kashmir as a married woman. She believes much of India’s heritage would be lost if people lost their traditional skills and says, “after we won our freedom from Great Britain, we needed to ground ourselves in our own histories, our own culture,”
A self-styled maximalist, Adil Ahmad is founder of The Palace Collection and the former Creative Director of Good Earth. Ahmad dropped out of school while he was still in his teens and is a self-taught, multi-hyphenate—restoration architect, landscape designer, interior and fashion designer. Some of his most luxurious projects include Bikaner House, the Sujan Rajmahal Palace and the Royal Rajasthan on Wheels luxury train along with private residences of the country’s elite. He has no academic background or training in interior designing. He did his first paid project when he was sixteen years old and has produced some very notable works in India.
Established in 1974, Mahendra Doshi’s showroom in Mumbai’s Walkeshwar is a hidden portal to all sorts of handmade treasures—from lovingly restored antique furniture and objets d’art in Victorian, Gothic, Regency, Rococo and Art Deco styles collected by Doshi himself to made-to-order reproductions in Burma Teak. What started as a passion project for Doshi whose family has always been in the construction business is presently helmed by his nephews Chiki and Asim Doshi who continue to work with three generations of carpenters and artisans nurtured by Mahendra Doshi himself. They are often called upon to offer their expertise in artifact restoration to the CSMVS, formerly the Prince of Wales Museum in Mumbai.
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