In Indore, a neo-classical building stands tall and proud. Also known as the Red Palace, the Lal Bagh Palace was built in the late nineteenth century by the Holkar dynasty. The Holkars were originally generals under Peshwa Baji Rao I, and ended up as one of the most powerful Maratha rulers of India.
Completed in 1926, the space echoes with symmetry, painted fresco ceilings, decorative plasterwork, grand chandeliers, and gilded paintwork, a prime example of the Italian Renaissance Revival architectural style in India. The gates of the palaces are said to be special as they are replicas of those in the Buckingham Palace of London and shipped directly from England.
However, once the Holkar royal family left the palace in 1978, it fell into disrepair. Peeling plaster, water seepage and damage to the roof took over. Then 4 years ago, Abha Narain Lambah, Principal and Founder of Abha Narain Lambah Associates stepped in. With support from the Madhya Pradesh Department of Archaeology to repair the exterior façade and the World Monuments Fund and IndiGo’s CSR initiative, the French period interiors came back to life. The World Monuments Fund also brought in American experts to peer review the prestigious project. Seven rooms, including the awe-inspiring Crown Hall were restored by Lambah and her team
In an insightful conversation with Abha Narain Lambah, LuxeBook learnt of the biggest challenges of working on such projects, the painstaking process of bringing back the glory of Indore’s architectural gem. As Lambah explained, “The biggest challenge is doing an authentic restoration. The truthfulness of the project, the original aesthetic and material must shine through.”
Lambah and her team are wellversed in the art of restoration, having worked on projects like the revival of the iconic Royal Opera House, Asiatic Library, 137-year-old Keneseth Eliyahoo Synagogue, all in Mumbai. In her career of over 25 years, she has brought up-todate several historic monuments and is currently working on the restoration of the Shalimar Gardens of Jahangir and Shahjahan in Kashmir. Lambah has taken on the revival of the Mughal-era garden, the pavilions, conserving the painted ceilings and water channels. “These are very fragile remnants of our past and to be able to do them justice takes a lot of work, but it’s equally satisfying and rewarding and that is what my entire career has been focused on,” shared Lambah.
Devil in the details
Work on the Lal Bagh Palace first began with laborious archival research, conducted by the Director of the project, Kruti Garg, a Conservation Architect at Abha Narain Lambah Associates. Garg undertook an extensively detailed mapping of the building, documenting its elements, making a huge portfolio of drawings, researching the original elements, such as the provenance of the hardware and furniture. Lime plasters and lime stucco both outside and inside the building were rebuilt. Processes like desalination wherever salt and efflorescence affected the building, were carried out. Lambah also brought in the expertise of a team of art restorers led by conservator Anupam Sah who did a thorough paint analysis to establish the colour range, and petrography test, chemical testing to confirm the chemicals and materials, that were part of the original structure. Sah then set about carefully restoring the cornices, furniture pieces, carpets, tapestries, and ceiling murals.
The tasks of replicating the flooring and painting was assigned to a team of artisans and craftsmen who worked with Lambah on the restoration of the Chowmahalla Palace in Hyderabad. The fabric panels in all seven rooms in the colours were studied for colours, textures and weave, and eventually they had to be recreated through customisation. The damask jacquard fabric had to be made on the loom by traditional weavers, because the cotton-silk blend and pattern was unavailable for purchase off the shelf. Maintaining authenticity was crucial, and in the Sitting Room and Crown Hall, Lambah weaved in the original classic French details of ornamental rosettes, wreaths, ribbons and elaborate floral garlands. Brass hardware was restored to function as good as new, damaged mouldings were brought to life with the help of silicon moulds. The cornices and mouldings were then hand-painted in the exact shades as the original.
Talking of challenges posed by historic projects, Lambah shared that while staying true to the bones of the building itself can be difficult, getting funding for such projects can also be hard. “When the project is complete you look back at it and it sounds lovely, but trust me, when you are in the middle of it, each project seems extremely challenging to work on.”
As Lambah put the finishing touches on the erstwhile royal residence, her team studied old images of the Holkar family to understand the placement of the furniture like it was in the past. Though Lambah believes her work is not done yet, the plan is to restore the entire palace, its famous rose gardens, to its former glory. “When we talk of conservation we are already talking about the finest of a period, that is why it is a privilege to work on projects like this,” signs off Lambah with a smile