BY MALATI K. VIJAY
The only person to be awarded a Padma Shri for interior design and perhaps India’s first woman interior designer, SUNITA KOHLI is a dynamo and a fascinating person. Her notion of paying back to her country with her skills, preserving its prominent historical and heritage structures for posterity, and using indigenous arts and crafts in contemporary Indian spaces, gives new meaning to the idea of patriotism
Share with us the experience of restoring India’s complex heritage buildings.
SK: The first restoration work of Rashtrapati Bhavan and Hyderabad House was done in 1982, when the Queen of the UK, the head of the Commonwealth, visited Delhi. I undertook another intensive and extensive conservation and design project at Rashtrapati Bhavan from 1985 to 1990.
I worked on the Prime Minister’s Office and Secretariat in 1985. The Prime Minister’s Residence, which was then Bungalows No. 5 & 7 on Race Course Road, was also completed in 1985. No. 7 was always the Residential Office. In 2004, I did the Prime Minister’s Residence again under Dr Manmohan Singh. The Residence was now Bungalow No. 3 and No. 5 was the Guest House of the PM. This complex then comprised only three bungalows.
Later, during Mr Vajpayee’s time, they added Bungalows No. 1 and 2… so virtually all the bungalows on Race Course Road. In 2004, I undertook work on the Indira Gandhi Memorial Museum at 1 Safdarjung Road and the adjoining bungalow on Motilal Nehru Marg. The former bungalow was the residence of Indira Gandhi and the latter was her Prime Ministerial Office. This included work on the buildings, structural reinforcements, floorings, electrical planning, etc. However, I must clarify that the Museum artefacts had been selected much earlier by Sonia Gandhi and the Museum had been designed by Ar. Ronesh Ray. I worked just on the physical restoration of these bungalows. I completed
the British Council building in 1992.
How did you prepare for the task?
SK: What needed to be done in these buildings, first of all, was removing the accretions of the years from when it was built to when I started work. For example, in South Block, because of shortage of space, the courtyard between the PMO and the Ministry of External Affairs had structures built for staff members and drivers. I had them all removed and found an alternative place within the building for them. I then had the landscape re-laid by landscape architect Ravindra Bhan in the style of the period.
Similarly, in Hyderabad House, I designed the two courtyards within the two main wings of the building, by partly paving and partly covering with grass, in a Lutyenesque style. This was possible because of poring over many photographs and drawings in the RIBA Drawing Section in London, and reading extensively about the Lutyens houses landscaped by Gertrude Jekyll, his collaborator.
Can you recount your meetings with Mary Lutyens, the daughter of Sir Edwin?
SK: I first met Mary Lutyens, the youngest daughter of Sir Edwin, in London in the late 1980s or early 1990s. I was taken to meet her by her niece, Candia Lutyens, the daughter of Robert Lutyens, who went on to catalogue much of his father’s work. Later I did share with her the photographs of the completed restoration of Rashtrapati Bhavan. She looked at each picture minutely, and then said something wonderful: “You should have been part of my father’s original team.” I took that as a huge compliment.
Regarding your restoration work in Bhutan, Egypt, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, apart from the extensive research, what were the resources
you relied on to complete the task?
SK: All these countries have totally different architecture and culture. Apart from intense research, I also travelled extensively to understand their architectural heritage, their design sensibilities, and the uniqueness of their cultures. I would make a directory of their craft and textile traditions, find master craftsmen in each discipline, and then go on to work with many of them.
In Bhutan, the then king, Jigme Singye Wangchuk, had appointed as my guide the late Dasho Khandu, whose knowledge of Bhutanese culture was encyclopaedic. I visited many monasteries with him, looking at the architecture and architectural decorations. In the main Assembly Hall, it was my concept to decorate the ceiling with mandalas, as they are supposed to bestow blessings on all those below. Public buildings must represent and reflect the culture of their respective countries.
In Egypt, I introduced the use of ‘balady’ glass, that is, traditional blown glass made from the eighth century. In the first hotel I designed in Egypt, The Oberoi El Arish, located on the Mediterranean coast, the main motif in the coffee shop features tall date palms cast from solid brass, with their fronds fashioned from balady glass.
For the iconic Hotel Mena House Oberoi, overlooking the great pyramids of Giza, I had got special jamevar woven for the upholstery in the palace wing rooms. It was a huge success. Well-known Egyptian designer Amy Matouk wanted to use my fabric for their Prime Minister’s Office, and I happily consented.
(The writer is a Bengaluru-based freelance journalist and content consultant. Formerly with the Times of India, Economic Times and Livingetc India, she writes primarily on design, art and lifestyle. She also enjoys giving a healthy twist to various cuisines.)