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391 years old, little respect

- Renovations deface Shah Jahan palace where Tagore stayed

Ahmedabad, July 15: Mumtaz Mahal was still alive. The Taj Mahal wasn’t even in the picture. And Rabindranath Tagore stayed here as a teenager.

For a 391-year-old, steeped in history, Moti Shahi Palace, perhaps, deserved a little more respect.

Today, the Ahmedabad palace that inspired Tagore’s short story Kshudita Pashan (Hungry Stones) is a structure hemmed in by renovations that heritage activists say are “obscene”.

The extensions, which include elevator shafts and galleries, have come up on three sides, prompting at least one activist to say that a “cage has been made out of a monument”.

Strictly speaking, the palace that Shah Jahan built in 1622, some 30 years before he dedicated the Taj Mahal to his late wife Mumtaz, is not a protected monument under the Archaeological Survey of India Act. That shield disappeared in 1961. The newly formed state of Gujarat needed a Raj Bhavan and the two-storey palace, on the banks of the Sabarmati, was “delisted” as a national monument.

While that did not trigger the makeover, the renovations couldn’t have taken place had the structure — the only full-fledged Mughal palace in western India with a durbar hall and octagonal rooms — been still listed as a monument.

The renovations, going on for a year now, were started by the Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel Memorial Society which bought the palace in 1979 for Rs 52.73 lakh. The state government had funded the “sale”.

One condition for the sale was the memorial trust would approach the state archaeology department before introducing any change. The 1979 sale circular said the society would be “required to approach the state archaeology department before altering, executing repairs or even adding a new brick to Moti Shahi Palace... or adding new structure(s) to the existing building”. Last year, the Sardar Patel Smarak got a central grant of Rs 17 crore from the culture department to “renovate the Mughal building”.

Asked why such renovations were being allowed, director of archaeology Y.S. Rawat said: “There is nothing we can do about it. The palace has been handed over to the (memorial) trust by the state government.”

The trust uses the same defence. Dinsha Patel, Union minister and chairperson of the Smarak, said: “It is not a monument or (a) heritage (structure) but a residential property.” The minister also claimed the trust was “strengthening the structure”.

Conservationists say the makeover has made a mess of the Mughal architectural elements. The jharokhas, overhanging enclosed balconies, have been replaced with modern-day features like air traps, while elevator shafts and alterations like cement galleries were a sign of “lack of vision”, say Tagore scholars.

“As part of celebrating Tagore’s 150th birth anniversary, there was a plan to protect all monuments associated with him. On the contrary, this palace is being vandalised,” said poet Sankha Ghosh. Tagore, whose elder brother Satyendranath was posted here as a district judge, stayed at the palace in 1878 as a 17-year-old.

“It does not matter if the palace is a protected monument or not, it is still a heritage structure,” said architect Balkrishna Doshi, founder of CEPT University. “They have made a cage out of the monument.”

P.K. Ghosh, chairperson of the Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation’s heritage conservation committee, agreed. “Even if the palace is not protected under the ASI Act, it does not mean it has lost heritage value.”

Some read a “political angle” to the makeover that went against objections raised by the conservation committee, though none wanted to go on record. The state’s ruling BJP leaders have often invoked Vallabhbhai Patel, one of the key figures in the Independence movement.

“What they are doing is terrible,” said Manvita Baradi, convener of the Gujarat chapter of heritage body Intach.

Professor Narang Bhagat, 88, writer and Tagore lover, summed it up. “What they have done to this beautiful monument is sheer barbarism,” he said.