Restoration work on Amar Singh College building in Srinagar wins UNESCO award

Project serves as a noteworthy model for safeguarding a unique 20th century architectural asset: jury

The restoration of the Amar Singh College building has won the prestigious ‘Award of Merit’ in the UNESCO Asia-Pacific Awards for Cultural Heritage Conservation for the year 2020, the first such recognition for conservation work in the Union Territory of Jammu & Kashmir.

The college was established during the Dogra Maharaja era in 1911 in Srinagar, and its building was heavily damaged during the 2014 floods.

“The restoration of the Amar Singh College brought back one of the most prominent institutional buildings in Kashmir to its former glory. 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. The project serves as a noteworthy model for safeguarding a unique 20th century architectural asset in the Victorian neighbourhood of the old city of Srinagar,” the UNESCO Asia-Pacific Jury noted.

The project was led by Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH), Kashmir Chapter, with the support of the local government and a group of community stakeholders.

The Amar Singh college building was known as Amar Singh Technical Institute, Kashmir’s first institute to teach arts and skills such as carpentry and masonry. Over a period, the building, which stands out for its architectural value, saw “inappropriate interventions” and remained submerged in water for about two weeks during the 2014 floods, amplifying dampness.

“The most difficult part was recreating the damaged brick moulding. It was difficult to get bricks of the same size, colour and texture and also the local craftsmen had to be trained to cut and mould the bricks to exactly, or most closely, match the original ones. We solved the issue of brick availability by using salvage bricks from walls that were filled in to block openings in the 1950s, which fortunately were almost the same as original ones,” Saima Iqbal, principal conservation architect, INTACH, who worked on the project, told The Hindu.

Ms. Iqbal said the conservationists waited for days for rain to “identify exact points of leakage, dampening the rooms”.

The UNESCO jury has praised the INTACH for having “undertaken a high level of technical proficiency”.

“F.H. Andrews, former Headmaster of Battersea Polytechnic School, London, was appointed as its first principal. 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,” Saleem Beg, head of INTACH-Kashmir Chapter, said.

‘Reassuring recognition’

Mr. Beg said the UNESCO award has come as a shot in the arm for local conservationists. “It’s a reassuring recognition of our local skill and dedication. It will go a long way in motivating conservationists to take up other structures that require attention.”

Apart from its architecture, the building has beautiful wall murals in two of its hallways. “Influenced by the Ladakhi art, the murals formed a significant part of the building’s interiors but had become obliterated over time. Not much is known about the origin and context of the wall murals,” Mr. Beg said.

The INTACH is now restoring these wall murals.

“The restoration of the Amar Singh College has contributed to showcasing that traditional builds are far more robust and resilient to disasters than perhaps contemporary builds can ever be,” Mr. Beg added.

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