by Gurmeet S. RaiSep 23, 2021
Amritsar: A City in Remembrance is a compilation of insightful essays by experts from various disciplines. Edited by renowned architect Gurmeet S Rai, internationally recognised for her work in the conservation of heritage sites, the book traces the history and culture of Amritsar through the dual perspective of historical narratives and material culture. The book is a multi-layered exploration of the city’s history and contemporary conservation initiatives. In addition to the textual essays, the book begins with the visual journey through the lens of prominent photographer and photojournalist Raghu Rai. The sublime photography underscores why he is the only living photographer in the world to have received the Académie des Beaux-Art Photography Award-William Klein in 2019, one of the highest international awards in photography.
The poetics of the book, however, start before the photography. In his foreword, Richard A Engelhardt, former Regional Advisor for Culture in Asia and the Pacific, UNESCO, uses the expression ‘An Epiphany of New Dreams’. A beautiful introduction to the essays that follow, the phrase also draws one’s attention to a different understanding of what constitutes conservation. This sentiment is perhaps best captured in the essay A City That Doesn’t Forget: Conservation and Regeneration Processes in Amritsar by Jigna Desai, Associate Professor and Program Chair for Master’s in Conservation and Regeneration at the Faculty of Architecture, CEPT University and Executive Director of the Center for Heritage Conservation, CEPT Research and Development Foundation. Desai aptly points out how conservation implies the conservators’ intentions writing, “Like most historic cities in India, Amritsar lives with its memory, however glorious or scarring. This is evident in the layers of its history, on how conservation processes are taken up and with what intentions. The intention of the Sikh community to protect their faith from being subsumed by the larger, more dominant practices of the country still prevails”.
Each contribution to the book is linked to a location in Amritsar, a city in Punjab in northern India. The content page contextualises each contribution with a physical location within the city. The first textual essay is by Gurmeet S Rai, titled Sri Harimandir Sahib and The City of Amritsar. In a conversation with STIR, Gurmeet discusses the many facets of her research and writing.
STIR: What does the city of Amritsar personally mean to you?
Gurmeet S Rai (GR): Amritsar has been a 'living laboratory' for learning heritage practice for me - to understand the cultural heritage, its relevance, meaning for people, the relationship between memory and tangible heritage; planning processes, the challenges and needs for reform etc. I come from Punjab, so to engage with the most significant sacred city, which has been witness to such important events in the life of the community has been very special. I have connected, engaged with the city for different types of projects for over two decades now, as an activist, a conservation architect, heritage management specialist, and an urban conservationist.
STIR: How does the journey of restoring a city’s heritage translate into self-restoration and transformation?
GR: I do believe that 'to restore' is 'to heal' - so when heritage spaces are being restored it has a direct impact on the heritage practitioner. If that heritage means deeply to the practitioner, it is very profound.
STIR: What is the biggest challenge while working with the conservation of a consecrated space - and then documenting the entire experience at length?
GR: It is a humbling experience, to begin with, it becomes important for the practitioner to become a witness of the process where he or she is one of the players, you become part of the process and certainly not the centre of it.
STIR: Could you elaborate on the significance of having a book like Amritsar: A City in Remembrance begin published now.
GR: The book is very important on multiple levels. First and foremost, my engagement with the city has been for over two decades. I believe that there is no substitute for a long-term engagement with a city, its heritage. Cultural heritage is layered, it reveals itself bit by bit, the more you engage with - deeper you understand and the solutions change. Be it technical, social or any other dimension. The book captures the way the city has revealed itself to me. The essays reveal the aspects and are a window through which to understand the layered narrative of the city. Through a collective narrative or the story of a person, an event or a building. The complexities are revealed in this manner. The second part is about understanding material heritage and memories or which is also stated as tangible and intangible heritage followed by the processes of recovery and the need to develop a localised language and tools for conservation where the spirit of a place and its people is upheld. The tools have been decolonised! The foreword by Dr Richard Engelhardt explains this insightfully.
STIR: You also mentioned the book in some way outlines the various methods to conserve. Could you elaborate on that as well?
GR: The book explains the way to understand the heritage of a place through the various essays, in the chapters by Prof Jigna Desai and Moushumi Chatterjee and the one on Gobindgarh Fort and Rambagh Garden, you can see the various scope of work and methods used. The last chapter outlines what should define the process for recovery and conservation of heritage as part of a ‘people’s process’.
STIR: The images featured in the book are by your partner. Could you tell us a bit about what working together was like?
GR: Both of us have engaged with the city separately. It has been an enriching process for both of us in our personal journeys. The way the book has been edited, the two narratives intertwine as one experience, I believe.
When asked what parts of the project had the most impact, Gurmeet said, “There are several important learnings and experiences, but the most precious part for me has been the way Sri Harmandir Sahib revealed itself to me”.
She concludes her essay by formalising this sentiment in writing, “The city and its people have continued to demonstrate resilience through several upheavals well into the 21st century. In the recent past too, there have been several instances of pain, sacrifice and recovery. Time and again, events in the city of Amritsar have shown that not only is Sri Harmandir Sahib the physical centre of the city, but it has continued to be the centre of the tradition of people who derive their strength from the martyrdom of their Gurus and the tradition of sewa (service).”
Extract from the forward by Richard A Engelhardt:
“Complementing the book’s comprehensive visual narration of people and places are a collection of essays by the best contemporary Indian scholars and practitioners of urban heritage conservation. Edited by conservation architect Gurmeet S Rai (the author and co-author of several studies in this volume), these essays trace efforts to preserve Amritsar’s historic meaning and cultural significance over the past seventy years, ranging from the rescue efforts of the period immediately after the trauma of Partition to the most recent community-based efforts of the India-wide HRIDAY programme promoting urban regeneration through public-private partnerships.”
The book is set to be released on Baisakhi, the Sikh New Year, on April 13, 2021. The date also marks the 102 years since the Jallianwala Bagh Massacre.
Amritsar: A City in Remembrance
ISBN #: 978-93-5376-732-7
Published by Om Books International & Raghu Rai Foundation for Arts & Photography Rights: World
Photographs: Raghu Rai
Edited: Gurmeet S Rai
Foreword: Richard A Engelhardt
Contributors: Pritam Singh, Thomas Addyman, Jigna Desai, Urvashi Butalia, Amandeep Singh, Parmjit Singh, Sajida Vandal, Pervaiz Vandal, Nadia Singh, Moushumi Chatterjee, Antara Sharma, Gurmeet S. Rai
Visual Research & Communication: Antara Sharma; Gurmeet S. Rai
Drawings: Barkha Gupta; CRCI (India) Pvt Ltd
Design: Purvai Rai
Project Editor: Dipa Chaudhuri
Front Cover: Aerial view of Sri Harmandir Sahib, Raghu Rai