28 Jun 2017
10 min read
1785 words
From the Archive (Oct, 2016): Rabindra Puri talks about how he got into restoration, the importance of appreciating our craftsmanship and how we can build our future by studying our past

How do you think growing up in the alleyways of Bhaktapur shaped your life?
I grew up in Dattatraya Square—my father was a retired soldier from the Gorkha Regiment of the Indian Army and worked as a mahanta at the temples there; my mother was a doting housewife. I remember running around the ancient alleys with a bunch of friends and rolling hoop around Durbar Square, and it always made me happy being around these old pieces of architecture. I’ve been fascinated by old buildings for as long as I can remember, and I’m sure that I wouldn’t have been an artist if I hadn’t been born in Bhaktapur. This is one of the reasons why I made up my mind to pursue fine arts at an early age.

You completed not one, but four graduate degrees—law, fine arts, history and management by 1993. How did that happen?
I let my father talk me into enrolling in a law college after completing school, and although I was doing well in my studies, I still wanted to explore other subjects. In my second year, my college started two shifts due to increased student enrollment. I took this opportunity to study law during the mornings, and enrolled for day sessions at the Lalit Kala Campus of Fine Arts. While I was juggling these two different subjects, I started studying history too, and eventually was also doing my Bachelor in Management. It was not easy managing four subjects, but I was doing what made me happy.

What was your father’s reaction when he found out about your other interests?
I was able to hide my involvement in the arts from my father for almost two years. He caught me making sculptures at home and was really impressed with my work; that’s when I decided to come clean. I would like to think that he was pleasantly surprised because it is not easy for a college kid to manage two colleges on limited pocket money. I would save my lunch and transportation money by forgoing lunch and walking instead. This was probably one of the most difficult times of my life. He was supportive, though, and decided to finance both my college fees after this revelation.

How has your work at the Patan Museum changed the course of your life?
There’s something interesting about my relationship with Patan—the city has always led me to crossroads that altered my life’s course. After my father passed away, suddenly, the responsibility of supporting the family rested on my shoulders. Fortunately, I got the chance to work on Patan Museum’s restoration and learn about Nepali architecture during this time. I spent the following three years amongst scholars and various architects and, these experiences went on to shape the course of my life and further solidify my affinity towards Nepali architecture. I went in as a sculptor and came out as an architect.

You worked in the nonprofit sector for a while. What made you take a leap of faith and quit a steady, high-paying job to pursue restoration projects?
In 1993, I got the chance to study sculpture in Germany. I was interested to learn about the Western concept of art, especially in the context of sculpture-making. After a semester studying sculpture, I felt like I had gotten enough information, so I decided to pursue a master’s degree in Development Policy. I was able to complete my master’s with a distinction, and this paved the way for me to join the German Technical Cooperation Agency—GTZ in Nepal. I had a high-level post and a pretty comfortable three years at the agency, but it all changed during one of my walks inside Patan. Seeing beautiful houses getting demolished to provide space for concrete structures disturbed me. After a year of battling with myself, I finally mustered enough courage to leave my comfort zone and follow my passion.

Tell us about the Namuna Ghar, your magnum opus.
I was fascinated by this particular house when I was growing up and dreamed of owning it some day. When I approached the home owner with my plans for it, he was quite shocked. The 160-year-old rickety house, which had been reduced to a dilapidated poultry farm, was not exactly going to be easy to renovate, but it was a challenge worth taking. People always doubt those who think differently, and initially, it was difficult to relay my plans even to my workers. This created a lack of coordination and understanding, and it took us almost a year and half of dedicated work to restore it to its current state. When we finally restored it, only then did appreciation and accolades start to pour in. Bhaktapur Municipality declared it as Namuna Ghar, Model House, and I got awarded the prestigious Asia Pacific Cultural Heritage Award.

Did the award open new doors for you?
The award couldn’t have come at a better time. I was starting to worry about the finances since so much money was going into restoration work. The award was like a lifeline, after which offers started pouring in, and suddenly my hobby metamorphosed into this business that could provide sustenance and satisfaction. But I feel the biggest achievement was that the recognition encouraged many people to start restoring old houses, and build ‘new’ ones in traditional style. Namuna Ghar combines traditional architecture with modern comfort and services, and it’s this marriage of the two worlds that can help us preserve our diverse cultural past.

What has kept you busy over the years?
For the past few years I have been busy restoring some private properties in Panauti. I have finished restoring houses in Panauti, and now the plan is to restore this historical town into a traditional-architecture town by 2030, and I also want build to one model school in each district in Nepal. This may sound challenging, but it is not impossible.

Talking about the earthquake, Namuna Ghar survived the disaster. Did you expect that?
Honestly, no! I was on the second floor when the first earthquake hit us, and I thought this is it. But later when I returned to the house and started inspecting it, I didn’t find a single crack. Also, the other house that I had restored, the Toni Hagen House, had been left intact in a chowk where most other older buildings had collapsed. Look beyond the few fallen structures and you’ll notice that the earthquake highlighted how sophisticated the architecture of our traditional buildings were—just look at the Indreswor, in Panauti, or the magnificent Nyatapola Temple, which has now withstood four major earthquakes. I think proper study should be done on these monuments as they can serve as models for future building designs in the valley.

Overall, are you satisfied with the work being carried out in the name of restoration?
Regarding the pace of restoration work, we have to understand it will be a time-consuming process, but I’m confident that Nepal today has enough architects and urban planners who understand heritage conservation. As for me, I’m working with resurrecting the sites using traditional methods. We brought 20 masons, carpenters and builders from a remote village in Sindhupalchok and trained them on building earthquake-resistant houses, using mud, brick and wood. After completing a month-long training programme, the trainees have gone back home and have started building and also training others with the knowledge they have acquired. I’m confident that the 140 houses that got toppled in their village will be made in traditional style, using local materials.  

An entrepreneur, a restorer of heritage buildings, and now you’re busy training tomorrow’s craftsmen. It must feel great to be living your dream.
It’s great to be doing what you love. Like I said earlier, after a phase of uncertainty and financial problems, my life has taken a turn for the better, and now I feel I’m in a position to give back to society. When I turned 40, I started the Rabindra Puri Foundation, which aims to encourage the conservation of historic spaces where the identity of local communities is rooted. We have also been involved in establishing the Nepal Vocational Academy in Panauti and Bhaktapur. The academy’s objective is to offer quality training and produce competent and skilled workers, who will contribute to the conservation of heritage buildings through traditional building skills, as well as to create employment opportunities for themselves. Also, through this foundation, we have established 11 schools in Kavre, Bhaktapur, Ramechhap, Nawalparasi, Dhading and Gorkha, and all of these buildings reflect the local architecture. Our ultimate plan is to reach all 75 districts.

Looking back, is there any career advice you would give your 20-year-old self?
Sixteen years ago, when I started out on my conservation journey I was deemed mad, but look around you today—there are so many like me. I think we can do better in our preservation and conservation efforts but there’s no need to focus on just the negative. Banaras is one of the oldest cities in the world, but if you go there you’ll realise that we are 20 years ahead of them in terms of conservation. We need to remember that the past can become a foundation for the future—by providing crucially needed continuity and stability, as well as economic benefits.