In 1813, the famous dancer Vyankat Narasi from Hyderabad travelled to Pune to perform for a group of select guests at the request of the Peshwa, Bajirao II, in the opulent Vishrambaug wada. The palace was laid out around three sprawling courtyards and had been built five years before at a cost of more than two lakh rupees. The prime minister’s mansion was among hundreds of similarly lavish palaces and guest houses that represented the city’s signature architectural form: the wada.
Characterised by intricate wooden lattice work on the ceilings and wooden pillars with stone bases, wadas first appeared in Pune in the 1730s, when the city started to profit from the silk trade. Nana wada, Raste wada and Budhwar wada soon became landmarks. The construction of wadas continued until 1818, when Bajirao II was defeated by the British in the Battle of Khadki.
Today, there’s little sign of the grandeur that once hung over these mansions. Over the centuries, many have been damaged by weather, the passage of time and, in the case of Motemangal Karyalay wada, by uncaring tenants. Some have been torn down, as the Shukravar wada was in 1828. Others were burnt down by Indian patriots, as Budhwar wada was in 1897, because the British rulers used the buildings as offices. There are now 120 wadas in Pune in various states of decrepitude.
But all is not lost. Over the past decade, the authorities have been working to restore some of the most important wadas, including the Vishrambaug wada, where Vyankat Narasi performed. Already, the Shanivar wada, which was refurbished in 2002, has become a Pune icon. “The Shaniwar wada, the residence of the Peshwas, is a symbol of Maratha pride in their architecture and is also a centre from where the entire Maratha kingdom was governed,” said city historian Mandar Lawate.
Since 2004, the Pune Municipal Corporation has been restoring Vishrambaug. The project is expected to be completed by December. In 2008, work started on restoring the Nana wada, once the home of the administrator Nana Phadnavis, and is expected to be finished by the end of this year.
This isn’t the first time some of these buildings are being restored. A fire damaged Shanivar wada in 1827 and the place remained in ruins till 1919, when it was restored to make it presentable for the visiting Prince of Wales, Edward VIII, said historian Lawate. A fire also damaged Vishrambaug in 1897, but the British architects who tried to restore it didn’t adhere to the original architectural plan.
This has presented Badve Sowani and Kalamdani, the architectural conservation firm that is restoring Vishrambaug, with some challenges. “There was always a debate in the office as to how we needed to restore the wada,” said Kiran Kalamdani, one of the partners at the firm. “Some thought that we needed to follow the original plans of the wada, while others were of the opinion that we needed to respect the additions made by the British to the structure after the fire.” Before the project commenced, his partner, Avinash Sowani, made a detailed study of a document written in the nineteenth century by the Maratha architects who designed the mansion. “Based on this, I wrote my own 75-page document detailing the historical importance and the architectural sensibilities of the structure, and those that should be respected by conservationists,” said Sowani.
There were three stages of restoration. The first involved stopping the damage to the structure by way of arresting the rotting of the wooden pillars, the next was structural strengthening, and the last was beautification.
The Nana wada presents other challenges. Built around 1780, the wada features wooden lattice-work on the ceiling of the main hall and murals in the verandah. Restoring these murals, which show the impact of Mughal art on Maratha styles, hasn’t been easy.
The Shanivar wada project took 10 years to complete, and Kalamdani expects the Vishrambaug project to take another two years at the least, because of what he calls “the great Indian bureaucracy” and also because “heritage restoration isn’t on anyone’s political agenda”. He expects the lacunae between “intention and execution” to be resolved, and believes that it is only a matter of time before the wadas regain their former glory.
Aranyavaak The conservation group conducts heritage walks on weekends. Each walk has a different theme, among them being the wadas and colonial art. 12, Sneh Park, Lane 19, Dahanukar Colony, Kothrud (+91 98221 94650). R 150 for the walk.
Lota Heritage Tours Jan Ali conducts a three-hour heritage walk around the wadas and other landmarks in Kasba Peth. The walk covers the Vishrambaug wada and the Nana wada. Email firstname.lastname@example.org or call her on +91 99233 38963. Approx R 1,200 per person with vegetarian lunch included.
By Varun Godinho on July 21 2011 6.30pm
Photos by Amit Chakravarty