Debashish Nayak
IndiaHeritage Initiative - Nehru Foundation for Development
Fellow since 1990

Debashish is developing a people's movement to preserve and restore the rich architectural heritage of India's widely varying neighborhoods. By helping people see what they have and then organize to protect it, he's triggering the civic pride and organization that are the prerequisites to reversing urban decay.

#India#Bengali language#Urban decay#City#West Bengal

The Person

Debashish grew up in Calcutta, the son of one of India's leading industrial model makers. He learned to be expert at his father's profession and, as a youngster, he saw much of India through the profession's penetrating lenses as he traveled to different cities and sites helping develop and then deliver models. He climbed tall towers, went down into mines, and even developed a skill in aerial photography. He went to school at the Ramakrishna Mission's famous school at Narendrapur. In addition to giving him an excellent education, it introduced him to other aspects of India's reality. He worked as part of a small group which went to many West Bengali villages to argue for communal harmony and to help with concrete social work. He went on to the progressive School of Design in Baroda, second city of the very different, bustling western state of Gujarat. Here his life work increasingly crystalized. Home in Calcutta for a six month required architectural apprenticeship, he discovered that many of the old architecture and construction firms had a treasure of the original drawings of many of the city's old buildings. He plunged into forgotten store rooms, candle in hand - and emerged at the end of six months with the city's first library of its architectural inheritance. While at Baroda, Debashish began his broader self education to prepare himself for his unconventional career. The founding Director of the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH), Ashoka Fellow, Mapu Singh, asked him to serve on a panel of experts and helped pay for him to map 400 of Calcutta's key historic buildings. Using his developing ideas of what should be done for Calcutta, he won several key conservationist sponsors internationally, which in turn allowed him to see work being done in the field in Pennsylvania, Italy, Poland and Israel. Debashish's intensity of focus, the hallmark of the entrepreneurial personality, has readied him at 30 to know how history can help launch neighborhood revival and self help in India's cities.

The New Idea

Debashish is an architect with both an eye and a deep love for the accumulated architectural beauty that is any city's capital inheritance. He also understands how, if that inheritance is cared for, it will enormously improve the quality of urban life and, at least for the especially historic old cores that are the geographic heart of most cities, generate substantial tourist revenues. Since tourism is India's second largest earner of foreign exchange, the latter promise has national as well as local significance. But, how can India's cities restore their historic quality? Debashish believes that it will never happen without grassroots leadership - and that such leadership in turn is a most promising key to overall neighborhood and citywide renewal. He therefore works intensively to help each neighborhood see the beauty behind the billboards, garish replacement facades, and grime - and then take charge, piece by piece and group by group, until a critical mass of effort cumulatively reverses the process of decay with a new virtuous cycle fueled by pride first in the community's heritage and then in its new and dramatically demonstrated ability to join together and make a real difference. Once a community has learned it has this power, it will be tempted to use it again - and again.

The Problem

India's cities are under siege, tens of millions of very poor people have been pouring into them in the 1990's - creating slum communities with a population larger than Brazil's total population. There are few resources available - and many urgent needs - e.g., health, education, police, and basic infrastructure competing for them. India has, moreover, traditionally been relatively insensitive to history. (Except in Sri Lanka and Kashmir, South Asia has had few historians amongst its outpouring of writers of every other sort over the two thousand years since Ashoka's reign.) Developing popular historical consciousness may consequently prove unusually difficult. In many cities the process of decay is in an advanced, malignant stage. Debashish's native Calcutta is virtually a worldwide synonym for urban collapse.

The Strategy

Debashish is making the once grand but now disreputable North Calcutta his testing ground and showpiece. Built to the north of the European part of the city's original core by generations of prosperous Bengali families, its miles of narrow lanes connect a world of generous, elaborate courtyards around which those joint families centered their lives. His focus is not on a few public monuments, but a living neighborhood. If he can turn this major part of Calcutta's core around, the reputation and credibility of his approach will be assured. He begins work by mapping the community. Understanding what's there, its history, who owns what, who's influential, who might volunteer. Photographing forgotten mosques and old carved doorways. Digging out old building plans and photographs. This process requires ingenuity, a great deal of patient socializing, even persuading local toughs to help gain access to old plans. He then goes to work to help the neighborhood's people see what he is seeing. An old man suddenly realizes with pride that there's no other courtyard anywhere in the world like his. Young people who attend one of Debashish's numerous shows see behind the grime and neglect and realize that their street, their neighborhood is special. As these sparks begin to glow, Debashish feeds them tinder. His slide shows depict what other neighborhoods have done with far poorer inheritances. And he encourages each person or group who shows an interest to take responsibility and credit for a manageable and visible part of the work. He encourages families to work on their own buildings, reinforcing education with modest matching grants where possible. Others take charge of the restoration and reinstallation of long ignored street fixtures and other common elements - old gas lamps, light posts, street name plates, shop front signage, even the paving stones. Debashish reinforces this growing movement from within the community in many different ways. As part of his effort to make his own profession more sensitive, he regularly visits leading schools of architecture and design and successfully persuades students to volunteer in North Calcutta or four other sites where he's working across India. He is also attracting many others to contribute time and money. For example, he's creating a research grant system for investigating traditional building materials, paints, hardware, glass, ceramics, furniture, and style and decoration supported by business contributions. This is one of his incentives for attracting those with a serious interest in conservation to his venture. He'll also invoke outside powers whenever useful. Thus he won the region's first preservationist court case in order to save a lovely part of the eighteenth century palace of Nabakrisnna Deb, a Bengali businessman who played a key role in opening India's trade with the young United States. His colonaded courtyard and the rooms overlooking it saw many of the intellectual discussions that led to the Bengali Rennaissance and then to the early development of nationalism in the region. This success, amplified through Debashish's skilled and persistent work with the press, was a great encouragement to the neighborhood's new conservationist activists. As quickly as possible, Debashish is beginning to attract tourists. Working with his volunteer local leaders, and the families of key houses, he's prepared maps of suggested walking tours of the area, helped residents mount displays of family histories, developed other special explanatory materials and trained local volunteer guides to help the visitor experience yesterday's enriching compatibility with contemporary life.