Restoration at work: From jail inmates to heritage buildings

Restoration at work: From jail inmates to heritage buildings

Kolkata: The Lalgola Correctional Home, in the Murshidabad district of West Bengal, around 235km from the city doesn’t just want to restore its inmates to the mainstream, reformed and ready to lead law-abiding lives. It also wants to restore its own looks, and is not above taking the help of its inmates for this. Soon, around 15 inmates will be trained in the art and science of restoring heritage buildings (the Lalgola complex is one).

As part of their training, the inmates will first restore three 17th-century temples within the premises of the correctional home and the main gate of the complex that used to be a palace.

B.D. Sharma, the state’s inspector general, hit upon the idea after restoring his official red-brick colonial residence in Kolkata. He has ambitious plans for the restorers and lists several heritage buildings in his department’s fold that he would like restored. “Of course, there is the issue of (raising) funds (required to do this)," says Sharma.

Finding funds for the training and the initial project itself has not been easy. While the state’s heritage commission has commended Sharma for his efforts, it has no funds to spare for the project, expected to cost Rs36 lakh over two years.

Sharma has turned to The Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (Intach), a not-for-profit organization which, in turn, has posted the proposal to the International Ambassador’s Fund for Cultural Preservation Grant Award. “We have our hopes pinned on this," says G.M. Kapur, convenor of Intach’s West Bengal and Kolkata chapter.

Perched on the bank of river Kalkali, that courses between West Bengal and Bangladesh, the Lalgola palace was gifted to the West Bengal government in 1960 by the local king, Raja Dhirendra Narayan Roy, on condition that none of the heritage structures on the campus would be dismantled.

The to-be-trained inmates will have to learn to use lime mortar and plaster which is a dying art, as people use cement and concrete more. Conservationists swear by lime for proper restoration of old buildings as the mix can breathe and offer a smoother finish. But present-day masons are unwilling to work with lime—it needs time and preparation to get the mix just right.

Sharma has already identified the masons among the jail inmates at Lalgola and in prisons in other parts of the state who will undergo the training; he hopes to find some more candidates for the proposed training. Lalgola, which was one of the country’s first “open-air" correctional homes, allows its inmates (who are usually nearing the end of their life term or rigorous imprisonment) to go out and earn a living and mix with people through the day, before returning to the jail for the night. After the three temples, Sharma is toying with idea of restoring the rather dilapidated colonial guest house in the complex. But restoring the majestic structure, which will require extensive conservation work will involve investments of about Rs2 crore, says Kapur.

Also on Sharma’s restoration radar are two colonial prisons in Midnapore district where several freedom fighters were detained. Sharma would like their restoration to be his department’s contribution to the celebration of 150 years of the Sepoy Mutiny of the first war of Indian independence in 1857. Intach has been asked to do a feasibility study for this restoration work. Again, the criticical issue will be availability of funds.

Kapur estimates this would also cost more than Rs2 crore. With very little scope of putting these buildings to commercial use, Sharma expects his plans will have to draw on grants, rather than borrowings.