Call it an architectural museum, Rana-era pastiche or a masterful reproduction of period pieces, Baber Mahal Revisited is the story of an unimaginable transformation-from cowshed to a palace look-alike shopping mall. The man behind the venture, Gautam Rana-Gitu-puts it better. He calls the complex a phoenix that has risen from its ashes.
Five years ago, the remains of a cowshed and guardhouse stood on the land that Gitu owned in the Baber Mahal area. All that changed when Gitu met an architecture graduate from Harvard, Eric Theophile, who had been involved in restoring historic buildings and temples in the Valley since 1990. Together they decided to bring this little corner of history back to life.
Ignoring lucrative offers to construct a high-rise, Gitu, a great-great grandson of Babar Shamsher Jung Bahadur Rana, instead turned it into a tribute to his Rana ancestors who introduced to Kathmandu a distinctive melange of European and Indian architecture and married it with the local. Work began in 1996, and in eighteen months the incredible transformation was complete.
Inside, the five courtyards and the buildings surrounding them, the d?cor and the aura, all speak of nostalgia for the style of the Ranas, who ruled Nepal between 1846-1951. But this is nostalgia with a very modern face-at BMR everything is a copy of something else. The entrance, for example, is a reduced replica of Singha Durbar porch. All the courtyards resemble some or the other palaces of the Valley. All this reproduction was done with no compunction. Gitu, early on into the conversation, makes a pre-emptive strike at the regular rant against reproduction architecture. "Authenticity is not the motive behind this building. There is no such thing as an original whether in painting or architecture," explains Gitu. Besides, this sort of catholic borrowing is in keeping with the history of Nepali architecture in the last two centuries. In fact re-creations like these are needed, given the abject conditions of palaces scattered across the Valley.
The Newari Chowk explores the hybrid Nepali-European architecture once abundant in Patan. The touch of "authenticity", if that's what you're after, comes from the windows, all salvaged from houses marked for demolition in the old city. There's another Chowk whose fa?ade is a copy of Thapathali Durbar, the former residence of Jung Bahadur Rana. "If ever the Thapathali Durbar should come down, I want people to remember the Mughal touch so beautifully incorporated through this chowk," says Gitu. The fa?ade is beautiful indeed but it is the small touches-like the pati placed in the middle of this chowk-that really make the building. There is another courtyard with a replica of a fountain in Keshar Mahal, and another with the re-creation of a wall in Bal Mandir. The best of these, however, is the Mul Chowk where the front on one side is a replica of Babar Mahal Darbar. This is the biggest courtyard and the hub for social gatherings and functions. A tree in the middle with a chautari built around it provides a comfortable link with the past. The two busts, one of Baber Shamsher, and the other of Aditya Shamsher, Gitu's father, add an individual-and controversial-take on Nepali history to this courtyard. The rooftops have an interesting gingerbread decoration of tin sheets copied from Hotel Shankar.
From the entrance, with its terracotta brick (telia) floor, an aura of aristocratic sophistication and crisp architectural perfection strikes the visitor. Gitu credits this to six Newari craftsmen, all in their sixties, whom he calls Gurjus. "Nobody can fault this construction because it has been built by traditional craftsmen who are specialists in this kind of work," says Gitu. The great grandfathers of these craftsmen built the Babar Mahal Durbar, and the tradition continues.
BMR isn't just about perfecting the craft of reproduction, though. Creativity and innovation are integral parts of the project. No two buildings are of the same height. Some are single-storeyed others two, but even the ones with the same number of floors are not of equal height. At one corner, a tower has been added. At another, the roof raised. The level variations are applied on the ground too. A tour around the complex makes one step up and down frequently. The idea, as explained, was to break the monotony of the ground and make the complex look like a small city in itself. The Mul Chowk, especially, was built 6 feet below ground level. Consequently, drainage could have posed a problem but the tried and tested architecture of the past came in handy again. With the help of perforated slate tiles, the water flow was diverted internally to a pond outside the complex area. Enlivening the space are the odd stone idol, a pair of metal lions or a lamp placed in the galli.
The use of materials like mud mortar and lime plaster for the walls and metal sheets for the roof brought down construction costs to $432,000, a major portion borne by Gitu himself while the remaining came as a loan from Himalayan Bank. That cost, the owner believes, is much lower than constructing a modern reinforced concrete frame structure.
An architectural accomplishment no doubt, but what of its commercial prospects? Apart from housing three restaurants and a bar, the complex has several interesting shops, selling a range of products from rare Nepali and other Asian arts and crafts to music-sculptures, paintings, earthenware, copperware, paper products, jewellery, pote (traditional glass beads) to CDs. "I wanted it to be a place where a variety of cultures thrived under one roof without being too expensive," says Gitu. But how well is that working?
BMR attracts a minimum of 50 people each day, mostly expatriates and affluent Nepalis, and a negligible number of tourists who stumble upon it through travel magazines. But more often they come to the restaurants than to shop around. So, there are days when shops have no customers at all. For some strange reason, most Nepalis seem to prefer regular old shops to the ones within the soothing ambience of the complex. Is it because the stores are expensive in BMR? "Not at all," says Caroline of Naya Pasal, "Prices here are the same as in any other of our outlets." Other shop owners feel the same way, but it's obvious that business at other outlets is much better. "Why do people think a clean, beautiful and minimalist place must always be expensive?" argues Gitu. Could it be that BMR has been so successful in re-creating the Rana era so well that the complex exudes too aristocratic a feel? That could be why Baber Mahal Revisited remains an exemplary architectural museum but is yet to achieve commercial success.