Lal Bagh Palace in 2019
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Taking a Closer Look at Lal Bagh Palace

Lal Bagh Palace in 2019

The monsoon was late coming to Mumbai. A light drizzle was falling at the Gateway to India, but there were no umbrellas out. The crowds seemed too relieved to see the rains arrive to worry about getting a little wet. The rain lowered the temperatures to the mid-nineties, and the Mumbaikars poured into the streets.

Michael Devonshire and I had come to India to review proposed work on the Lal Bagh Palace in Indore, but before flying to Madhya Pradesh we were to see some examples of the work of Abha Naraini Lambah Associates, the architect selected for the project in Mumbai.

Abha had recently completed work on the 1884 Keneseth Eliyahoo Synagogue in the Fort section of Mumbai, a project requiring elaborate restoration of interior painted finishes and stained glass, as well as replication of damaged encaustic tile flooring. We left the synagogue for a brief visit behind the scenes at the baroque 1912 Royal Opera House, India’s only surviving opera venue. The building had lain vacant and neglected for many years, and a 2016 restoration involved extensive reconstruction of ornate booths and balconies, which had been previously demolished. From viewing the completed work it was apparent that Abha’s firm had significant experience with detailed interior restoration.

Ornate interior of the Lal Bagh Palace.
Ornate interior of the Lal Bagh Palace.

That evening we left Mumbai and headed northeast on a flight inland to Indore, Maharastra’s largest city and commercial hub. Once the capital of the Holkar maharajas, the city features two Holkar dynasty palaces; the 1749 Rajwada, which is tightly surrounded by small commercial buildings in Indore’s center, and Lal Bagh Palace (1886-1921), which sits amidst 70 acres of gardens at the southwest corner of the city. Much like the Mumbai Opera House, Lal Bagh had remained vacant for many years and suffered upper floor damage from roof leaks. Fortunately the ornate ground and first floors remain largely intact. The building reflects the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century vogue among Indian royalty of European-influenced architecture, and was constructed in the Italian Renaissance Revival style. The palace is especially significant for its interiors, which are among the finest survivors of this period remaining in India.

The Government of Madhya Pradesh had recently completed a roof and structural stabilization of the building, and was about to embark on a full exterior and site restoration. World Monuments Fund, with assistance from the Wilson Charitable Trust and IndieGo Airline, was to undertake a demanding restoration and interpretation of the interiors and furnishings. Amita Baig, WMF Representative in India, along with WMF consultant Swati Apte had organized a one-day meeting of Indore government officials, members of the Government of Madhya Pradesh, funding organizations, and the design team—about 25 individuals all together—to tour the site and review proposed conservation work.

The author with touring Lal Bagh Palace with the group of professionals.
The group touring Lal Bagh Palace.

When one enters the palace from the bustling and dusty streets of Indore, the opulence of the interior is quite striking. The columns and wainscoting of Breccia Violetta from Italy, chandeliers from England and Murano, atmospheric ceiling murals, decorative plaster and gilding, and ornate furnishings are a bit overwhelming. The palace was built in three sections; the original “garden house” (1850-1886) was constructed under Tukojirao Holkar II, and the “new kothi” (1886- 1903) under Shivajirao Holkar. A connection of the two buildings (1903-1926) was constructed by Tukojirao Holkar III. With such a sprawling and rich interior, much of the discussion dealt with sequencing of construction and the complexity of circulation for interpretative tours. On site, however, discussion with the design team often wandered into esoteric material issues such as the coir fiber, horsehair, and cotton padding under the silk coverings of the hundreds of upholstered chairs. This will be a detailed restoration!

We reviewed structural issues which will affect sequencing of construction, discussed the intelligent decision to use the “connector” as the entry point for visitors and tours, and pondered the location of a new lift to provide accessibility. As the large site and garden will also serve those who may not plan to visit the palace, there was discussion as well about the reuse of another building on the site to serve as a visitor center and gallery. It was an amicable group, and a useful exercise. The restoration will provide an important accessible heritage site for the Indore community.

As with all such trips, some of the most lasting memories will have nothing to do with the architecture. Travelling in a car to the palace I noticed a cart in the market piled high with small black fruit. These were jamun, I was told, “Malabar plums”, which had a peculiar and astringent sweetness. When he heard of my interest, Yeshwant Holkar, a scion of the ruling family who was participating in the meeting, graciously sent a driver to obtain some for me. Later that day, I noticed some of these same “plums” had fallen from a very tall tree immediately across from the palace. Jamun were apparently a popular fruit with the Holkar maharajahs as well.