The Dehradun house – A Second Life

The Dehradun House

In 2008, Kohelika and I were together in New York, one of our favourite cities in the world. We went to the inaugural exhibition, titled ‘Second Lives: Re-mixing the Ordinary’, at the ‘Museum of Arts and Design’ (MAD), in their beautiful purpose–built new building on Columbus Circle in Central Park West. This was an amazingly creative exhibition where objects, originally made for another functional purpose, were given a “second life”, in a new avatar. I think, such is the case with many elements in our Dehradun House where “the artists” in Ramesh Kohli’s multi-generational family have transformed the House, whilst responding to new design and cultural paradigms. This house is a commentary on familial memories of gentler times.

This House, located in the centre of an old residential area, was bought in 1944/45. My husband has lived there most of his life. This British period house, previously called ‘Brentwood Estate’ was then already about 50 years old. The plot still has about a hundred or so old fruiting trees of litchi, jackfruit and pomelos.

In 1966/67, my husband Rome had done a major reconstruction and renovation job. The façade was entirely changed and the re-building was done entirely by him. But, as Dehradun is on a seismic zone of IV, structural damages to the house have included many fissures during frequent earthquakes and tremors. Being in the valley, cloudbursts are also frequent. The House has always required regular repairs. Our ties to Dehradun are very old as Rome studied at The Doon School, as did our son Suryaveer.  And now, our 14 year old grandson, Zohravar, is fortunate to be studying there. It is these old ties that prompted Ramesh Kohli’s children to decide to go in for a major revamp some years ago, as part of the family lives there permanently and the rest visits very frequently.

Lowenthal had famously said, “The past is a foreign country”. This house is palpable with nostalgia and it selectively recaptures events, objects and places from the past. Spending time in the House is therapeutic.

Although the House is only about a hundred years old, we treated the renovation of the house as partly a conservation project of a mid-century house. For our three grandchildren, the associations are already of four generations. “Architectural heritage is history written in stone” and as collective memories and family values represent intangible heritage, we wanted to conserve the sense of continuity, of belonging and of being rooted.

Houses engender social and family harmony. They anchor us in a larger hold, connecting us to the past, grounding us in the present and giving us a sense of identity and roots, a sense of belonging and of purpose. As it is hard to define heritage, personal histories and personal heritage, therefore, we must define it for ourselves. We have chosen to remember and observe our family rituals of birth, death and marriage and our ways of celebrating certain festivals such as the chanting of specific songs at karvachauth.

The wisdom-keeper in my husband’s family was my mother-in-law. Traditional food, pickles, murabbas and sherbets were made by her. Ayurvedic medicines were brewed and pounded in her kitchen. The preparation of food is learnt by observation; it is a process of osmosis. In this House, all three generations are reasonably good cooks and much traditional cooking takes place in the renovated kitchen.

K2India is a multidisciplinary firm of architecture, design, furniture-making and construction. So Kohelika took over the renovation of the House. She says, “The idea was to do as little change to the exterior look of the space but to systematically go through the interior spaces and add or change what we really needed to do, now with three generations living there”. A long pebbled drive-way leads up to the front façade, with its cantilevered porch and buttresses in river rocks. These features were conceptualised by Rome and were retained. “We noted how the original house connected from room to room and how perhaps now we did not want those connections. So once I finished dealing with the infrastructural issues, the water proofing of the roof and all the drainage, plumbing and electricity issues, we then started looking at the flow of how we now wanted to use the House. Windows were enlarged to really experience the outdoors much more. One got all the fireplaces up and working again, by re-bricking chimneys. I added a fourth bathroom, for the fourth bedroom. My grandmother was a strict vegetarian so there were two segregated kitchens. I converted one into a utility-cum-staff room. I made the rear verandah into an extension of the Living and Dining Rooms and fitted a bar in there into an old armoire, giving that item of furniture also a second life”, she concludes.

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