Discover and Preserve - Helen Philon

A co-founder of the Deccan Heritage Foundation (DHF), Helen Philon completed her MPhil in pre-Islamic Persian art from SOAS, the University of London in 1972. Wife of the then Greek diplomat to India, she pursued a PhD from SOAS on religious and royal architecture of the early Bahmanis, Deccan India, in 2005. For twelve years, she was the curator of the Islamic department at the Benaki Museum in Athens, where she organised several notable exhibitions.

In 2011, she co-founded the Deccan Heritage Foundation in the UK and India, and in 2014 helped establish the American Friends of the Deccan Heritage Foundation. Helen co-authored Islamic Architecture of Deccan India, a lavishly produced book illustrated with splendid photographs. Among her previous publications are Early Islamic Ceramics at the Benaki Museum, Athens and the DHF guidebook, Gulbarga, Bidar, Bijapur.

What’s the Deccan Heritage Foundation all about?
Back in the day, while visiting different sites, we came across the Deccan and I fell in love with the monuments I saw there. I couldn’t help but notice how most of these monuments were not properly taken care of. Hence the DHF took shape, with an objective to advise, consult, and do our best to restore monuments. We focus on restoring monuments that have a social dimension – those that can help the local communities. We’re currently restoring a pavilion in Anegundi in Hampi, which can be used for women to display their handmade products. Through this, they can make some money and have a bigger voice in the family. We want to help local communities become more self-sufficient and lead better lives.

We’re perhaps the first organisation to restore water systems, too. Our first was the Qanat in Bidar, located in northeastern Karnataka. We restored it and introduced management systems to wash the area around and cleanse the waters so that it remains clean. We always combine restoration with maintenance. With the climate changing so fast, we’ll all be suffering soon! So maintenance of these restored sites is equally important.

How do you decide which site to work on next?
We need a better community and an even better environment. Our entire staff is attuned to this! So while deciding on our projects, we think about whether it’ll benefit the surrounding community. And if yes, in what ways? Then we think about the cost and plan the liquid and waste management accordingly. For instance, the waste management plan we executed during the restoration of the Qanat worked in such a way that the waste was reused as an organic fertiliser for growing green fields around it. The result was fantastic! The product we developed was so good for the earth that we had grown lush green valleys in no time. These are some of the small pleasures we get from our projects.

What do you like most about the Deccan region?
I feel that the Deccan is the most interesting region, as it has all the cultures that flourished in India. From Jewish, Christian, and Sikh to Buddhist, Hindu, and Islamic, this region has them all. All these cultures are in constant interaction with each other. There are no barriers between cultures here, and that has been the case since historic times! I hope this will not change.

What are some of your current challenges?
We are always facing challenges, but one of the major ones is funding. During the restoration of the Qanat, Tata Trust and Nestle India helped us out with financing, and I’m grateful for them. However, we had to clean an extra length around it, for which the local government was supposed to provide the funds. It’s been 2-3 years now, and money hasn’t arrived yet. So I guess in situations like this, you just need to keep trying and give your best to make things happen.

When did you first recognise your interest in history, culture, and heritage sites?
Years ago! When I was a little girl, my parents used to take me and my sister to heritage sites in and around Europe. From the age of two, I have been visiting museums. I was exposed to various cultures very young. Being Greek, I guess culture is in my DNA (laughs)!

Raising awareness about heritage sites is mostly done through lectures and books. Do you feel this is working with the younger generation, say, the millennials?
Yes and no. Some are really committed to history and culture, and others simply don’t seem to have a clue! It’s a pity that modern education doesn’t encourage learning in these aspects. Unless you have an understanding of your past, you cannot plan your future. History and culture give you new perspectives that the internet does not. You need to understand that you’re a combination of your past and the present. If you disregard your past, you will lose your present. So to bring awareness among younger ones, we take schools to different ancient sites over weekends. We show them why a site is important. Not why it’s big, but what it tells us about the time it was built: how they lived, what they did, and what they liked! We started this programme in the slums of Mumbai.

What are some valuable lessons from the sites you’ve helped restore?
It’s how keen the locals are to improve the quality of their lives. They’re initially afraid that we might just take away what they have. And once we started involving them in the decision-making and explained to them what we’re doing and how it will help them, they wanted to render their support too! We once introduced three-wheeler devices for collecting rubbish in a certain community during a project. As soon as the streets and alleys became visibly cleaner, the neighbouring communities showed interest, and wanted to introduce the same thing in their own communities!

Which heritage site is most close to your heart?
While there are many to list, I love Bidar. And Hampi is wonderful! I love all the Chalukyan, Hoysala, and Kakatiya sites. The Ramappa temple – the goddesses; shaktis are just so amazing! The Deccan is simply wonderful. We’re going to Shimoga next. There’s something new to be discovered every time we come here!        – as told to Sumana

To learn more about the DHF, you can go to: deccanheritagefoundation.org