The young and the old

Updated: Nov 17, 2019, 07:46 IST | Jane Borges | Mumbai

She's only 27 but already earning fans in the heritage-loving lobby and social media for convincing clients of old Goan homes to retain their balcaos and spreading egg-chuna-jaggery on their walls

A private chapel inside a Goan home that Martins recently restored. Pics courtesy/ Devika Martins
A private chapel inside a Goan home that Martins recently restored. Pics courtesy/ Devika Martins

Why reuse old doors? The question stares at us on Goa-based Devika Martins's Instagram feed somewhere between the charming photographs of homes that boast of lofty, wooden roofs and mosaic flooring. The 27-year-old has a roster for a response—it is environment-friendly, denser, resistant, stronger and durable—along with a word of caution, of course: Think twice before you get rid of them.

For the last four years, Martins, a restorer of old Goan homes and heritage advocate, has been spreading the love around preserving the architectural glory of the region, which has seen multiple interventions, and is, therefore, a melting point of styles, including Portuguese, Indian and Islamic. This amalgamation is what gives it a distinct identity: the balcãos (pillared porches), the saquãos (central courtyards), ornamental windows and doors, and the grand wooden staircases.

A student of the University of Florence, Italy, where she got a Masters degree in restoration, conversation, and Renaissance interiors, Martins, who briefly worked in Dubai, returned home with the intention of working under Goan architect Gerard da Cunha, a family friend, whose sustainability practices, gelled with her own. "But Gerard didn't give me a job," she says, over a telephonic interview. "He knew of my interest in conservation, and motivated me to start out on my own, instead."

That was in 2016. Since then, the young restorer, who runs Martins Group in Panjim, has breathed new life into four heritage homes in Goa. And a fifth is underway. "It's really hard to convince people, especially in Goa, about restoration. As we speak, several ancient temples are in the process of being torn down, to make way for new ones. We are erasing a part of our history. But, then it also means that we are not educating the locals enough."

Most Goans, she says, resist the idea of lime plastering their walls. "I was restoring a chapel at a private residence recently, and I convinced the client to use lime plaster. He seemed okay with the idea, until he consulted the family, who thought cement would increase the life of the structure," says Martins, adding, "People don't realise that all the churches, temples and forts in India are standing today, because of lime plaster."

DevikaDevika Martins at a home that she is restoring in Panjim. Pic/ Jane D'souza

To counter the popular narrative, which she says was based on misinformation, Martins started using social media, where she wrote, among other things, about the benefits of lime plastering. She even shared her own lime plaster recipe—a paste of chuna, water, sand, jaggery, eggs and sun-dried paddy grass. Her social media feed also has tips on how heritage home owners can save on renovation work, or the paint that needs to be used before monsoon, to make the structure less vulnerable. "People are amused that I am letting out trade secrets. But, this is not a job, it's my passion. If I can prevent people from knocking off a wooden stairway, or using lime plaster and Mangalore tiles, I would have saved a few homes, and done my part."

Having said that, she admits that owning an old building in Indian weather is a "big commitment, and a lot of maintenance". "Even your furniture has so many crevices that need to be cleaned constantly of dust."

Martins usually follows a three-pronged approach when handling her restoration projects: plastering, flooring and roofing. "And, we promise to complete the work in a hundred days flat, unless the client delays payments," she smiles.

Usually, the homes she takes up are run down, because the owners are either not around to maintain them, or the cost to keep the structure together is high. "We begin with redoing the entire plastering. When it comes to the flooring, we switch between red-oxide, mosaic or terrazzo. Mosaic, which has glass and tiles chipped into it, is slightly difficult to find. But restoration is about retaining the original elements, and so, we ensure that we don't deviate from that, unless the client prefers otherwise," she says. She has had some clients who have wanted to get rid of wooden roofing, because it is high-maintenance. "That's when I need to reinvent. But my favourite clients are those, who ask for roofs with wooden beams and Mangalore tiles."

Restoring a home doesn't come cheap, and while Martins admits her budgets are competitive, it's still a cost. Her cheapest project cost the client R40 lakh. She hasn't yet shot above a crore. "And that's because, I don't involve a middle-man," she says. In this case, the contractor. "I wake up at 5 am, and personally make a trip to buy sandbags."

When in Italy, Martins had enrolled for separate courses on woodworking, carving, polishing wood and metal. She uses these skills, when working on her projects. The biggest challenge, though, is lack of documentation. "Rarely do owners have old pictures of the building, which always makes it easier to replicate design. "I have to imagine it all on 3D," she says, "but, that's the fun bit!"

40L
The budget of the cheapest project Martins has undertaken

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