Will it always be a losing battle for heritage lovers in Chennai?

Thanks to my association with a group of catalysts that has been organising Madras Day and Madras Week celebrations the past few years, my knowledge about the city’s history has grown, but there is still a lot more I’m dying to learn. One of the things is that I have been deeply saddened by the callous attitude of many towards conserving heritage. There is now a feeling of helplessness among heritage lovers that despite all the progress made on several fronts, not much has been made on the heritage conservation/preservation/ restoration front in Chennai and Tamil Nadu.

The State does not have a Heritage Act and the result is that anybody can pull down a heritage structure without approval or guilt. I dwell on heritage today because I received a call from a heritage enthusiast, a writer-historian, saying that two more heritage structures in the city were in the process of being pulled down – Conway House in the St George’s School & Orphanage campus on Poonamallee High Road and St Ebba’s School on Dr Radhakrishnan Salai.

Of course, those who wish to pull down old buildings will always come up with the argument that if restoration is not possible what is the use of keeping such buildings ‘on the ventilator’. Yes, indeed, they do have a point. But what organisations such as INTACH stress is that if a built or natural structure is of historical importance, every effort must be made to maintain it and keep it alive for posterity. And need I point out that most of the old buildings constructed during the Mughal and British period are solid and strong. How many times have we seen cracks appear on our so-called modern structures?

The point is that unlike in the developed countries of the world, in India we hardly value our heritage. We realise this only when we marvel at how well maintained most of the old buildings in these countries are. Two years ago, when I was in Vienna and Darmstadt (Germany), I was floored by the kind of care bestowed on old buildings, on natural heritage, on almost every resource that the country had. Why can’t we develop such a culture here? What can be done to instill in youngsters such a feeling so that when they grow up and get into government they will know what is right for heritage and what is the right kind of conservation? I wonder!


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