Tuesday, April 10, 2012

In public interest, yes... but demolition at what cost?






The first time I went out of India was in 1977. It was really nothing much – just a hop-skip-and-jump tour to Nepal. In those days, Kathmandu was a lovely city, with wide roads, no garbage or litter anywhere, delightful nooks and crannies where you could shop or just stand still, and very friendly people. It was a sort of hub for Westerners then, many of whom would leave for the base camp to Everest from there. What I also remember is the way some of the old buildings were looked after well, not just temples. Even then, it was quite a heady mix of the old and the new, and the hippy presence added to the romance. I was then in school but the memories are still vivid.

It took several years after that brief flirting with the ‘outdoors’ to really step out into the world. My visit to England in 1996 was made even more memorable thanks to my colleague Simon Cole who drove me to Kent, past wide open manicured fields punctuated by the presence of healthy sheep and cows. A picture before the cathedral in Kent is one of my favourites. Then, of course, there have been several other visits, the high point being reached when I found myself in front of the magnificent cathedral in Vienna.

Whether it was Kathmandu, Kent, Darmstadt (a small town in Germany), Dusseldorf, Brussels or Vienna, I have always been fascinated by the way old buildings and precincts are preserved in these places. It certainly has to do with a certain culture, one that we sadly lack. In recent years, a few of us, shepherded by the redoubtable S. Muthiah, have been trying to raise awareness about Chennai’s heritage and the need to preserve as far as possible heritage that may be built or natural. Most of the enthusiasm comes to the fore during what is celebrated as Madras Week, the week that prefixes and suffixes Madras Day, August 22, the day the city was founded. One of the heartening things is the fact that many residents in the city turn up for the more than hundred-odd events that are held during the week. Although the numbers are not large, there is a size-able section in the city now that is fairly aware about heritage and heritage conservation.

The demolition of the rear portion of P. Orr & Sons on Mount Road as shown by that cleverly taken picture by The Hindu photographer almost bleeds one’s heart. There are now fears that the P. Orr & Sons showroom might be in danger. And all for a railway line… what is said to be public interest. But things have come to such a pass mainly due to the Tamil Nadu government's inexplicable delay in extending legal protective measures to heritage structures, as The Hindu editorial clearly mentions. That the INTACH petition was ground to the dust by the honorable judges of the Madras High Court is another sad story. I do not wish to question their wisdom or judgment but surely heritage lovers must unite and stand together and continue the fight for a Heritage Act. As the editorial points out, it is lack of legal protection for heritage structures or a comprehensive legal framework that has resulted in six grounds of the rear portion of P. Orr & Sons being reduced to rubble but also one heritage structure after another disappearing.

We can only hope that although it now clearly seems to be a losing battle for some of us, the tide will change soon enough with legislation in place to protect heritage structures that need to be conserved so that filing a PIL may not really be necessary.

Look at some of the pictures I took in Vienna. Shows how people in another country value heritage. One with me in it was taken before the magnificent St Stephen's Cathedral, which stands on the ruins of another consecrated in 1147. See that vaulted dome, how it has been preserved. The rest are snapshots of the heritage precinct.

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