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Vol. XXVI No. 17, December 16-31, 2016

Farewell, Jayalalithaa Will what she started on heritage now be completed?

(By A Special Correspondent)

A charismatic and powerful leader, perhaps one of the most towering personalities in recent times, has passed away. The death of the Chief Minister Jayalalithaa has naturally left a huge void both within her party and at the helm of affairs in the administration. A debate rages on her successor(s) in the political entity she headed and in governance, for all of which we hope a satisfactory answer will be found soon as it will otherwise tell on our State’s performance.

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While answers are awaited, this may be a good time to assess what has been the impact that the late Chief Minister has left behind on matters concerning heritage and culture, for those are the primary areas of interest for this journal. The ultimate analysis would reveal a mixed bag, with perhaps the feeling that more could have been done. We do not know if we are correct in laying everything, rights and wrongs at her doorstep, but this was a leader who as was well-known took most decisions herself and so we may not be far wrong.

The first administration, in the 1990s, is by itself suitably illustrative. On coming to know that Subramania Bharati’s erstwhile residence was likely to be razed to the ground, the State Government acted decisively. It acquired the property and, not content with that, went on to restore it, after a fashion, to the way it looked during the great poet’s time. The house is today an excellent memorial to him. If this was to the good, not so was the move to demolish the Directorate General of Police headquarters on the Marina, to be replaced by a multi-storey structure. That idea was fortunately struck down by the High Court and the administration gave in with good grace. The structure was restored and new annexes came up in identical style, thereby maintaining the skyline. The complex remains a joy to behold.

The second administration began ominously with the announcement that the Queen Mary’s College would be moved, to make way for a new secretariat. That did not happen thanks to the spirited protest of students, past and current. The Courts intervened and the campus was saved. It, however, resulted in the administration completely giving up all efforts to protect the campus. As a consequence, what we see today are several run-down buildings, most of them in a state of collapse owing to wanton neglect.

The long-term impact of the decision to build a new secretariat would be detrimental to heritage. A succeeding administration, headed by the rival party, finished off several age-old buildings on Mount Road to make way for a new secretariat that the late Chief Minister did not want anything with once she came to power a third time. It became a brooding presence, supposedly a multi-speciality referral hospital, but what it cost in terms of heritage cannot be calculated. The one good aspect of it all was that Fort St George remained the seat of power, albeit with little concern as to the historicity of the precincts.

The third administration saw a Heritage Act finally being passed by the Government. That it happened shortly after Madras Musings completed and submitted a signature campaign addressed to the late Chief Minister’s office may have had nothing to do with it (we did not get an acknowledgment) but we are happy we played a part. An entire term passed without this Act being implemented but then there were several other concerns occupying the leader’s mind. The Ice House was made over to the Ramakrishna Mission for 99 years and therefore saved.

The fourth term did reveal a new promise. Gone were the massive cutouts and banners hailing the leader and hogging the sidewalks. There was talk in the corridors of power of a desire to create a framework within which heritage could be preserved. But alas, before that could translate into action, death intervened. May her successors carry forward her vision as expressed in her final term.

Can we look forward to the completion of restoration stranded in her time of Ripon Building, Victoria Public Hall, the National Art Gallery and Khalsa Mahal?

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