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Vol. XXX No. 17, January 1-15, 2021

Another hazy year ends for heritage

by The Editor

It cannot be denied that 2020 had much to occupy the powers that be and also the rest of us, in this our city of Madras that is Chennai. Given that matters concerning heritage receive scant attention even in normal years, it is no surprise that there has been even less in the one that has just ended. But if we let matters drift this way, we may soon end up having very little to show as far as our built heritage is concerned.

There have been some positive developments – the Chepauk Palace restoration is going on though the precinct has become more or less out of bounds unless you have matters pending before the National Green Tribunal. The work on the National Art Gallery in the museum complex is nearing completion. The High Court of Madras, and the Metropolitan Magistrates Courts are being tended to, as are some of the historic police stations in the city. The Raja Sir Savalai Ramaswami Mudaliar Choultry is looking resplendent though it is now just a sham structure, the portions to the rear that actually defined its purpose having been pulled down. That was done under the shelter of a judgement of the High Court of Madras that conveniently interpreted an earlier order to restore around 400 heritage buildings as pertaining only to the facades.

But a survey of several other heritage structures in the possession of the Government reveals a complete lack of a consistent policy. Victoria Public Hall remains a ghostly shell, as does Bharath Insurance Building, owned by the LIC. The Bank of Madras building on Rajaji Salai is awaiting restoration after a disastrous fire and nothing will convince us that the owners, the State Bank of India, lack the funds for getting on with it, several years after the conflagration. The faculty of the Government College of Fine Arts, Egmore, speak under strict anonymity that the buildings in the premises have begun developing cracks after the Metro became operational several feet below. On the beachfront, the Lady Willingdon Institute now sports an ugly new arm, stretching from west to east. It is yet to be completed, but it promises to be an eyesore when done. Not far from here, the Director General of Police’s headquarters, has in a classic instance of excess zeal, extended its colonnaded façade to completely hide the graceful outline of the art deco Forensic Department. Why this was done beats all logic but had there been an active heritage committee in place, this would not have happened.

The record when it comes to private buildings is even worse. Many have just vanished, the order preventing their demolition being circumvented by means, fair and foul. Binny’s headquarters has gone, as has Gordon Woodroffe. The old D’Angeli’s Building is mere rubble. Several smaller structures, that dotted the Mount Road skyline and delighted the eye have also vanished, their absence being noticed by just a few. Several more will slip through the cracks.

It is not as though there are no laws in place. The State has a Heritage Act. It also has a Heritage Conservation Committee though as to what it does and how often it meets are all matters of conjecture. Certainly, there are no records of its proceedings in the public domain. The Indian National Trust for Arts and Cultural Heritage has been dormant on the heritage activism front ever since that rather disastrous litigation concerning P Orr & Sons, when your editor was the Convenor. With nobody questioning the Government on matters concerning conservation, arbitrary rules and regulations and contravening decisions are the order of the day. Perhaps it is time for INTACH to approach the Court requesting from the Government a report on what has been the action taken since the Justice Prabha Sridevan judgement in 2010 that mandated the restoration of heritage buildings in the city.

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