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Vol. XXV No. 20, February 1-15, 2016

Caring a fig for heritage campuses

by A Special Correspondent

A 100-year-old institution, plenty of history behind it, some great buildings, a vast tree-filled campus, a location by the beach, the first swimming pool exclusively for women in the city – the list of attractions is seemingly endless. What would have happened had this been in Oxford, Cambridge or any American University? It would have been a campus aspiring to be a star tourist attraction and an institution of national pride. But since this is Chennai, the situation is ­exactly the opposite.

The college we are referring to is Queen Mary’s, the second oldest women’s college in South India and the first in Madras city. For years the campus has presented a picture of neglect and the central building and the oldest on site – Capper House was pulled down after suffering a lack of maintenance.

It now appears that if the authorities are to have their way, the rest of the buildings will go the same way. This at least is the impression we get on reading an open letter written by Nithya Balaji, an alumna who was till recently active in the Alumni Association of the College and was one of the co-authors of the college’s centenary volume. The letter is published on page 3 in this issue.

The campus of Queen Mary’s first became a subject of controversy in the early 2000s when the State Government decided to take it over and build a new secretariat in its place. This witnessed several protests by the students – past and then studying, and some opposition politicians tried to jump into the fray. What prevented the takeover was the original land donation deed, which clearly forbade use of the property for any purpose other than education. Since then, it would appear, the Government has decided to give up even the barest of maintenance activities at the institution.

Capper House was replaced by a swanky new building, which is vaguely in sympathy with the architecture of other edifices on campus. It now appears that there is a plan afoot somewhere to let all other structures on campus too to fall one by one so that new buildings can replace them. How else can we explain the fact that seemingly structurally sound buildings are being locked up one by one on grounds of safety? Any good conservation architect can demonstrate that none of these buildings deserve to go and perhaps require very small amounts of maintenance to make them habitable once again.

Leaving aside the issues concerning heritage, the problems of basic cleanliness and hygiene on campus appear to be even more. All across the place you can see plastic waste, fallen leaves and unkempt lawns. The erstwhile swimming pool is now a rubbish heap. And yet classes keep going on. From this it would appear that staff and students are seemingly impervious to their immediate surroundings. The tendency is to blame the Government for everything.

This is of course not a problem that is unique to QMC. Most other historic Government-run institutions present a shabby appearance these days. Historic Presidency College is not much better and by the simple expedient of declaring the institution out of bounds for visitors, has ensured that no pesky photographer can publicise the poor state of the precinct. Victoria Hostel is in an even worse condition leading to protests by students. The solution? No maintenance of existing structures but the building of a new and architecturally incongruous block by the side of the old building!

It is a shame that such apathy towards heritage pervades our educational institutions. How can they inculcate a sense of history in future generations?

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