Registered with the Registrar of Newspapers for India under R.N.I 53640/91

Vol. XXV No. 24, April 1-15, 2016

Know your Fort better

by Sriram V

A last and lingering look

wellesley-houseThe state Wellesley House is in today.

Stepping out of Fort Museum into the sunshine and humidity that our city is known for, we return to the 21st Century. Our tour of the Fort is done and it is time to go home. We walk back through the narrow pedestrian bridge over the moat on to the steps and the  main road, where a pedestrian signal light, the only one working in the whole of the city, helps you to cross the road to the parking lot.

There is lots more to see in the Fort – the Garrison Theatre in which the army staged its plays and invited outside troupes to perform for their entertainment, there is a building rather intriguingly called Clive’s Library with which he had nothing to do, and there are the Navy’s offices. All of these are no doubt wonderful buildings but none of these is open to the public, which is all rather sad. For that matter, there is a lot more to be seen in the Fort that we cannot really access.

To get an idea of the acreage that is out of bounds you need to view a rather ugly but functional model of Fort St George made out of wood, which is on display in the Fort Museum. Nobody is clear as to when this was made, not even D M Reid who in his Story of Fort St George merely speculates that it could have been commissioned sometime late in the 19th Century. This was till the 1940s in a room beside St Mary’s together with the display of the church’s plate. When the museum was commissioned in 1946, it was moved there. Viewing this model you come to realise that almost 50 per cent of the Fort cannot be accessed, which means we also do not know what has happened to the historic buildings that stood/stand there. We do know that Clive’s Library is in a precarious state and may crumble at any time. Proposals for its restoration move forward at a snail’s pace. Its owner, the Navy, cannot seem to make up its mind.

Which brings us to the core problem of Fort St George – it suffers from multiple ownership. The Army, the Navy, the Legislature, the Tamil Nadu Government and the Archaeological Survey all occupy parts of it and claim complete suzerainty over the areas under their control. Some buildings under the ASI are perhaps the best maintained and remain true to their historicity, but that cannot be said of all. Certainly most of the structures in St Thomas Street, including Last House, are in a shocking state of disrepair while some such as Arthur Wellesley’s house and the Chaplain’s house, have collapsed altogether. What makes the loss doubly sad is that many of these edifices were standing till a couple of decades ago, when technology to save them certainly existed. It is sheer inaction that caused their decay and ultimate fall.

Elsewhere, those in charge of what they own continue to make changes in whatever fashion they feel is right. The ASI is rarely consulted. We have already seen the story behind the Namakkal Kavignar Maligai’s construction. But that was not the first instance. Even in the 1950s, the State Government had thought it fit to build a new secretariat that completely blocked off the rather magnificent rear view of the old Assembly building. The construction had one redeeming feature that the Namakkal Kavignar Maligai did not – it was of the same height and width as the older building fronting it and so did not stick out like a sore thumb. A couple of years ago, the Army began a lot of civil work in the neighbourhood of the King’s Barracks, using heavy-duty equipment to drill the ground. The ASI protested mildly and the matter was reported widely in the press after which the work appeared to have been suspended. The Army has also declared its intention to move out of the Fort, but at present it is being remarkably slow about it.

Not that any move from the Fort is essentially to its good. We have the not so long past instance of the State Government building itself a swank new secretariat on Anna Salai/Mount Road and moving over. It was then widely perceived that the parts of the Fort it occupied would be handed over to the ASI but that was not to be. The Institute of Tamil Studies moved in and during the brief period that it was in occupation did untold damage by dragging steel cupboards that it had brought all along the wooden floor of the erstwhile Assembly building. Soon thereafter the Government changed and the party that came to power moved back into Fort St George. The new Government made a half-hearted attempt at trying to get World Heritage status for the Fort but this failed chiefly because the place is in no position to conform to the stringent norms that are stipulated for such accreditation.

It is not really necessary that the Fort has to become a ghostly museum. It is perhaps better off being occupied and being treated as a living entity. But what is necessary is that those in occupation recognise the historic value of where they work from and take pride in it. Certainly, the State Government can impose a blanket ban on pasting posters, tying banners and rampantly littering the Fort. It can impose discipline in the matter of car parking – there is  enough and more space opposite the Fort and cars can all be asked to move there after they have dropped off their important occupants. In these days of cell phones, summoning a chauffeur-driven car is not a difficult task. Those without drivers can walk across the road to the Fort after they park their cars and, in the process, become aware of the difficulties the average pedestrian faces when coming in. The Army and Navy for their part can paint their buildings and take up some basic maintenance on them. As for the ASI, it can move faster – clearing the vegetation, taking up urgent repair work, and restoring what has collapsed. It can also keep the moat clear of all the debris that is currently making its way into it.

What can the general public do? For a start they can begin visiting the Fort more frequently and in larger numbers. There is, unfortunately, a misconception that the place is out of bounds for visitors. This is not true. Anyone, and this includes people of all nationalities, can walk in after signing in the register kept at the entrance and being checked by a metal detector and a bag scan. There is no entrance fee for the Fort at large’ the Museum alone requires tickets which can be bought at the counter. It must be kept in mind that the museum is closed on Fridays and that the church cannot be visited during service, especially on Sunday mornings. Otherwise, the Fort is open on all days. A large number of footfalls in the Fort will ensure that the Government becomes more aware about the necessity to maintain the place. It will also mean that we as a people care for our heritage.

The Fort may have started out as a colonial enterprise but let us not forget that our elected Governments have been functioning from here since 1947 and even prior to that, since 1921, we have had provincial governments run by Indians in place here. Many landmark legislations have been enacted in this precinct and that  by itself is sufficient reason for ensuring its maintenance and continuity. Ultimately, it depends on we, the people. Let us strive to preserve our heritage and make it available for future generations.

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