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Vol. XXXIV No. 1, April 16-30, 2024

Good tidings from Gokhale Hall

-- by Sriram V

The built heritage of Chennai has never had it so good. It was only a few months ago that we in Madras Musings had reported on how Bharat Insurance (Kardyl) Buildings is soon to be restored, with the Life Insurance Corporation of India, the owners of the heritage structure, moving ahead at long last with the task. Now, we are happy to report that yet another cause celebre may soon come to a satisfactory conclusion. And that is historic Gokhale Hall on Armenian Street. As per a letter received from IIT Madras, which is published in page 3 of this issue, there has been considerable progress on paper at least, in the process of restoration of the heritage structure.

Both Bharat Insurance Building and Gokhale Hall were catalysts in moving forward the battle to secure the built heritage of the city. In the first decades of the present millennium, it was the practice to dismiss all structures constructed during the colonial era as vestiges of an unwanted past. The Government actively encouraged demolition of such buildings and put up very poorly designed modern high rise in their place. The trend had begun even in the 1980s but it was only from the 1990s onwards that real estate within the city became serious business and every inch was viewed only from the commercial angle. The list of Government-owned heritage buildings that have vanished is long.

It was in 2010 that the tide turned. The High Court had already dealt with several litigations against demolition of heritage structures and had in most instances cited rightfully that it could do nothing in the absence of an Act to protect historic buildings. In 2010, cases pertaining to both Bharat Insurance Building and Gokhale Hall came up for judgement. The court not only ordered their preservation but also went ahead in presenting the Government with a list of heritage structures in the city and suggested that a Heritage Conservation Committee (HCC) be formed to protect them. It also asked the Government to come up with a Heritage Act. This judgement remains very important in the journey of preserving heritage in the city.

The subsequent history of the HCC and the progress of the Heritage Act have not exactly been edifying. But what is undeniable is that the mere constitution of an HCC meant that there was a review mechanism in place when it came to dealing with heritage. It was possible for instance to ensure that Chennai Metrorail designed stations in keeping with the skyline in historic areas. This was in sharp contrast to the monstrosities that the MRTS put up. Many of the Government-owned heritage buildings received a fresh lease of life. This of course cannot be attributed to the HCC but the Government itself, post the judgement, had a change of heart on heritage. A conservation cell was created within the Public Works Department with trained engineers, and it has been doing good work.

That all of this is in place even without bringing into force the Heritage Act of 2012 is commendable. However, it is essential that there is progress on the Act itself. Without it, heritage depends on the whims of those in power. And private heritage continues to remain at risk. In fact in the absence of the Act it is privately-owned heritage structures that have suffered the most with most having vanished. In the meanwhile, let us celebrate the news of the proposed restoration of Gokhale Hall and may the edifice soon gain its rightful place as an intellectual and cultural centre as envisioned by Annie Besant, its founder.

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  1. Vicky Chandhok says:

    Upper India Trading company was in the Bharat Insurance Buidling Ground Floor from 1936 until 1996 – my grandfather used to sit there

  2. Vicky Chandhok says:

    Upper India Trading company was in the Bharat Insurance Buidling Ground Floor from 1936 until 1996 – my grandfather used to sit there as the MotorParts office

  3. Pingback: - Good tidings from Gokhale Hall Madras Heritage

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