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(ARCHIVE) Vol. XIX No. 18, january 1-15, 2010
What’s with Madras and heritage conservation?
(By a Special Correspondent)

As 2009 winds to a close and the heritage movement in Madras that is Chennai clocks yet another year to its dive-in-eternal-hope tally, it is clear that the awareness is slowly seeping in and, today, both Government and private parties are, to an extent, sensitised about the need for conservation and preservation. What is needed, however, is knowledge as to how to go about it, failing which the awareness will not translate itself into anything beyond shedding a tear or two every time a piece of heritage vanishes.

Can’t we handle with care?

The methodology adopted in the recent removal of the statues of Kings Edward VII and George V highlight the woeful absence of any knowledge in Government circles as to how to deal with heritage. The task of removal is relegated to workmen who do demolitions and both statues were wrenched off their pedestals using crude techniques. The pedestals themselves were works of art and have sustained damage in the process. Now both statues and their pedestals have been unceremoniously dumped in the Museum grounds and no one is sure as to what their eventual fate will be. The Government ought to have thought of alternative locations before the statues were uprooted. Strangely, contrary to what would be expected, there was greater sensitivity in the years immediately following independence than now. Then, when the statue of Justice Boddam was removed from the intersection of Blacker’s Road and Mount Road, it was moved into a splendid canopy inside Napier (May Day) Park, where it still stands. In the present instance, the debate on where to locate the statues has just begun and it is bound to be accorded the lowest priority. The statues will probably keep company to each other in the vaults of the Museum.

But first, let us look at some of the positive developments. Victoria Public Hall – the Town Hall – and Ripon Building are to undergo a thorough restoration, though the cloak of secrecy that surrounds both is worrying. The library building on the Masonic Lodge premises in Egmore has been splendidly restored. Close on the heels of this came the opening of the restored P Orr & Sons showroom on Mount Road. Purists have pointed out that the building was never white but always capped in red; nevertheless, we have to be thankful for the way the renovation has been done. Elsewhere, on the DPI Campus in Nungambakkam, the Madras Literary Society building has been restored to its old ambience and, as this article goes to press, work is beginning on the heritage gateway that fronts the campus on College Road. It is to be hoped that work will also be undertaken on the more important gate which fronts the Cooum. The police station in Triplicane has escaped the hammer thanks to timely intervention from the highest quarter. Now restoration is needed.

But despite all this cheer, what worries those with the interests of conservation at heart is the absence of any consistency when it comes to taking a decision on heritage structures. And even if a decision is taken, there are no clear-cut guidelines as to how the process of restoration ought to be handled. Thus, while the restoration of Chepauk Palace began over three years ago, very little can be seen beyond the liberal use of white paint on some walls. Similarly, it is not clear as to whether the Government is using the services of those qualified in preservation of heritage structures in its conservation activity at the Victoria Public Hall. The National Gallery (formerly the Victoria Memorial) was declared out-of-bounds some years ago on the grounds of structural weakness, but nothing has been done so far to get the structure strengthened and restored. Ironically, the gateway to the latest Government-sponsored exhibition at the Island Grounds is modelled on this building and the artisans who fashioned the entrance have even been given an award by the Government. While there has been considerable hype over the saving of the Triplicane police station, what is not being pointed out is that neighbouring buildings, such as the Kalaivanar Arangam which served as the State Assembly for some time and Cooum House, which was meant to be the official residence of the Chief Minister of the State, have been razed to the ground. Action was promised in restoring the High Court campus and a committee was formed to go into the modalities. But since then nothing has been heard of this and it is not clear if the committee has met after the initial sittings. The Saidapet Teachers’ College campus has seen some restoration of buildings fronting the road, while the main buildings, those to the rear, have been allowed to languish.

If this is the fate of Government buildings, those in private hands have fared even worse. The Bharat Insurance Building is now a cause-celebre with the matter pending in court. Similar is the case with Gokhale Hall on Armenian Street. In both cases, the owners began demolishing the structures and the demolition work was suspended only after the court intervened. Both buildings have survived for the past few years as roofless shells, completely exposed to the elements. Recent reports have it that the historic offices of Binny Limited, also on Armenian Street, will soon be victims of the wrecker’s hammer. In the last two years, several cinema theatres, many with unique facades, such as Roxy and Crown, have vanished. And the State Bank of India’s Main Branch building awaits restoration, though discussions on the subject have gone on for years. For every successful example of restoration, there are at least ten buildings that have been pulled down or utterly neglected.

What we need is a well-defined policy and a framework which will be consistent towards all heritage structures. And for this we need a Heritage Act. Can we hope for it in 2010?


In this issue

Yet another Committee?
What’s with Madras and heritage conservation?
May 2010 see their conservation
Calming traffic in shopping areas, like Pondy Bazaar
Historic Residences of Chennai - 33
Other stories

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