Tamil Nadu's shameful disregard for heritage buildings

Last Updated: Wed, Apr 18, 2012 09:39 hrs

The fate of Madurai's historic Vilakkuthoon police station and Chennai's  P Orr & Sons is a telling commentary on the apathy towards heritage and  conservation in the state. 

Both the buildings, dating back a hundred years,  faced the bulldozers recently, despite attempts by activists to stay  the demolition and come up with alternate solutions.

Tamil Nadu has been ruled by the Cheras, Cholas, Pandiyas, Pallavas, the Marathas, the Vijaynagaram dynasty and the British. And under everyone of them, the state witnessed marvellous architectural feats.

And yet, very little effort has been made to preserve the brick and mortar  history of  the ethnic group  which has outlived so many influences.

Experts say  it's time funds were set aside or raised to preserve the state's historical buildings –be they palaces or merely  bungalows of business tycoons.

There is no heritage act governing the state, and  heritage activism in urban Chennai is just a few years old . Not much is known of civil society's concern over heritage buildings in other districts.

Of all the 32 districts, only Chennai has an official list of heritage buildings, compiled by the  Justice E Padmanabhan committee . As per the list, there are  nearly 200 heritage structures in the city. Although tourism thrives in Tamil Nadu, packaging of these heritage structures is not as finely done. 

Experts say  the activism over Vilakkuthoon  police station , widely reported in the media, is a cause for celebration, even if it did not have a happy ending .

In January this year the Travel Club of Madurai had in fact appealed to the chief minister to preserve the Vilakkuthoon police station and declare it as a heritage structure. This appeal came after a proposal to modernise the police station by the Tamil Nadu Police Housing Corporation, at a cost of Rs 80 lakh.

Some alterations were made in the 1970s, when conservation activism was not even born in India.  However, Archaeological Survey of India officials have  always maintained that any alterations made to a building could disqualify it from being treated as a heritage structure. 

Which is what happened to Vilakkuthoon police station. It stopped being a heritage structure because of the alterations,  even though its foundations are steeped in history.

Similar is the case with  Chennai's P Orr & Sons, the landmark building on Anna Salai. A petition b y the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH) against demolishing the rear portion of the historic P Orr & Sons building to accommodate the Metro Rail, was dismissed by a division bench of the Madras High Court.
The court observed that the ‘rear portion of the building did not enjoy ‘heritage value' . This case was complicated by the fact that iNTACH had been part of the Heritage Conservation Committee, which had given the Chennai Metro Rail (CMRL) company the green signal for the Metro project.

Interestingly, the Court made one telling observation.  “We are not experts to sit and deliberate on heritage” 

This line highlights the need for clarity among those who form part of the Heritage Conservation Committee, whose job it is to arrive at such decisions. The bench also said that going by the  Padmanabhan committee, the rear portion of P Orr & Sons ( a latter day addition)  did not have any ‘heritage value'.  While courts can only deal with heritage on a case by case basis, it is up to civil society and the government to celebrate our past, say heritage activists.

Thanks to activism, quite a few heritage buildings in Chennai escaped demolition—the  DGP Headquarters , the Rajaji Hall and  the Queen Mary's College .  Others like the historic  Admiralty building, the one that housed the first viceroy, was razed and lost forever.

Along with Indo- Saracenic  and the colonial styles,  the unique Chettinad buildings too need to be preserved, although  many of the latter have been demolished and the marvellous woodwork - handcrafted by masters — broken down and often sold in pieces.

Activists feel more corporate houses should join hands with the government in not only saving but also preserving the heritage structures.

Heritage buildings can be an effective link with the past even if the current day compulsions of (infrastructure) development  get in the way. With real estate prices becoming a premium everywhere, the pressure on officials  to focus on the larger picture (of infrastructure development) is huge.  Activists say the Heritage Conservation Committee should  be very clear over which buildings to preserve.

If we want to avoid another demolition like the Vilakkuthoon police station, the Justice Padmanabhan committee model should be replicated in all the 32 districts . A data base is a good place to start on preserving one' s heritage.

It is time Tamil Nadu took pride in its historical buildings, as much as it does in its language and self-respect or even its statues.

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Bhama Devi Ravi is a Chennai based journalist