At long last, work is to begin on the restoration of Khalsa Mahal, one of the two wings of historic Chepauk Palace. This is a little more than two years after it was gutted in a fire. The tardy beginning notwithstanding, it is a matter for cheer that the authorities have considered restoration as an alternative to demolition – something that they are more familiar with.
Khalsa Mahal was burnt down in January 2012 following a short circuit. The building was asking for it, as had been repeatedly pointed out in this publication. Shoddy maintenance, adhoc electric wiring, seepage of water due to arbitrary construction of toilets and the dumping of old files and wooden furniture, all of them contributed to a deadly combination that did its work thoroughly when the fire accident happened. The building has remained a mouldering ruin ever since, awaiting official action.
But there are some positive elements to the story. Barring a hasty announcement by a Minister in the immediate aftermath of the fire that the building would be demolished, the administration made it quite clear that it was interested in saving the structure. A committee of three experts was asked to study the possibility and, though this body did not have a single conservation architect in its composition, the final recommendation was for restoration, even if the terms for it were vague at best. This by itself was a marked departure from earlier incidents of fire in historic buildings – Moore Market, Spencer’s and Gandhi Illam being three examples – where restoration was not even considered, despite pleas.
What was even more encouraging was that the Government in June 2012 decided that it wanted to make the restoration of Khalsa Mahal a model exercise, which would be the blueprint for such restorations in future. It was then said that the restoration, as and when it happened, would not be on the basis of the stifling PWD norms, where the rates and terms of contract were always based on new construction. It is not clear if that same generosity of spirit has survived and if the proposed restoration is on those lines. It has, however, now been announced that the work is to begin in the next few weeks. The task is being entrusted to a Mysore-based conservation architect, who has earlier worked on the restoration of the Madras Club and Ripon Building.
There are bound to be great difficulties and challenges ahead. The work is going to be labour intensive and whether it will be possible to complete it within the specified one-year period is doubtful. It also makes you wonder at the ways of the bureaucracy – two years to decide on restoration and then just a year to complete it! The contract has strict terms to use the existing materials as far as possible. How feasible this will be, given that most of it has survived as debris exposed to the elements for the past two years, is open to question. And it is to be hoped that restoration will be faithful to the spirit of such an exercise and not like what was done at the Madras GPO after a fire ravaged its central hall. That was a sham restoration where the only cause for joy was that the structure was allowed to survive.
What is sad, however, is that there is no move to restore the other wing – Humayun Mahal – which is in a precarious condition after a roof collapse. Why does the Government not take up this also and give us a splendidly restored Chepauk Palace, a precinct that we can be justifiably proud of?
For further details on Chepauk Palace, read the links below: