Barely a month or so after the Raja Sir Savalai Ramaswami Mudaliar (RSRM) Choultry facing Central Station was taken over by Chennai Metrorail Limited (CMRL), rumours are flying thick and fast about what is to happen to the heritage structure. It is reliably learnt that CMRL is contemplating retention of just the frontage of the building and intends to demolish everything else. If this is the truth it is a shame and yet it runs entirely true to the past track record of CMRL.
The land and building comprising the RSRM Choultry were handed over to CMRL following the judgement of the High Court of Madras in litigation that went on for almost two years. CMRL had in its plea committed to preserving the heritage structure and it was on this assurance that it was given possession of the property. We at Madras Musings had even then raised doubts on the capability of CMRL to maintain such a structure. Now it is understood that CMRL claims that it is just the façade of the building which can qualify as heritage and the rest can be done away with.
Why are we not surprised? CMRL has used the same logic not once, but four times already. In the first instance it was the taking over of the old Male Asylum Press property just behind the Poompuhar building on Mount Road. It had then argued that the Justice E. Padmanabhan Committee report had included only the front (Poompuhar) in its report and so the rear did not qualify. Later, in the bitter battle that was fought in the take-over of the rear workshops of P Orr & Sons the same logic was applied. It was in vain that the Indian National Trust for Arts and Cultural Heritage offered to come up with alternative alignments and locations of stations. The judgement of the High Court of Madras went in favour of CMRL and the buildings were demolished.
In the case of Bharat Insurance Buildings too, CMRL has taken over all the land on its side claiming that only the building and not its precinct qualifies for preservation. It has demolished everything but the main structure which is in an enfeebled condition already. Lastly, CMRL also demolished a heritage building in the Teachers’ College campus claiming that a photograph of the structure in question did not feature in the Justice Padmanabhan report.
At the risk of offending those who decide on the fate of such buildings, we make bold to point out here that this logic of CMRL’s is flawed and it is quoting the Justice Padmanabhan Committee report out of context. That Committee was formed to list buildings and precincts that could not be hidden by outdoor hoardings. It naturally looked at all structures from the point of view of their facades only. It is a different matter that the same report was later accepted as a starting point by the Heritage Conservation Committee of the CMDA and the owners of the buildings listed in it requested to consider their buildings as heritage buildings and not undertake any work on them without the Committee’s permission. It was this position that the Committee adopted in the Bharat Insurance Building case. Following that case, the High Court had ordered Government to prevent demolition of all the buildings/precincts listed in the Padmanabhan Committee report. The Heritage Conservation Committee was asked to go into the merits of each case and take action. As to the functioning of that Committee and the actions it has taken (or the lack of them) we don’t need to go into it; suffice it to say that our readers are quite familiar with the subject.
But it is not correct to keep quoting from a report that had to do with the outer appearances of buildings and insist that the rest of the structures do not, therefore, matter. The Court had made it clear that each of these structures was worthy of preservation, according to the grade in which the Padmanabhan Committee had placed it. There can be no question of frontage or rear. If the CMRL is choosing to interpret the report that way, it is making a mockery of the report and the spirit in which it was prepared.
Coming back to the RSRM Choultry, it is necessary to preserve the entire structure. If it is just to remain a sham façade, CMRL may as well demolish the whole edifice and put up one of its buildings on the site. We may tolerate ugliness in the name of modernity, but we don’t expect hypocrisy in the name of heritage preservation.