Three fires – one major and two minor – two roof collapses, horrendous neglect and a restoration plan that is taking even longer to begin than the original construction – this is the state of Chepauk Palace today. Historians and conservationists may tout it as the first example of Indo-Saracenic architecture, but our Government doesn’t appear to appreciate that. How else can you explain the sad track record of the ‘restoration’ of the heritage precinct?
It is now two-and-a-half years since the first major fire broke out. That happened on Pongal Day in 2012. The Khalsa Mahal was gutted in the incident. A few months prior to that, we in Madras Musings had written about the way Chepauk Palace was being maintained – old files, rotting furniture, frayed electrical wiring, rubbish dumps everywhere, and a family of squatters in the front portico who were cooking meals. We had even then mentioned that a disaster was waiting to happen. Not that our observations made any difference to those in charge of the place. So, sure enough there was a fire accident. What followed was a hasty announcement by a Minister that the building would be razed to the ground and a new structure built instead. This was later retracted, following protests by historians and heritage activists. A committee of three, with not one conservationist among them, then studied the damage and recommended that what was needed was restoration. While this may have come as a relief, what has happened since then makes us wonder about the Government’s sincerity in its expressed commitment to take up that task. While we have heard that an architect has been appointed for it, there has been no action since. The gutted portion remains open to the sky and is weakening by the day.
The story of the other wing of the palace – Humayun Mahal – is no better. A year ago we wrote about how this section was in an equally precarious condition. One of the floors had collapsed and Government departments and officers continued to function all around the crater that it had left behind! Old papers and junk abounded, as did shoddy electric wiring. Since then, we have had two fires, both minor, but the second one caused a partial floor collapse, perhaps because the structure was anyway damaged thanks to the earlier fall. The second and more recent fire was attributed to old wood and wires being stored in the building. Is this how heritage structures are to be looked after?
With this, we have now effectively damaged both wings of the Chepauk Palace, with only its central tower, built a hundred years after the original construction, standing intact. The restoration project that is on the anvil does not cover Humayun Mahal and is related only to Khalsa Mahal. The former, therefore, is at present facing a question mark as to its future.
The Humayun Mahal complex is not alone in this. The National Art Gallery (formerly the Victoria Memorial Hall) is yet to see any activity, two years after restoration was announced and six months after funds were released for it. The dome here is said to be in a precarious state and architects agree that restoring it would be a tricky exercise if it were to collapse.
But our bureaucracy, with its classic sloth, does not appear to have a sense of urgency. Opaque tendering processes, outmoded specifications that have nothing to do with heritage conservation, and an appallingly slow way of functioning are the principles on which these projects are being handled. So what if a heritage building or two (or three or five) vanishes in the interim?