Why is it that, unlike in several places abroad, heritage buildings in India have to become museums in order to survive? Is there no way that they can be treated as living instances of our past and be put to good use after proper reconstruction? These are questions that renowned architect and sculptor Gautam Bhatia raised in an article in The Hindu (one of the supporters of Madras Musings) quite recently. That found a ready echo in our mind, as the situation in Chennai is no better.
While there are certainly more number of instances where we have successfully demolished and obliterated our built heritage, there are a few cases where we have done some restoration. And almost without fail, post the conservation effort, we have either locked these structures up or have made a hash of trying to convert them into museums that nobody visits. Take for example the Connemara Library. The old wing was being used as a reading room for several years. It was then locked up for a few more years before a very authentic restoration exercise was embarked upon. On completion, the building was thrown open to the public as a magnificent showpiece, sans bookshelves and reading tables. This lasted a week and then the building was closed forever.
The Senate House began its restoration exercise sometime in 2005. At that time it was agreed that a public trust would be formed to administer the building once the renovation was complete. The idea was that the structure would be used as a thriving convention centre. The restoration was completed in 2007 and this coincided with a new Vice Chancellor taking over the University of Madras. He locked up the building. A successor came up with the idea of having a permanent exhibition on the University being hosted there. A shoddy excuse of a display was put up for a fortnight and since then Senate House has been in and out of bounds, depending on whether it is used as a storeroom for old answer sheets or not.
We all know of Ripon Buildings as the headquarters of our Corporation. It is a busy place, full of people and activity. A restoration programme, coinciding with the building of a vast annexe, began a few years ago. The new extension is ready and awaits inauguration. It is learnt that once this is done, the entire Corporation will shift into the annexe, leaving Ripon Buildings, which is to be made into a museum. Considering that our Corporation has very few relics, this will be yet another photographic display taken from various public sources on the Internet.
The Madras Medical College, which has moved into a spanking new block that has come up where the Central Jail once stood, also has similar plans for its old anatomy block, also known as the Red Fort. The rest of the old blocks face an uncertain future. It is not clear as to why buildings that were continuously in use till a few months ago, need to be abandoned or converted into museums.
If the Government had its way, we would have all its heritage structures facing two alternative fates – either being demolished or becoming empty shells, albeit after restoration. The latter is not necessarily a better fate than the former, for a mere showpiece soon loses its raison d’être. A subsequent administration can easily question the necessity of retaining such structures and have them demolished in the name of development. It is therefore necessary to keep all heritage buildings in active use, with as much public participation as possible. One of the frequent arguments against such a move is that our public are indifferent to heritage and will therefore spoil the buildings. While there is much truth in that, it is the bounden duty of the Government to educate the masses on the necessity for care and preservation. But given that those in power and out of it think nothing about pasting posters and disfiguring public walls with graffiti, this may be a tall order.
Those who wish to read Gautam Bhatia’s article can do so at this link: