Way behind in conserving heritage, what will Chennai showcase to the future?


Banqueting (now Rajaji) Hall. Pic Courtesy of Special Collections, University of Houston Libraries.

From being a much vaunted city of firsts, Chennai certainly appears to lag right behind everyone else when it comes to heritage conservation. The latest metro to steal a march over it is Kolkata, which is close to completing the restoration of two magnificent structures, both built in the colonial era. What is more, there are creative programmes in place for both the buildings, so that they are kept in continuous use. You just need to compare this with what is happening here in Chennai. Our city has sadly lost it on matters concerning heritage.

The Currency Building in Kolkata, constructed in 1833, was a near ruin for years. Its dome had collapsed and there was even a move to demolish it. Metcalfe Hall, built in the 1840s, was in relatively better shape but it too faced an uncertain future. Matters came to a head when work began on pulling down the Currency Building. The city’s Corporation brought in INTACH and a plan was worked out for restoration.

The maintenance and restoration was handed over to the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), which embarked on a painstaking conservation exercise. It is interesting to note that the Superintendent of the ASI at Kolkata was once in service here.

The work is almost complete now. The Currency Building will now sport a glass roof and an entire wing will be made over to the National Gallery of Modern Art. As a city that boasts of a thriving art culture, Kolkata could not ask for more.

Metcalfe Hall, a magnificent pillared edifice, is also undergoing restoration. It had suffered from indifferent maintenance for years, dumped with several books and records. Post restoration, it will be home to an exhibition titled ‘From Calcutta to Kolkata’. This will trace the history of the city, from its colonial beginnings to the present day.

On the other hand, what do we have here? There is no functioning municipal body and even when it was, it paid no attention to heritage. The CMDA has been forever dithering on a so-called listing of heritage buildings. An inspired judgement of the High Court of Madras was rendered toothless by a subsequent litigation that also unfortunately emasculated INTACH. The end result is that countless heritage buildings are facing an uncertain future. Several have already been demolished. There is complete indifference and apathy.

Does Chennai not have magnificent Rajaji Hall as an answer to Kolkata’s Metcalfe Hall? Why should it be used for storing files from the Agricultural Department? Why should Senate House be perpetually locked up after a magnificent restoration? Why is the reading room of the Connemara Public Library opened only once a year? These are all instances of good restoration work that has gone to waste owing to lack of creative use of these spaces.

On the other hand we have plenty more examples where magnificent structures are languishing with no attempt at restoration – VP Hall, Bharath Insurance Building, Gokhale Hall, the old Mint, the Government Stationery Depot… these are just a few. And within Fort St. George we have many that are nameless but could easily be put to good use. There are many in private hands, including elegant Pachaiyappa’s Hall, now left to rot.

The problem lies with the state government, which thinks it is doing the right thing by branding all historic structures in the city as colonial and, therefore, unworthy of restoration. If other cities of India see merit in restoring colonial-era structures, then why not Chennai? Or are memorials on the beach and commemorative arches the only legacy we want to leave behind?

[This article was first published in the author’s blog titled Madras Heritage and Carnatic Music. The original post may be read here.]

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About V Sriram 38 Articles
V Sriram is an entrepreneur, columnist, music historian and heritage activist who is known for his books on the history of Chennai, Carnatic music and Chennai theatre. He is also known for his blog on Chennai heritage, and is the Editor of Madras Musings.