As 2009 wound to a close and the heritage movement in Madras that is Chennai clocked yet another year to its tally, it is clear that the awareness is slowly seeping in and today, both Government and private parties are to an extent sensitised about the need for conservation and preservation. What is needed however, is knowledge as to how to go about it, failing which the awareness will not translate itself into anything beyond shedding a tear or two every time a piece of heritage vanishes.
But first, let us look at some of the positive developments. Victoria Public Hall is undergoing a thorough restoration, though the cloak of secrecy that surrounds it is still worrying. The library building on the Masonic Lodge premises in Egmore has been splendidly restored. Close on the heels of this came the opening of the restored P Orr & Sons showroom on Mount Road. Purists have pointed out that the building was never white but always capped in red, but nevertheless we have to be thankful for the way the renovation has been done. Elsewhere, on the DPI Campus in Nungambakkam, the Madras Literary Society building has been restored to its old glory and as this article goes to press, work is beginning on the heritage gateway that fronts the campus on College Road. It is to be hoped that work will also be undertaken on the more important gate which fronts to Cooum. The police station in Triplicane has escaped the hammer thanks to timely intervention from the highest quarter. Restoration of historic Ripon Building has been announced and it is understood that the work will be done in keeping with the heritage status of the structure.
But despite all this cheer, what worries those with the interests of conservation at heart is the absence of any consistency when it comes to taking a decision on heritage structures. And even if a decision is taken, there is no clear-cut guideline as to how the process of restoration ought to be handled. Thus, while the restoration of Chepauk Palace began over three years ago very little can be seen beyond the liberal use of white paint on some walls. Similarly, it is not clear as to whether the Government is using the services of those qualified in preservation of heritage structures in its conservation activity at the Victoria Public Hall. The National Gallery (formerly the Victoria Memorial) was declared out-of-bounds some years ago on the grounds of structural weakness but nothing has been done so far to get the structure strengthened and restored. Ironically, the gateway to the latest Government sponsored exhibition at the Island Grounds is modeled on this building and the artisans who fashioned the entrance have even been given an award by the Government. While there has been considerable hype over the saving of the Triplicane police station, what is not being pointed out is that neighbouring buildings such as the Kalaivanar Arangam which served as the State Assembly for some time and Cooum House which was meant to be the official residence of the Chief Minister of the state, have been razed to the ground. Action was promised in restoring the High Court campus and a committee was formed to go into the modalities. But since then nothing has been heard of this and it is not clear if the committee has met even once. The Saidapet Teachers College campus has seen excellent restoration of buildings fronting the road, while those behind have been allowed to languish.
If this is the fate of Government buildings, those in private hands have fared even worse. The Bharat Insurance Building is now a cause-celebre with the matter pending in court. Similar is the case with Gokhale Hall on Armenian Street. In both cases, the owners began demolishing the structures and work was suspended only after the court intervened. Both buildings have survived for the past few years as roofless shells, completely exposed to the elements. Work began on the demolition of the historic offices of Binny Limited, also on Armenian Street, last week. In the last two years, several cinema theatres, many with unique facades such as Roxy and Crown, have vanished. For every successful example of restoration, there are at least ten buildings that have been pulled down.
What we need is a well-defined policy and a framework which will be consistent towards all heritage structures. And for this we need a Heritage Act. Can we hope for it 2010?