The long and tortuous process of saving Bharat Insurance (Kardyll) Building does not appear to have any end in sight. The latest twist in the story is that the Heritage Conservation Committee (HCC) put together by the Government at the behest of the High Court has formed a sub-committee to assess the heritage value of the building and consider if only parts of it need to be conserved. Such a watered-down mandate does not bode well for the future of the structure.

The High Court was emphatic in its statement that “as far as possible, the building must be saved. The Chennai Metropolitan Development Authority and the Chennai Corporation, with the consultation of the HCC, shall issue directions for the protection of the building.” This clearly does not question the heritage value of the building . Moreover, the earlier judgement on heritage buildings which led to the formation of the HCC, clearly asked the committee to base its discussions on the list of heritage buildings in the city put together by an earlier committee headed by Justice Padmanabhan. Bharat Insurance Building was already on that list. Where then this necessity to once again assess the heritage value of the building?

That Bharat Insurance Building presents a unique element on the Chennai skyline is a matter beyond doubt. Architects may not agree on the style it represents but there is complete unanimity on the necessity to preserve the building. It in many ways can be compared to the Victoria (Chatrapati Sivaji) Terminus of Mumbai, which though representing a medley of styles and a profusion of ornamentation, has not only been preserved but also made it to the World Heritage list.

And what does conservation in part really mean? Can it be interpreted as merely retaining the façade? What of the interior which according to INTACH’s book, “Madras, the Architectural Heritage” has among other things “a truncated, vaulted, highly ornamental false ceiling with stained glass panels and other embellishments”? What of the “large wooden staircase and the ornate cast-iron work”? Can these be wished away? Of course, it is not certain as to how much of the false ceiling remains after the present owner’s misguided attempt at demolishing the building, an act that has ensured that the structure has remained a roofless shell for over four years now.

Buildings such as this were meant as an integrated whole. Retaining facades and remodelling interiors to suit modern needs may be possible for lesser structures, both in terms of size and architectural importance. The best answer may be to look at the feasibility of restoring the building in full.

Looking at the bigger picture, it may have been best if the HCC had first debated on and finalised a Heritage Act in full and later decided on the fate of Bharat Insurance Building in the light of that Act. Looking at individual buildings on a piecemeal basis does not take us anywhere. What is needed is a policy decision on the basis of which a general protection for heritage buildings can be assured. Today, while a Bharat Insurance Building may yet be saved, hundreds of others are falling prey to the wrecker’s hammer, fuelled by real-estate greed and ignorance of what can be done with heritage buildings. In fact, the recent talks on a Heritage Act have brought on a spate of demolitions of private heritage buildings, all hastened by the fear that with such an Act in place, realising the full commercial value of such spaces may become impossible.

Lastly, the composition of the HCC and therefore the Bharat Insurance sub-committee as well does not make matters any better. Comprised as they are with a majority of representatives from Government departments, agencies and institutions, it does not look as though any quick decision can be reached. Also, more often than not, such representatives toe the Government line which has not always been conducive to conservation of heritage. It is reliably learnt that the Bharat Insurance sub-committee has only one representative of INTACH and is otherwise peopled with representatives of the ASI, the CMDA and the Anna University. It can only be hoped that this group will come up with a balanced and well-thought out decision.