Earlier this month, when the city was celebrating Pongal, a 250 year-old part of its history went up in flames. Historic Chepauk Palace, the first building in the Indo-Saracenic style, was partially gutted owing to a fire. Years of neglect and poor maintenance had taken their toll, though the authorities naturally denied all such charges. If that was bad enough, what followed thereafter was even worse, clearly indicating that our Government has no policy or action plan when it comes to dealing with our heritage. And this is at a time when the common man is waking up to the necessity of protecting our historic buildings and is demanding action.
Readers of Madras Musings will be no strangers to the poor maintenance at Chepauk. Our publication had in the last few months carried a detailed article on the subject, complete with photographs. Piles of files, steel cupboards, falling windows, squatters under the entrance portico, garbage bins situated wherever they may please, arbitrarily constructed toilets and shoddy electric wiring, about sums it all up. Surely all this was a perfect recipe for such a disaster. Even then it had been reported that a part of the roof had caved in and some of the offices in the precinct had been relocated. Since then no action was taken on repairing the building and the fire came as a convenient excuse for those wanting to demolish the structure and erect a multi-storied edifice in its place.
Experts had not been called in and nobody had as yet assessed the damage when to everyone’s surprise, the decision to demolish was announced, almost before the fire, which sadly consumed one life, could be put out. The heritage lobby, conservationists and above all the Prince of Arcot raised a protest against this and a three-man committee was appointed to go into the question of whether what remained could be preserved and what had been destroyed could be rebuilt. Here again, the team constituted is not satisfactory. All members may toe the Government line given their backgrounds. It is also significant that not a single archaeologist or a conservation expert was included.
What was overlooked in all this is the Heritage Conservation Committee (HCC) appointed by the Government last year in response to the High Court’s judgement on heritage buildings. That the committee has done precious little is open knowledge and not a single member has ever visited Chepauk Palace or for that matter any of the heritage buildings listed by the Court in its orders. Had this been done and had the Committee listed guidelines for the maintenanceof heritage buildings for which it surely had enough time, this fire may have never taken place. That after the fire, the Committee was given a tour of the gutted parts of the palace must be a matter of some small satisfaction to its members. However the complete silence of the Committee since the fire, speaks volumes about its effectiveness.
It is now understood that the three-member committee appointed to study Chepauk Palace has filed its report. It is also understood that the report may have recommended a partial preservation as its solution. This may not be entirely acceptable as the study was completed in less than a week, surely a very short period of time for a monument of such undoubted historicity. Also the absence of structural engineers and conservation experts weakens the status of such a committee. Even now it is not too late and the Government must look at appointing a larger team, with if possible, specialists from IITs all over the country. IIT Madras too has a heritage cell whose services could be asked for.
While the ultimate decision on the palace now rests with the Government, the usual stories have begun to abound. One of which is that the powers-that-be are mulling over a plan to demolish and build an exact replica of what was pulled down. You only need to look at Singaravelar Maligai on Rajaji Salai, constructed after a similar assurance while pulling down Bentincks Building that earlier stood there, to be taken in by such promises.