Yours truly leading a heritage tour of Senate House shortly after its restoration

Historic Senate House is open to the public once again. The Madras University’s heritage showpiece, which was the subject of a high-profile restoration exercise a few years ago and which has since remained out of bounds, is now hosting a photo exhibition documenting the University’s history. But the merits and demerits of the exhibition apart, what strikes the general visitor is the general degradation in the interiors of this building. And that is a great tragedy, given the amount of time, money and effort that were lavished on it just a few years ago.

The most evident damage is to the walls of the interior. The plaster is peeling off in many places. The fate of the decorative work done on the pillars is even worse. These have discoloured and in one or two places, the impact of atmospheric moisture has caused them to bulge out like tumours on the walls. It is quite clear that the University has neither the expertise nor the inclination to set right these damages. Apart from pasting notices (is that permissible on the wall of a historic building?) stating that restoration is due to happen, pretty little action has been taken. It is open to question as to whether even routine cleaning is going on, for the bird droppings on the verandahs appear to have accumulated over a fairly long period of time.

Plaster flaking off Senate House interiors

The flaking off of the decorative work and the peeling off of plaster could be because of two reasons. The first could be indifferent workmanship and this is likely, given that it is almost impossible to locate artisans with the necessary know-how, such being the casualty of the speed with which we have embraced modern building techniques. The second, and this is even more likely, is that keeping the building closed for so long has taken its toll. In a humid atmosphere as in Chennai, it is extremely vital that buildings are opened for fresh air regularly. That not being the case here, moisture has collected and begun eating away the decorative work.

A carpet of bird droppings

Senate House’s fate should not come as a surprise to those familiar with the background. The building was restored with professional support thanks to an extremely enthusiastic Vice-Chancellor. Funds were collected from corporates, old and current students and other well-wishers with an informal understanding that the restored building will be governed by a trust and used for public events. The inauguration and re-dedication were done in 2007 by the then President of India during the University’s sesquicentennial celebrations.

Subsequently, there was a change in Government and also a change in guard at the University immediately thereafter. The succeeding Vice-Chancellor had the Senate House locked once again and it is also rumoured that the principal engineering contractor for the restoration is still awaiting payment. The building was used once again for storing examination sheets which, given our city’s record with heritage buildings, means an ideal situation for a conflagration.

Matters appeared to have taken a turn for the better last year when the next, and present, VC announced the formation of a three-member governing council for Senate House. However, nothing happened beyond the announcement. The current exhibition is the next development. The opening up has, however, also exposed what the last few years of inaction has caused.

Now that the matter is out in the open, it is necessary that the University immediately wakes up to the damage and sets it right. It needs to recall the team that did the restoration and explore ways and means of rectification. And once that is done, it needs to keep up with regular maintenance. Can this be hoped from our University?