My concluding piece for the XS Real blog …

We began this series a year ago with the birth of the city. The first piece was on how Chennai or Madras began. Madras Week was being celebrated then and as I come to the last piece in this set of writings, Madras Week is once again being celebrated. Time has come full circle and yet, as befits a dynamic and forward-looking city, Chennai has moved on. It has progressed and will continue to do so.

And in the midst of all this progress is yet another positive sign – the growing awareness about heritage. Gone is the time when heritage structures and precincts could be done away with, no thought being spared for their preservation or of the necessity to pass them on to the succeeding generation. Now, I find that there is a debate, questions are raised, alternative solutions are looked at and above all, the media, both print and electronic, are taking a deep interest. Heritage issues are discussed at the highest echelons of power, at the Legislative Assembly, in the High Court and in industrial circles. People are waking up to what their ancestors have left behind.

In the past one year we have seen some heartening steps. The renovation of Ripon Building and Victoria Public Hall has been proceeding apace. It was decided that fire-ravaged Chepauk Palace will not be pulled down but given a new lease of life, with promise of restoration. And above all, the Government introduced into the legislative assembly a Bill for the formation of a Heritage Conservation Commission. This Commission will comprise independent heritage experts and Government officers who will finalise a list of heritage buildings across the State. These structures will be graded according to their importance with reference to architecture, impact on public life and historical significance. Rules will be formulated for the protection of these buildings and as to what will be the permissible changes that these structures can undergo. Most importantly, incentives for the protection and preservation of heritage will be spelt out for owners of these properties. And as for those who do not wish to be saddled with them, there will be exit routes with suitable compensation. Of course, from a mere Bill to all these end results is a long way, but it is a step in the right direction. It is understood that the Bill became Law in May and has since received the assent of the Governor of the State.

This does not mean that heritage is automatically free from threat. There is still this view that preservation of heritage is an elitist concern and is complete contrast with what a poor country needs. To the votaries of this point of view, here are some counters to ponder over:

Granted that a developing nation has more pressing concerns, it still does not mean heritage needs to be actively done away with. India in particular has always revered the past and it does not need to do away with it in order to embrace the future.

By the time heritage becomes an all-enveloping concern, that is when all other needs have been met, there may not be any heritage to save. And then to what purpose is the concern? And let us face it, heritage is just not buildings. Open spaces and natural precincts are as much a part our heritage and losing them means degrading our quality of life.

Heritage is just not about preserving British-built buildings. And secondly, none of these structures – Senate House, Chepauk Palace etc, are British-built. They are more appropriately British-designed in the sense that they were conceptualised by English architects. The actual detailing (and this will be evident from any blueprint drawing of that era) was done by native artisans and masons. Even the foundation, as in structures such as St Andrews Kirk, were designed by native masons and used an indigenous technology that is now lost. In any other nation it would have been patented. And so when we demolish these structures, we are doing away with something that was our own.

Heritage buildings can be put to new uses. Some old bungalows in the city are now flourishing as restaurants. Schools and colleges have preserved heritage structures in their midst. It is time we woke up to the benefits of old and airy structures that bring in natural light and fresh air.

Lastly, when future generations ask for visible proof of our past, what will we have to show?

A bigger threat than apathy towards heritage is unscientific conservation. We see several misguided attempts around us to preserve what is left – use of modern construction material in place of traditional ingredients, building unplanned structures on top and beside heritage buildings, arbitrary placement of toilets and water tanks that leak and cause further damage and poor quality of electric wiring that frequently results in fires. But for several such inept instances, we also have some splendid restoration work to show. The Senate House and the DGP Building on the Marina are two good examples. In progress are other restoration projects as well. Time will tell as to how good these are.

The battle to preserve our heritage is a slow one and it may have just begun. We still have a long way to go. But the first sure signs of success are already there. And so it is onward, bearing the standard of heritage conservation, preservation and adaptive reuse. May heritage win.