National Gallery, Egmore Museum
National Gallery, Egmore Museum

At long last, the promised amount for the restoration of the National Gallery has come through. Funds amounting to Rs. 11 crore for the exercise have been transferred to the Museum that owns the National Gallery, nearly six months after the announcement was made by the Chief Minister in the Assembly. But this delay is nothing compared to the ten years that the structure has been awaiting restoration. Such delays are common when it comes to heritage restoration in the city and we must be thankful that there are at least plans afoot for conserving this building and not demolishing it.

Inspired by the Bulund Durwaza at Fatehpur Sikri, the structure, clad in pink sandstone, was one of two buildings planned to commemorate Queen Victoria’s golden jubilee, the other being the Victoria Public Hall. The foundation stone was laid in the Museum campus by the Prince of Wales in 1905. Designed by Henry Irwin, it was completed in 1909 and became home of the Victoria Technical Institute. In 1951, it was named the National Gallery of Art and became the home of several Indian masterpieces.

Poor maintenance, coupled with certain inherent flaws in its design – the dome being a weak point – saw the building going to seed from the 1990s. In 2002 it was declared an unsafe structure and emptied of its contents. It was cordoned off and left as it was. This only served to weaken the structure further. Conservationists have been expressing concern over the fate of the building and the present move comes as a shot in the arm.

The Government has constituted a three-member committee comprising representatives of the Public Works Department (PWD), IIT Madras and the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH) to restore the building.

There are, however, several questions left unanswered. The basis on which the budget for restoration was arrived at is a mystery. It is unclear as to whether a study was done prior to this. If so, this has not been made public and so it is not certain as to what methods of restoration have been recommended. Secondly, it is to be hoped that the process of hiring contractors will not be left to the PWD. That department may have expertise for new structures but when it comes to heritage buildings, it has, as in the instance of the Chepauk Palace, shown that it is quite at sea. Thirdly, there are unconfirmed theories floating around that the sandstone cladding is to be removed for structural strengthening of the building.

This is a very cumbersome process and it is doubtful whether expertise for this exists among authorised vendors of the PWD. Lastly, it is not certain as to what time frame, if any, has been stipulated for this restoration. Given the weakened state of the building, any delay can prove to be fatal. The most important step, and one that needs to be done immediately, according to structural experts, is to provide for a scaffolding that will shore up the building and prevent any further damage during the current monsoon.

Government has taken the right step in planning the restoration of the National Gallery. It must take this further by making this effort a benchmark for future restorations. For this it needs to relax its rule-bound and slow procedures and identify processes and vendors that are best suited for the restoration. It must not be taken up with a view to satisfying existing rules, which are most unsuitable for heritage conservation. And once completed, the building must be put to active use, unlike the Senate House and the Connemara Public Library’s reading room, both of which were kept locked after expensive restoration efforts, only to degenerate again. Do we have such a vision in place?