The house where Ramanujan once lived. Pic courtesy Sreemathy Mohan
The house where Ramanujan once lived. Pic courtesy Sreemathy Mohan

This is the centenary year of the mathematics genius Srinivasa Ramanujan’s journey to the United Kingdom. This journey marked the beginning of the world sitting up and recognising his extraordinary abilities in his field and is surely a matter of pride and celebration for our city, from where he had set out. And yet, one of the commemorative plaques for him in this city has vanished. The reason? The owners of the property where it stood were afraid that this would lead to the house being taken over by the Government on the grounds that it was a heritage property!

There are, of course, plenty of other memorials to Ramanujan and, indeed, at least three other houses that he lived in in Triplicane. But this property, in Hanumantharayar Koil Street, was the only one that bore a plaque commemorating the fact, and it was from here that he set out to England. And so the plaque was particularly significant. Conversely, from the owner’s point of view, this is what put his precious real estate at risk.

This is not the only instance of such a thought process. Several years ago, a marble plaque that commemorated a Mylapore house where the Indian National Congress was founded, was broken as soon as the property changed hands, the new owners being apprehensive of a Government take-over. A restaurant in Triplicane that had a slab recording Gandhi’s visit to the building got rid of the stone a couple of years ago. The foundation stone of the rear wing of P Orr & Sons was smashed to pieces by Metro Rail as soon as it began demolition work after obtaining the permission of the High Court of Madras.

Should the owners of such properties live in such fear? Not necessarily so. There are other cities in India such as Pune and Kolkata where blue plaques have been placed outside buildings where historic personalities once lived or where historic events took place. The residents continue living undisturbed in the premises and for several of them it is a matter of pride that their residence is of historic importance. In foreign countries, where blue plaques and commemoration stones are commonplace, properties with heritage tags are more valuable than those of modern provenance. Why then is the situation different in Chennai?

Firstly, there is ignorance. Most owners do not know anything of the building’s past and are perhaps even less aware of what history the property had. But more to blame are Government policies concerning heritage that are vague at best and intimidating at worst. The Heritage Conservation Committee of the CMDA sent a letter to owners of the properties in the High Court’s list. The letter was more of a threat than an encouragement to them. It forbade them from making any changes to their premises, including renovations, alterations and repairs. It is no wonder that those whose properties are not listed consider themselves blessed and are actively taking steps to destroy any traces that are left of their heritage importance.

That such fears are not well founded will be evident if these owners reflect on the Government’s track record of taking over properties. In the past many years, just two premises – those of K Kamaraj and Subramania Bharati – have been taken over. All the rest, were handed over voluntarily. The Government has had to step in only on the rarest of occasions and even in such cases, has paid compensation, though it must be admitted that the valuation is always according to Government norms and not based on market rates. In any case, Governments have a number of other things to focus on and, as is well known, heritage is one of its last priorities.

There have, however, been a few stories with happier endings. The monument dedicated to Satyagraha that stands outside the Chola Sheraton continues to be preserved. A more heart-warming story is the preservation of the memorials to Dr. Muthulakshmi Reddy and Dr. Sundara Reddy. These were part of the property owned by the couple and when it changed hands, it was on the condition that the memorials would not be disturbed by the developer. The chronicler K R A Narasiah played a role in this, by explaining the importance of the stones to the buyer. They have been allowed to remain and are cared for. May the trend increase.