The High Court of Madras has cleared the decks for Metro Rail acquiring the historic Raja Sir Savalai Ramaswami Mudaliar Choultry that faces the Central Station. With that the legal battle that had raged for over two years has come to an end. The Metro Rail authorities are happy that one of the last hurdles on the congested Poonamallee High Road stretch has been overcome. They have also assured the Court that they will take care of the building and not endanger it in any way. All this is to the good. But it is highly doubtful if Metro Rail, or any other Government agency, has any constructive idea as to how the structure is to be ‘preserved’ and, more importantly, put to alternative use if it is to survive.
The track record of Chennai Metro Rail in caring for heritage is abysmal. It has so far only looked at heritage structures as hindrances in the way of greater good – namely public transport. And its sense of accountability towards heritage preservation is at best grudging. When a finial at the Law College collapsed, Metro Rail stoutly denied any responsibility and the dome remains sans finial. When churches along Broadway developed cracks, experts from IIT were rather reluctantly brought in and their suggestions for repair taken up at a snail’s speed. When it comes to demolition, Metro Rail has been much faster. A building in the historic Teachers’ College campus in Saidapet vanished overnight. This despite the entire campus being listed as a heritage precinct in the Justice Padmanabhan Committee Report. Metro Rail took cover under the claim that the report did not specifically mention the building that was demolished.
Metro Rail has also consistently refused to believe that heritage structures can be put to alternative use within the framework of providing public transport. It did not heed pleas that the P Orr & Sons workshops could be retained as they were but demolished them in one night, following High Court permission. Similarly, the Lawrence Asylum Press, behind a Poompuhar building, is also to be done away with. Another structure, which stood next to Bharat Insurance Building and functioned for years as a booking office for the Southern Railway, has also been demolished.
Given the above instances, is Metro Rail likely to preserve, protect and put to good use the RSRM Choultry? It will at best leave the building alone, carry out all kinds of other construction activity around the place and hope that time will take care of the rest.
For the sake of record, the choultry was constructed in 1888 by Raja Sir Savalai Ramaswami Mudaliar, philanthropist and businessman. The Government leased the land to a Trust created by him and the same was earmarked for the construction of a rest-house (choultry) for the benefit of passengers who alight at Central Station. The family of Mudaliar remained Trustees till the 1970s when the Trust was assigned to the Official Trustee of the High Court, with one family member becoming a Co-Trustee. One of the clauses for leasing out the land to the Raja and his Trust was that the space would be put to use only as a choultry. With times changing and the necessity for such a facility receding, the building itself became a hotel while the surrounding area was sub-let for other purposes. The structure was listed in the Justice Padmanabhan Committee report of heritage buildings under the 2a category which recognises that it is of aesthetic, cultural and architectural merit. Metro Rail has promised to honour this. Time alone will tell as to what this will translate into.