University Senate House, Madras

Mumbai (formerly Bombay) has achieved what we in Chennai have been trying for long but with no success. On June 30 this year, it was announced that the city’s art deco buildings, along with the famed Bombay Gothic edifices of an earlier century have both made it to the UNESCO World Heritage List. With this, their future is assured. Now where does that leave Chennai’s Indo Saracenic? Nowhere, and facing its usual share of threats.

The contrast cannot be more apparent. In Mumbai, the listing was done by a group of heritage enthusiasts banded under an NGO named Art Deco Mumbai. The Government was an active participant and submitted its request for inclusion under UNESCO’s listing as early as in 2012. It remained undeterred despite other Indian monuments and precincts edging the proposal for six years. Finally, the efforts were rewarded with success at the just concluded UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee Meeting at Bahrain.

Compare this with what has happened here. The High Court came up with a listing of 460 buildings. The Government chose to interpret this on the basis of a technicality as a ruling to protect just the facades of the structures. It then decided to employ independent agencies (read inexperienced college students) for the a parallel listing exercise that has been ongoing since 2011. The end result was a list of ten buildings (compare this with the Court’s ruling) that slowly expanded to 192, though as to which ones are included, which excluded and if so why, all remain a mystery.

Last week the Chennai Metropolitan Development Authority (CMDA) suddenly discovered that five of the 192 buildings have vanished. Heading this list of lost structures is Kalaivanar Arangam, whose absence we would assume the CMDA has known for quite sometime now. After all, it was demolished to make way for the hastily planned and even more hastily put up Assembly cum Secretariat now masquerading as a Super Speciality Hospital. And there is a new Kalaivanar Arangam, which we must admit is a decent piece of architecture, in place of the old one. Does the CMDA not know of such mammoth structures being put up by the State Government? And in case the CMDA is worried about five buildings, we at Madras Musings can add at least ten more to the list. And we can add some more that are on a highly endangered list.

The problem in Chennai is that the Government, no matter who is in power, views all British-era built heritage as vestiges of a colonial regime. It has not been able to make up its mind on whether these structures need to be preserved. They could consult their counterparts in Mumbai on this. After all, Bombay Gothic and Art Deco too are products of the same era. While on that matter, let us point out that the State Government here does not have any qualms in going with other elements of colonial heritage – the very bureaucracy and methods of administration are hand me downs from then. So is our habit of erecting statues at every street corner.
The Government needs to urgently wake up on whatever heritage is still left standing in our city and the rest of the State. For starters it needs to believe NGOs that are working on such aspects and utilise their expertise. It also needs to present our case of preservation more forcefully in international forums. The last time such an attempt, albeit half-hearted, was made was in 2011. Can we see a revival of that effort and hope for better results?