What makes for heritage conservation if a structure is generally believed to be of ‘aesthetic, architectural and cultural merit’? The best would be for the edifice to be preserved in its entirety and put to adaptive reuse. The next best would be for it to be retained and turned into a museum of some kind, though this is really not a viable option in India where countless badly run museums proliferate with hardly any footfalls. The worst option, just short of outright demolition, would be to leave the façade standing and paint it regularly so that it looks well preserved. And yet this is precisely the kind of ‘plastic conservation’ that our State appears to specialise in, and the most recent example is what has happened to the Raja Sir Savalai Ramaswami Mudaliar Choultry that stands just opposite the Central Station.

The Raja Sir Savalai Ramaswami Mudaliar Choultry, photographed in 1924

Constructed in 1888 by the eponymous businessman and philanthropist, the precinct was meant to provide transit accommodation for people who arrived in the city by train. The land was leased from the Government and the facility, housed in a beautiful Indo Saracenic structure, was administered by a private trust which in the 1970s made way for the Official Trustee of the High Court who managed the space with a descendant of the founder as a co-trustee. By then the need for a choultry having faded, the place was leased out to a hotel.

In 2006, the building was included in the Justice E. Padmanabhan Committee report that listed out structures that could not be hidden behind large public hoardings in the city. The same report became the basis of the 2006 judgement of the High Court of Madras which ordered the State Government to explore the necessity to protect around 400 heritage structures in the city with the formation of a Heritage Conservation Committee to oversee the task and also pass a heritage act for the State.

The RSRM Choultry in the 1990s, when it was run as a hotel

While the State Government dithered over the matter, taking its own time to pass the Act, setting up a toothless Convservation Committee in the interim, disbanding the same later and never forming a new one thereafter, the High Court, with all due respect to it, watered down its 2006 judgement in 2010 by choosing to interpret that the Padmanabhan Committee report was intended only for facades and had nothing to with other parts of heritage buildings. That was in the P Orr & Sons case and this was exactly the kind of loophole that bureaucracy was waiting for.

Thereafter, any heritage conservation, barring some prestigious edifices such as Chepauk Palace and Ripon Buildings, has come to mean a coat of paint to a peeling exterior. Private buildings have fared even worse – many listed in the 2006 judgement have since been demolished citing dilapidation and public safety. It is safe to assume that no scientific study on structural stability was ever done in any of these instances, given that many of these buildings were quite sound at their core.

The RSRM Choultry in 2020 – the facade is well maintained but the rest of the building has been demolished and the structure is now below the road. Pic – Rahul Jaywanth Bhise

The RSRM Choultry was handed over the Metro Rail in 2014 and the latter body assured the High Court that it would protect the structure. What it has done is to retain the façade, in keeping with the High Court’s 2010 guideline and done away with the rest of the building. Work has now begun in the rear on Chennai Metro Square – a 33-storey structure that will dwarf not only what is left of the RSRM choultry but also all the other heritage buildings in the vicinity – Central Station, the railway headquarters, Siddique Serai, Ripon Buildings and Victoria Public Hall. This will be a monstrosity that will destroy what was for long a very harmonious skyline. But then when it comes to ‘development’ in India, aesthetics has always taken a backseat.

In the middle of all this the façade of the RSRM choultry will survive, with no connection to its surroundings. But yes, we did save it did we not?