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Decrepit in Chennai: In the city ruin follows everywhere

Veteran historian S Muthiah says awareness about heritage is on the rise in Chennai today.

chennai-main The YMIA building (Source: Nathan G)

On a clear July morning in Chennai, workers daub a final coat of paint on the doric columns of Namakkal Kavignar Maligai, a 10-storey structure housing the Tamil Nadu Secretariat within the 123.5-acre heritage precinct of Fort St George. The 40-year-old tower, fresh from a Rs 28-crore renovation, is a grating anachronism, jammed between the three-centuries-old Assembly Hall and a row of disused barracks that were home to the British Battalion. At King’s Barracks, the largest original structure within the Fort, plants poke out of fissures in its walls, large chunks of the ceilings have caved in, and columns teeter on the upper storey. A part of the building has been repurposed as an Army canteen; another wing is leased out to tea shops where office-goers dig into steaming idli-sambar, seemingly oblivious to the history that threatens to keel over around them.

The state of the oldest British fort in India — ironically, the Chennai Circle headquarters of the Archaeological Survey of India, which occupies British general Robert Clive’s house within its ramparts — is symbolic of the yawning gap in conservation efforts in present-day Chennai. History lies scattered across this 375-year-old city like a vast, arresting jigsaw puzzle that is missing a few pieces. The Madras Day celebrations held on August 22 to commemorate its founding saw heritage lovers rue this disconnect. Chennai remains a city “on auto-pilot, with no proactive measures towards preserving its architectural heritage,” says V Sriram, a historian and former INTACH convenor, who conducts heritage walks.

chennai-story-2 The Armenian Church which has stood the test of time chennai-story Chepauk Palace The dilapidated building on Vanniar Street belonging to an educational trust The dilapidated building on Vanniar Street belonging to an educational trust

He says scores of heritage buildings in Chennai are in danger of being engulfed by development and about 2,000 merit a plaque. Four hundred and sixty-seven buildings were notified as protected monuments in the Justice E Padmanabhan Committee Report of 2008, much to the displeasure of some private owners, who now found themselves saddled with the responsibility of preserving them. But in the absence of any legislation underpinning the work of a reticent Heritage Conservation Committee, several buildings have fallen despite being included in the report. “The historic Bible Society building in the Memorial Hall premises was razed to make way for a new structure with a ‘heritage feel’. With the exception of some churches and private residences, very little of Chennai’s heritage is well-restored,” Sriram says.

In a city with the most number of colonial buildings after Kolkata, ruin is a shadow that follows you everywhere. Disaster lurks behind forgotten facades and looms over old rambling public buildings, where a short in the gnarled old wiring is all it would take to start a fire. Last month, one such blaze consumed the second floor of the 118-year-old State Bank of India building at Parry’s Corner on Rajaji Salai. Late into the night, when the fire had been put out, smoke rose in curls, framing the majestic red-brick structure designed in the Indo-Saracenic style by Henry Irwin. The building had sustained irreversible damage. “The structure will be left much weaker after absorbing all this water,” said M Anandan, superintendent of transport, Fire Department, the morning after. “I have seen half a dozen British-era buildings flare up like furnaces during my tenure in the fire service. They are extremely strong structures, but fire safety awareness is low in this city, and with the government’s gross neglect, many of them are liable to go up in flames,” he said.

Anandan had no idea how soon his words would ring true. Exactly two weeks later, a minor fire broke out in the 246-year-old Humayun Mahal, a wing of the Chepauk Palace built by the Nawab of the Carnatic, where heaps of files and old furniture lay dumped. The incident kindled memories of the flames that had gutted the adjoining Kalas Mahal two years ago, claiming a fireman’s life. Chennai continues to be rankled by these tragedies because they could just as easily recur at other down-at-the-heels heritage sites, some of them located on the Metro corridor where excavation is underway.

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One of the first buildings to come up on the sands of the Marina in the 18th century, Chepauk Palace, now a part of the Ezhilagam administrative complex, looks as though time folded in on itself here. Asbestos sheets attempt to screen from public view a sweep of red brick with latticed balconies painted green. Gashes of peeling plaster, the jagged wreckage of windows and a stench of garbage complete the picture of disrepair. Amidst public protest that followed the fire in 2012, the government had tasked the Public Works Department with restoring the mansion to its former glory, but faith in this effort is now slowly seeping away.

The apathy extends to yet another signpost in the history of Madras, located to the north in a lane in George Town. Not many have heard of Gokhale Hall, a century-old, disused Young Men’s Indian Association (YMIA) building on Armenian Street where theosophist Annie Besant founded the Home Rule League in 1916. The once-handsome structure was the nerve centre of the freedom struggle and the Hindi movement in Chennai. It hosted the likes of Gandhi and Tagore under its magnificent dome and was a coveted venue for arts and music in the mid-20th century. But for a High Court order staying its demolition in 2008, the structure would have been torn down. “It was a close shave. But in the absence of efforts to preserve the building, parts of which have caved in over the years, it may bite the dust anyway,” says R Mahalingam, a retired businessman and a heritage enthusiast.

Abutting Gokhale Hall is a three-storey block dating back to 1947, where a dark passage, with steps leading up to a BSNL office, opens out at the back into a compound. Here, Farida and Ekbal Hussain and their four children live in a hut painted aqua. Flanked by Gokhale Hall on one side and an older under-litigation property on the other, the Hussains have lived in fear for years. The 150-year-old building, which sits on Vanniar Street and belongs to an educational trust, is blighted by age and sways dangerously when whipped by wind and rain. “Two weeks ago, a piece of the roof fell on top of our house. I fear the day when the whole thing will collapse on us,” says Farida. “We have been fighting this case for a decade. Where will we go?” Asif, her 22-year-old son, was born here. A kabadiwala and his family are squatters in the eviscerated Trust building next door, where a tree has taken over the walls.

Heritage is a deadweight in George Town, where the trading quarter of the city of Madras first came up centuries ago. On Errabalu Street, a large compound that enclosed the offices of Binny Mills, one of the oldest commercial ventures in the city that employed 21,000 people in its heyday in the 1920s, looks like a ghost town. Gutted by several fires, its buildings — yellow, with high ceilings, imposing columns and grey shutters with overhangs — find a mention in the Padmanabhan Committee Report. But the watchman, the only soul in sight, says plans are afoot to construct a shopping complex here.

In the indistinct clutter of present-day George Town, one building that has stood the test of time is the Armenian Church, first built in 1712 and reconstructed 60 years later, after the French Siege. Open all year round to visitors, many of them students of architecture, and set amidst a fragrant grove of frangipani trees, the church’s pristine white corridor and towering belfry appear an oasis of calm. About 350 Armenians are buried here. “There are no Armenians left in Chennai, but the heritage building is maintained by the Armenian College in Kolkata,” says Trevor Alexander, whose family has been living in and tending to the premises since 2004. “This is a solid structure and not easily damaged, but timely repair is essential to maintain a building this old,” he says.

Veteran historian S Muthiah says awareness about heritage is on the rise in Chennai today. Two years ago, Transparent Chennai, a research outfit, geo-located over 400 heritage buildings on a map of the city and created a downloadable interactive heritage layer in a bid to strengthen citizen advocacy for conservation. Occupants often unwittingly damage a conservation area by making insensitive alterations or introducing elements that detract from the character of the building. “I have had to explain why cement cannot be used to repair an old structure originally constructed with lime mortar,” says Sriram. Cement mortar is impermeable and rigid; besides, in a hot city, persuading people to give up airconditioning — which is not suited to lime masonry — has proved even more challenging.

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