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.
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 continued…