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Thursday, July 07, 2022

‘Heritage’ is not simply a structure but our collective memories and associations with it

Governments should be wary of obliterating structures that bind us as citizens because they are important reminders of where we come from

Written by Leher Kala |
Updated: May 30, 2021 8:02:58 am
Construction activities of Central Vista Avenue Redevelopment Project in progress. (Express Photo By Amit Mehra)

A wrong turn down Delhi’s desolate roads recently led me to the historic space around the wide and leafy India Gate hexagon. Blazing with golden, flowering laburnums these days, it was easy to avert my gaze from the barricaded enclosures on all sides. Several old buildings that have dotted Delhi’s landscape forever are on the verge of being torn down, making way for a new Parliament, a PM House and a new National Museum, among others. India’s colonial past resurfaces in this small stretch of perfection which in another era was called, rather grandly, Kingsway. At some stage of their lives, Delhiites, and indeed all visitors to the Capital, have strolled along these lawns, or picnicked here as school children.

Despite driving past it regularly, I have never entered Udyog Bhavan, one of the landmark buildings slated for the equivalent of the death penalty. To my untrained eye, it is hardly an architectural marvel. Its rigid and sober symmetry in an inexplicable shade of pink is reminiscent of Stalinist ideals. Perhaps, that was the idea, which explains the name Udyog, meaning industrious. One half expects to see glum, expressionless people patiently lining up for a loaf of bread outside it. I imagine preservationists would have a hard time defending a dour structure that screams of Communism. Except, even horrendously ugly buildings form a vital link in our journeys — if only to serve as a reminder of how far we’ve come. Like the ancient Chinese philosophy of yin and yang suggests that opposite or contrary forces complement each other, exposure to ugliness is part of the process, even necessary, to developing an understanding of beauty.

Of course the question of aesthetic judgment is particularly thorny in a diverse society, where several cultural identities and hence, heritages, coexist. What is to be protected, and promoted? Who decides? A consensus seems impossible. However, post Independence, India was built not just by a handful of leaders sitting in Parliament but the lakhs of anonymous government employees who’ve walked the corridors of Udyog Bhawan since 1957. The building may be devoid of artistic meaning but it is a record of their contribution. Demolishing it is akin to how a lot of women feel about their grandmothers’ ugly jewellery. Even if you never wear it, the question of trading it in for a Cartier bracelet just doesn’t arise. Because ‘heritage’ is not simply a structure but our collective memories and associations with it.

Familiar surroundings and public spaces carry tangible and intangible traces of our pasts. They have the power to bend time and take us back to a period of our lives that we thought was over forever. Mankind is essentially nostalgic. Even if I never go back to India Gate again, it is lodged in the back of my head, bridging my past and present. We’re urged to live in the moment but we spend our time subconsciously processing our own experiences. It’s always the books and the people we fell in love with, and the environment we grew up in, that shapes our understanding of how the world works. So, governments should be wary of obliterating structures that bind us as citizens because they are important reminders of where we come from. Getting rid of the old to create something new is the progressive American way, but it is not an accurate reflection of Indian life.

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Should it be? Perhaps. Modern ideas yield new perspectives. This is philosophically accepted as the march of time. Yet, worldwide, destruction of old buildings is associated with countries at war where the social order has collapsed. It can’t be a coincidence that the most popular apocalyptic films like Godzilla and GI Joe blow up iconic architecture like the Eiffel Tower, to emphasise disaster, in a most visceral way. It’s to make the point that civilisation, as we know it, is perpetually under threat.

This column first appeared in the print edition on May 30, 2021, under the title ‘When familiarity breeds joy’.
The writer is director, Hutkay Films

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