Delhi woke to some good news last week. The city’s stately, two-storeyed Town Hall of 1863 vintage was dying a slow death, due to callous use by municipal officials from Independence up to 2009. Its museum and library too must be in their last throes, if rodents, seepage, white ants and pigeons have left any book or artifact intact at all. Still, and after nine more years of dithering, it’s final — the august building will soon be leased out to bidders for a heritage hotel.
One dismaying thought persists. What if the government “does an Air India” on the Town Hall by retaining a stranglehold through the hobby interior designer-wife of an official or someone else it wants to “favour” with a paid consultancy? Instead of leaving it to professional architects endowed with sense and sensibility — two qualities that no demolition-happy Indian government at any level — national, state or local — has ever displayed about heritage? Don’t buy my cynicism. Drop in on any government office housed in an old building anywhere in the country.
Like the stately Jaisalmer House in New Delhi, where officials of a ministry huddle in tacky Formica cubicles, inside what used to be expansive living quarters. Encircling them like the grim chorus of a Greek tragedy are steel almirahs; above them, a bewildering jungle of electric wires on which colonies of pigeons roost, frequently raining droppings and feathers down upon classified documents. Pan-chewers have left trademark splatter along the wide corridors that encircle an inner courtyard. (So great is the resemblance to a Dickensian warehouse that the ministry recently invited tenders from pest control companies to decimate the ancient building’s other unwelcome residents: swarms of rats.)
Or check out the debate and the mystical secrecy surrounding the design of an undoubtedly-needed war memorial at India Gate. The question on whether the memorial will mar the grand vistas and perfect symmetry of the India Gate hexagon and Rajpath remains unanswered. Or visit the National Museum, which houses some of India’s greatest and most awe-inspiring antiquities but also the surliest and most ignorant front office staff, who make it obvious just how much they hate being bothered by visitors.
“The National Museum is a treasure house of wondrous pieces. Why, then, do I feel such reluctance and depression when I go there?” asks Dastkar chairperson Laila Tyabji. The country’s top crafts activist also holds government ministries with “no eye for its contents, potential or the most basic aesthetics” responsible for its sorry state. “You pass a marvellous, medieval Vishnu used as a dumping ground for backpacks! On your right is a that stunning, towering rath, obscured in a dusty, plexiglass, kennel-like structure,” Ms Tyabji fumes. She also points to an astounding omission on the museum’s website — that there’s no mention of the American architect who was awarded the Padma Bhushan for designing the magnificent building.
To the rest of the country, Delhi is spoilt, Delhi is privileged. And there is some truth to that grumble. Delhi, at least, has plenty of heritage warriors who put frequent and welcome spokes into government wheels the minute they sense impending doom for old monuments. But whether in the capital or elsewhere in India, and depending on the nationality and/or religion of the long-gone patron-builder of a given monument, the chief reasons for neglect are either populist politics or profits.
Earlier this year, dismayed Kolkatans watched the Kenilworth Hotel — or the Purdy Mansion — being brought down. One of Kolkata’s oldest establishments of the British colonial era, the Kenilworth’s spacious suites were legendary and it remained the favourite watering hole of intellectuals and writers for generations. In 2009, the hotel was reportedly listed in the Grade IIA category on the Kolkata Municipal Corporation’s list of heritage buildings. But earlier this year, it was stealthily scaled down to Grade III, that is, the category of old buildings that are allowed to fall. A 35-storey residential behemoth will now arise on the shards of invaluable history.
Reports suggest that there were 823 heritage structures still standing in Bengaluru in 1985. Since then, 469 of them, including the Murphy Town Library (for an “Indira Canteen”) and more recently, Lalbagh’s Krumbiegel Hall have been turned into rubble and venues for restaurants, malls and high-end apartments. The Moore Market was charred in a fire and many other Chennai landmarks were demolished. Still, the heritage-rich southern city scores some points for recently announcing its willingness to restore some of the most remarkable British-era college buildings.
But the more things change, the more they remain the same. Days after the Delhi Town Hall announcement came another, which brought all hopes of reviving both aesthetics and Delhi’s poisonous air crashing to earth again. All illegal street-side stalls, additional floors and makeshift parking lots at some busy Delhi markets (where every inch of pavement space is occupied by hawkers and vehicles) are going to be “regularised”. The municipality is obviously unconcerned by small piffles like air pollution, fire escapes and the space to walk for the city’s residents. Remember: both the Lok Sabha and Assembly elections are up in the next two years. What better time for a few sops?
If there are two things that are definitely NOT on the curriculum of either politicians’ nurseries or the celebrated IAS training institute in Mussoorie, they are city planning and the art of conserving ancient architecture, whether built by the “good guys” or “bad eggs”.
What one architect-writer famously described as Gujarati-Gothic and Punjabi Baroque dominate our city landscapes today. Curlicews and turrets, heat-producing construction material and reflector glass highly unsuited to tropical climates are what we will leave behind. For future generations to gasp at and wonder — is this the same nation and the same people that built Ajanta? Ellora? The Taj Mahal? Or even the iconic Hall of Nations at Pragati Maidan in New Delhi, which even though of 1970s’ vintage and approved by a former PM-patron herself, was not spared the bulldozers’ either?
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