Kamalahasan Ramaswamy believes that a little concern can go a long way in conserving the country's heritage

Kamalahasan Ramaswamy is a quiet and unassuming man. But behind his bespectacled eyes lies a driven conservation enthusiast.

While Ramaswamy's regular job involves the rigours of the everyday architect in a growing city like Coimbatore, his preferred field is in the conservation and restoration of old, heritage buildings. His knowledge of and concern for history is vast. So much so that one meeting alone with Ramaswamy may not suffice!

“My thesis for my Bachelors degree in Architecture was a study on the conservation of Gingee Fort. Built on a magnanimous scale, the fort traces the evolution of military architecture adopted by various dynasties. This, from the cattle-rearing Konar community of the 13th century, to the Nayak chieftains of the Vijayanagar Empire in the 15th and 16th centuries, and later the Khans of Bijapur Sultanate and Marathas in the 17th century to the French in the late 18th century.”

Ramaswamy's interest in history and architecture, found him begin his career as a Research Assistant with the French Institute of Pondicherry in 1998.

Soon after, he joined the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH) in the same state.

“I was involved in establishing the Advisory Heritage Conservation Cell to help the government preserve the historic image of Puducherry,” he explains.

A key function of the Cell was the identification of heritage buildings. “The government was to forward us any case that involved the renovation or bringing down of a heritage building. The Cell was to advise the owners of the building on how best to proceed with its preservation.”

There were successful attempts. “But, just as you cannot force anyone to do Yoga although you know it is good for the health, so too one cannot enforce conservation at gun-point everywhere. All we can give here is advice,” Ramaswamy says with a wry smile.

“There are countries where regulations cannot be broken. Take Germany for instance, where special police enforce building norms. Similar to our traffic police!”

A neglected heritage

Ramaswamy continues, “India has abundance in heritage. We don't realise its value. Perhaps, there's too much to take care of. Besides, we are currently caught up in developmental activity. But, this is to the detriment of our existing cultural heritage.”

He mentions his US-ICOMOS (International Committee on Monuments and Sites) internship in New York in 2001in this context.

“It involved documentation of a parkway, one of the oldest in New York. I don't think it was steeped in history. Where is a 12th century Gingee Fort in comparison to a 1925 Bronx river parkway? However, the project was sanctioned 75,000 dollars only for documentation. Subsequently, it was catalogued in the library of the US Congress. The professionalism needs to be admired.”

Resurrecting pride

Ramaswamy is quick to say, “I am not trying to show our people up. But, for instance, take the trail that traces Subramanya Bharathi's ascent in Tamil literature. It is important to preserve that. Though his houses have been preserved in Madurai and Puducherry, the one in Triplicane is in a sad state. Who is to say he is any less in stature than Shakespeare? Shakespeare's trail is well-preserved in England. Besides being a matter of national pride, this contributes towards cultural tourism, which is an asset to a country's national economy!”

Conservation, for Ramaswamy is not just about individual buildings. “Conservation is about upholding the cultural identity of a place. Puducherry's French style architecture stands distinctly unique from the tanks and temples of Chettinad. A city's architecture comes in response to its climate and lifestyle. Standardised high rise buildings destroy all of the above. Conservation is also about the surrounding micro-environment,” he explains.

Ramaswamy refers to the Asia-Urbs Programme conducted between 2002 and 2004 in Puducherry.

“It was in partnership with Italy and France. Again, I was involved in the documentation of the programme.” Everything from the restoration of facades of over 20 heritage houses, to sign-boards containing historically relevant information, was conducted.

This, along with pilot demonstration projects for waste management in collaboration with NGOs and participation of local residents.

“Puducherry has become pro-active towards conserving its heritage. But, we couldn't have done it without government support,” he says.

Ramaswamy is all for integrated development.

He has involved himself in the restoration and conservation of buildings in Chettinad, the Nilgiris and Pollachi.

“I grew up in the district of Chettinad. Images that spring to mind are of its well-planned settlements, temples, tanks, and mansions designed for joint families. But development has resulted in damaging the environment. Tanks are dry throughout the year. The narrow roads meant for bullock carts are unable to hold heavy motorised traffic. Mansions have made way for standardised new construction. People don't realise that sometimes the cost of renovating an old mansion with local materials and techniques is far less than raising a new complex. Converting mansions into hotels or bed-and-breakfasts is a viable option,” he states.

“We need to be in harmony with our surroundings in order to live comfortably. Although technology has improved, our buildings are worse now than before! Finding new ways isn't progress. Doing right things the right way is.”

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