With heritage far removed from our lives, being culturally aware seems a far cry for the youth. Yahasvini Rajeshwar talks to a few youngsters to get their perspective and the need for sensitisation.

For decades, the entrance to Anna Nagar was majestically guarded by the tall, twin structures of the Anna Arch. Built by MGR in memory of his mentor C. Annadurai in 1985, it was a symbol of camaraderie, respect and most of all, namma Chennai’s history. Yet, there are few amongst the youth today who will be able to tell you the story of the arch. They will tell you they were almost brought down to allow for a flyover and then, after some protest, it was decided to let be. The why, the how and the what of the case remain a foggy muddle though.

Expatriate visitors to the country are told it is the land of monuments, sculptures and of history that lives on. They go on temple tours and heritage walks and city safaris to discover the impact that time has left on buildings and people. Yet, if one were to ask our youth today the story about Kapaleeshwarar Temple in Mylapore or St. Thomas Basilica in Santhome, you may not get farther than a bus route or expected auto fares. We may love our city, but we don’t know much about it.

Endangered topics

Every once in a while, the Archaeological Survey of India (Chennai Circle) launches an awareness campaign. Photo exhibitions, guided tours and heritage walks abound in an effort to make the world aware of the eons of time that stand chiselled in stone.

Often with the involvement of college students, officials from ASI help host various efforts to spread the word of protection and conservation of monuments. And thus, every once in a while, we make the effort to learn, understand and retain a tiny bit of our past, haunted by the knowledge that there is so much information lost to the passage of time.

It is interesting to note how the youth of the city interact with this fabric of culture and heritage. L Nirmal, a student of Chemical Engineering at IIT-M, describes it eloquently. “To me, heritage is an endangered species, the tangible portion of which lies in art and books and is gathering dust while the intangible portion remains forgotten. They offer a great way to re-invent the past and look into the future. Some are great pieces of art, while others are symbols of victory. In an era of technology, monuments show me what conscientious effort can do — last through generations”.

Yet, despite this rather strong sense of nostalgia and reminiscing that accompanies any discussion on monuments and heritage, the problem of definition remains. Ask Pranathi Diwakar, a student of the Social Sciences with an avid interest in Urban Studies and this problem reveals itself.

“Heritage is not easily defined, and it depends on whose heritage it is before we can decide whether to conserve it or not. Its use must develop with time and in a way that includes the users of the space in the decisions regarding how or whether to conserve it. This decision must be respectful of history, tradition as well as the need of new users. This is, in my opinion, the best possible scenario for the future of ‘heritage’ sites.”

And thus, we find ourselves at the crux of the debate. If there is common ground in the understanding that the youth are not fully aware, while also not believing blindly in the worth of monuments for monuments sake, then who is to take responsibility for the initiative? Who should take up the task of sensitisation?

“The primary reason for lack of cultural awareness amongst our youth is the almost complete absence of knowledge dissemination about the positive aspects of our rich cultural heritage. This is the state of affairs right from primary school through specialised higher education. The wave of mindless Westernisation of everything including our culture and value systems also has to play a big role in that,” opines Samyak Sibasish, a second year law student.

“Just as our schooling propagates information of all prominent cultures, a special emphasis should be placed on the Indian story. Then, our youth will have a balanced outlook, at least with respect to culture systems around the world.”

Streamlining content

However, as the debate wears on and more voices join the fray, more points of view come to the fore. Just as one section rages on about necessary changes in education, another argues that perhaps the problem is not entirely systemic. The possibility of a strong social element and the impact of societal change go a long way in explaining the shifting importance of heritage in daily life. “Today, heritage is not accessible, tucked away in museums and archives. Interpretation and understanding become difficult and connections are hard to make. Heritage is removed from our daily life. To top it all off, the politics of prioritisation kicks in to decide which ‘heritage’ is more important than the other. The net result is that the common man is far removed from the process,” explains Dr. Solomon Benjamin, urbanist and academician. To complicate the picture, there are numerous other perspectives to the issue. Describing the politics of conservation, Dr. Benjamin talks of land use and the process of urban renewal. “Often, there is a complete change in land use under the guise of urban renewal. The facade of the buildings is the same but yet, they are utilised differently. This is a phenomenon that has become popular all around the world, particularly in Hong Kong and Bengaluru. If buildings are demolished and recreated, they become ‘art spaces’ of sorts and lose out on the informal relationships that used to define them. The practicality of spaces is no longer relevant and aesthetics are closely policed.”

All in all, the answer seems to be staring us in the face, as obvious as the Chennai Central clock tower on the city skyline or the Ripon Building on a map of the Marina Beach. Though the youth of the city seem interested and involved, the issue is not close enough to their lives to demand proactive involvement. The problem of preservation and conservation of cultural heritage to the youth of today is one of academic debate and intellectual conversation. If this needs to change, more than just individual action needs to come about.

More In: Nxg | Metroplus | Chennai | Features