The heritage structure, a silent witness to the city's changes, is to be razed
Over the last 244 years, the Kalas Mahal, which is at the core of the Chepauk palace that once upon a time served as the home of the Nawabs of Arcot, has witnessed many changes. Located on the Marina beachfront, the building was a spectator to the daring bombing of Madras by a German warship during the First World War. It survived cyclones and stormy weather, and stood tall even as the city transformed from Madras to Chennai.
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But time seems to have run out for the historic structure. In the aftermath of the fire on Monday that killed one fireman and injured three others, the State government has decided to raze it down and construct a new multi-storey office building on the site.
Speaking to The Hindu, Public Works Department Minister K.V.Ramalingam said that the building is beyond repair. “It has sustained considerable damage and has to be demolished.”
Having inspected the site on Tuesday morning, he said that the floors of the two-storey tall building have collapsed and only the side walls remain. “The debris has piled up to a height of 10-15 feet and there is just open sky above.” Mr.Ramalingam said since the building had a lot of wooden beams in some sections smoke was still billowing out. Four fire tenders continue to remain on the spot round the clock and water jets are being used wherever necessary. A team of PWD engineers are expected to inspect the building on Wednesday.
While it looks like the government has made up its mind even before a technical inspection, conservationists and historians have begun to ask for the creation of an autonomous technical committee to decide the fate of Kalas Mahal. K.Kalpana, a conservation architect, cites the example of the General Post Office building, which was gutted in a fire in 2000. “The structural damage was remarkably similar. All the floors of the two-storied [excluding an attic floor] GPO collapsed in the fire. The main roof survived. The 50 feet walls and the huge timber beams also remained.”
The GPO was successfully restored and an additional floor added to make it a three-storey building. “Even in the Kalas Mahal, if the walls are fairly intact, there is still a possibility of re-erecting the floors. But it all depends on the magnitude of the damage. The government must assign this responsibility to a team of experts,” she adds.
Historian S.Muthiah says that all efforts must be made to renovate the structure as it is the most important heritage building in the city, after Fort St. George. “It is a world monument in many ways and a window to how modern India evolved. Much of the architectural scheme adopted in Lutyen's Delhi had its roots in the Chepauk palace.”
Much of the palace's glory has been hidden away over the years owing to the ad-hoc addition of government office buildings. “Unless we have a strong Heritage Act, I don't think there's much room for hope.”
Experts say that what used to be stately symbols that added architectural value to the city's skyline have degraded over the years. For instance, Chennai city has around 1,600 government buildings, including about 400 large structures (three or more storeys). Many government structures make a mockery of architectural sensibilities, says Ms.Kalpana.
The story was corrected for a factual error.