If only buildings could speak, the Appar Achagam Building in Broadway would tell stories about how Ananda Vikatan once functioned from its premises, the grieving Pachaiyappa’s College building would, with a forgotten vigour narrate, share anecdotes about how Annadurai and Periyar once spoke from within its hallowed walls, and the YMCA building which is now reeking of neglect, would establish its assertive past by narrating how the first meeting of the Music Academy was held there.
In an effort to strengthen citizen advocacy for better conservation of the heritage structures in the city, Transparent Chennai, as part of its heritage project is not just mapping heritage structures in the city, but also delving deeper into their hidden histories.
Last week, a group of eight interns from Transparent Chennai set out to explore George Town, with a GPS unit in hand and a daunting list to cover. They split into four groups, and when they asked locals, where Chaplains’ House was, each was shown a different way. “Even those working just two buildings away did not know where it was,” said Vishnu G.P, one of the interns. “What we had on paper was very different from what we saw. Those in the vicinity refer to the buildings with different names, and many did not know where they were.”
An Institute for Financial Management and Research initiative, Transparent Chennai consolidates and disseminates data related to urban governance. “The heritage project to digitize and map heritage structures was taken up around eight months back, and we started off by making a list of around 450 heritage structures in the city based on the Padmanaban Committee’s Report and INTACH’s listing,” said Roshan Toshiwal, Researcher, Transparent Chennai.
Apart from exploring old areas like Mylapore and Triplicane, the project includes newer additions like Velachery. “Of the buildings on the list around 200 buildings were either dilapidated or had been pulled down,” said Roshan Toshiwal, Researcher, Transparent Chennai.
The new heritage layer which has been added to their interactive map, hopes to not just mark the location of the building, but also provide information such as the size, grading, architectural style, and chronology among other details.
When V.Sriram, Convenor, Chennai Chapter, INTACH, spoke about ‘600001’, through a series of anecdotes, photographs, and experiences, it almost seemed cathartic. Madras came alive through stories of how Black Town became George Town, how the British gave up Quebec in Canada to the French in exchange for Madras, how the dubashes became enormously wealthy, how Florence Nightingale campaigned for a drainage system in Madras while she was in London, how the Chennai Corporation is the second oldest corporation in the world, second only to the London Corporation and the school where mid-day meals were first introduced among many other nuggets from Madras’ history.
While these nuggets from the past usher in a sense of wonder about how much history a quarter can accommodate, what is happening to George Town now? “It is a civic nightmare,” said Sriram. “It is treated just like Adyar or the newer areas, and there is no separate plan to deal with the unique challenges that the area faces. It has to be treated like Old Delhi and the old parts of Hyderabad. A public discussion should be held and the residents must be consulted. Community spirit is very high in these areas, and residents will discuss not just problems, but will also come up with solution,” he added.
While the evening began with grand assertions about Madras’ history, it ended with questions like “Can the city remain in status quo?” “Is heritage an elitist concern?” and “How do you find ways to reinvent the use of a building?” How will George Town catch up with the times?