A heritage, all at sea
Pondicherry’s unique Indo-French and Tamil architecture is under threat. The PWD has categorised as unsafe, and slated for demolition and rebuilding, the old Town Hall and the house where Subramania Bharati lived
My family and I have had a long association with Pondicherry (now Puducherry) spanning 35 years. This involved two tenures; in 1979 I held, among a host of charges, the Department of Town Planning; 21 years later I also held the charge of Culture and Ports in my capacity as Power Secretary. Over the years my family and I have made more visits than we can count.
This preamble seeks to explain that while I do not reside there, I, as well as innumerable others drawn there by the Ashram, Auroville or simply tourism, view it as a very special place with its distinctive Indo-French architecture, its rich cultural history and its spiritual roots. Its heritage therefore belongs not just to those who happen to live there but to the rest of us as well, just as one could say that Ajanta and Ellora, or the endangered tiger, or the Jarawa tribe in the Nicobar Islands, or our oral traditions, belong to all of us and should arouse our concern if they are threatened, either by neglect, accident or design.
It is in this context that the recent decision taken by the Puducherry Public Works Department (PWD) that five of the Government-owned buildings are “unsafe” must be viewed. The five dwellings declared “unsafe,” possibly not restorable and therefore to be demolished and “rebuilt,” include the iconic house at No. 20, Easwaran Koil Street, where the great Tamil poet and revolutionary Subramania Bharati lived from 1908 to 1918, and where some of his greatest compositions were created and which is today a memorial and a museum. To demolish it is easy; but the structure that will be rebuilt will never be the home of the Mahakavi, it will just be a building robbed of its historicity.
Another building on the “unsafe” list is the Mairie, the majestic sea-fronted Town-Hall, still called by its French name by residents and tourists alike. Built in 1871, this imposing building faces the sea. In 2001, when I was Culture Secretary, it became the focus of the first heritage summit that I convened. With sizeable help from the PWD, as also from concerned friends of Pondicherry such as Francis Wacziarg and Aman Nath, we were able to restore the first floor to something of its old glory. It needs to be stated that for almost 150 years the Mairie faced every challenge from the sea. Sadly, over the last three decades Pondicherry has lost its sandy beach on its “Beach Road.” However, wearing my Secretary Ports hat, I started a dredging programme, and had the satisfaction of seeing the sand returning, slowly but surely, to where the beach once stood.
We took photographs, each week, to record the revival. That effort was later discontinued. After the tsunami of 2004, large cement blocks have been placed there to withstand the waves .Nonetheless there is a vast reservoir of available expertise in the shape of engineers, specialists, conservators and architects in Pondicherry, Auroville and Chennai, who can be pooled together, at no great cost, to restore the beach and strengthen the Mairie’s foundations, so that this iconic building is given another long lease of life. Nor, it needs to be said, is the Mairie the only building on the Beach Road. There are a whole line of buildings along the promenade, many of them of similar vintage, which face no threat. However, the government needs urgently to convene a meeting and invite available talent both to safeguard the Mairie, and in the long term, to restore the sand to the sea front.
Pondicherry has faced threats before. In 1980-81, there was pressure to build a spanking new high-rise in the middle of the Boulevard Town. Many anxious voices reached the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s attention. She wasted no time in writing to the then Chief Minister a letter, of which I remember one sentence which read: “The character of the Boulevard Town must be allowed to remain inviolate.” That put an end to that adventurism.
At a time when cityscape is deteriorating and getting replaced by disharmonious flats, the Pondicherry Chapter of Indian National Trust For Art and Cultural Heritage (Intach), ably headed by Ajit Koujalgi, has shown the way. In close collaboration with the Government of Pondicherry Intach took up, a few years ago, the task of conserving this very same heritage with the twin aim of also boosting tourism. This project helped restore and preserve 10 private buildings under a matching grant scheme. In the Tamil town, facades of a stretch of Vysial Street were restored to demonstrate the charm of Tamil vernacular architecture with their continuous verandas.
This project received the Unesco Asia Pacific Award in 2008. The Pondicherry Asia Urbs Programme also received international recognition in 2010, when the Shanghai World Expo decided to showcase this project for six months as one of the 50 best urban projects from around the world.
Today Pondicherry’s old town is rapidly getting urbanised, its population has tripled in the last 20 years, leading to severe stress on the existing infrastructure, urban amenities, as well as deterioration of the environment and the quality of life. In 1995 there were about 1800 buildings listed by the Intach Chapter as heritage buildings in Pondicherry; today just about half are left. Most of the buildings lost have been in the Tamil part of the town. In the French part, the destruction has been less harsh; from 300 listed buildings in 1995, about 270 now remain. Fifty-one buildings were lost last year alone, mostly in the Tamil precinct. The damage to the French precinct has been relatively less, but such rapid urban transformation will gradually destroy the fragile heritage of the Boulevard Town as well. The transformation includes uncontrolled changes in terms of land use, property division, demolitions and alterations, urban skyline, streetscape character and high vehicular traffic particularly on week-ends. The Government of Pondicherry needs urgently to review its existing floor area ratio, so that in the next few years Pondicherry does not acquire the character of faceless haphazard colonies that have come up in our metros.
There is, however, among a number of residents and friends of Pondicherry a realisation that this splendid and unique example of Indo-French architecture and urban planning needs rapidly to be protected. The Chief Minister Rangasamy of Pondicherry has himself addressed the Deputy Chairman of the Planning Commission Montek Singh Ahluwalia last November, proposing that his Government restore 19 Government buildings include the Mairie, the Assembly, the Court, the Light House, four schools and two hospitals, and has sought additional Central assistance funds for this purpose. He wrote of these 20 buildings in his letter that, “If conserved, they will get a new lease of life, enhance their utility to the public, raise the tourism potential of the town, and most importantly, and act as a exemplar to the public to preserve their own buildings.” Lieutenant Governor Iqbal Singh, he wrote, was equally committed to this project.
World Heritage status
In my own recent discussions with both the Lieutenant Governor and the Chief Minister, I found both of them prepared to walk the extra mile to help retain Pondicherry’s unique heritage.
This is also perhaps the best time to look at the larger picture, and that is in the direction of seeking Unesco World Heritage Status for the entire French precinct. The basic ingredients are all available — cultural history, unique architecture and spiritual roots. Pondicherry, with its cosmopolitan flair and multi-cultural population is a city chosen by Subramania Bharati and Sri Aurobindo and the Mother as their home. It could become a city dedicated to culture, education and spiritualism. There is no doubt that the selection criteria to acquire world heritage status is arduous, but there is no shortage of available talent to prepare these plans. There is no reason why Pondicherry should not be the first city in India to achieve this distinction.
(Navin Chawla is a former Chief Election Commissioner of India.)