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Monumental neglect

Isn’t it possible to maintain our historical buildings without always succumbing to international tourism?   | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

In my neighbourhood in Delhi, a Sultanate madrassa had stood for many years in splendid isolation. But, when the colony began to grow from single to three-storey homes, the ancient structure was unfortunately dwarfed by houses becoming multiple dwellings; soon the structure became an insignificant reminder of its own history. A few years later, builders expanded into apartments and built high walls along its southern face, threatening the building, like rapists around a defenceless victim. Since then, some of the domes have collapsed and, at night, the old structure is used by a floating population of migrant labourers as shelter. A sign at the entrance remains the only reminder that the building was once a place of great eminence.

In an urban study done several decades ago, Leon Krier, a Luxembourg architect, had foreseen this state of the Indian city and suggested the possibility of providing temporary quarters to its migrant poor. Through elaborate drawings he found living space on the great open plazas of Le Corbusier’s government buildings in Chandigarh, along the open flanks of Fatehpur Sikri in Agra, in old forts and tombs, and in other large-scale monuments. Employing the historic space of Indian landmarks, he found ways to accommodate some of the millions who trespass into urban areas daily. Unlike bureaucrats and historians, Krier did not see antiquity and the modern city as incompatible. Both belonged to the citizens and, if imaginatively harnessed, he felt, their spaces could be used equitably and efficiently.

In the Indian city, historic structures unprotected by the Archaeological Survey occupy uncomfortable spaces. Officially they belong to no one and to everyone. For some, their presence is the only real source of pride in a city full of dereliction and decay; for others, they are proof of our present construction inabilities and incompetence. (Do we really need such reminders?)

Yet, in the present state of urban indifference, history and the modern city exist as natural enemies, needing each other, but carefully marking their boundaries. The fear still persists that, if you allow people to use their monuments in unconventional ways, they will destroy the place. As a result archaeological ruins are enclosed in forbiddingly high walls, or controlled by draconian legislation. Obviously when local residents around the citadel at Fatehpur Sikri and the palace at Jodhpur began to remove stone from the building’s outer walls for their own use, government action was swift, and indeed essential. But in less drastic situations, would a less rigid reverence for history make for a better city if the use of its monuments was made more flexible?

In the 17th century, Rome experienced a dramatic increase in population and a subsequent shortage of housing. The needy sought shelter in the ruins of the ancient theatre of Marcellus. Small houses appeared under the high vaults and arched galleries that once accommodated Roman audiences at gladiator fights. Before long, the entire ancient arena was transformed into a housing complex. This also happened to ancient theatres at Nimes, Arles and Florence. And yet, at each of these places, the transformation did not in any way affect the essential qualities of the original building. Today when you walk through the monument, you sense both the amphitheatre and the house; some homes are still being used.

Most Indian cities have already witnessed the actions of heaving populations that gherao uncomplaining unprotected monuments. Mosques, madarssas and tombs in Delhi, Georgian neighbourhoods in Mumbai, Nawabi buildings in Lucknow, Colonial structures in provincial towns… everywhere the old architecture is besieged by the growing squalor of unrepentant city growth. Three, four and five storeys of ramshackle plaster walls in a relentless cordon of blight surround the ancient facade till little remains. Where visual plunder has occurred, can physical plunder be far behind?

Saved from wanton physical plunder or from the equally severe atrophy of nature, the old structure always occupies an awkward place in its changing surroundings. The fight to save it will always be a losing battle. The side-by-side existence of permanent monuments and temporary malls can hardly be a matter of pride these days, especially when physical activity spills so frequently and easily onto historic ground. In civic strata of such diverse and conflicting social and economic value, how do you balance the city’s needs with the requirements of urban history and scholarship? Should the rising tide of unanchored and restless migrants not be allowed to make their homes in unused space? Unless the extremes of conservative preservation and the rampant uncontrolled way in which Indian cities are settled, find some form of physical reconciliation, the monument will remain a zone of conflict.

On a visit to the Rampur palace in U.P. many years ago, I saw how quickly an unused building can go to seed. In the main structure, the arches had cracked, peepul grew in the brickwork, and the rear had collapsed completely. Water had seeped into the walls, threatening the entire masonry structure. Inside, the wooden floor had rotted and snakes had moved into the floor boards; precious carpets, still hanging, were rat eaten. The sky was visible through breaks in the ceiling. The remains of the once-royal family were now themselves living in the remains, behind a small bricked-up courtyard.

By contrast, an historical structure of equal eminence in Kerala — the Padmanabhapuram Palace, once housing the royal family of Travencore — was lovingly restored and opened to tourists. Its architectural magnificence, though, was put to no substantive use. To this day, the building remains an empty shell, as if waiting for the royal family to move back in. Everyday, busloads of people walk through the emptiness in awe, completely disconnected from its history, admiring a way of life entirely distant from their own. Unlike Rampur, the structure is preserved and maintained with the prescription of 17th century Kerala palace architecture.

But to what effect? Does the mere knowledge of its once cultural magnificence help elevate current standards of living, or increase common awareness of architecture? Is the empty preserved shell of Padmanabhapuram Palace any different from the ruin of the Rampur palace?

In the vast spread of Indian heritage, the 4000 monuments under the Archaeological Survey of India form a small select minority. The great masonry mountains that make up the forts of Rajasthan, colonial post offices, forest rest houses and PWD bungalows, wooden stations on mountain train lines, disused havelis and hunting lodges… all require a serious rethink of their place of history. Do all palaces in Rajasthan need to become heritage hotels, or museums? Isn’t it possible to maintain our historical buildings without always succumbing to international tourism?

For the most part, an examination of India’s treatment of its archaeological remains suggests two conditions — either a conservative preservation that saves the structure in its historically correct state, or abandons it to complete dereliction. Structures like Humayun’s Tomb or Gateway of India, always in the public eye, will nevertheless be saved and restored. But what of the numerous churches of Kumaon, the hundreds of wood-and-stone structures in the Nainital and Almora districts that lie abandoned; many with collapsed roofs? Or for that matter, the wooden temples of Himachal? As buildings are they of any less value than the better- known structures of Delhi or Mumbai?

Such selective preservation of one and not the other only distorts history and creates a mismatch between reality and the eternal promise of the historic ruin. How does the inhabitant of the tarpaulin tenement gain from his proximity to the elaborate stone madrassa, the Housing Board colony in Lucknow from the Imambara? A closer association between the needs of the city and the potential of heritage buildings could make for more vibrant urban neighbourhoods.

This is not to suggest that we start building low-cost housing in the Taj Mahal, but a serious and structured reuse of monuments may in fact encourage a more wholesome engagement with our heritage. Could Safdarjung’s Tomb become a concert hall, the ruins of Hampi house a college or the unused part of Rashtrapati Bhawan become a public library? Obviously, the traditional view would balk at such outlandish suggestions. But given that glass malls and peeling walls of endlessly repeating housing complexes are our new heritage, it may be harder to answer the thornier question: how would these present-day monuments come to be viewed by future historians?

Gautam Bhatia is a Delhi-based architect and sculptor.

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Printable version | Apr 16, 2021 5:38:30 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/features/magazine/gautam-bhatia-looks-at-how-heritage-buildings-can-be-used-to-create-vibrant-neighbourhoods/article7429665.ece

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