Building memories of Madras

THE TAMIL NADU chapter of the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH) has come up with the book of the season: Madras - The Architectural Heritage (by K. Kalpana and Frank Schiffer). At a function held at Music Academy recently, S. Viji, joint managing director, Brakes India, presented the first copy of the book to Dwaraknath Reddy.

"The book has seen the light of day at a time when issues concerning architectural heritage are hogging the headlines. Let us hope that it will set the scene for something that we have been talking about for the last 20 years - a Heritage Act in the State," said historian S. Muthiah.

A few years ago S. Muthiah had suggested that INTACH bring out a book on Madras, along the lines of the guide to the architecture of Aberdeen. "At that time the idea seemed a million miles away. We had no data base on heritage buildings in the city, we had no money or manpower to even embark on collecting information, leave alone all the other inputs that go into the making of such a book," remembered P.T. Krishnan, Convenor, INTACH, Tamil Nadu Chapter. "As time passed, a series of disconnected events brought the idea back into focus. First, we were asked by our national chapter if we could take up the listing of landmark buildings in Madras for which they were willing to give us a princely sum of Rs. 20,000. We soon listed about 100-odd buildings covering major landmarks and in particular, heritage buildings in the George Town and Triplicane areas. Enthused by this success, We continued the `listings' programme with local funding until we had covered about 600 buildings all over the city. We now had a fairly strong database, though not a complete one."

Soon, INTACH felt that the information that had been collected "could be improved upon and made public to give the conservation movement a shot in the arm". It was decided that a book on the architectural heritage of Madras would be the ideal medium. But, bookshops already had a chockfull of books on the history of Madras and tourist guides. "We decided to position this book somewhere in between; it would be of use to the discerning tourist with an interest in architecture and also serve as a handbook for professionals in the field of planning and architecture. It was necessary for this book to capture the feel of the neighbourhood and the history of the locality while documenting the architecture of its landmarks, since most guides tend to view them as objects in isolation. The intention was not to romanticise or glorify the city, but to document its heritage in as objective a manner as possible," said Krishnan.

Building memories of Madras

The book offers an insight into what remains of the architectural heritage of Madras, in the hope of kindling a fresh interest in its upkeep. The chapters have been so arranged and introduced as to give a picture of how the city grew, from its majestic beginnings at the Fort to the southern suburb of Adyar.

Debates on the future of heritage planning and the history of built form and open spaces have been included as essays. The essayists are S. Muthiah, Tom Inglis, Elias Koshy, P.T. Krishnan, Dr. A. Srivathsan, Tara Murali, Dr. S. Suresh and S. Theodore Baskaran.

There are detailed descriptions (with drawings to substantiate them) on landmark buildings; there are also descriptions of residential and other smaller buildings that play an equally important role in lending character to an area.

One of the authors of the book, K. Kalpana is a conservation architect "with a passion for reinterpreting traditional values and the spirit of building in present-day architecture". The other author, Frank Schiffer is a German architect with a flair for photography and a profound interest in heritage.

Kalpana said the most difficult part of the process that went into the making of the book was the collection of primary information. It meant that the team had to spend hours in "the dingy backrooms of the archives section of libraries and was stuck in crowded back-streets of old localities of the town". Library assistants had to be urged to go the extra mile and owners of heritage buildings cajoled into parting with valuable information.

Speaking on the occasion, S.K. Misra, vice-chairman, INTACH, said that the time had come for INTACH to assume a crusading role, where architectural heritage was concerned. He expressed the pressing need for State Governments to bring about legislations to check spoliation of heritage buildings. "A couple of years ago in Punjab, a decision was taken at the local bodies level to knock down a fort for the construction of a shopping complex. It raised many eyebrows and evoked a strong protest from conservationists. The new government in the State is much more sensitive to heritage issues. The State Legislature passed a heritage legislation on April 2. I hope Tamil Nadu takes the cue from Punjab and enacts a similar legislation," said Misra.

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