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Heritage and the City

Heritage is a word we seem to throw around quite a lot, but do we really understand what it really means? The word "heritage" brings to mind different ideas for different people and it should. For an individual, heritage is the person's unique, inherited sense of family identity: the values, traditions, culture, and artefacts handed down by previous generations. In a city like Chennai which is a city of many firsts, it is important to understand what heritage is, what it means and should mean in the city.


Heritage is broadly defined as our inheritance, or what is passed down to us as a legacy. Heritage encompasses multitude of aspects and is divided into two categories based on their attributes. Tangible heritage, as the name suggests, are the physical artefacts produced, maintained and transmitted through generations in a society. It includes artistic creations, built heritage such as buildings and monuments. There are landmark buildings such as temples, mosques, churches, town halls or a row of houses that provide reference points in the local built landscape. Intangible heritage refers to the exact opposite, traditions or living expressions inherited from our ancestors commonly defined as not having a physical presence. These include oral traditions, performing arts, social practices, rituals, festive events and the list goes on.


Chennai today is a curious mixture. While it retains the legacy of the British Raj, and is a conservative bastion in social and religious matters, it is also home to Kollywood, South India's biggest film industry, and simultaneously a stronghold of traditional Tamil culture. With the city having a rich history that goes back to the 1500s, being home to an enormous count of 2467 heritage buildings, the act of conservation started only after an accidental fire in the Moore Market in 1985. This destroyed hundreds of book shops selling antiques, that was a literature connoisseurs haven, upon which there was a conscious effort to check and preserve all historic buildings. Today, on an ironic note, a scaled-down model of the Moore Market sits in a sad state of neglect in the Central station parking lot.


Most of the architectural heritage in the city has been neglected in the process of urban development and growth. Despite having an established public administrative set-up and strong community networks, the historic areas are undergoing rapid decline due to pressures of urbanization and various other factors contributed by lack of appropriate policies, legal frame-works, awareness, and adequate funding. The Chepauk Palace, now blocked off site by the PWD building, boasts of being one of the first Indo Saracenic buildings in India incorporating elements from the Hindu and Islamic styles. For a building with so much architectural significance, the restoration process began only two years post an accidental fire in one of the wings. If larger scale buildings with enormous historic and architectural significance are treated this way, you can only imagine the fate of smaller residences.


The smaller lanes of Royapettah, Mylapore and even George Town are dotted with houses that run deep with thinnais that line the street and are fenestrated with narrow windows. Most of these houses date back to the 18th century, but the owners fear the heritage status and brush it under the carpet. Take for example, a property where Srinivas Ramanujam resided. In this residence was a plaque commemorating the fact, and it was from here that he set out to England. However, the owner felt like this plaque was what put his property at risk and the plaque told had vanished. This is not the only instance of such a thought process. In Mylapore, a marble plaque commemorating the establishment of the Indian National Congress was broken down as soon as the property changed hands, the new owners fearing Government take-over.Lack of awareness by the owners part and vague government policies are definitely to blame. There are a few stories where owners are aware of the history and importance associated with their property and do take it in their own hands to conserve the originality of the structure. In Iyah Mudali Street, Chintadripet when the owners moved into a 140-year-old building, it was a mere skeleton, the previous occupants having stripped it of many of its doors and windows. They decided that since the house was structurally sound, they would restore it and live in it. Today, it is a building that stands out and locals always point it out to those who come searching for old, architecturally significant buildings in the area.


As much as we find beauty in the rustic, peeling yellow plasters that reveal the brick underneath and cracked oxide flooring that feels cool beneath our feet, we must do more than just click photos and post on social media with the 'aesthetic' hashtag. We must try to understand the history associated with the structure and learn as much as we can from construction techniques to planning aspects. With the fading away of architectural heritage, is the loss of knowledge, legacy, varied and unique occupations of the past, and fragments of our identity that are slowly disappearing.

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