What is heritage? - Every time I hear this question, I get flashbacks of my architecture college. The professors’ favourite question to ask would be ‘What is architecture?’ and enjoy as the students stumbled through giving a coherent answer. It is a question that puzzles you and makes you wonder what the ‘right’ answer is. There is no right answer, we would come to learn. The same applies to the question about heritage. There is no right answer. It is solely dependent on our individual perception(s), and that is where a wonderful journey begins.
If you had asked me some years back “What is historic in Chennai? What would you like to preserve?”, I probably wouldn’t have had a single answer. Cut to the present, my reaction would be the same. What’s the change then, you might ask? I won’t have a single answer because the moment the question ends, at least five images of buildings in despair would flash before my eyes. Combined with this would be the book anna in T Nagar, the akka who sells trinkets near Besant Nagar beach, the malliga kadai as you enter/ exit the street I live in, and countless others.
My perception of what is historic and heritage was rather limited until I left the city. Living in a new city naturally instilled the desire to explore and try out new things and places. Somewhere along the way a question came and settled in my mind - What is Chennai home to? What places of historicity have I visited there? My mind started sifting through the multiple bike rides around the city, and it was largely Marina that kept coming up. One of my favourite roads in the city, I have witnessed its beauty during the early and late hours and these are some of the memories I hold close. Here and there were some stray visits - one to the Ice House (now the Vivekanandar Illam) and the subsequent fascination with the building’s importance and impact on its surroundings; one to the Birla Planetarium when I was in school and the visuals of the Milky Way on the ceiling which has remained etched in my mind; one to the AVM theatre where we watched a Rajini film and the crowd and the open grounds that was the best part of that visit; and some more. I was stumped when I realised that the list was largely made up of what one would call the ‘typical, touristy places’
On further examination, I came to the conclusion that, for a long time, I had been associating antiquity in Madras with the areas and places that came first. What ‘first’ here indicates is still vague, to be honest. But slowly, I came out of that box and started to immerse myself and actually ‘look’ at my surroundings. I decided to revisit the question that had settled - What is Chennai home to? I realised that I would find the answers to this question only if I slowed down. The bike rides would offer glimpses of only the bigger, impressive structures. What about the smaller ones? What about the ones that have been overshadowed? What about the ones that remain hidden? What about the ones that are lost? My list now started getting bigger and began to include conscious visits to places that would help me understand this city more - one to the museum inside Fort St. George and greater light being shed on the colonial oppression and the tangible vestiges of that period; one to the Tamil Nadu State Archives and seeing records dating back centuries being housed in that spectacular building; one to the old library inside Connemara and its calmness and warmth travelling forever with me; one to Alwar book shop and the conversation with Julie akka that I would forever cherish; one to Gem & Co., and the Gama pen that glides as I put down my thoughts; one to the new Moore Market and the astonishment every time at the antiques stacked upon each like treasures waiting to be discovered; and so many more.
Today, I am a strong believer of no matter where you live, there is a history and there is a story. You just need to keep your senses ready and tuned for any whiff of interest! As for the answer to the question that is settled in my mind, I’m yet to piece together one single answer, and I wouldn’t be able to. Because this city is a masterpiece, and it will take you on a journey every single time you step out. It is up to you to choose to pause or stop the journey or let it run wild.