Chennai historian Sriram is 75… walks old!

Well known historian Sriram V talks about his journey from Walk 1 to Walk 75, his love for Chennai and its heritage, and what he thinks we must do to conserve it better

Here is the first story to kick off our month-long celebration of Madras Day! Happy Birthday Madras!

Sriram V is 75 walks old!! A name synonymous with Chennai heritage, Sriram marked this milestone with a tour of Dare House, the distinguished Art Deco building on Parry’s corner, which is the headquarters of the Murugappa group. (A list of all 75 walks can be found here)

Meenakshi R: Between Walk 1 and Walk 75, tell us what has changed.

Sriram V: I did my first walk in 1999, in Mylapore. In those days there was no social media or apps to share the message so we could only spread the word through friends and their friends. Now it is very different, a positive development – at every walk we have at least a handful of people who are coming for the first time, and a significant number of walkers are students and young professionals. There is greater awareness and interest about heritage and the need to preserve it.

In the early 2000s, as the numbers grew, I would be hoarse with shouting, before we got a megaphone. Now I speak into a transmitter and all the walkers have individual receivers, much like any guided walk in the West.

Report of An Evening in Parry’s Walk, as it appears on Dare House notice board. Pic: Sriram V

MR: Is there anything that can be done to make heritage a central theme in public discourse? How can the people of the city be motivated to make it an issue to rally around?

SV: There is a clear distinction to be made between public heritage – monuments and historical buildings – which is in government hands, accessible to the public, in which we are all stakeholders, and private heritage.  The public has a very important role to play in the protection and conservation of public heritage. For example, if we could collect 100,000 signatures on a petition to restore the Bharat Insurance Building, perhaps we can compel the government to take some action on that front. For that kind of impact, we need numbers. The more people can be involved in heritage activism the better.

However, a word of caution here. Just pressing the Like button for a post (or a Teary face if that is called for) on Facebook, is not heritage activism. We need people who are aware of the need for lobbying and for concrete action, who can volunteer for groups like Chennai Heritage and INTACH, send representations and follow up with authorities, and are willing to be patient.

It would also help to have young people sign up and talk about their involvement in heritage conservation. Some of them may have connections with senior functionaries in the government, who could take our issues to those in the higher echelons of administration.

MR: And private heritage?

SV: Private heritage is another matter altogether, and the situation there is very bleak indeed. In most parts of India, there is no law to protect private heritage, no recognition of the historical value of private buildings,  and we have sadly lost of most of them. These edifices are seen as a burden by most owners, and any attempt to influence them is seen as obstructionist and unwanted.

There are a handful of examples of conservation of private heritage in Chennai – buildings belonging to the Amalgamations and Murugappa groups, C P Ramaswamy Iyer’s house, Dr Sarvapalli Radhakrishnan’s house – where it is the owners’ love of heritage that has made this possible.  In the rest of Tamil Nadu, the less said the better.

Sriram taking walkers through Mint Street. Pic: Sharada Sriram

MR: How are we doing compared to other Indian cities?

SV: Chennai is doing quite badly in the conservation of its heritage – cities like Delhi, Mumbai and Kolkata are streets ahead. Heritage buildings in these cities are well maintained, open to the public, with plaques which recognise their heritage and historical importance.

Delhi of course is the national capital and several Prime Ministers have been keen heritage enthusiasts, but both Kolkata and Mumbai have done an excellent job of roping in the industry lobby to protect heritage.

Mumbai’s Art Deco buildings on Marine Drive, and its Gothic architecture have been recently conferred UNESCO World Heritage status, and this has come about due to persistent efforts by conservation experts, supported by the Government, industry and private citizens. In face, citizens who own property in the Art Deco buildings will no longer be allowed to make any changes to them, and will be entitled to compensation in accordance with heritage laws if they wish to move.

In Kolkata, the combination of the Bengali artistic temperament and benevolence of Marwari business houses has helped save several heritage structures.

MR: If you were to cite a single greatest concern about the city at this point in time, what would that be?

SV: There is a widespread feeling  in Tamil Nadu that only that which is Tamil heritage, is worth preserving, and everything else can be forgotten about. There are many buildings of the British era that continue to be used as government offices, but there is complete apathy towards maintaining them. I remember visiting Khalsa Mahal (part of the Chepauk Palace, erstwhile residence of the Nawab of Arcot), and there were several government employees sitting around a huge crater – the first floor had caved in, and no one seemed troubled by it at all!! This indifference must go.

Secondly, we need to all come together and fight a common battle. There are different people doing different things, all in the realm of heritage, but we are not uniting for the larger common cause. Should the movement focus on Chola monuments, or should it be about British buildings? Rather we must step back and take a big picture view – anything that is over a 100 years old must be evaluated for historical importance – not everything that is old can be preserved – but we should know before we demolish. We must bring that knowledge to a common platform

MR: What can be the first step towards this change?

SV: There needs to be an understanding of, and demonstration of monetisation of heritage as a means to sustain it. Everywhere you go in the West, you will see heritage buildings are marketed through ticketed entry, cafes and museums in the vicinity, use by commercial and private entries for a fee – all of which goes towards making the conservation sustainable. We have so many structures that can used in this way – but for that we need everyone from senior government officials to guides to attendants to doormen, to understand the potential and be open to it.

The TN Government spent Rs 11 crore on the restoration of the magnificent Senate House of the University of Madras, but there was no plan in place on how long to keep it open, how much to charge visitors, could it be given out for private events etc. There are so many individuals and corporates who are constantly on the lookout for such venues to host their events, and will willingly pay whatever the government sets as the usage fee. But no, the Senate House is locked up, not open to the public and is instead being used to store answer sheets of examinations. Similarly Rajaji Hall, a wonderful convention venue, is used by the agriculture department to store its papers!!

Madras Day banner. Pic:

MR: Tell us about Madras Day.

SV: Even if it was not the day on which Madras was founded, even if one is not a history buff, Madras Day is an occasion to celebrate the city.  We celebrate our palaeolithic origins, discover our heritage and talk about the future. We are not really asking for corporate support – it is upto each entity – individual or coporate – to celebrate in whatever way they want.

Madras Day has certainly created a community feeling – the number of events is increasing each year – last year we had over 350 events! The  group of people who participate is growing too, but it could be much more – we are after all, a city of over 10 million! Hopefully it will keep growing.. it takes years for community festivals like these to become established into a city’s fabric. (the Chennai music season, for example, is now 90 years old). 

Last year, the Commissioner of Greater Chennai Corporation had agreed to let us conduct a heritage walk in Victoria Public Hall this year, for  Madras Day, provided the Metro work in the vincity was completed and it was safe for people to go in. Prior to this, the government has not really participated in Madras Day celebrations, so this is a big step in the right direction, and we are hoping permisison will be granted later this month. It would be very nice if the government were to direct some of its departments to participate in the celebrations as well.

The complete list of Madras Day events for 2018 can be found here.

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