Preserving our heritage together

Published : Jan 30, 2004 00:00 IST

A Chettinad house in Tamil Nadu. -

A Chettinad house in Tamil Nadu. -

Collective efforts by the government and the community can go a long way in preserving the rich architectural heritage of India, which is in a state of neglect.

A SHORT while ago, as the New Year came upon us, I visited Chettinad, an area that lies not far from Madurai and Tiruchirappalli in Tamil Nadu. The word instantly conjures up visions of exotic and delicious dishes - made with vegetables, with meat, fish and chicken. And it is true that Chettinad food has now been acclaimed by discriminating gourmets all over the country. But I discovered that Chettinad is a little more than just good food. It has some of the finest buildings in the country, many of them over a hundred years old; its crafts, ranging from baskets to textiles, are exquisite and unique.

The truly astonishing of these elements of skill and taste are in the buildings. In Pallathur village, for example, a whole section of the village is built on streets that form a grid, running straight and crossing one another at right angles. These are old streets, and are, consequently, narrow; but they are arrow straight, and what is even more astonishing is that the buildings reflect this feature; the old houses are a series of courtyards one behind the other and through the entrance of one you can look right through the courtyards, not just to the back entrance, but through that into the house across the street and right down through that as well.

Inside each of these buildings the courtyards are spacious and are surrounded by cool, deep verandas. A number of rooms on two sides open out on these verandas, and then you step across the high lintel of the doorway into a large hall set at right angles to the courtyard. This is a living room, or a room in which visitors could be entertained or used in any other way the family liked. On the other side of this hall is another courtyard, and then another hall, and then another courtyard, till you come to the back entrance. Both in front of the main entrance and the back entrance are wide-open verandas with stone or wooden benches on which the residents of the house could sit and enjoy the cool evening breeze. If the mosquitoes let you, that is. When I entered one such house, an exquisite one owned by M. V. Subbiah, I was set upon by some of the most ferocious mosquitoes I have ever encountered; since I have served for years in the damp, forested regions of northern Bengal you will appreciate that I have a fairly close acquaintance with mosquitoes, which are both numerous and aggressive - but they would look tame beside the Chettinad mosquitoes. Except that the Chettinad mosquitoes attack for about an hour in the evening and an hour in the morning; their feeding time, I suppose. Then they vanish. Just like that.

But mosquitoes apart, these houses are quite breathtaking. Not just in the precision of their lines, but in the lovely carvings some of them have, the thick Burma teak pillars, the spotless, cool paving on the verandas where local stone has been used in designs that were either created or given to the artisans, the tall ceilings, painted in different colours and, the trees that shade the houses. Many of them are double storeyed; but in many the upper levels are not used, simply because of the profusion of rooms on the ground floor.

The straight lines - of the streets and the houses - intrigued me, and I sought a credible answer. Subbiah gave me the nearest I could get to a rational, practical one. He said it was partly to ensure security, since someone even at the back of the house could see a stranger enter the house or even the house of a neighbour, and partly to allow for cross ventilation, so that the evening breeze could blow through the houses in the oppressively hot summer months. Subbiah told me of another function that the straight lines of these long houses and their myriad courtyards had. His grandmother, he told me, used to sit on the top step of the back entrance - the rearmost courtyard being the one kept, inevitably, for the womenfolk. She would sit there, he said, from after breakfast to lunchtime; and from there she kept the big house completely under control. She could see which domestic help was not doing his or her work properly and give them a talking to; she could see, he said, when his grandfather had visitors come in and, knowing they would be asked to stay for lunch, would instruct the cooks suitably so that when his grandfather informed her she had the food ready for the unexpected guests.

But I came away from this brief visit a little saddened. A number of these houses were shut up, dilapidated and some had actually begun crumbling. Pillars had fallen down, windows had gone, or were hanging on by one nail or joint. It was obvious that they would soon become ruins. In some cases, the exquisitely carved lintels and other pieces had been taken out and sold. In some others the old buildings had been razed and new, rectangular blocks built in their places, which lacked any kind of identity or style. What one was seeing, along with the beauty of those buildings still there are being maintained, was the slow destruction of something that is surely a very precious part of our architectural heritage.

Some of those who own these buildings admit this is happening. But consider, they argue, how can we maintain these buildings? Many of us are not as affluent as our families once were, and cannot afford to maintain them; others simply do not care. The times have changed, the owners have moved to Chennai or abroad - and are not very concerned if the old buildings moulder and crumble into dust.

Let me make one thing clear; I am not making out a case for those who own these buildings and need some help in maintaining them; nor am I advocating the taking over of such of these buildings as are being neglected by their owners. In fact, I am not concerned about the ownership of these buildings but with the fact that over a century ago artisans, craftsmen, sculptors and wood-carvers brought their creative skills to bear on these buildings; to let the manifestation of those skills that have come down through the years be destroyed, mutilated, sold by the piece, seems to me to be an act of collective barbarism.

The answer does not lie in looking to the government, either. It is wrong to expect the government, be it the Central or State government, to step in and solve this and similar problems. For we must be clear that what is happening in Chettinad is happening to our architectural heritage in many other parts of the country. And it is wrong to expect the government to take on the task of playing saviour. There is much that the government can do, but the primary impetus, the collective, focussed interest and concern must come from the community, from people who are not willing to let our heritage be destroyed and stand by. And mere concern will not do; there must be action, again, focussed, well thought out action, which can be supported by the government.

This is not really the place to start an argument about the monuments that the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) protects, but one has to say that the time has come for the ASI to take a close look as the basis for the drawing up of the list of its protected monuments. That list was prepared aeons ago, and while it has been revised at different times, what needs close consideration is the basis for protecting a particular building. But that said, one must emphasise that conservation must first and last be an effort by bodies that may get an initial grant from out of the public exchequer but, thereafter, must find its own funds to expand its activities.

What the government can do is give that body the legitimacy and the authority of law, so that it can take action to preserve, to prevent destruction or alteration of what is considered precious to our society.

There are some instances of exceptionally fine work done by some dedicated individuals and groups, but they have had to pay a very heavy price to do what they have done, in terms of battling the tangle of procedures and rules and regulations that appear out of some musty files and create seemingly insurmountable obstacles. That they have overcome these speaks eloquently of their commitment, but they should not have to pay that heavy a price; this is where, again, the governments, Central and State, can play a very valuable role in facilitating rather than obstructing such initiatives. What they can do in addition is coordinate and focus the concerns of individuals and the community.

Much is possible. But it is only when the collective concern of everyone who is really worried by this situation - in the governments and in society at large - comes together will a sustained, and widespread effort to preserve and nurture our architectural heritage become truly meaningful.

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