Interview: S. Muthiah

‘Teach heritage in schools’

Print edition : September 05, 2014

The Moore Market Building, which went up in flames in 1985. Photo: The Hindu Archives

On December 12, 2009, Chennai Municipal Corporation officials crudely pulled down the statues of King Edward VII and King George V, which had been erected in the heart of the city, and dumped them in a corner of the Government Museum in Chennai. Earlier, the Tamil Nadu government had demolished the beautiful Cooum House. Murals and inscriptions in temples in Tamil Nadu are being destroyed. Does this all show that the people of Madras/Tamil Nadu and successive governments, despite a campaign by people like you to sensitise them, do not have a sense of history?

It is not just Madras or Tamil Nadu. The whole of India lacks a sense of history. We have so few records of our past. We say we have thousands of inscriptions. But how many of these inscriptions really deal with social history? They deal with gifts made by kings and things like that. Social history is virtually lacking here. Much of our history is oral tradition.

But what is more important to me than all this, what particularly bothers me, is the educational system. In my day, history and geography, nature study, now called environmental science, and civics were all separate subjects from the second standard till we finished high school. We got a strong appreciation of these subjects as a foundation for life. Today, in most schools in the country, these subjects are taught as one subject, social studies, and quite often by a teacher who knows nothing about these subjects. The focus is on science, mathematics, medicine, engineering and accountancy. The humanities are a forgotten subject today in India. If you are taught when you are young to treasure your heritage and to know your country, you will care much more for it. You will take pride in it. On the other hand, if your education does not teach you these and looks only at science, then subjects like heritage will mean nothing to you when you grow up.

I have on several occasions written to Secretaries of the Education Department suggesting that every school syllabus should progressively teach the history of the city where the school is located, the next year the district, the third year the State, south India in the fourth year and India in the fifth year. After this, you can look at South Asia, Asia and the rest of the world. Children from the beginning must be made aware of the district and the State to which they belong. This is the only way we can inculcate in them pride for where they live.

I drew up the syllabus for a journalism course in a college. I insisted that in the three-year course, two semesters each should be spent on the history and geography of India. My argument was simple: if, tomorrow, you are posted in Bihar, do you know anything about Bihar? Don’t tell me you will just Google it. In one of the classes, I asked the students to write about Bihar. They knew nothing about Bihar because Google was not available to them.

This is the point I am making: it is absolutely essential that we teach these subjects. We cannot expect a grass-roots movement for heritage. There are far more important things in life for the average person. But heritage can make you proud of yourself, your State and your country—and the government must nurture that from childhood.

From the time I started writing in the 1970s on Madras, there has been an immense growth in interest in heritage issues, but immense is purely a comparative word. There is certainly greater interest, as reflected in the newspapers, with all of them now carrying more stories on heritage. But, sadly, heritage stories are lacking in the local language press which, to me, is a far more important voice than the English press. When they carry more stories on heritage, there may grow a greater interest in heritage. But in the end, heritage protection, conservation and preservation, all this will depend on the will of the government. Unfortunately, that will has not been displayed to a very great extent.

We have a Heritage Act which was passed many months ago. I have heard of no implementation of it. We have a CMDA [Chennai Metropolitan Development Authority] Heritage Conservation Committee. It appears to have no power at all except to identify heritage buildings and advise people. Most of our heritage buildings, I will say 60 per cent of them, are government buildings. So the government must show the way. I am glad that work has been undertaken on Ripon Building. Work has started on the Victoria Public Hall. But as for the restoration on Khalsa Mahal, nothing seems to have got off the ground. In all these cases, everything seems to be moving at a snail’s pace.

Moore Market went up in flames, followed by Spencer’s. Then it was the General Post Office, and later Khalsa Mahal in the Chepauk Palace caught fire. Now the State Bank of India (SBI) building has gone up in flames. They are all heritage buildings. All of them were built in various Indo-Saracenic styles of architecture. There seems to be a pattern in these buildings going up in flames.

The only pattern I can see is the lack of maintenance. Take the case of the SBI building. If restoration of the SBI building had started 10 years ago, the fire was unlikely to have happened. We have been talking about the SBI building’s restoration for the past 10 or 12 years. I was in the INTACH [Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage] committee that initially discussed restoration with the bank. There is no shortage of money in SBI. It is the same with the Life Insurance Corporation, which owns the Bharat Insurance building [which is in ruins in the heart of the city]. They have more than enough money. Yet, for Rs.8 crore or Rs.10 crore, they made such a fuss. It is absolutely callous. P. Chidambaram [former Union Finance Minister] publicly promised to save the Bharat Insurance building. You can find the quote in your newspaper. But nothing happened after that.

INTACH had prepared a report on the conservation and restoration of the SBI building before the fire. The report specifically said that the building’s electrical wiring was haphazard. Why was SBI so callous?

Go and ask them. The issue is very simple. Any building, even this house where I live and which is not a heritage building, needs maintenance. But who does that? You need funds for maintenance. It needs to be done by trained people who understand heritage. The PWD [Public Works Department] itself needs to be trained in restoration work. You need to establish engineering firms which can carry out maintenance of heritage buildings. If you don’t maintain your buildings, accidents will happen.

T.S. Subramanian

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