The state of heritage
Pondicherry has a long history and thereby a lot to conserve the flip-side of which is that it makes economic sense. R.K. RADHAKRISHNAN on the Heritage Summit held there in February.
The Government Museum ... physical expression of culture.
CONSIDER this: A decade from now and the glorious former French colony, Pondicherry, will be just another squalid urban settlement, like the rest.
Consider this too: There will be no one to blame. Only ourselves. We, the people, who have sat back and watched, as a valuable part of heritage Down South was chipped away. Not a comforting thought at least for some.
So, instead of sitting back and citing Collective Evil in the actions of the Political Class, these few decided to roll up their sleeves and get to work lobbying and persuading, agitating and bullying, even trying to educate policy makers and politicians on the "whys" and "hows" of preservation. And more important why it makes sense to conserve.
The Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH), has the answer. Architecture is the physical expression of our culture, and preservation of cultural tradition strengthens our roots. A society that does not respect and get inspiration from its past cannot hope to progress and flourish. The other reason is that old houses were built with technical and artistic skill. We owe it to the future generations to preserve examples of these buildings. Conservation also makes economic sense it attracts tourists: they come to experience the unique flavour of this town.
Pondicherry has quite a bit to conserve. The French who ruled for 280 years left their mark on the town. The development was unique and based on French concepts. "The basic planning concept of the boulevard has followed the pattern of the Bastide towns of France with a wall all around, the main roads leading to the market, the rest of the area divided in rectangular blocks," says Pondicherry's Chief Town Planner, C.V. Sreenivasan.
The spadework for the town's conservation began about 10 years ago when like-minded individuals bureaucrats, citizens, non-government organisations and architects got together. There were many among the influential class in the city, who felt the same. They included some period house owners, the local chapter of INTACH, the French Embassy, planners and civil servants.
"Pondy belongs to all of us, so it is imperative we act now," says the Union Public Service Commission Secretary, Navin B. Chawla. " If we do not join hands now, we will slowly end up presiding over its demise." In fact it was during his last tenure here (he has served two tenures in Pondicherry) that he mooted the idea of a platform to bring conservation experts and policy makers to a common platform. Thus was born the heritage summit. Held from February 20 to 22, the summit drew up a map, which gave direction to the conservation efforts. The meeting showcased commendable conservation efforts from South India and helped heritage lovers and architects compare notes on contemporary approaches to preservation.
"There are pockets of resistance to the idea of conservation. There is also the need for appropriate action on the part of the State Government. For instance, it could give tax concessions and help with restoration work, it would be a big step forward," says Mr. Chawla.
One of the early `jobs' of those involved is convincing the politicians. For, there can be no way forward without their support.
This is no easy task. Though INTACH had made the `money' observation quite early, there were not many takers. Besides, there were builders all over to feed on the fears of the property owners.
Hence, the essential follow-up which involved a two-pronged strategy. One, to promote this 40 sq. km. township as a heritage-cum-antique destination. Two, to promote this concept more here than abroad. "Now there are seven dealers selling here. By next year we hope the number doubles," says Mr. Chawla.
Both strategies have worked if the latest tourist flow figures are to be believed. Tourism Minister K. Lakshminarayana says Pondicherry and Kerala, were the only States to record a positive tourism growth rate this year. After September 11 there has been a 30 per cent fall in tourist arrivals. Kerala and Pondy weathered the slump.
Over the years, INTACH has made an inventory of heritage buildings in the old town. There were about 1,800 listed buildings in 1994-95, and according to the latest review only about 1,100 are left.
The Pondicherry Government intends conserving the architectural heritage of the town within the boulevard area. But from pious words, good intentions to action is a far cry. The bright spot? The journey has begun. There can be no turning back.
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