January 25, 2021
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Celebrating birthdays is not part of this traditional culture, unlike other parts of the country where a big deal is made out of a "happy birdday". Which is probably why Chennai woke up to being a birthday girl with all its trappings only four years

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Chennai Corner

Happy Birthday, Chennai
This is that time of the year when the founding of Chennai -- Madras still to many -- which grew into the current metropolis from the fort that enveloped within it the neighbouring fishing villages -- is celebrated. On August 22, 1639, Francis Day of East India Company received a piece of land from a local chieftain and that's how Madras came into being. 

Celebrating birthdays is not part of this traditional culture, unlike other parts of the country where a big deal is made out of a "happy birdday". Which is probably why Chennai woke up to being a birthday girl with all its trappings only four years ago when heritage activists organised a few talks and threw in a few visits to heritage sites. 

This time nine hotels, 18 corporate houses and a handful of schools are participating. Heritage walks, talks, photo exhibitions, drawing and painting exhibitions are being held to celebrate the rich cultural heritage of the city .

German Connection
It's curious, but there is a German connection to celebrating Chennai's heritage and in moving on to gleaming chrome and glass structures over the debris of some century-old stately mansions. After all, while the wars ravaged much of Germany forcing large scale rebuilding, there are still some cities where the old quarters have been lovingly restored and walking down these streets is like going back in time. Which is perhaps why over the rubble of the Admiralty House, a German firm of architects has been contracted to build a new secretariat.

Roland Herrmann, Consul General, in Chennai for the Federal Republic of German, who has grown up seeing his country in modernising mode, thinks there are parts of Chennai which brings to mind its charming past. His government has funded the recent exhibition which was presented by the Goethe-Institut/ Max Mueller Bhavan, Chennai, and included a small collection of the photographs taken by E U F Wiele and Theodor Klein, two German photographers who had settled down in India in the 19th century. As Gabriele Landwehr, director, Goethe Institut/ Max Mueller Bhavan, put it, "Wiele and Theodor were so good they were chosen as the official photographers of the British Governor of Madras." Gabriele was introduced to their work soon after the 2004 tsunami and since then she has worked hard at putting together this collection. These photos, taken during the period 1885-1920, were printed from glass plate negatives and are part of the Vintage Vignette collection preserved in Chennai. 

The story behind the photos is of an era where fewer people lived, where there was sprawling lung space, where tribal women had not been touched by modernity, where creatures crawled or slithered without man interloping on their territory. It appears that the photographers were quite taken in by "freaky" sadhus with long nails and bare-breasted tribal woman. Happening India might cringe at some of the photos that perpetuate the stereotypes about India, but the detail that Wiele and Klein captured, sans today's technology where you can airbrush everything into shape, is remarkable.

And the piece de resistance is the photograph of the Taj Connemara taken nearly a century ago. It's befitting that the exhibition is being held at the Taj Connemara, which even today retains its colonial charm.

Lost Heritage
But Chennai, barring the Marina- which has the Unesco- precinct Fort St George, the Queen Mary's College and the Police Headquarters, both of which were saved from the sledgehammer after court intervention -- has very little to remind you of its old glory. There are around 200 buildings which are over 100 years old, but heritage activists mourn that they can only do so much. The Bharat Insurance Building, an Indo-Sarcenic building on Anna Salai is one example where thanks to Intach the high court has stayed its demolition. As S Muthiah, one of this city's celebrated historians, laments: "Unless there is a law to protect our heritage, sooner or later they will be reduced to a pile of rubble."

The Feisty Dowager 
In fact, even the court's intervention could not save the 94-year-old Gokhale Hall, from where Annie Besant launched the Home Rule Movement, completely because the stay came after much of the interior had been given the crowbar treatment, knocking down pillars and irreparably damaging walls. It's ironical that all this happened in the week when we "celebrate" the Quit India Movement (August 9) and Independence Day (August 15), the two days that were made possible because freedom fighters sacrificed so much.

Those who want to save heritage have to tangle with the powerful land sharks, an unequal fight at best. The status quo situation at Gokhale Hall, the popular name given to Besant Memorial Building can be credited to T C Shankar Raju, a life member of the Young Men's Indian Association (YMIA), who filed the writ petition after it became known that it was on the chopper's block. Incidentally, Chief Minister Karunanidhi's government moved stealthily and swiftly to flatten Admiralty House before heritage lovers could huddle together and stop it. In the case of Gokhale Hall, despite opposition from senior members of YMIA, a demolition notice was published in newspapers on July 7.

Raju's contention is that Gokhale Hall was meant to be a gym, library, lecture hall--in short, a place to develop mind and body. He also says that Gokhale Hall is structurally sound.

But post-1990, a senior office bearer of the YMIA had brought in 57 members, paying Rs 57,000 from his personal fund. The membership fee had then been raised from Rs 1000 to Rs 5000 and again to Rs 20,000. "Now some office bearers of the YMIA are trying to enrich themselves by awarding the demolition as well as construction contracts to their men at an abnormal cost," Raju argued.

Raju told the court that an inquiry had been instituted against some of the governing body members and till that is complete, "it is not safe to allow the same group of persons to handle huge money having public interest." That is how the court stayed the demolition.

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