A group of conservationists have asked for ‘heritage precincts’ to be introduced in Kolkata. Photo By Roop_Dey/Shuttersock
For a country so proud of its deep-well history, there seems to be little regard for the upkeep of its precious heritage. Scores of historic structures, some even dating back to the medieval ages, have fallen prey to the vagaries of wide scale neglect, and a hunger for rapid urbanisation. Facing the threat of demolition, these buildings, each with a repository of historical significance, stand endangered, as the concerned authorities sound the death knell and greenlight signals for these to be razed to the ground.
However, not all hope is lost. Conservationists, historians and activists have joined hands in multiple attempts to fight the demolition of these heritage structures; in some cases, saving them in the brink of time, in others losing the good fight to restore and preserve them.
On Independence Day, we take a look at the many historic structures which, despite their timeless nature and contributions to India’s affluent history, have now found themselves staring at the proverbial edge of a hammer.
Gokhale Hall, Chennai
In 1915, Annie Besant made yet another immeasurable contribution to the country. She pledged to open a Young Men’s Indian Association to serve as “a political gymnasium as it were, to equip the youth with a strong body, an informed mind and a noble character”.
A year later, the Gokhale Hall was founded on Armenian Street, named by Besant in honour of Gopal Krishna Gokhale, a prominent member of the INC and a revered Freedom Fighter. Containing a library, oratory and gymnasium—the hall was set in its purpose. Later, the oratory became the housing grounds of political movement, the base for Besant’s “Wake up, India” lectures, Periyar talks of the Self-Respect movement and Jawaharlal Nehru’s firebrand speeches.
Today, this building of national importance, lies in shambles. Heritage activist V. Sriram shares his disappointment with the neglect of the structure. Without an operational roof for the past 20 years and the hall sealed off for the last decade, the once dynamic centre has now fallen into dereliction. As Sriram mentions, the owners—the Young Men’s Indian Association—had wished to demolish it and construct a high-rise in its place. However, the Madras High Court in 2012 ruled against this move, stating that as the building was of national importance, it could not be demolished. The owners may have been stopped from razing the structure, but haven’t made any efforts into maintaining it either.
“It has gone to the brink of ruin and is only still existing because its foundation is solid. It has weathered storms, cyclones and other natural calamities, but nothing has been done to preserve it,” Sriram says.
Bhagirath Palace, Delhi
Originally known as Begum Samru’s Palace, the sprawling mansion was built along the cypress-lined road from Chandni Chowk in 1806, when Emperor Akbar Shah II gifted Begum Samru a plot of land across the Red Fort. With its magnificent garden, classical Greel pillars and strategic location, the palace was highly favoured by British officials especially, for whom Samru would regularly host parties.
After Samru passed away, the palace was taken over by the Delhi Bank in 1847. A decade later, however, it was badly damaged during the Sepoy Mutiny of 1857, in the battle between the British and the Indian soldiers and the bank’s English manager Mr. Beresford, who had taken up residence there, was killed. Following this, the British Government leased it out to interested parties such as the Imperial Bank and Lloyd’s Bank Ltd. The ownership of the palace came to a man named Mushi Shiv Narain in 1922, but in 1940, it was sold to Lala Bhagirath Mal, after whom the nomenclature was remodelled. Initially, Bhagirath chose to rent out the property for marriages and parties, and sometime around the 1950s, an electrical market set up base here.
Though existing and no official call for its demolition, the once symbol of Samru’s power now lies almost shrouded in obscurity, with no efforts to restore it to its former glory. “There are so many structures that are associated with people and events, this is only one example. In many other cases, the problem with maintenance of heritage structures comes from the fact that so many of these don’t even get the proper recognition they are due,” says author and historian Swapna Liddle.
Osmania General Hospital, Hyderabad
A beacon in the legacy of Telangana’s architectural and medical history, the Osmania General Hospital (OGH) was built by the last Nizam of Hyderabad, Mir Osman Ali Khan, in 1919. A massive flooding of the Musi River on September 28, 1908, washed away large parts of Afzal Gunj, a grain merchant’s hub. The story goes that many survived the floods by clinging on to a tamarind tree that stood near a local hospital in Afzal Gunj, which would later become the site where the OGH was built.
Anuradha Reddy, the INTACH (Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage) convenor for the Hyderabad chapter, says, “It’s a beautiful structure with such deep history. It’s the holding grounds for the Osmania Medical College, which has housed generations of doctors carrying a rich medical legacy. It is also the place where the first international trials for chloroform were conducted. Also, the world’s first female anesthesiologist, Rupa Bai Furdoonji, was from Osmania Medical College.” Reddy adds that after two inspections in 2016 and 2019, they had found that the structure remained strong, despite neglect and no maintenance. Sadly, the Telangana government, in 2020, announced its decision to demolish the iconic hospital. According to Reddy, instead of actively demolishing it, they are administering the policy of “assisted collapse”, where they are waiting for the building to fall to its ruins naturally.
Heritage Precincts, Kolkata
From its Art Deco houses in the south to neoclassical structures in the north, Kolkata boasts of an array of heritage properties doused with rich cultural history. However, over the past decades, the lack of maintenance of these houses have led to either an official call for their demolition, or have seen them crumbling naturally to the ground. To this end, a group of heritage activists have written to the Kolkata Municipal Corporation, urging them to change their outlook towards the preservation of heritage properties. In a PIL filed by author and singer Amit Chaudhuri and heritage conservationist G.M. Kapur in 2019, the demand for ‘heritage precincts’’ in Kolkata has been made.
Neighbourhoods like Purna Das Road, Hindustan Park, Lee Road, Creek Row and Chitpore have been mentioned in the list of heritage precincts, and while the order may not necessarily protect all houses on the said street from demolition, it is a greater step towards their preservation.
“Calcutta should ideally be a World Heritage City,” says Chaudhuri. Everything that begins from Esplanade onwards, down to Chaworinghee and Bhowanipore, should be featured in the heritage precincts list, he adds. In keeping with the court’s order, the KMC had made the list public on their website. “We were going to work together in the process of declaring the heritage precincts and everything was in order, but then the pandemic happened, and things got stalled. The PIL is still in the court,” Chaudhuri states.
Esplanade Mansion, Mumbai
Mumbai’s erstwhile Watson’s Hotel, now called Esplanade Mansion, is a treasure-trove of history. Once a handsome five-storey building with a cast-iron frame, the estate, sprawling across a part of Kala Ghoda’s Mahatma Gandhi Road, today lies in shambles. Built in 1867 by an English businessman, John Watson, the former hotel’s elegant ballrooms once hosted the creme of British society, and even hosted travellers like the British explorer Sir Richard Francis Burton, Hawaii’s King Kalakaua, Muhammed Ali Jinnah—who apparently played billiards there, and even author and wanderer Mark Twain.
In 2019, on the basis of a structural audit, the Indian Institute of Technology—Bombay (IIT—Bombay) had recommended that the1869-built building be demolished, leading to an evacuation plan for its reluctant tenants.
However, the Bombay High Court has ruled against the demolition, says conservation architect Abha Narain Lambah. The court, in fact, in its order stated that the heritage structure “ought to be repaired and restored”. Additionally, the owner Sadiq Ali Noorani has committed to the restoration of the historic structure and while of course, the pandemic may have stalled the process a bit, it is very much in order, she adds.
Several heritage structures across Lucknow, Patiala and Anantapur have also faced the threat of the felling axe. In Lucknow, a dilapidated wall of Lal Baradari, a 200-year-old historical structure at the Lucknow University campus, collapsed back in May. A historic building from the Nawabi era, it had not been maintained by the concerned authorities, and hence stood endangered. The century-old Victoria Memorial Hospital in Anantapur, Andhra Pradesh also stands to be lost due to the development of a new Mother and Child Hospital(MCH) block that is to be developed on the premises of the former. However, in Patiala, the Public Works Department (B and R) and the Sewerage Board at the behest of the government, is set to establish a heritage street on the periphery of the Qila Mubarak, a monument of national importance as recognised by the Archaeological Survey of India.