Agencies charged with the upkeep and protection of Delhi’s historic buildings find little thrill in their job. They see heritage as a burden, are impervious to its magic.
Written by Narayani Gupta
The discussion about the future of the Hall of Nations in Delhi may be helped by some clarifications. Newspaper reports have to be terse, and the discussions have been couched in language such as, “The committee said” or “INTACH had submitted”. What is lost is the alarming truth that, as in so many issues, individuals are taking the line of least resistance, and that “heritage” is reduced to arguments about how old a building has to be before it is considered as heritage, knowing full-well that in that interim period it can be razed to the ground.
Like many Indian towns, Delhi has a long history and a large number of historic buildings. These include over 150 monuments protected/owned by the ASI since the 1920s; over 1,000 heritage buildings (private and public) constructed before 1947, which the municipal bodies are responsible for keeping unaltered — these were “notified” in 2010. And a range of buildings designed by well-known Indian architects between 1947 and 2017 — these have, so far, not been notified.
Some of these historical buildings are familiar to the city’s inhabitants, by name, or for their aesthetic qualities or interior spaces. The first category is recognisable by its obvious “old” look. The second, where the buildings are in use, are seldom seen as “heritage buildings”. Apart from students of architecture, and those who have read the recently published books on contemporary architecture in India, hardly anyone knows the name of the architects of the buildings in the third category .
“Heritage” or “historic architecture” should be the purview of the Union ministry of culture. But it has become a concern of the Union ministry of urban development. This is strange, since heritage is not merely of urban provenance. In the case of Delhi, there is an autonomous body — the Delhi Urban Art Commission (DUAC) — created by Parliament and directly answerable to it. Delhi is the only city in India with such a commission. “Urban art” is quite different from “urban arts”— the way it is usually (mis)spelt. The art of building an attractive city, in terms of roads, public spaces and buildings requires a wide vision, where a proposed building is examined in context, and not just as a standalone structure. The DUAC, by looking at the larger landscape, can give a direction to the city which the DDA — that cannot see the woods for the trees — is incapable of.
Once the category of “heritage buildings” was officially accepted, a Heritage Conservation Committee (HCC) was formed to examine two categories of proposals — one, those related to altering heritage buildings, and two, those where new buildings might encroach into the controlled area around ASI monuments. This committee is bound by rules introduced into Delhi’s building bylaws, rules worded in lifeless officialese which takes the magic out of the concept of heritage. No thought has been given to details such as what is sacrosanct — the façade or the whole building? There has also been no thought on how conservation is to be funded.
There is some obfuscation caused by the fact that the DUAC and the HCC function from the same rooms in the India Habitat Centre, the secretary of one is also the secretary of the other, and there are individuals who are members of both bodies. There is something unsatisfactory in the functioning of the committee. Very little has been generated in its meetings, it follows the curious practice of never having its minutes approved and it never indicates to its members that their term of office has ended, leave alone offer an expression of thanks to the members who are not drawn from official agencies. It is very clear that “heritage” is a burden to the parent ministry.
Another player in the heritage game is INTACH — in the case of Delhi, its very active Delhi chapter. The chapter is like a terrier worrying at the ankles of government, without any power to act. It issued a Charter for Unprotected Heritage, which in its prose and presentation reads like a grand medieval charter, in total contrast to the shabby bylaws. But there is no way to implement the spirit of the charter.
It was INTACH that published the list of heritage buildings in Delhi which was translated into the lists of heritage buildings under the municipalities. At the time of listing (1997-2000), it was decided to have a cut-off date of 1947, with the understanding that post-1947 buildings would be listed later. It is to the credit of INTACH’s Delhi chapter that, following the procedure adopted for the earlier list, 62 buildings were listed and presented to both the DUAC and HCC in 2013. This should have been discussed, and a decision taken to add recent buildings to the listed ones. But both the commission and the committee put the proposal aside. After repeated reminders from the INTACH’s Delhi chapter, the HCC, in 2016, decided to consider it. This was not because the committee was eager to dignify these modern buildings with the designation of “heritage” but because they were anxious to approve a proposal for a convention centre of humungous proportions proposed to be built by destroying the buildings of Pragati Maidan, dating to the early 1970s.
When “heritage” is subsumed under “urban development”, what is the likely outcome? Shock and awe at the prospect of a “world-class convention centre”, ignoring the fact that one of the examples of world-class architecture, that finds its place in histories of world architecture, is to be destroyed. The DUAC members have forgotten the vision of the legendary Patwant Singh that led to its formation, and the meaning of the term “urban art”. The HCC members have either been blinded by the harsh bright lights of a giant hall to seat thousands, or, worse, are simply not interested in honouring great works of architecture. The committee should be wound up because, instead of being concerned with either heritage or conservation, their sympathy is with real estate development.
More than anything, one feels stifled by the small minds and loud voices that equate size with greatness, whose “nationalism” does not extend to pride in one’s country’s great artists and architects and for whom the term “urban art” is neither exhilarating nor challenging.
The writer is a historian of Delhi