Heritage:Lost Spaces (Old published articles)

Heritage spaces? In Bangalore? Dear Reader, look around you. The tree massacres, the illegal incursion on Lalbagh, the daily demolition of old bungalows, Central Jail now euphemistically called Freedom Park. Is our heritage worth getting into a lather about? Please, won’t you be the judge?

Driving to BIAL on Friday, I see a shorn and shaven hillside rising up in front of me, evidence of a mining lobby that is apparently unmoved by monoliths or outlays of the Western Ghats and a political mass that fosters such crassness. Yet, the roadscape is slick, reminiscent of an anonymous foreign country. Somewhere along the road, on the right, one sees fragments from the time of Tippu Sultan, a dry-stacked stone wall and mantappa. But in the scheme of things – the political, spatial and social development of Bangalore - they are dwarfed, less important that the grandeur of the road and airport.

Perhaps one should begin with a litany of the losses.

Many years ago Bangalore lost Dr.Miranda’s house on St.Mark’s Road. The Vaz family’s Terra Vera, near by, is practically gone. We lost Victoria Hotel to a mall. We have lost several dearly beloved homes in Basavangudi, including the majestic Sheesh Mahal near Vani Vilas Circle. Onward from Lalbagh West Gate stood Sheesh Mahal, with its ornate mortar work windows on the right. On the left stood a house with wooden trellises and a sign for Afghan Snow. We’ve lost them all. Why, we’ve even lost Vani Vilas Circle or National College Circle as it used to be called. A piece of Bangalore history, we lost it to a flyover. We’ve lost the promenade on MG Road, as also Lakeview and Jamal’s. We’ve lost that old stalwart, Cash Pharmacy. Most recently, we have lost India Coffee House. Dewar’s Bar looks like its days are numbered.

And then work backwards to configure an equation between all that heritage signifies and all that the loss of heritage unleashes.

Heritage has been defined as the tangible and intangible expressions of a society’s culture that have been passed on from generation to generation and as representative of the “cultural capital and inspirational power of people and communities”. Taken in isolation the word “heritage” is itself often factious because it seems to imply ease and the insouciance of wealth. That it is best left to countries with money to make the argument for heritage conservation since we have enough urban issues on our plate what with public transport, sanitation and garbage disposal. Lazy intellects would even posit heritage against development, as if the two were mutually exclusive. Yet, heritage has everything to do with the way we see ourselves, each other and how we articulate ourselves. More importantly, heritage, especially in the form of public spaces and flora, is beyond individual or state; it serves the larger human community.

Having said this, I understand that heritage is a tough nut to crack. Short of clinging to tradition in a Luddite sense, in a country as diverse as ours, it is crazy to try and chalk out criteria for urban heritage conservancy that is based on age, the subjectivity of aesthetics or monetary value alone. For heritage to be relevant to a city I suspect a more citizen driven, ad hoc and ear-to-the ground approach is called for. For most of us, heritage is a bundle of things that make a city special and that mark the denizens of that city with a uniqueness that fortifies them from within and enables them to live splendidly. It is the value we place on the anachronistic and funky, as also on the historic and traditional. Thus an avenue of Rain trees (Samanae Saman) is as precious as Cash Pharmacy. And the two make sense, because we have the wit and candour to love an old bookshop or an ice-cream parlour. It is the way the glass and chrome of the new multi storied buildings is balanced by the harmony of old bungalows with gardens and jackfruit trees. And so on.

The spaces mentioned earlier were deleted from Bangalore in order to accommodate (no! not low income housing) but new temples to wealth and consumerism. Not to say they didn’t have previous utility, it’s just that in their new avatar, wealth for the individual is magnified exponentially. But rather than lay the blame on the individual, I think we should question our society that is so obsequious and upwardly mobile in its intentions that it constantly shoots itself in the foot in the name of progress. As a people we haven’t cared enough to protect our heritage, have we? We don’t have an urban commission worth mentioning. Certainly not one that has the vision to develop our city in a manner that is gracious or fine. One that has factored in quality of life for everyone. Even Shanghai, the city that Bangalore aspires to be when it grows up, has protected its Soviet neo-classical, communist era architecture alongside its traditional Shikumen residences. Further, this not an argument about tradition versus modernity. The two can co-exist with ease as in Paris, where the French have had the cultural confidence to place the fantastically industrial Centre Georges Pompidou alongside the 16 century Hotel de Ville.

The productivist mantra of the ‘90’s was that people couldn’t “afford” to hold onto their old properties because of the real estate boom in the city. Implying that an old home has no business standing upright since the land value could generate so much more. So much more what, one might well ask. And have we balanced the equation? i.e. does the elimination of heritage spaces on the one hand make us a kinder, more loving, more joyous people on the other? Clearly not, if the daily news is anything to go by. So perhaps it is time to pay heed to the emotional well being of a city. In keening for lost spaces this author is in fact not mourning lime and mortar, but familiar markers, milestones and witnesses. The stuff that solace is made of. Our souls yearn for that intangible cultural heritage, that long continuum of a city’s ancient and contemporary history. We want to be a part of its warp and weft. When my parent’s sold their home, my then four year old daughter cried “You can’t do this, all my memories are here.” So yes, the value of heritage is beyond aesthetics; it also lies in the domain of memory which one could extrapolate to include family, friends, experience and love.

After all Premier Bookshop on Church Street was not about monkey tops or Italian tiles. Yet it represented a common Bangalore heritage of intellectual enquiry, of relationships, of timelessness. In the post-globalization pursuit of homogeneity, Premier Bookshop was the gentle rebel. A small store, a learned bookseller, Proust rubbing shoulders with Ramanujam. By just being there and doing its thing, Premier Bookshop enriched and gladdened Bangalore. Travelers to the city, via Lonely Planet or the grapevine, knew Premier Bookshop the way they knew Koshy’s, MTR or Avenue Road. It was unique and irreplaceable. Maybe the key to heritage lies in that irreplaceable quality. When the value of a space lies in its being and not in its return on investment.

Finally, perhaps we should question our fundamental assumption that any decision taken to further personal wealth is necessarily a good one. I challenge this rationale. And challenge the idea of the inevitability of greed and the indisputability of gain. Surely that is not our raison d’etre on this earth. Let us instead re-investigate the twin notions of cultural capital and the inspirational power of people and communities. We need to shore up our cultural resources as well for us to feel in anyway complete. Therefore the long term impact of prioritizing one public space over another (road over relic, gated community over family home) and eradicating anything that will connect us to memory, while appearing to be practical and pro-development, may hurt us in very subtle ways. Maybe the disappearance of physical manifestations of grace will mark the end of civility for Bangalore.

So do we feel that the loss of heritage is worth getting into a lather about? Antoine de Saint Exupery, the author of The Little Prince, once wrote “A civilization is a heritage of beliefs, customs, and knowledge slowly accumulated in the course of centuries, elements difficult at times to justify by logic, but justifying themselves as paths when they lead somewhere, since they open up for man his inner distance.”

I seek that inner distance and feel sure, dear Reader, that you do too.

- Kirtana Kumar in the Sunday Herald 2009

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