The Curse of Plenty

It was late evening; three people huddled around a flickering computer monitor.

“This one has to be a Grade IIA building” boomed a voice. “Ummmm….I think it should stay in Grade IIB” said another. “No Way!! Look at the detail on the cornice” the first voice retaliated. The third voice of reason finally spoke up – “ We will decide this after a sutta break guys”.

This was my typical evening working at INTACH Pondy. We called ourselves the Heritage Mafia, the dons that decided the fate of every listed heritage structure. Do not get me wrong – we had a solid grading criterion for the listing process – a set number of points for the number of architectural features it holds, any association with a celebrated personality would fetch it some more, its age, its state of preservation etc etc. But as most of us already know heritage is sometimes way above all these criterion …..grading…listing etc etc….sometimes a building speaks to you and you cannot really put a number on that sentiment.

During these deliberations, the Pondicherry Boulevard Town had 1195 listed buildings in a 293 sqkm area which brings it to a density of 4 houses every sqkm. Which is a high number! This is accounting the tangible aspect of heritage. When we think of culture and traditions, we are immersed in it if we like it or not! The early morning prayers resounding from a nearby mosque, the loud music from the temple five miles away or the traffic jams caused by church processions. Being in India there isn’t one day that you could go by without coming face to face with heritage. Right from a bustling city like Mumbai or a sleepy town like Thrissur – Heritage is EVERYWHERE!!

This brings me to the burning question – is this omnipotence of heritage the leading cause for its fast deterioration? At a conference recently, the speaker mentioned this phrase associated with Heritage – “the curse of too many” and this really got me thinking. If this is true, then there is no escaping the inevitable. Will we start to cherish our rich heritage only once majority has disappeared and we are left with almost nothing?

Which brings me to the other aspect – who are we fighting this fight for? The young GEN-Y. Are these Facebook addicted, tech savy youth of today really going to appreciate the past? Well, it is up to them to decide, but it is also up to us to sensitise them to the value of what we may loose and why it is important to cherish it. Recently at a documentation workshop event conducted by my firm, a young student seemed to really bond with the building on another level. It took him only 4 days of spending time and understanding the structure to forge this bond – but now it is forged forever. It is this aspect of what heritage does to people that really amuses me. And it is this aspect of heritage that also tells me that all hope is not lost.

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