June 16, 2014

Politics of a Changing Indian Cityscape

      India, being the largest democracy in the world, probably also has the most number of political parties. The ruling party of each state, is ever ready to change the face of the nation, and by that I mean quite literally change the face. As different ruling parties form the government each time, they leave a little something behind by which they think people would remember them. The mementos start with statues of party leaders, then arches and inaugural stones. Soon they graduate to tearing down buildings erected by the opposition and construct a more suitable monument in its stead.
       The two political parties that have been rivals for decades in the state of Tamil Nadu, India are the AIADMK and the DMK. With each party having formed the government at different periods from 1972 the face of the city has been constantly changing. In 2010, when the DMK was in power, the decision to construct a new secretariat was finally taken. The new secretariat, designed by a German based architecture company, was to commemorate the 50 years of association of the DMK with the State Legislature. This building seems extremely out of place in a neighborhood that has the most number of colonial style buildings and practically ruins the old world feel of Mount Road. It has changed the streetscape of the area making the city seem almost ignorant to neighborhood context. The neighborhood has many landmark buildings in the city such as the Simpsons &Co. building, The Mail office, The Hindu office building and P.ORR &Sons which is famous for its clock tower.   
        New Secretariat building, Mount Road, Chennai

    Imperial Style buildings on Anna Salai.

        In 2010, when the AIADMK came to power, just as predicted, the Chief Minister moved the secretariat to Fort Saint George and the newly built secretariat building was converted to a multi-specialty hospital based on public opinion. Obviously, the change of secretariat was not enough to leave a mark. The next building to be altered was the MGR Memorial along the Marina Beach. The Chief Minister felt the existing archway of the Memorial was not grand enough to represent the power and greatness of the ADMK. The existing archway, supposed to represent a pair of palms together (a traditional gesture of greeting) was demolished and a new archway, a sculpture of the party's emblem, the two leaves, was erected in its place complimented by ionic columns on either side and a golden Pegasus.

New Entrance
            Old Entrance
The new entrance just does not answer the context of the site. It defies the idea of it being an entrance all together and comes through more as monumental.
         Now this isn't only confined to the state of Tamil Nadu. In the state of Gujarat, the BJP which has been the ruling party in the last ten years took change to the next level: demolition of a heritage building. The Babri Masjid, or the Mosque of Babur was one the few surviving monuments of the late Tuglaq period. This mosque built in 1527, was claimed to have a Hindu temple beneath its foundation, which is believed to have been demolished by Emperor Barbur after his conquest of the Rajputana state. So the leaders of the BJP felt the need to return the sacred area back to the Hindus and ordered the demolition of the Masjid in 1992. So much for revenge for a crime committed over 300 years ago. After an incredibly long trial that took almost a decade, a verdict passed in 2010 stated a Ram temple could be eventually be built on 1/3 of the area of Ayodhya.
          The state of Uttar Pradesh is not far behind. Although there were no dramatic demolitions and difference in opinion over location of secretariats, four time Chief Minister of UP, Mayawati, has erected hundreds of statues of well known Dalit leaders and memorials all over the state of UP. She also installed over 100 elephant sculptures in parks in Lucknow. Do elephants have anything to do with the city of Lucknow? I doubt, but the elephant just so happens to be the symbol the the BSP. Aesthetic? Yes. Relevant to Lucknow? No. I don't think so.
                                             Babri Masjid, before demolition

                                          Elephant Statues, Lucknow, UP

        This constant demolition and construction by political parties who are so eager to leave behind a legacy has a huge impact on the architecture of a city. It is not only insensitive to site or neighborhood contexts but also unintelligent as this continuous process changes the fabric of the city, sometimes even damaging neighboring property. A city is always transforming to suit modern day requirement but it still tells a story. Most cities get their identity from their heritage, their landmarks. Historic buildings are essential in showcasing how a city was in the past and how it is in the present, and without them there will be large gaps in the timeline. Walking through a city must be like turning the pages of a three dimensional history book. It is important to be sensitive to a city's heritage and people must be aware of its value. Do these facts occur to the quintessential Indian politician? And if they do, do they just prefer to stay ignorant to the facts so as to achieve their end? A politician may have 99 problems but a historic building isn't one!