Indians may exhibit a variety of attitudes towards the past, but restoring buildings does not figure too prominently in them. The chief minister of West Bengal is somewhat of a trailblazer in that respect; she is not just planning but is ready to execute the restoration of the Writers’ Buildings in the midst of a culture that comfortably inhabits spaces whose lineations and purposes are lost in the accretions of the ages. There is a peculiar inability to appreciate heritage, physical or metaphysical, in this culture, and a casual disrespect towards all that is ‘given’ takes the place of the desire to treasure and preserve traces of history. In this context, it would seem remarkable that the chief minister is willing to shift her own office and the entire secretariat to alternative quarters just to have the Writers’ Buildings restored. Normally, such an idea, even if it occurred to anyone in government, would have very low priority. Just the idea of moving the offices would put them off.
There are, however, other features of this same culture that are perhaps not so easy to shake off. Restoration of buildings is a highly technical matter, just as is the restoration of paintings, for example. In Britain, restoration has a defined tradition, particularly from the 19th century, after the revival of interest in medieval structures and products. Central to the venture are understanding and care, beginning from the study of the building, its purpose and age, to the meticulous removal of accretions and even the choice of alternative material for necessary rebuilding where the original substance is no longer available or practicable. The Writers’ Buildings would be an especially challenging project from that point of view, not because it has acquired layers of ugliness and dirt through the years, but because its origins themselves are layered. Begun in 1777, the structure was extended as well as used for various purposes — including housing Fort William College for a while — up to 1906. Minerva with her peers came to line the terrace after 1883, when they were sculpted, and blocks surrounding the central courtyard continued to be built till 1970. Calling up the heritage structure from among these accumulated shapes could be an expert’s dream — or nightmare.
It is here that the prevalent culture has taken over. Instead of getting the best and the wisest of experts, planners, urban designers and architects to study the old plans, decide on modifications and ‘restore’ the iconic building, the government has decided to give the job to architects from two university departments close by. This culture feels safe with the middling; it does not dare look for the best. A truly forward-looking step has been undermined before it has been taken by West Bengal’s incorrigible preference for the run-of-the-mill. No matter who makes the bang, all West Bengal ever comes up with is a whimper.