The West Bengal heritage commission, set up by the state government in 2001, is slated for a seed grant necessary for it to begin work in earnest. Medieval and early modern sites, of historical architectural interest as well as associated with eminent writers such as Ramprasad Sen, Vidyasagar and Bankimchandra are to be preserved as part of our traditions. This should surely energize movements for identifying sites and preserving edifices and environment that maintain the charm of the past in the present. The commission aims to move the perspective of heritage activism from only Calcutta sites to include equally rich sites and ambience of the West Bengal countryside. Old sacred edifices, zamindari palaces, tanks or decayed irrigation works in Medinipur, Bankura, Burdwan, Birbhum, and north Bengal or east of the Bhagirathi deserve more focus. So do traditional arts and crafts, fairs and festivals, associated with their neighbourhood. In fact, pictorial documentation of this is a priority.
Recent years have seen retrogression in the concept of material heritage, the focussing only on late colonial Calcutta buildings badly maintained after Independence. The road frontage of the City of Palaces looked completely different in the nineteenth century, having been changed a hundred years ago. Conservationists, who do not care to look even at coffee table literature, have forgotten this. Preserving old buildings in isolation, while their road frontage has become drab and obscured by proliferating flyovers (witness the Nizam’s palace on Lower Circular Road or the Indian Museum on Chowringhee) has become pointless. Calcutta is now an archipelago of highrise buildings. Some refurbished old buildings, even if funds are found to maintain them as they used to be, are bound to appear anachronistic.
The definition of heritage in an early twenty-first century speculative capitalist land market needs rethinking. It must take into account ambience, milieu, and immediate landscape, in one word, “space”. Heritage has to be redefined as the space in which structures form groups, giving traditional pride to people living in them or viewing them occasionally.
Contemporary heritage activity focuses all over the world not only on buildings but on heritage zones comprising ensembles (such as the old PG Hospital or the Calcutta Medical College) or neighbourhoods with open green spaces, well-kept roads, or picturesque lanes, areas of entertainment and refreshment, with habitation in between them.
In our city, the preservation of the BBD Bag zone, or the river front, already ugly from British Indian days, is not the only priority. The cost of demolishing the eyesore of Telephone Bhavan and restoring the ruined east side of the Tank is prohibitive for an already cash-strapped state. British promotional lobbying to turn decrepit warehouses into an entertainment area, presumably for high-cost eating joints and discos, à la the new Covent Garden Market or Bristol Severnside, would appeal only to people with money to throw around. Heritage zones should relate to activities in which the masses, rich and poor, can pursue their daily work. The area from Southern Avenue to the railway line past the Lakes, or that from Vidyasagar Setu to the railway line as it runs south of Chetla, Hastings House and the Alipur Courts are regions of the city that deserve heritage zoning.
Heritage zoning implies demarcation of areas for sensible aesthetic planning. Relevant committees of appropriate authorities include members who are architects, environmentalists or historians, and of course civil engineers and urban planners. They are expected to weigh a variety of considerations to regulate the destruction of vistas, atmosphere or public convenience. Municipal bodies sometimes fall prey to pressures of political or personal profit and property value. Such pressures of course mount when not one building, but several, representing more than one class, are involved.
In Europe and the United Kingdom, it took strong agitation by citizens in places like Strasbourg or Amsterdam, Oxford or Bath, to preserve the heritage character of their inner cities: for instance when the peripheral Christ Church Meadows, at the confluence of the Thames and the Cherwell in Oxford, was about to be ruined by a flyover fifty years ago. Such movements have not grown up in our part of the country. The mere existence of public interest groups tinkering away at grim old ruins can hardly defeat the greed of classes making money out of real estate promotion.
A recent movement has been reported among the old abashikbrinda of Santiniketan, who have cried halt to housing promotion close to the university buildings there. This problem originates in the inevitable indeterminacy of municipal and university (in Oxbridge, called Town and Gown) urbanizations over certain periods of time. In Boston, conservation was easier for Harvard, which is across the Charles River. Such natural boundaries are not generally found. In Bolpur, land was acquired or released in a haphazard way. Some original lands were sold over time, initially to private people associated with it, then by resale to others, and even sometimes for middle class colony development, generally on the peripheries, but occasionally in pockets, within campus zones.
The last category has become the object of speculative cupidity by apartment promoters. This will increase man-land ratio, spiral up demand for water supply and consequently diminish the water table in an arid district, and also create a particularly contemporary problem of more and more cars, pollution and road insecurity in an already dusty milieu. The problem thus becomes one of the degradation of a semi-urban environment.
The Central university authorities, and the municipality with powerful Calcutta figures behind it, should be prevailed upon to sit across a table and hammer out a plan by which the university could be treated as a composite heritage zone, including private lands within it, defined very liberally to include Srineketan and Prantik. Whatever peri-urban development has to take place should be corralled by a road bypass. If the middle classes need country houses or flats around Bolpur, they must go north and west of it or to the east of the railway line.
Heritage is not just not the question of a building or two on which the luxury of antiquarianism can be lavished. History does not only deal with the hoarding of antiquity, but is also a composite of processes of change. These changes take place in society, bringing together groups and not isolating individual units. The boundaries of what is to be maintained with respect to tradition have to be extended from buildings to spaces, utility and contiguity.
We could go on extending examples. Tourism is becoming degraded in the Darjeeling Hills after the town itself was destroyed by indiscriminate construction and overcrowding of what were once magnificent roads. A similar degradation of, for instance, Kurseong, could be stopped if the lovely slopes from the schools of Dow Hill down to the Pankhabari spur and the Makaibari Tea Estate could be declared a heritage zone by the Hill Council and the municipality.
The Sundarbans would not necessarily improve in quality if information technology, communications and entertainment firms built apartments of Amby Valley style and encouraged their residents to roam in motorboats shattering the stillness in the estuaries from Basanti to Patharpratima. Rather than that, we could think of tourists with a sense of adventure placating Dakshinray by leaving the depleted tiger population with the environment of their forebears.