Need to preserve India’s historical structures without moralistic bias

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Gothic architectural building in Kolkata, India. Photo: Dreamstime.

NEW YORK – At an obscure wayside museum in Ocean City, Maryland, my daughter chanced upon a coin, salvaged from an 1809 shipwreck, that had the inscription and logo of the East India Company. The coin had been preciously preserved in an air-tight plastic case enclosed in a glass cabinet.

As I looked at the coin, ripples of nostalgia for a lost era in my hometown, Calcutta, swept over. Growing up in Calcutta, which is how it was known then, I had probably walked along the same footsteps of the buccaneer company but nowhere were there any signs that reminded us of the imposing presence of the British Raj.

We were simply not made aware that we were walking hand-in-hand with history amidst the turmoil and strife of unfathomable deep curtains of a checkered past. The subsequent state governments after Independence had sought to create a way erased of its history from our collective memory.

I would go from my house in South Calcutta to Loreto College on Park Street, little knowing that on its mundane chaotic routes lay the grand old Mushidabad House, the rambling mansion of Mir Jaffar the first Nawab of Calcutta. There was no indicator pointing out to its former splendor, no tinkling of the begum’s bangles, no silks or sparkle of extravagant chandeliers. Instead dingy old spots covered the mansion which was in itself in a lowly image of shabby disrepair.

All that we were told was that Mir Jaffar was the epitome of treachery in Indian history. The fact that at that time natives like the merchant Jagat Singh and other Hindus preferred British puppet, Mir Jaffar, to the vile and cruel debauchery of the erstwhile Mughal ruler, Siraj-ud-daulah, has been stamped out of history books. As a result our history is revved up with moralistic and self-righteous claims to our past without the nuanced scrutiny of subterranean layers that make up every culture.

Somewhere in the suburbs of Dum Dum, I believe, is the Clive House, the palatial residence of the Commander-in-Chief of British India who had established the military and political supremacy of the East India Company. But it lies now in utter shambles and neglect. The history of the Clive house goes back to an unrecorded ancient time but efforts to restore the building are sadly missing.

It is a shame that although there is a faint resemblance of a government trust established to preside over these monuments of antiquity, nothing seems to generate any revenue to glamorize the beauty of the reverberating past.

If it had, it could have paid the way for creating beautiful spaces, offering children of the neighborhood to have picnics, recreation and lofty gardens that float alongside the Roman ruins in Italy for instance.

It could have served to rejuvenate entire neighborhoods by providing employment to people, and been the center of flourishing arts, culture and open museums. And most importantly it would have grown to be a tourist magnet for people all over the world.

By denying history we cannot erase the past. A matured citizen body of a country looks at history with objective spirit. Not all history needs to be a didactic statement of patriotism or a tool to comfort or console its people.

It is the tangled web of human lives wrought in power, betrayal, greed and passion. And sometimes, looking back ,we realize we were badly misled but we need to recall the events as a force that has shaped our psyche, consciousness and character.

So why not preserve these historical monuments not simply because they are reminders of our past but because of the beauty engraved in its splendid and now obsolete architecture?

If not for anything else, it would be a money spinner, a loadstone for tourist attraction and a provision for a new lease of life to entire communities.

Buildings and monuments speak of shared roots of elegance, reform, torment to provide an increased sense of a race and nation.

If Japan can spin out a booming multi-billion dollar tourist industry on the strength of its ephemeral pink and white cherry blossom season, surely we, in India, too can gild our economy with the gossamer threads of our varied and tumultuous history.

Societies have long sought to protect and preserve cultural heritage for reasons ranging from education, research, the desire to promote an identity and the pursuit of beauty and wonder.

It is truly heart-breaking to see structures that have been observed by passing generations through centuries and civilizations destroyed by the squalor and mindless urbane growth with no sensitivity to beauty and the force of time that shaped them.

St John’s Church in Kolkata, India, with its impressive colonnades and stone spire was built in 1787. Photo: Dreamstime.

Take a look at the St. John’s Church in Kolkata. I had not even heard of it when I was living there. Yet now as I read I am filled with regret for having missed this place of beauty. Its floors are said to be spectacular, made of bluish grey stone carried from the ancient city of Gaur while stain glass windows and paintings illuminate its hallways.

The land for the church was donated by the Maharaja Nabo Kishen Bahadur, the founder of the Shovabazar Raj Family and the foundation stone was laid by Warren Hastings, the Governor General of India in 1784.

Just four hours away in Murshidabad is the extinct old kingdom of Nawab Siraj-ud-daulah, the battlegrounds of Plassey and where the blood of treachery flowed. It is a unique town ridden with the echoes of history and where the ghosts still watch from behind old towers and fallen gates of power.

Yet the town lies in abject poverty and misery. With concerted efforts and partnerships from the government and historical societies the tides of fortune could easily be rejuvenated by building tourist attractions and hotels around it.

Not just in West Bengal but throughout India there is a very clear need for better and more thorough archiving and preservation of cultural heritage, antiquities and artefacts.

Training staff in managing antiquities, old historical sites and monuments is vital for their protection while providing a construction of sophisticated system so that they come to be viewed as social, cultural and economic assets.

These climactic images carry the weight of memories, poems, music, histories and entire civilizations.

For example, when in April, 2019, the 12th century cathedral Notre Dame was caught in the ravages of a behemoth fire the world stood to mourn the loss of the intangible dreams it had stood for so long – the beauty, the legends, the lit candles of aspirations of people of eight hundred years.

Surely, history tapestried in these old buildings is a dynamic element a look back at human endeavor and beacon of light to the future.

In many ways they can be adapted for reuse by making these buildings more sustainable by increasing energy and light efficiency and creating beautiful natural spaces for the whole community to enjoy and use. Evolution without rampant destruction of its unique elements is the key to keep it vibrant and lucrative.

The richness, the vintage splendor, even the decadence add a depth of texture that remains invaluable to the sense of a city, a place or a country. Those great bones of ancient loves, feuds over pride and honor cannot be replaced by a twentieth century quick buck.

(Poppy Mookerjee is a journalist and a writer for more than a decade with American and Indian publications)

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