What is Heritage? – Prem Chandavarkar

In context of the recent demolition of the Hall Of Nations, Prem Chandavarkar observes that the lacuna in understanding the definition and the meaning of heritage will lead to the loss of many valuable buildings that belong to our recent past.

A couple of weeks ago, the Hall of Nations, an exhibition hall in Pragati Maidan in New Delhi, was demolished to make way for a new convention and exhibition centre. The building was a rare example in the world, and the only one in India, of a space frame built in reinforced concrete.  Completed in 1972 and designed by architect Raj Rewal and structural engineer Mahendra Raj, it was widely recognised as one of the icons of a period of modern Indian architecture that started in the 1950s and continued till the 1980s. This was an era that centred on India’s desire that the potential of her newly won freedom should offer the country a new modernity, and the cutting-edge architecture of that time, produced by the first generation of post-independence architects, was a significant and powerful representation of this quest.

Architects, and many others, protested the demolition plan: signing petitions, making representations, and even filing court cases. They pointed to the historical significance of the building, arguing that it needs to be preserved as an important part of India’s heritage. It was said that the structure was deteriorating, and that it no longer serves current exhibition needs. But if its historical significance was acknowledged, the first steps in addressing these concerns should have been to explore what an aesthetically sensitive restoration and retrofitting effort could achieve.

This did not happen. There was no serious exploration of this option, and demolition proceeded post-haste because the government would not recognise the Hall of Nations as heritage and courts refused to intervene. The government argued that the structure was less than sixty years old and therefore, did not qualify as heritage. The logic of how this number of sixty was arrived at was never made clear. Even more bizarre was the assertion that heritage must have a qualifying age and anything less than that age need not be preserved. By this yardstick, we will never leave any heritage for the future if we destroy everything before it is sixty years old. This will force generations to come into accepting the grotesque notion that the only thing they can call heritage is that which has somehow escaped attention for demolition or erasure.

Clearly, we need to clarify our thinking on what exactly heritage is, and why we should consider it valuable. We may reject outright this strange notion of a qualifying age that was argued in the Hall of Nations case, but that will not take us out of the woods. The descent to these levels may have occurred because our conventional perception of heritage is limited and erroneous. This can be illustrated by two words that are often used when talking about what one should do for heritage: “preservation” and “conservation”. While these two words could be interpreted differently, their usage overlaps on common territory: both words refer to sustaining something that has already occurred. This line of thinking springs from critics like John Ruskin, an early member of the first set of writers to theorise heritage. Ruskin proposed the idea of ‘voicefulness’ which still dominates much thinking on the subject: the historical artefact ‘speaks’ to us about the ideas and values of its moment. By hearing the voice of the work, we connect with ideas and values that endure. The impulse of heritage thus lies in preserving the authenticity of this voice. Now a quest for what endures is a quest for timelessness, and reflects a basic and inherent human impulse to be both in time and beyond time. But will this come through uncovering the ‘voice’ of heritage?  How do we isolate that voice to recognise it?  At what point in time does it speak? Is there an authentic moment we can refer to?

For example, take one of the few heritage initiatives in India that has been precinct-centred rather than monument-centred: the area in South Mumbai centring around “Fort” and “Kala Ghoda”, in which there are several examples of Neo-Gothic architecture. This architecture came from a period that lasted about five to six decades. What was it like when it first started, after ten years, after twenty years, or when it was winding down? Each of these moments was quite different. How can we define its authenticity given the roots of (a) its origin in Europe from the ‘myth of the noble savage’ that followed the protestant reformation and counter-reformation, instilling the concomitant desire to escape civilisation’s corrupting impulse by restoring man’s original innocence in the Garden of Eden; (b) the movement of this myth from continental Europe to Britain; (c) the re-interpretation of this myth in the neo-Gothic movement, likening the organic compositional strategies of Gothic architecture with the Garden of Eden; and (d) the transfer of this thinking to India intertwined with the impulse of British colonialism (which is a wholly different and complex narrative). And this is a style that has borrowed German gables, Dutch roofs, Swiss timbering, Romance arches and Tudor casements, often interlaced with traditional Indian features. In which geographical source or which point of time should we locate its authenticity?

Add to this the lament, one often hears that we are in a state of decline. That we are losing our anchors in culture and tradition, that the “good old days” are gone. And this lament is given a curious weightage by patterns of tourism, where it is largely traditional, and not contemporary, urban precincts that draw the mass of tourists. Then add the fact that there is often a misfit between historical buildings and the contemporary needs of modern commerce, which makes the structures of heritage (as Kurt Foster put it) the “homeless of history”.  Even amid all this complexity, if we find some way to identify a voice of heritage, we have created a curious predicament for ourselves: a dislocation of the present. We have trouble locating authenticity of culture and experience in the present moment, and we either look back to heritage with nostalgia, or look forward to the future with optimism. How do we negotiate our way out of these dilemmas?

To begin with, we must ask whether heritage is a contemporary or a historical impulse. The belief inherited from the likes of Ruskin that the work springs from a specific voice assumes a historical progression that starts with the past and moves forward. But when we seek to make sense, at a very personal level, of the history of our own lives, we never go back to our birth and work forward.  Our perspective is always from the present moment working backward. We should pay more heed to this intuitive common-sense approach and reflect on whether heritage has less to do with the authenticity of a historical moment and more to do with a very contemporary moment of remembering.

The voices of history are always multiple, complex, contradictory, and resistant to unification. Any authenticity we ascribe to them is one that we construct today. And we realise the danger of this approach when the impulse toward historic authenticity becomes ideology: the claim of a moment of purity in the past whose idyllic wholeness contains the myths and rituals that offer answers to all existential questions. The proposition of such unity entails the suppression of diversity, both past and present, claiming that this purity has been lost because of obstructions and diversions placed in its path, and one must restore it by removing these obstructions. The implicated denial of the inherent diversity of life makes this a game of power rather than of authenticity.

If a pure and secure authenticity is a dangerous way to think of heritage, then what is the value of our history?  A.K. Ramunajan, in his essay “Three Hundred Rāmāyanas: Five Examples and Three Thoughts on Translation”, observes the multiple versions of the Rāmāyana, in many languages, coming from miscellaneous regions, written at varied points of time, and with significant variations in the story line. In describing this multiplicity, he says that the he prefers the word “tellings” to the conventional terms “versions” or “variants”, for the latter imply that all spring from an original and single invariant text. This instils in us the illusion that the significance in a myth lies in the authenticity of an original. Rather, it lies in the extent to which we transform ourselves in each retelling.

It is this contemporary moment of transformation that we should pay heed to. Each one of us is painfully aware of the limited scale of our own bodies in relation to the vastness of the universe. This may have been acceptable if the world was totally random, but we know enough to know that this is not the case: the world behaves in accordance with natural laws, seems to have its own consciousness, and is imbued with tantalising meaning what seems to beckon us.  Inherent to our existence is the desire to transcend the limited scale of our puny bodies to acquire a perspective that commands a view far larger than our own subjectivity. We are driven to seek what the philosopher Thomas Nagel calls “perspectival ascent”. In seeking this, we must confront the question of time at two levels that seem to be magnetically drawn to each other: the reach within time to expand the scope and richness of the current moment, and the reach across time to transcend the scale of the immediately synchronous. If we only locate our authenticity in the past, we unleash our own decadence by reducing ourselves to ritualistic repetition of formulae. Any systemic change only induces an apprehensive unease for we have acquired the sensitivity and vulnerability of a body that has lost its immune system. And if we stay within the moment, we fail to escape the angst of our idiosyncratic subjectivity. But if the contemporary can be characterised by a critical alertness that allows us to look back and carefully and wisely choose what we wish to remember, that is what a rooted sense of history is all about.

It is the discernment in that choosing, rather than the authenticity in an original and historical voice, that is most important. We may look back in history and find that some of the greatest works of art and architecture have been promoted by despotic regimes. In contrast, the history of democracy seems to be characterised by an entropic impulse that moves toward an artistic tradition of either mediocrity or irrelevance; with individual creative genius being the exception rather than the rule.  But that does not mean this is what our choices are limited to. We can apply our minds, select the best of both worlds, and develop a new system; and if we succeed in doing so we renew ourselves and truly live. We need no longer be constrained to habitual repetition of truths we hope are universal, nor need we constrain ourselves to the subjectivities of current fashion. In our critical discernment of the past, we renew the universal within each unique moment.

To be cultural is to be able to come together and carefully choose what is worth remembering so we can place our current lives on meaningful foundations, and the significance of our choices is not linked to whether our attention turns to what happened yesterday or what happened two thousand years ago. Only when we do this can we call ourselves a culture with true heritage. In a series of interviews with Bill Moyers documented in the book The Power of Myth, the scholar Joseph Campbell said that we mistakenly believe that we are searching for meaning in our lives: what we truly seek is the experience of being alive. When we can connect this experience with the innermost core of our being as well as the significance we sense in the universe, when we stay within the moment and simultaneously transcend it, we endow the experience with meaning, escalating it to a rapture of being alive. The past is inextricably implicated in heritage, but we do ourselves a disservice if our definitions of it are restricted to the past.  We will only learn the true value of heritage once we have learnt how to place its foundations within contemporary wisdom.

Prem Chandavarkar:

Prem Chandavarkar is the Managing Partner of CnT Architects – an acclaimed Bengaluru-based architectural practice. He is the former Executive Director of Srishti School of Art Design & Technology, Bengaluru. He has been an academic advisor and guest faculty at architecture colleges in India and overseas. He writes and lectures on architecture, art, urbanism, cultural studies and education, and has published several essays and presented papers at national and international conferences.

This essay was first published on 13th May 2017 by Prem Chandavarkar on his blog under the title ‘What is Heritage?’ To read Prem’s other writings, his blog can be visited at: premckar.wordpress.com.


3 thoughts on “What is Heritage? – Prem Chandavarkar”

  1. The idea of discernment rather than authenticity is tricky. But well explained here. Thanks Prem for getting us out of the subjective- objective debate into a more constructive territory.

  2. Intensely thought provoking and classic prem.

    Reminds me of one of the main tenets of architectural value from The seven lamps of architecture:
    “Memory …And if there be any profit in our knowledge of the past, or any joy in the thought of being remembered hereafter, which can give strength to present exertion, or patience to present endurance, there are two duties respecting architecture whose importance it is impossible to overrate :
    The first, to render the architecture of the day, historical;, and
    The second, such to preserve, as the most precious on inheritances, that of past ages. “

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