Our definition of heritage determines what we are willing to conserve. On an individual level heritage would mean a tradition handed down through an ancestral line, an object holding certain given values. It is also termed as an inheritance with an element of ownership in legal terms. At each instance, there are values assigned by the ones next in line according to the changing perspectives and progression of time. On a larger scale, Heritage is the full range of our inherited traditions, monuments, objects, and culture. Most important, it is the range of contemporary activities, meanings, and behaviors that we draw from them. The heritage can simply be what is preserved for the next generation that has recognition and values in terms of history. It serves as a memory of where we came.

Winner | RTF Essay Writing Competition April 2020

Category: Do We Need To Redefine Our Heritage?
Participant: Tanvee Dabir
Profession: Student
University: Kamla Raheja Vidhyandhi Institute for Architecture, Mumbai

In the paradigm of conservation of the past, the heritage in question has to hold a value for a large populous. Here aspects of culture, greater tradition, and lived common history are considered. The tangible and the intangible aspects that blossom the settlement to its face today are important to conserve as heritage. The tangible may range from the Taj Mahal, the caves of Ajanta & Ellora or the Shanivarwada while the intangible would include the traditions, customs, lived culture associated with its unique construction materials, the spaces used for certain specific practice of handicraft. My understanding of the intangible aspects of heritage is a kind of bridge between the built and the living. In assigning values for heritage to be conserved, it is not enough that the building still stands, but the people’s association with the building’s construction, its prolonged effect on society and the culture it represents is also considered.

In a rapidly globalizing world where global citizenship is being promoted, all places should have similar facilities and detached from history, heritage keeps reminding its citizens of the continuity of their existence. The Fatehpur Sikri speaks of an empire’s love for gardens and planning, the Kalbadevi caves at Mumbai tell of the country’s ancestors that would’ve walked the same earth, the Sinhagad at Pune keeps reminding us of the fierce battle and an empire amassed rivaling the Gupta Empire. This remembrance retained not only in our history books but in places that we can still see is essential for the psychological health of its population. In a terrifying trend veiled under development, we see the kinds of threats these places are under.

Heritage doesn’t always mean the ancient caves and ancient scriptures. Heritage is also those reminders of historical events that have helped define the present and inadvertently the future of a city. A heritage building is that living example of a time long past, standing as a remainder of people long gone, a connection that grounds us to the land we call home.

Heritage is a keystone of our culture that plays an important role in our politics, society, business and world view. It informs influences and inspires public debate and policy both directly and indirectly. If not for the gateway of India, the visit of King George and Queen Mary would just be another chapter in history books, if not for the CST, the eclectic history of the Indian Railways wouldn’t be as interesting.

Globalization’s pitfalls

In a metropolitan, it is easy to get lost in the mundane routine of everyday existence for survival. The outside starts becoming unbreathable and higher buildings obstructing the once visible nature. For an escape or reprieve from the oft claustrophobic environments, we turn to the small green pockets dotting the city, or the rapidly disappearing countryside where the trees grow tall, not the concrete. We see such places in the Sanjay Gandhi National Park in Mumbai, the hills in and around Pune, the Cubbon Park in Bangalore, the gardens within Lutyen’s Delhi and many more. Here an aspect of environmental conservation is also necessary, natural heritage. In recent years the widened definition of heritage also includes the natural sites essential in maintaining the sanctity of the place which was essential in its history. For the protected site of the Sanjay Gandhi National Park, the tribal communities within are also to be allowed to have a continued existence. The nature-culture linkages at various places considered heritage cannot be ignored for most of the time a monument listed as heritage, the topography has major importance to play.

Imagine a Mumbai without its iconic Marine Drive, Oval Maidan or a Delhi without the Rashtrapati Bhavan. There are several elements at play in defining the character of these places, not singular structures or singular streets. The idea of conservation of specific era buildings as an ensemble was made possible with the evolving definitions of the UNESCO World Heritage conventions. A precinct or a geographically bounded set of structures and allied amenities serve as a reminder of past events leading to the city of today.

Archeological Survey of India (ASI) is the government body operating in our nation for the conservation efforts of heritage in all forms. Other organizations include Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH), the Indian Charter for The International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS) while state-specific heritage sites are managed by the state governments. These organizations have adopted a working definition for heritage and which values are to be associated with specific sites. The ASI considers a built heritage over 100 years old. This definition falls into a layperson defining heritage as what looks old. This narrows down the scope of what is protected and holds value on the national scale. This also narrows down the scope of what can be considered important historical events that defined the nation, only the pre-independence period is considered. It’s this paramount governing body that decides what the citizens should choose to remember.

Modernism for Nation Building

Consider the early post-independence period where the nation coming out of the clutches of a colonizing power wanted to establish a national identity, divorced from its struggling past. A nation looking forward to the independent future and innovation is at the forefront. The first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru looked upon architecture as the centerpiece for all national aspirations. Modernism as a movement was seen as one of the greatest innovations that rejected old architectural ornamentation and exemplified the industrial identities of several countries. The combination of technical innovations and divergence from traditional identities made modernism as the chosen style for a new nation. Thus the first generation architects were trained within the western ideology and were influenced by the then dominant architecture movement of Modernism. The works of architects like Achyut Kanvinde, Charles Correa, B.V. Doshi, Raj Rewal, and Nari Gandhi have a significant influence of the style.

Even early as the 1940s we see the preference of architects for the modernist philosophies. The identities of cities like Mumbai are based on the experimentations of the modernism style giving the ‘Bombay Deco’ ensemble including the Marine Drive and Oval Maidan. Works like IIM Ahmedabad by Doshi was essential in defining the colleges of the future, the experimental Kanchanjunga apartment building by Correa looked onto the future needs of the city. Within the nation’s capital Parliament Library, Nehru Pavilion, Hall of Nations at Pragati Maidan (named for progress) by Raj Rewal was essential in defining the capital beyond Lutyen’s imagination of Delhi. A nation starved for national identity gave impetus to new capitals of Chandigarh, and Gandhinagar where the concept of new cities was put forth. The kind of infrastructure, the synergy with openness, and the architectural concepts to incorporate the weather were considered.

Shifting identities 

In contemporary India, the identities are still tied to the heritage left behind pre-independence. Internationally the nation is recognized for the Taj Mahal primarily or the Ajanta Caves. A nation with a continued existence after its independence towards one of the most desired places for global markets is completely overlooked. Technological innovations during this period are awarded but the role the built had to play to establish those are not considered. Dudhsagar Dairy a milk factory located in Mehsana in the state of Gujarat is an early manifestation of the ambitious, nation-wide dairy development program by the Indian government in the last quarter of the twentieth century (1970–1996) by Kanvinde; The reminder of economic manifestation in a tangible form.

Although we see a major metamorphosis of architecture ever since 1950 towards modernism, inspired by the renowned International architects like Le Corbusier and Louis Kahn, the identity of Indian architecture is not pure modernism. Most of the successful Indian architects including Charles Correa, Raj Rewal and B.V.Doshi blended vernacular elements into modernism giving it a rich flavor that demarcates the identity of Indian architecture. They used deep overhangs, courtyards, shading devices, pergolas, jaali screens to create an aesthetically appealing climate responsive design. Thus a vision put forth by the first leaders of a free country to move away from colonial styles found its answers in not just following the international style but bringing it an ‘Indianness’ through the country’s heritage. The philosophy of modernism that encouraged experimentation and put functionality at the foremost importance was unbounded by international boundaries or international set regulations. This allowed for new nation-states like Brazil, Mexico and other colonial nations to propound their national identities interlaced with traditional aspects

On an international level, the definitions pertaining to 20th Century modern heritage have been expanded. The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) is the world’s first curated collection of modern architecture in its various facets and includes significant holdings of some of the most important modernist architects: Frank Lloyd Wright, Louis Kahn, Le Corbusier, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. Similar recognition was given to Raj Rewal for his works of the Asian Games Village, the French embassy staff quarters and the Parliament Library in Delhi and also the now demolished Hall of Nations. The politics behind the demolition are known but the loss of a groundbreaking technological masterpiece for exhibition spaces will always be felt.

Proposals like the Coastal Road in Mumbai, the central vista in Delhi, the Kala Academy and many such defining spaces are treated by the sword of development, pressured due to overutilization of spaces. If similar proposals were made for the nation’s favourite Taj Mahal, several counter-arguments would have prevailed. The issue of the narrow definition of Indian heritage where the primary value of age is considered thus stands as a serious threat to national identity. If the trends of demolitions in lieu of real estate gains spearheaded by the effects of a globalizing country continue, a huge lapse of modern heritage would be lost. Where we understand heritage as a link to the past, a breakage in this continuity would mean the lapse of where we come from or what defines the modern metropolis. The draining of cultural identities is already seen in the disregard for our forefather’s wealth of knowledge. The erasure of recent historical events that helped defined concepts like nation-building, town planning, and urban design would be lost for the future generations who would continue understanding a narrow view of history and development.


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