It was the year 1935, when the idea of widening Race Course Road was being discussed. The project would destroy the guardhouse of one the older buildings ‘Poorna Prasad’ in the stretch, that was built in memory of the first Diwan of Mysore Mir Miran Purnaiah in 1910.
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So the-then Diwan of Mysore, Mirza Ismail, decided to translocate the portion that would have to be destroyed, brick-by-brick, to another part of Bengaluru. Today we see it at Lalbagh West Gate entrance.
I open with this anecdote, because when the powers-to-be put their mind to protect a city and its history, options open up. But now, the government and judiciary themselves have permitted the construction of a seven-storey building inside one of the last surviving lung spaces of Bengaluru – Cubbon Park. And this would be done after breaking down the quaint red-walled cottage that formerly housed the State Election Commissioner’s office.
So this Sunday, a few Bengalureans got together to protest against the plan. Ironically, they gathered at the fountain created by Mirza Ismail – which is also the first musical fountain in the country – to let the government know this was a bad idea.
But only a floating crowd of about 100 turned up for the protest. If this, and the dwindling numbers at several recent protests, are measured against the huge steel flyover protest in October 2016 (and I can say this with some confidence, having organised some of these and having been part of others), there is cause for concern about protester fatigue.
Because it is just not sustainable to come to the streets every time authorities moot a questionable idea that threatens our collective commons. We need a process set by law to save our history.
What counts as heritage in Bengaluru?
In any city, heritage is more than what is designated so by the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI). Every Indian city has nooks and corners that are integral to its fabric; not all of them are formally designated as heritage. Look at the recent discovery of Veeragallus – stone inscriptions that tell stories of Bengaluru’s history – made by private citizens led by P L Udaya Kumar, techie-turned-historian. How do we protect these?
Let’s look at what’s formally designated as heritage in Bengaluru. ASI has listed only two heritage monuments in the city – the summer palace of Tippu Sultan and old dungeon, and the Bangalore Fort.
The State Archaeological Survey, on the other hand, has listed six monuments – Gavi Gangadhareshwara Temple, the four watch towers of Kempe Gowda (at Ulsoor, Mekhri circle, Lalbagh and Gavipuram), the Bowring Institute, Mallikarjuna temple, Boulder inscriptions in Basavangudi, and Venkataramaswamy Temple at VV Puram.
Neither of these lists include any of our natural or intangible heritage.
Public pressure has saved heritage, but not always!
Immense public pressure is the one thing that has saved some of the unlisted heritage in Bengaluru. In 1982, a Public Interest Litigation saved the High Court from being razed to the ground (Ironically, it was the HC that okayed the construction of the seven-story building in Cubbon Park, which would house the honourable court’s annexe building). The Central Jail premises, which now houses Freedom Park, was the next project which created an uproar; however, the project was taken ahead.
The Manikyavelu Mansion, which now houses the National Gallery for Modern Art, would have been a rubble if citizens had not stood up for it. The Balabroohie guest house would have been a club for legislators, and the Carlton House would have been a memory, but for public pressure.
Unfortunately, not every structure has been saved – the most recent losses being the Krumbeigel Hall inside of Lalbagh, and the Gauri Mantapa in Cubbon Park. The parishioners of All Saints Church are continuing their protest on the 170th day, to protect the church from BMRCL who apparently wants to turn it into a shed!
So I say this again – we need a process that is set by law, or by a commission that’s given some teeth.
And by god! Do we have a few of those!
The first commission was the Bangalore Urban Art and Heritage Commission, which the state government quietly disbanded in 2001 when it objected to the building of the Vikasa Soudha next to the iconic Vidhana Soudha. Incidentally, the first head of this commission was Vijay Bhaskar, who is the current Chief Secretary of the state. This commission could only make recommendations, and not implement decisions.
The second commission was the Central Area Beautification Commission. Quite honestly, I couldn’t find any detail about its workings or even its current status.
Besides the state government, BBMP has also sanctioned the Kempe Gowda Foundation, which was housed in the Department of History at Bangalore University. The idea was to create a museum dedicated to the founder of Bengaluru (currently there is one museum at Mayo Hall dedicated to Kempe Gowda). Land was sanctioned for the museum, but nothing has moved since.
Suresh Moona, one of the city’s leading historians, is quite resigned about the scenario. “They create foundations and allot public money. After a point, nobody knows what happened to the foundations/commissions, or the money that is allotted,” he says.
In 2005, state government amended the Karnataka Town and Country Planning Act to include definitions of a ‘heritage building’ and of a ‘heritage precinct’. As per the amendment, heritage building is a building possessing architectural, aesthetic, historic or cultural values. The planning authority or any other competent authority within whose jurisdiction the building is situated, can declare it as a heritage building. The only known case of this clause being used was to save R K Narayan’s house in Mysore (Mysore has a Heritage Conservation Committee that has identified 230 buildings as heritage. Bengaluru does not.)
Also, the Bengaluru Heritage Preservation and Regulation Bill was first conceptualised in 2004 and drafted in 2010. It is currently with the Urban Development Department.
The Revised Master Plan (RMP) 2015 too has included provisions on heritage corridors. In fact, as per reports in Deccan Herald, BBMP has pointed out that the seven-storey building in Cubbon Park probably couldn’t be built since the park is included in the Heritage Conservation Zone of RMP 2015. However, higher authorities are yet to take a decision.
A new law, The NadaPrabhu Kempe Gowda Heritage Area Development Authority Act, 2018, aims to turn “… heritage sites, tourist places and monuments of Nadaprabhu Kempegowda, in and around the Bengaluru Urban, Bengaluru Rural, Chikkaballapura, Ramanagara and Tumkuru Districts of Bengaluru Revenue Division into international heritage cultural and tourist center.”
So, options are available.
What we need is another Diwan Mirza Ismail, with the will to protect our history.