Aussie experts on Kolkata trip to raise awareness - 18 Jan 2010

Subhro Niyogi | TNN

Kolkata: Conservation experts from Australia believe its high time the civic authorities in Kolkata take up preservation of built heritage with all seriousness before it is lost to the onslaught of development.

Cities across the world have lost much of the built heritage in pursuit of growth and development. Though realization has since dawned about the importance of heritage, it is too late. Kolkata, which is a repository of colonial architecture, given that it was the capital of India in the Raj days, has the opportunity to protect its built heritage even as it undertakes urban regeneration and modernization, said Vinod Daniel, an expert in preservation of collections and chairman of AusHeritage. The latter is a network for cultural heritage services in Australia.

Daniel, along with three colleagues – fellow collection expert Kristan Phillips and built-heritage experts Geoff Ashley and Bruce Pettman, are on a four-day trip to Kolkata to participate in workshops, seminars and public lectures on collection conservation and adaptive reuse of heritage buildings. In the past decade, AusHeritage has undertaken 20 missions to India but this is the first one to Kolkata. We have a memorandum of understanding with Intach nationally that has led to collaborations in Delhi, Chennai and Mumbai.

“Though we’ve been keen on Kolkata, the visit did not happen. Now that we have made it, we will make full use of the opportunity. There is a workshop with Victoria Memorial Hall, an interactive session organized by Kolkata Municipal Corporation (KMC) and awareness lectures at Loreto College”, Daniel said.

Intach has also lined up site visits to the General Post Office, Treasury Building and Old Mint to get tips on conservation and adaptive reuse.

“Civic laws in Kolkata make it mandatory for the creation of car parking and fire escapes. We need to know how to integrate the new requirements in heritage buildings that were built when motor cars hadn’t been invented and fire wasn’t big enough a hazard to warrant a spare escape route”, pointed out Intachs Kolkata convenor GM Kapur.

While AusHeritage experts will advise Indian counterparts on policy and tangible aspects of heritage and architecture, it hopes to benefit from India’s strength in intangible aspects like associated stories. According to Daniel, the biggest challenge for civic authorities and state governments in India was to prioritize what to preserve and what to let go.

“There is so much heritage in a city like Kolkata that one cannot conserve everything. So, one has to make a prudent choice. But there’s an even bigger challenge and that is to include conservation in the list of priorities that include more pressing matters like poverty alleviation and healthcare”, he added.

Daniel hoped the visit would increase people to people contact and better India-Australia relations that had taken a beating in recent times with allegations of Indians being racially attacked Down Under. “Even if one person gets injured, it is sad. But in an urban context, this is simply violence. I don’t believe there is a racial intent. Australia is one of the most tolerant and multicultural societies”, Daniel added.