Unfreedoms to invent our past


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‘This is old, an old abandoned structure. Why is it important to you? We do not have much time to walk there.’ Indeed, it seemed to be taking forever to get to this isolated brick tower located in the middle of the flooded rice fields of Wanning county. My feet had slipped countless times off the narrow wet embankment straight into the slush of the rice plant nursery. It was difficult to sustain a serious conversation. And yet, as Han Bo Yuan kept reminding me, we had little time and a lot to talk about, not to mention getting the approval of the Chinese authorities.

I was in Hainan province, the southernmost part of China, engaged in preparing a tourism perspective for the province for the next two decades for the government. I was trying to track down its authentic built heritage as a potential asset for development. This search was not an easy one. Authentic sites and architectural connections with a decadent past had been shaved clean off the land by the cultural revolution. The Qing Yun Brick tower was an exception that had been saved due to its relative unimportance as much to its remote location.

Han Yuan was my counterpart in the local administration. He was part of the young post-cultural revolution generation for whom the past was just an obstacle to the future. We continued our conversation about the past as we waded our way towards the tower which stood on a shallow mound clear of the rice fields. There was no path to it and I just happened to spot it through the car window as a column on the horizon and insisted that we see it.

‘We don’t have so much time for the past like you in India. We have a long way to go ahead. How many hours in the day can I think about what happened a long time ago? I do not have enough time to plan my future and you want to go through these fields to see an old ruin which is not even listed by our antiquities.’ I argued back, of course. I confessed that ours was an ancient and wrinkled civilisation and I agreed that we just could not band together for a face lifting revolution to get rid of those wrinkles. But nevertheless, this brick tower was the first genuine ancient structure that I had seen in the last month. Everything else that was a recorded relic in the lists that I had seen, had been destroyed in the cultural revolution and rebuilt in the open period that was currently sweeping China.



Han Yuan insisted that he had shown me many ancient relics. I told him: ‘Han, those were not ancient relics. They have all been recently reconstructed out of imagined memories. Would your department accept to call them reconstituted ancient relics? Could I place this as a category in your tourist guidebooks so that the tourist could tell the difference before he sets out in search of your ancient past?’

Well, he would have to ask about this. He did agree that it was a more accurate way to distinguish between the status of the Qing Yun Tower standing there in front of us and the Fucheng Drum Tower that had been completely rebuilt.

I found Han’s perceptions about the past very attractive. The past is, after all, imagined by us. Its images in our minds are layered with impressions from Katha comics, television serials, movies, stories and of course the patchwork reconstructions that are sewn together by scholars from surviving documentary and visual evidence. Essentially, however, the past remains a compendium of impermanent images that evolve with our own subjectivity, senility and ambitions. However, unlike peeled mangoes and monsoon sunsets, the past is not something that we are allowed to relish privately. It is claimed by those in power and hurled at us as a sort of awakening call.



Rules are laid out about how to enjoy and imagine the past. These rules come in various pamphlets, books and other attractive packages. Sometimes these rules are buried in the pages of obscure scientific journals; at other times they are declaimed from electoral platforms, and at still other times they have even appeared as party directives. In exceptional situations, however, in some small corners of the globe, the past and all that connects it to the present, is allowed to exist in the realm of the imagination of the restorers – a fast disappearing breed of creative artists.

One set of rules for imagining the past has a scientific wrapping. This is most often thrown at us by the North Atlantic Europeans and comprises of charters, declarations and good practice rules – all primarily intended to protect the imagined past from the dangers of reckless ideas that amateurs, dilettantes, socialites and untrained professionals like me may put forward. One of the leading chapters in this rule book is composed of the Venice Charter that was hurriedly put together in 1964 by a bunch of randomly assembled people who were mortified by the greed of real estate developers bulldozing the bomb damaged monuments of European cities.

The Venice Charter is all about the rules for ‘authenticity’ and its scientific, almost clinical, qualities. By using the guiding light of this charter, one could measure, grade and place authenticity under intensive care. Article 15, for instance, states that scientific techniques must be used when excavating sites and ruins and conservation of exposed remains should be ensured. Reconstruction work should be a priori ruled out at such sites where only anastylosis will be accepted. Quite right. Neither the Chinese nor the Indians went to Venice or signed the charter.

These rules for imagining the past had come down from the old days of the empire when exploration clubs and treasure seekers had plundered ruins and needed to be restrained. The empire, in its wisdom, appointed the Archaeological Survey of India as the guardian of these early, more rudimentary rules in India. Ideally, if the ASI had fulfilled its imperial mandate, it would have vigorously defended the articles of the Venice Charter. But somewhere along its post-independence history, it seemed to have diluted its strict training to distinguish between the oral descriptions of the past and the historical evidence of it.



Excavation, after all, is a gentle art that needs to be practiced under laboratory conditions within the exclusive domain of the field notebooks that Marshall had insisted be maintained. It is hardly the subject of Supreme Court directives intended to verify in fast rewind mode, the ravings and rantings of religious leaders who have their own set of rules to imagine the past. So the defender of the faith in the rule book for scientific imagination of the past has been emasculated and left dangling under a series of directors, most hailing from the bureaucracy.

It was in vain that I looked towards it for help. The Ministry of Culture directed the Director of the Simla Institute, a worthy academic from Meghalaya, that it was the CPWD that would execute the restoration of the former Viceregal Lodge. I was to document, diagnose and propose measures for the restoration while the contracts division of the CPWD was to carry out the restoration work.

This former Viceroy’s summer residence is a tackily built luxuriously decorated piece of eclectic colonial architecture that needs a radical overhaul. Built hurriedly in 1888 for the pleasure of Lord Dufferin by Henry Irwin, it fell far short of its architectural pretensions. Currently owned by the Presidential Estate and leased to The Institute of Advanced Studies, the building has many aspirants who would like to use it but not pay for its restoration.



The Ministry of Tourism in Himachal would like to use it but the Centre is unlikely to relinquish its control to a state governed ministry. The Governor could have used it but the state government decided to build him a separate house on the site of the burnt Peterhoff. This new Governor’s house however, was too big for the elderly couple who graced the Governor’s throne, so a part of it was taken over by the Tourism Development Corporation of Himachal.

None of this mattered much to me as I proceeded with the diagnosis. The institute is in a terrible condition and suffers primarily from faults and defects that date back to its original construction. Hopefully, sometime in the next three decades, it may get restored unless it happens to be on the site of some Devi temple.

We had barely started our diagnostic work when we detected some unusually noisy activity on the steep sloping roof. Armed with a stick to disperse what seemed to be the usual monkey menace, I discovered that this time it was not the monkeys. It was a contingent of CPWD workers who were stripping the original terracotta tiles from the roof and flinging them to the ground some considerable distance below. They were to be replaced with some brand new tiles.



Of course only some of the original tiles had been damaged, but the newly fired ones had a different colour, and a much lower density. So they had to replace all the original tiles otherwise the change in colour would be detected. It was mortifying to see all the original tiles lying in heaps on the ground only to be replaced with the most inadequate fired tiles. Unfortunately, the provisions of the Venice Charter had not yet been incorporated in the CPWD schedule of specifications. The erstwhile Viceregal Lodge was not being conserved; it was being reconstituted as a colonial relic.

Conservation today is no longer a sport for gentlemen. It has become a sport which can be played by many rules, many teams and many participants. It is politics, a science, a craft, a haven for underemployed architects, an expression of ethnic pride and identity, an ancient future for our civilization and a good way to get funds from science-ruled trusts in the North Atlantic, a medicine for rejuvenating the political profiles of otherwise forgotten Jagmohans, and a subject of countless shelved reports.

One of these reports relating to the revitalisation of the mohallas of Samarkand and Bokhara lies on my shelf. I spent months in that area trying to raise the Unesco flag onto the flagpoles of Timurid urban fabric and mohalla houses that seemed to disappear under the sweep of the bulldozer while one was taking measurements. Imagine spending two weeks measuring a building and coming after the weekend to find it as a pile of rubble with bulldozer track marks across the earth pile where once stood a magnificent porch. The socialist ideology of conservation had penetrated much deeper into the Uzbek mind than I had realised.

If imagining the past was regulated by the Europeans imposing scientific rules, the socialist societies, particularly the Soviets and the Chinese, regulated imagining the past through political manifestos first and then backing that up with science. The palaces, churches and temples of the past were, for them, built with the accumulated surpluses of peasant and working class labour. Therefore, they had to be returned to the people in the form of museums.



The urban fabric of the past, the courtyard housing or the mohallas on the other hand, were regarded as degraded environments built out of residual peasant savings after the rulers had creamed off the surplus income. Therefore, these medieval structures that had housed the ordinary citizens for centuries had to be demolished. Citizens could then be moved to decent modern houses in micro regions with wide roads and gardens. Entire mohallas and dense urban settlement sites have been bulldozed around the main monuments in Bokhara, Samarkand, Khiva and Lhasa around the Jo-khang temple.

I had spent months of effort in planning the restoration of the mohalla environment in Samarkand and Bokhara for Unesco, convinced that it was the better urban environment for that climate. Just as we finished our work and were proceeding to the Mayor’s office for a presentation, the bulldozers were waiting to move in. Once the serious work of clearing the dense urban fabric around the museum monument had been accomplished, teams of scientific restorers were let loose on the main monuments.

The first to be restored in Uzbekistan by Soviet restorers was, of course, the mausoleum of Timur, but they soon moved onto restoring the mosque of Bibi Khanum. This mosque had largely collapsed soon after Timur had built it. He was a bad builder whose imagination far exceeded the building abilities of his public works department. Indeed, he had to drag entire teams of craftsmen from India to help him realise his grand architectural delusions. The poor Timurid construction did not deter the Soviet restorers. They had decided to restore the mosque to its original Timurid conceptions and with the liberal use of concrete arches placed on mud walls, the grand vision of Timur was to be realised to a much higher quality than even Timur had imagined.



Our nation is however blessed with the possession of all the rule books for imagining the past. We have the ASI, guardian of the scientific rules, we have the VHP which guards the political rules for imaging the past, and a mixed breed of earnest architects and restorers who can begin their efforts by joining INTACH and trying their hand at remote structures away from the scrutiny of science, politics and religion.

The problem of imagining our past is compounded by the fact that we are an Indo-Anglian civilisation with food habits that have been strongly influenced by Latin America, clothes that have been stitched in Turkish styles for centuries and aspirations that are modelled on North Atlantic lifestyles. How then are we to find the right rules for imagining our past?

The scientific charter approach seems a bit too abstract, but more problematic – it demands a certain consistency in approach over a long duration of time to follow principles and practices that cannot be changed arbitrarily. This is a consistency that is wholly at odds with our civilization because we as restorers and as ordinary citizens get up each morning and plan our future anew.



The political manifesto approach to imagining the past does seem to pay some dividends. It can be successful in bringing down a structure or two. However, the organisational skills and the transport infrastructure required for moving thousands to fever pitch to implement such a demolition approach across the whole country may not be a practical way towards a national policy for restoration. It seems that one of the problems we have is an inability to distinguish between the past, the present and the future. Historic buildings in use and worship are often an accretion of centuries of additions and demolitions.

We are fortunate. Our craft traditions are intact. The Europeans killed off their craftsmen in the trenches over two world wars, a civil war and a bloody revolution. No wonder they want to freeze the past. For those who want an answer to how we Indo-Anglicans can imagine the past, I would recommend The Sulima Pagoda: East meets West in the Restoration of a Nepalese Temple, edited by Erich Theophile and Neils Gutschow (Orchid Press, Bangkok). Here is a book that contains the answers, because imagining the past and restoring it is creative work and it cannot be done without the community taking part as a crucial component of the work. Unfortunately, the rule books have consistently ignored the community as the guardian of an imagined past.