Chennai

New memorial, old politics

The proposed memorial for Jayalalithaa, a soaring, winged structure on the Marina, marks a significant shift in the State government’s architectural preference and style.

To those who were expecting yet another monument in Dravidian style with eternally burning lamps and other sacred symbols, the proposed memorial appears bare, radical yet exuberant.

Unlike the earlier structures, the new architecture neither signifies any strong political position nor engages with Tamil identity politics. However, if the question is whether the proposed memorial paves the way for a new breed of State-sponsored architecture that is evocative and responsible, the answer clearly is no. There may be an optical difference between the proposed memorial and the others that preceded it, but the excessiveness, sense of deification and surfeit of myth making narratives seem to persist.

How State structures should be built and what they should signify are consciously decided and politically motivated. Architecture is the party’s billboard, and it can be best witnessed in Chennai.

Anna Samadhi


 

Even before the DMK, which effectively used architecture to convey its political intentions, the Congress and the colonial government that preceded it, used buildings to construct a narrative of power. The colonial government, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, sought an architecture that conveyed the imperial vision. They found in Indo-Saracenic architecture a perfect vehicle. This official style, which combined Indian, western and Middle Eastern architectural elements, was to portray the colonisers as true inheritors of the Mughal rule, their ability to arbitrate superior aesthetic tastes and capability to rule the bewildering groups of Indians.

The government patronisingly pushed and positioned it as the appropriate style. Senate House and Board of Revenue building in the Chepauk Palace are but a few examples.

This style, extensively adopted in Chennai or Madras as it was earlier known, eventually found grand expression in the new capital built in Delhi.

Post-Independence, the Congress government, though feebly, attempted to patronise a distinct architectural style. In 1952, it chose a restrained colonial style, free of any regional features and without any iconic elements to build the legislative Assembly in the government estate. However, when it came to memorials, the Congress preferred religious imageries. The Gandhi Mandapam in Chennai and Gandhi memorial in Kanniyakumari were built like Hindu temples with clear intent to deify. The Rajaji Memorial in Chennai, though built by the DMK government, also continued with such religious symbols — incidentally clearly differentiating Rajaji from other Dravidian leaders.

Adyar vs Marina

That memorials to Rajaji and other nationalist leaders are lumped together beside the Raj Bhavan, far from the popular Marina Beach, is no accident. The memorials and their architecture split the geography of Chennai into the Dravidian Marina and Nationalist Adyar regions.

Gandhi mandapam


 

Since 1967, after the DMK came to power, the Dravidian architecture became the de facto style. The DMK’s ideological matrix included Tamil renaissance and an atheistic worldview. The Tamil past was intelligently reconstructed to suit the party’s political and cultural agenda. An architecture rooted in Tamil history was chosen to propagate it.

Valluvar Kottam in Chennai, the memorial in Poompuhar, other monuments across the State, and statues that dot the streets were stridently symbolic and evoked a Dravidian identity. The exaggerated architecture left nothing to doubt, linking the present with the past.

 

Inspired by the Congress’ attempts to build memorials for nationalist leaders along the Yamuna in Delhi, the DMK set off a memorial mania on the Marina. It began with a modest offering — a simple vertical structure — for former Chief Minister and popular leader Annadurai. Later a monumental archway was added, inscribed with the party symbol of the rising sun. Not to be outdone, during its regime the AIADMK, in the neighbouring memorial dedicated to MGR, made an arch that resembled its party symbol — two leaves.

Valluvar Kottam


 

A significant departure with this style came with the Assembly building constructed on the government estate on Anna Salai by the DMK government in the early years of the new milenium. Of the three shortlisted designs, much to the surprise of many, the government ignored a design that looked like a Tamil palace or Anna Arivayalam, the DMK headquarters.

Instead, the party chose a sternly plain, ‘modern’ building with façade made of swathes of granite and metal screens. Many unfavourably compared this building with a shipping container, and then opposition leader Jayalalitha criticised it as a circus tent.

To the DMK government, which was keen to now represent the global aspirations of Chennai than its regional roots, it was clear that Dravidian architecture would not serve the purpose. It chose a German architectural firm to provide a new icon that was international looking — functional, free of ornamentation and excess sheen.

New turn

When questioned about the lack of Dravidian references in the new building, DMK patriarch Karunanidhi feebly defended the choice by pointing out to the dome and mild floral patterns on the column. It became evident that there was a new architectural turn that linked present to future. True to political form. the Jayalalithaa-led AIADMK government that followed disavowed this architecture and proceeded to construct an auditorium in the same complex in a classical style.

Mix of styles

The difference this time was that the architecture was derived from a strange mix of many historical styles and not just a Tamil past. The building has a surfeit of ornamentation and the plethora of figures on its walls made it appear as a comic strip. Even earlier, the AIADMK government had shown similar inclination. For instance, in 2003, attempts were made to build a legislative complex on Marina and later in Kotturpuram on the lines of the ornate Vidhana Soudhain Bangalore.

Multi-speciality Hospital


 

Given this history, many expected that a memorial for Jayalalithaa would be cast in a variety of historical styles and resplendently adorned. Instead, in its place a curvilinear abstract structure was chosen and named Phoenix after the mythical bird that could repeatedly come back to life from its ashes.

The intention was clear. First, create a spectacle that will outdo the adjacent monuments from previous regimes. Then amplify the story of the Phoenix to infuse a sense of immortality and thus divine status on the memorial. Without such crutches of exaggerated storytelling, the architecture would appear as a confusing empty shell or a severely tangled skeleton.

The desperate hope is that the narrative of the Phoenix would not only rescue the monument, but also the party which sanctioned it. The style may have changed, but not the politics that drives it.

Most of the memorials masquerade as public spaces, but in reality, they encroach and litter urban areas. Alarmed by the land occupied by memorials in Delhi, the Government of India, since 2013 has decided not to build any new memorials on the Yamuna. Instead, it has identified a common place to conduct last rites of Presidents and Prime Ministers and develop a common memorial at the same site.

Chennai too has to adopt a similar policy and protect its public spaces. The money will be well spent if it is invested in improving existing public spaces and creating new ones than wasting on less relevant political memorials.

(The author is a professor at CEPT University, Ahmedabad. The opinions expressed here are personal)

Article source: http://www.thehindu.com/news/national/tamil-nadu/new-memorial-old-politics/article24069656.ece?utm_source=rss_feed&utm_medium=referral&utm_campaign=rss_syndication

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