Next door to history

Now in 3 cities in the world, I have seen the remarkable achievement of modern, dynamic people who sit comfortably with history that is many centuries old.

Walking through the streets of Athens many years ago, I remember being struck by the completely incongruous way in which a 6-month-old cafe would sit next door to a 2000-year-old statue. Every road, every plaza and every corner in the city had at least one relic of Greek history on it. The Greeks are very proud of their history, and I remember making friends with a young Greek man who was a bit of a philosopher, who felt that modern Greece had lost a lot of culture from ancient times – even the Greek language had shrunk since two thousand years ago. But I digress – Athens sits on history, in the midst of history, very comfortably.

London, too. Strolling through the streets of London, you see everywhere the ubiquitous ‘blue circle’ which marks that a person of importance, or an epochal event, happened there. The interesting thing is that though London is full of houses and buildings that have these blue plaques, that does not seem to deter the buildings from being fully functional, and (fairly) well maintained by the people who currently live there. And moreover, these old buildings – history oozing out, almost – sit comfortably side-by-side with modern architecture.

Now in Copenhagen, the same thing: in the center of the city, history – in the form of statues, churches, buildings centuries-old – is everywhere. Walking through the cobbled stones through plazas that seem to have existed forever, one gets the sense of ‘walking through history’ – of being, as it were, in complete harmony with the many generations that lived here many years ago.

And every time I look at these, I regret the shoddy way in which we have treated history in India.

It’s true that many of India’s big cities are new – Madras, for example, is only a couple of hundred years old, and so is Calcutta – both created by the British. That does not mean they have no heritage. But compare, for instance, Delhi – a thousand years of history in one city, no less than the Londns and Romes of the world. Or Madurai. Or Mysore. These are cities that are steeped in history, and you can still see evidence of their historical importance.

And yet, the Heritage movements in India are primitive compared to the rest of the world. Many different people have tried to bring a sense of historicity to the country, but the progress is slow. Every week there are items in the news about old buildings pulled down to build new and characterless structures, train stations, office blocks and hotels. There are even proposals to demolish the stately bungalows in Lutyens’ Delhi and replace them with offices that ‘utilize space more efficiently’. 

We cannot deny the need for space. However, the sadness is that in India there is no thought given to preservation of beauty. It takes very little more money and time to build a beautiful building instead of an ugly one. Why do we never err on the side of beauty? Is it because our architects are completely unequipped to build beautifully? I don’t think so. Perhaps it is because we grow up in the midst of so much ugliness that we have become inured to it, and are completely desensitized to how much a beautiful city to live and work in can improve our appreciation of life and our levels of inspiration. And we penny-pinch; we choose to save a few lakhs of rupees because we do not see the value that beauty has. It takes a trip to beautiful places – even within India – to gain perspective; to understand how helpful it can be; and to give it the priority that it deserves.

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2 thoughts on “Next door to history

  1. I think a lot of us are not proud of our history. We consider ourselves to be a poor country till recently. Most of us have had a far lower standard of living while growing up compared to now: cars, air-conditioning, flying, going abroad… so we are not very proud of our history. As opposed to London which if anything was at its peak a century or two ago. I think the basics need to be in place before we pay attention to other things. I want 24/7 electricity and water, high-speed rail at 400km/hour and metros that link every remote corner of every city….

    Another factor is that given the way things often don’t work here, we preemptively lower our expectations to just have functional buildings (because, face it, our buildings are often not functional — shortage of water, electricity, etc).

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