In India, the mid-1990s were marked by a new emphasis on heritage—that is, on how the country's past should be remembered and represented. Three developments hastened this focus on heritage, according to Mary E. Hancock, speaking at a November 6 book launch organized by the Asia Program and cosponsored by the Comparative Urban Studies Project. One was the 50th anniversary in 1997 of India's independence—a milestone that amplified the "problem of memory." A second factor was the resurgence of Hindu nationalism, which sparked debates about "whose heritage counted." Finally, the mid-1990s were years of political and economic "realignments," which triggered a rash of decentralizations and deregulations.

This last factor raises one of the broad questions of Hancock's new book, The Politics of Heritage from Madras to Chennai: What are the political/social/economic roles played by culture—of which heritage is a major component—in an environment of deregulation? Hancock's book features a variety of case studies ranging from tourism and political memorials to museums, cultural centers, and historical preservation initiatives. Her November 6 presentation focused on conservation architecture, or the use of traditional building design. As with all the case studies in her book, this one is taken from the southern Indian city of Chennai.

Why Chennai? Hancock explained that since the mid-1990s, it has undergone striking economic and urban transformations. This city—which changed its official name from Madras to Chennai in 1996 to recapture its precolonial past—is becoming a center for India's new economy of information technology, biotechnology, export processing, and services. As a result, services and retail centers—from malls to "multi-story commercial buildings"—have proliferated across the city, and commercial space has expanded immensely. To accommodate this new growth, roads are being widened—often "abolishing" traditional urban architecture in the process. Significantly, this growth has also caused an inflow of laborers from rural areas, which in turn has prompted government authorities to encourage the city's poor to migrate to the suburbs.

One such suburb is Kuthambakkam, located 30 kilometers west of Chennai, and, in Hancock's words, a "poster child" for rural development. In 1996, in a reflection of the decentralizing spirit of the time, this village was given a mandate to govern itself. Soon thereafter, Kuthambakkam decided to construct a housing project with "traditional rural architecture." The village council president opted to use "Gandhian models" of architecture: all construction materials were obtained from within a few kilometers of the building site; the housing project's architects both designed and built the edifice; and—most significantly—architects taught residents how to build so that the latter could participate in the construction as well.

The housing project was completed in 2000. According to Hancock, it has been a major success. The new structure has stimulated a variety of economic activity across the village, from low-cost toilet production to the establishment of a new bakery. In 2005, the Kuthambakkam housing project received a World Habitat award, which recognizes efforts that "provide practical and innovative solutions" to housing needs and problems. Today, this conservationist approach—also known as "cost-effective architecture"—has grown in popularity across Chennai, including among the city's middle and upper classes.

What can be learned from this example of conservation architecture? According to Hancock, it says something about the "diversity" of heritage projects. Such efforts need not simply be memorials or museums, but can also be "an embedded practice" that functions as "a form of memory." Indeed, the Kuthambakkam case is one that "commemorates Gandhi through pedagogy."

Drafted by Michael Kugelman, Asia Program Associate
Robert M. Hathaway, Director, Asia Program, Ph: (202) 691-4020