Pondi's White Town shows urban eyesores not inevitable

To the west, on the other side of a covered canal, is Black Town, or La Ville Noire, where the natives lived for much of French rule, which ended in 1954.

La Ville Noire is for the most part crowded, dusty and overwhelming. Ugly modern buildings, decked out in tinted glass and neon-bright colours, have taken the place of old tiled houses. Commercial streets are noisy and suffer from unregulated construction.

La Ville Blanche has an altogether different feel. It is dominated by wide, tree-lined boulevards, high-ceilinged villas, and a shady park that extends outside an imposing mansion, the official home of Pondicherry’s lieutenant governor. Commercial development in this part of town is generally understated: small hotels, tasteful boutiques and French restaurants, many operating out of renovated villas.

La Ville Blanche is something of a rarity in the urban landscape of India. Few Indian cities are as attractive or peaceful, and few retain as much of their original character. With a small number of exceptions, most cities are an agglomeration of modern concrete blocks.
In his 1990 book ‘India: A Million Mutinies Now,’ V S Naipaul lamented the neglect of heritage buildings in the country. Modern Indian architecture, he wrote, in his characteristically dyspeptic fashion, “spoils people’s day-to-day lives; it wears down their nerves; it generates rages that can flow into many different channels.” Naipaul was perhaps overstating the case. But there is little doubt that, for a country so proud of its ancient history, Indian cities are strikingly indifferent to the past.

The roots of India’s conservation failures are closely related to some of the other urban ills I’ve written about: outdated building codes, poorly defined lines of municipal authority, and the general pressures of development and urbanisation in a rapidly growing country. These are formidable obstacles.

Still, the example of Pondicherry, which has seen no shortage of commercial and population pressures in recent decades, suggests that the urban eyesores that dominate the country are not inevitable. Although Pondicherry has some features that make it a particular case — its wealthy population, for example, or its relatively small size — its success nonetheless offers a useful case study in urban conservation.

To better understand how Pondicherry has succeeded, I recently paid a visit to Ajit Koujalgi, a co-convenor of the local chapter of Intach, or the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage. Intach has been the driving force behind much of the local conservation work. Seated in his offices, off the central courtyard of a tiled building that Intach had renovated, Koujalgi talked about why Pondicherry looked so different from a typical Indian city.

He emphasised the importance of having a particular group, like Intach, with its own offices and manpower, dedicated to conservation. In many other cities, the efforts of activists and conservationists are dispersed.

Critical to the economy

He emphasised, too, the support that Intach had received from a relatively forward-looking municipal administration. The Pondicherry tourism authorities, in particular, had over the years become convinced that conservation was critical to the town’s economy. They helped finance several conservation projects.

Initially, Koujalgi said, he had been something of a ‘purist’, refusing to countenance the idea of new buildings in heritage sections of town.

Sometime in the mid-1990s, he found out that an old villa was slated for demolition. He fought strenuously to save the villa, but when it came down anyway, to be replaced by a nondescript modern building, Koujalgi came to the conclusion that Intach should have worked with the owner, to help design a new building that would have been consistent with its surroundings.

Now, although Intach tries to preserve as many original buildings as possible, it also does a lot of what he called ‘facade work,’ collaborating with developers to ensure that new buildings do not ‘stick out like sore thumbs.’ Some people — heritage purists — might disagree with this approach. But Koujalgi said it was important to be ‘realistic’. He aimed for “what’s possible within the system.”

Later, after leaving Koujalgi’s office, I had occasion to reflect on the merits of this pragmatic approach. I visited a part of La Ville Blanche, where I had lived as a child almost 30 years ago.

There were a few new buildings, and some did indeed stand out like sore thumbs. Most of what I saw, though, was either recognisable from my youth, or was a reconstruction of the old, with characteristic cornices, high ceilings and bulging metal window grills. Barring a certain gloss, a modern blandness, there was very little to distinguish these new buildings from the genuine article.

The overall impression was of neighbourhoods that, architecturally at least, had changed little over three decades. Pondicherry’s streets, their juxtaposition of old and new notwithstanding, gave off an impression of continuity.

There was something reassuring, almost soothing, about this impression. La Ville Blanche felt coherent. Pondicherry felt rooted. Driving along those streets, I felt a deeper sense of place than in virtually any other city in India.


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