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Saving A School, Saving The Soul Of A City
Asha Gopinathan writes about her struggle to save the 137 year old school, which is older than the VJT Hall, from vested interests.former teachers include icons such as Ulloor S Parameswara Iyer, Pattom Thanu Pillai and Sahodaran Ayyappan.
On Sep 21, 2017

 

In June 2013, I received an SMS from Tree Walk’s Anitha Sharma. A heritage school called Attakulangara School was under threat. 2.5 acres of their land had been given to TRIDA to build a shopping complex and a bus bay.

I was in Bangalore then. When I returned, I went for a Tree Walk with Anitha’s group in January 2014. This is when I first saw this school cleverly tucked behind the Kovalam bus stop. I had never known that such a gem was hidden inside. In that early morning sunlight, the trees, buildings, dew and yellow flower petals strewn around the campus made me spell bound.


I could not believe that anyone could be stupid enough to want to parcel off that land to build a bus-bay or shopping complex inside it.

Since that walk, I have spent more than four years along with others fighting to get back the land of the school, written a report for the Indian National Trust for Art, Culture and Heritage, got the school a Grade 1 INTACH listing and as part of its heritage revival program, re-started its Kathakali@School program. I interact with the kids routinely. I also made new friends (some new enemies too!).

Participants of the heritage hunt in front of the gabled roof with the Native school 1889 plaque

As the LDF government came to power in June 2016, we (members of the School Samrakshana Samiti) began to see light at the end of the tunnel. We knew that it would only be a matter of months before we could get the land back. And that happened finally in January 2017.

However, in October 2016, without consultation with any of us, the contract to renovate and beautify the school was handed to Ar. Shankar of the Habitat Group. I was shocked.

I protested on two counts – Ar. Shankar had been working for TRIDA and has gone on record saying that, “By rehabilitating traders, the heritage wall from Pazhavangadi to East Fort can be protected and the area could be beautified with proper landscaping. Rehabilitation of traders for the Thakaraparambu flyover has also been planned at the site. I have heard there have been suggestions to develop the site as a biodiversity park. If so, how many people will visit the place?”   He is also not a conservation architect and our project needed the services of someone with those qualifications and expertise. Clearly, he did not stand with the school, the school children, our struggle. Neither did his background fit in.

Then how was he chosen for this project which aimed at doing just the opposite of what he believed in? And who was behind it? I was shouted down at that meeting by many who were attending for the first time and some who felt that we needed to be practical and get the buildings ‘repaired’ soon in order to get more students.

I was silenced and soon withdrew from many activities that I had participated in earlier.

In February 2017 this new project was inaugurated. I watched with skepticism. Slowly, buildings were transformed. Roof tiles were pulled down, exposing the centuries old wood to the elements. Pillars were made more ornate, paint and stones were used. A new building was created. Everyone felt we were on the cusp of a major transformation.


In August, I visited the school after a gap of a few months. To my horror I saw that the contractors had started removing roof tiles from the oldest building in the compound – one that was built in 1889 which carried a board saying Native School 1889.

 

Perfectly fine mat partitioning thrown under trees

This was the jewel in our crown. It is older than the Vetti Murucha Kota and the VJT Hall.

I immediately contacted Shaji Krishnan, Convenor, INTACH, Trivandrum and together we inspected the property. They had removed the doors and windows, started scraping the old lime and paint cover which had protected the building from the elements, had torn off the old partition matting and thrown them under a tree. Within less than a week the grand old lady was reduced to a skeleton of her former self by knocking off all the pillars of the verandahs and the gabled roof. The photographs illustrate what I am saying. This dastardly act was committed as the architect and his technical team, (two retired chief engineers currently working for the DPI) assumed that the building was a danger to the impoverished young kids in the school and had to be torn down and ‘rebuilt’.

Both the photographs depict the same building


This is absolutely untrue. Prof. Eugene Pandala, Co- Convenor, INTACH, Kerala an eminent architect himself, who restored the entire East Fort area, had visited the building and school on several occasions. His office has documented the place. He says that he believes the building could have stood intact for another 400-500 years. Ironically, in another interview in Feb 2017, Ar. Shankar says, “We will follow the Gurukul model with open and semi-open classrooms. The ambience of the school will be retained. The heritage buildings in the campus have not lost their structural stability. Instead of demolishing the structures we will revamp them. If the funds are allotted, the work can be completed in two months.”

INTACH in its citation about granting the Grade 1 status to the school has said:
Buildings / properties in this category are of exceptional national / regional importance with unique features and are the prime landmarks of a city / town. These buildings need to be kept under permanent state of preservation, and can be recommended for protection. Interventions in such structures are to be closely monitored.

Heritage activist, Dr. Binumol Tom has said that the ethics of conservation has been violated totally. From lack of documentation, destruction of historic evidence, breaking the verandah which gave the building its character, not engaging in minimal intervention, what has happened is a case of gross violation of conservation principles.

On September 14, K V Mohankumar, Director, DPI convened a meeting with all stakeholders. It has been decided by them to constitute a committee to look into the problem. INTACH has also decided to constitute a committee chaired by Dr. Binumol Tom to study the structure of the heritage building in order to determine the extent of damage and come to a consensus on how to move forward.

So what needs or can be done now?

We would like to be given a copy of the Technical Committee report recommending the breaking of the school based on which the Habitat Group has allegedly worked. We would also like to know when the Technical Committee was constituted, how many times they visited the school and if they documented it. After that, we want the remaining work to be done under the supervision of competent conservation architects so that we can retrieve whatever is left. We would like the new team and the Govt. to be in constant contact with the Heritage cell of the School Samrakshana Samiti.

We are planning a small museum in part of our restored heritage building which will document the history of the school. Our students will be trained to guide visitors through it. They will be honored to know that they study in a school which was started in 1880 in 5 acres of land donated by Shri. Marthandan Thampi who was also the first Head Master, specifically to educate children from a humble background. The likes of Ulloor Parameswaran Iyer, Sahodaran Ayyappan, Pattom Thanu Pillai have taught here. Our school was the venue of a Kathakali club way back in the 1930s. We were the only school in Trivandrum district where Kathakali was taught from 1975 onwards. Our restored building will be a living testimony to the grand strides in education made in Kerala.

The bleeding soul of this city may heal again.

All photos, Courtesy: Asha Gopinathan

Asha Gopinathan

Asha has been active with the School Samrakshana Samiti for four years and is part of its Heritage Cell.
 
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