The ownership and manner of use of built heritage brings out intense emotion among people. This is true whether the heritage belongs to society at large or even when it is owned by private parties as evocatively shown in the popular film, Gulabo Sitabo. Meha Mathur’s maiden book, Preserving the Past: Approaches to Built Heritage Conservation since the British Rule is a subject of contemporary interest. The book in 14 chapters covers a wide canvas, with 38 pictures in black and white of the various heritage sites discussed in it. The book ranges from the period before the British arrived in India, the colonial period and the struggles for preserving and conserving heritage which are taking place in India. The author takes the reader on a veritable heritage tour from the mountains of Shimla and Nainital to the metros of Delhi, Kolkata, Bengaluru, Hyderabad and Mumbai where heritage preservation efforts have been decided in courts with mixed outcomes. The book discusses the law, important legal cases and makes recommendations for saving heritage. Historian Swapna Liddle in her endorsement states that the book reveals the very concept of heritage as a highly contested field where governments and law courts play a crucial role, for good or evil.
The book seeks to understand whether built heritage conservation has been given due importance, the sentiments attached to heritage and the need for preservation in India. A heritage building provides a juxtaposition with the present, or alternatively a site which indicates a continuity with the past and a reference point to look beyond. Built heritage reflects the stage of town planning and environment of the times. Heritage preservation has been the subject of opposing views where on the one hand, laws have been passed and treatises written on reasons and ways to protect monuments. On the other, people in power, Popes, rulers, Governors and even architects have had no qualms in razing whole structures to the ground.
The book begins by tracing the history of built heritage. The ancient text Manasara includes a compilation of Shilpa Shastra and Vastu Shastra with treatises on layouts and buildings. It does not deal with conservation methods of heritage structures and hence it can be inferred that the subject was not important at that time. During medieval India, the restoration of water bodies has been recorded but not of built structures.