A muted birthday for the Fort

May 27, 2015

As was to be expected, the landmark date of April 23, 2015 came and went with hardly a sound.

celebratory-cover
D.H. Rao’s celebratory cover.

The 375th birthday of Fort St George was a muted affair, with the principal occupants of the Fort – the Government, the Legislature, the Army and the Navy – treating it as a regular working day with not a sign of any celebration. The one bright spot was the event organised by the Archaeological Survey of India. The prime movers behind this too were private enthusiasts and had it not been for them, our Fort would not have had even this low-key commemoration. It shows the kind of importance that is assigned to history and heritage in our State.

That said, it must be placed on record that the event put together by individual enthusiasts and the ASI was a colourful and well planned one. It was held, most appropriately, in the Fort Museum and, most importantly, was brief and began and ended on time. The highlight was the release of a special day cover brought out by the Madras Heritage Lovers’ Forum led by D.H. Rao, who is also fighting to bring focus on the much neglected Buckingham Canal.

The cover, featured on front page, depicts an early map of the city with a superimposed picture of the first building in the Fort – the domed structure that was once Governor’s House and much else. This was later pulled down and a second Governor’s House built which absorbed forever within the confines of the Assembly building and Secretariat. The cover released by Dr. S. Suresh, Convenor, INTACH Tamil Nadu chapter. Dr. K. Lourdusamy, Superintending Archaeologist, Chennai Circle, and K. Moortheeswari, Deputy Superintending Archaeologist, Museum Branch, Southern Region, ASI, received it. The event had Vincent D’Souza of Mylapore Times as compere.

In his speech, Dr. Suresh spoke of how the history of Chennai/Madras stretches far beyond the founding of Fort St George. Terming Chennai as a classic site for prehistoric settlements, he traced some of the locations – Pallavaram, Kilpauk and Egmore – where excavations in the past have revealed Palaeolithic vestiges. He added to the city’s long list of firsts – apparently the first Palaeolithic evidence in the whole of Asia was found in Madras in the 1860s.

It was in the speeches of Dr. Lourdusamy and K. Moortheeswari that some of the highlights of the Fort Museum came to the fore. Did you know, for instance, that the only surviving flag among the thousands unfurled all over the country on August 15, 1947 is now preserved in the Museum? This was discovered in a fairly tattered state but wise heads decided to treasure it. The Museum has also taken efforts to become interactive with a special focus on children. A children’s corner has interactive audiovisual facilities for them. A bigger attraction is the ability to swivel a cannon on its pivot. Still more popular is the talking cannon, which tells them in simple words the way these tools of war were operated.

The Museum has also done some commendable work using augmented reality techniques. Thus, by holding a small palm device in front of a screen, visitors can see close-ups of coins and stamps that are in the collection. The details that are visible would otherwise put a great strain on the eye. To commemorate the Fort’s 375th birthday, the ASI also released a digitised version of all the aquatints of William and Thomas Daniells that are in its possession.

If all this was possible by just one agency, imagine what could have been done if all the other occupants of the Fort had joined in? Hopefully, better sense will prevail by the 400th birthday.

For those who are interested – the Special Day Covers can be purchased from D.H. Rao at Rs. 50 each. Contact 9840870172

You may want to read these other articles on Fort St George
The Topography

The Flagstaff

Know Fort St George -3, The Sea Gate

The Sorry State of Fort St George

Stepping into Fort St George

The Fort where it all began

Know Fort St George – 3, The Sea Gate

May 25, 2015

This article, which focuses on the Sea Gate of Fort St George, is the third in a series of 26 articles to commemorate 375 years of the Fort. To read the earlier part, click here

To most casual visitors to the Fort today, the principal entrances are the two ornate gates, one for entry and the other for exiting, that flank the Great Bastion on which the flagstaff stands. These gates, though their granite posts give an impression of a respectable antiquity, are relatively new, dating at the most to the 1930s. The pair is often erroneously referred to as the Sea Gates of the Fort and nothing could be more inaccurate than that.

The South Sea Gate

The South Sea Gate

The original Sea Gates still survive, though they are blocked up and have sunk far below the level of the road. But the observant visitor can still locate them. You need to begin your search standing in front of the Great Bastion that supports the flagstaff. Walk either to your left or right, keeping a sharp eye on the base of the bastion, as it rises from the moat. You will notice a rectangular archway, blocked up completely but whose original lintel of black granite is still visible. A pair to this is on the other side of the bastion and the two were in their time known as the North and South Sea Gates. Standing in front of them, two things strike you – firstly the road level has risen tremendously since the time these gates were used and secondly, the sea has receded a great distance from the Fort.

The Sea Gate is one feature of the Fort about which there are continuous references from the 1640s. Originally, when the Fort was nothing more than a small enclosure, there was an entrance gate from the eastern side. As the Fort expanded and the original enclosure became Fort House, the core of which is hidden inside the Assembly complex, the new outer eastern wall ran parallel to the sea. There was no Great Bastion then and the rampart was a straight line. An arched gateway was cut into this wall giving easy access to the sea via a sandy strip that was no more than 500 metres in length. This entrance came to be referred to as the Sea Gate. Thus, in its first iteration, it was nothing more than a simple narrow archway.

The outer wall of the Fort was first planned and executed by Agent Henry Greenhill in 1657 or thereabouts and so the first Sea Gate is also attributed to him. In his time it also appears to have been known as the Water Gate for two reasons – the first, its proximity to the sea and the second, because fresh water was delivered from the Fort, for a fee, to ships waiting in Madras Roads.As the Fort grew in numbers and activity, the Sea Gate became increasingly congested. In 1678 we have Governor Streynsham Master petitioning the East India Company for permission and funds to carry out repair and expansion works at the Fort and one of these items was the widening of the Sea Gate for it was “all too little and streight for the passage of people, goods and cattle.” This was presumably acceded to, for the next we hear of the Sea Gate is in 1695 when, fearing a French invasion, Governor Elihu Yale had a laterite gun platform erected in front of it. This was, however, a short-lived structure for, in November 1696, there was a great rising of the sea and the platform was washed away.

The Sea Gate also played a vital role in the commerce of the Fort. This was where the office of the Sea Customer was located and that high official collected duties on all goods coming by ship. Assisting him was a whole host of lesser officials and two among them, interestingly, were the Upper and Under Searchers. These officials were presumably responsible for thoroughly inspecting boxes and packages to ensure that everything was declared and nothing contraband was smuggled in. Given that this was where the goods arrived, the Sea Gate was also the meeting point for merchants in the Fort. In 1718, Alexander Hamilton, a merchant and commander of several ships, wrote an account of Madras. He notes that the Sea Gate was very spacious and “was formerly the common Exchange, where Merchants of all Nations resorted about eleven a Clock to treat of Business in Merchandize; but that Custom is out of Fashion and the Consultation Chamber, or the Governor’s Apartment serves for that Use now.” The Sea Gate being a meeting point of sorts, this was where auctions were conducted on a regular basis. The goods could vary – from the Company’s ‘broadcloth’ to the latest consignment of Madeira wine or the effects of a recently deceased official. The Sea Gate was also where the important announcements were made and notices put up.

By 1736, during the gubernatorial tenure of George Morton Pitt, terraced godowns spanning 130 feet had come up on either side of the Sea Gate. Those on the southern side were the Saltpetre Godown and the Sea Customer’s Warehouse while the northern side housed the offices of the Storekeeper and Warehousekeeper. A weighing room stood next to the Sea Gate.Pitt also authorised, without permission from London, the expenditure of 1600 pagodas for the construction of a colonnaded walkway from the Sea Gate to Fort Square. Thirty-two columns of black Pallavaram gneiss were put up in two rows and the space between them served as the Exchange referred to by Hamilton. These columns had quite a chequered history before they were permanently embedded in the verandah of the Assembly buildings constructed in 1910. That is a story for a later article in this series.

The flagstaff portrayed by William Daniells in 1793

The flagstaff portrayed by William Daniells in 1793

Thos painting of William Daniell dating to 1793 clearly shows the colonnaded walkway on one side of the Sea Gate. On coming to know of this construction the Board of Directors in England were furious but there was little they could do about it.

Detail showing the Sea Gate from Scott & Lambert, 1780

Detail showing the Sea Gate from Scott & Lambert, 1780

By 1779, as we saw earlier, major construction work was embarked upon at the Fort with a view to enhancing its security. The new eastern front, which was slightly closer to the sea than the old wall, was built with an indented line so that the enemy could not see the entire massing of troops, which would be the case if the wall had been a straight line. The centre now jutted out as the Great Bastion, or trenaillon to give its correct name. The resulting triangular base meant that the Sea Gate below it had to be divided into two. These became the northern and southern Sea Gates. What is interesting, however, is that a French map of 1749 shows the Sea Gate already divided into two. This was when Madras was under French occupation. The French also built a battery fronting the Sea Gate but this was demolished by the British once they returned to the Fort in 1749. Perhaps the British once again restored the Sea Gate to one entranceway and, later in the 1770s, divided it a second time. As part of the reconstruction activity, the warehouses abutting the Sea Gate became boutique stores for the officers of the Fort. These were done away with in the 1800s.

By the 1790s the Fort and the Sea Gates were bursting at their seams. The office of the Sea Customer was shifted to the open beach where it operated from tents. It was in vain that James Call, the Sea Customer, complained to Governor Edward Clive, the Second Lord Clive, about the servants suffering from the extreme heat and the sand that blew over the greater part of the merchandise. This exposure was to eventually cause his death in 1799. By the next year the office of Sea Customer had shifted to a disused granary on what would eventually become First Line Beach. With the harbour coming up opposite this new location, the sea began to recede from the Fort and with that much of the importance of the Sea Gate also diminished.

In the 1930s, with cars coming in greater frequency to the Fort, the old Sea Gates caused congestion. The handsome granite posted gates that are now in use were put up on the ramparts. That necessitated the building of a ramp, which in turn hid the old Sea Gates from view. However, they remained in operation till World War II when, being deemed security risks, their wooden doors were walled up forever. These have since been removed and the entrance archways cemented over.

You may be interested in the following articles on Fort St George:

Know Fort St George Series

The Topography

The Flagstaff

The Fort at 375!

The Sorry State of Fort St George

Stepping into Fort St George

The Fort where it all began

Hidden histories The mystery of the Sethupathi – The Hindu

May 23, 2015

Earlier this week, I gave a talk at the Madras Book Club on the books written on Fort St George. At the end of it, V. Rajanarayanan, one of the regulars, asked why I did not mention that Muthuramalinga Sethupathi, the ruler of Ramanathapuram, was interned at the Fort and died there also. This was news to me. None of the books I had read even mentioned it. Back home, I searched for whatever ‘native sources’ I had, and found the answer.

The circumstances of the arrest do not show the British in good light and that probably accounts for their silence. Muthuramalinga Vijaya Raghunatha Sethupathi became the ruler of Ramanathapuram estate in 1762, his nominal superior being the Nawab of Arcot. In 1795, following an arrangement with the Nawab, the East India Company took over the entire southern region, including Ramanathapuram. It immediately had Muthuramalinga arrested, for no apparent reason other than that he had a “disposition to rebel against the Government”. He was kept in Fort St George, till his passing in 1801. In the meanwhile, a legal battle for succession broke out between his sister Mangaleswari and the representatives of his infant daughter Sivakami. The Company decided very craftily in favour of the sister “as she was an aged woman and not likely to have children”.

Muthuramalinga Sethupathi was not alone in his incarceration. Keeping him company was Velayudha Naiker, the Raja of Palani, who too was arrested on charges that would not stand up to much scrutiny. Based on a complaint filed in the Zillah court at Madurai by his nephew that he had joint rights to the estate, the East India Company sent a force in 1795. The Raja, who was just 27 years of age, was arrested and shipped to Fort St George, where he was lodged in the same prison as the Sethupathi. His estate was seized by the Company, which gave his family a pension of fifty star pagodas. He died on January 9, 1808, whereupon the pension to his family was reduced to 30 pagodas, albeit with a promise that when his adopted son attained maturity, the estate would be handed over to him.

This, of course, was never done and the pension was reduced further to 20 pagodas a month from 1826. The amount was never paid regularly and the family was soon in great distress. The Rani sent a petition through her vakil to Madras, where it became “one of the ten thousand cases of complaint which certainly ought to be investigated”. In such ways was the empire forged (pun intended). It is interesting to note that at the time the Sethupathi and the Raja were in Fort St George, two of Tipu Sultan’s sons were also here, having been taken hostage by Lord Cornwallis after the third Mysore war of 1792.

Where were all these prisoners lodged inside the Fort? That is a mystery I am unable to resolve.This article appeared in The Hindu under the Hidden Histories column on May 23, 2015

Hidden histories The mystery of the Sethupathi – The Hindu.

An overkill in the name of beautification

May 18, 2015

How would you classify the beach road aka Kamaraj Salai? Well kept is what we would consider it. A broad walkway on one side that affords a wonderful view of the sea and, beyond it, the harbour, and, on the other, a slightly narrower footpath, walking on which you get a close look at some of the best heritage buildings in the city. Yet, our Government, no matter who is in power, considers this not enough and wastes enormous sums in unnecessary additions to the beach, none of which would strictly qualify as beautification. This is nothing but a waste of public money that could be spent elsewhere.

In the past, we have railed (mostly fruitlessly, we must admit) about the rockery, the artificial fountain and the gazebo. Now we see yet another useless activity in progress – demolition of the compound wall of all the buildings on the western side, to be replaced by identical replicas. Now this would have been a commendable plan had the original wall been weak or was maintained poorly. But such was not the case. The common compound wall featuring squat pillars at intervals, each bearing a bronze rosette, had been laid at the beginning of the last century and had survived more or less intact. It is true that in some places the pillars had sunk below road level but all that had to be done was to extract them and put them up on new foundations. This could have been achieved at a fraction of the current planned expense of Rs. 33 crore.

But that was not acceptable to our city’s civic fathers. New granite pillars had to replace the old ones and all of them had to be redone. What is forgotten in all this is that heritage conservation is not just replacing old designs with replicas; we need to reuse the older material as well. That has been completely overlooked in the present case.

What is worse is that the replacement has been embarked upon without the consent of the stakeholders – namely the twelve Government institutions along that stretch of the road. This became evident when letters were delivered to all of them intimating them about the proposed work. The University of Madras has rejected the idea claiming that its compound wall forms a part of its heritage and so cannot be tampered with by any other agency. Given that this institution has a middling record at best when it comes to preserving its heritage, this comes as a bit of a pleasant surprise. Sources aver that the University was keen on protecting the sesquicentennial commemorative arch (another unnecessary addition and not in keeping with the prevalent architecture in the area) unveiled in 2013 and came up with this imaginative reply.

In the event, it would appear that the University is the odd man out. Even its former constituent, Presidency College, has consented to the change as have all the other institutions on the road. But given that the University is probably the biggest landowner along this stretch, it makes you wonder as to what price the Corporation’s plan for a uniform compound wall if the university doesn’t agree.

As of now, the Corporation has begun demolition of the compound walls of the rest of the buildings. It has announced that it will be completing the new compound wall by June this year.

Also on the anvil is the paving of the footpath along the wall with granite, so that it matches the walkway on the eastern side. Considering that this stretch is the favourite for all those wanting to erect banners, flex boards and hoardings to impress VIPs who pass by, it is anybody’s guess as to how long the granite paving will last. But by then it will be time for another beautification anyway.

This article appeared in the Madras Musings issue dated May 1, 2015

His name is Khan

May 15, 2015
Jaan-e-Jahan Khan Road, Triplicane

Jaan-e-Jahan Khan Road, Triplicane

John, Jani Janardhan…

This was the first thought that came to my mind as I crossed this road which connects Peters Road in Royapettah to Bharati Salai (Pycrofts Road) in Tiruvallikeni. Had they decided to name a street partly after the 1984 Hindi film in which our very own superstar Rajinikanth played a triple role? Not so, said the voice of sanity, for I had heard photographer and documentary film maker S Anwar speak of this thoroughfare. He had informed me, it was where several tawaifs — the Muslim courtesans, lived.

Now for the name — it is not Jani John Khan but Jaan-e-Jahan Khan. Ironically, considering that it is the Corporation that has made such a goof up, the thoroughfare commemorates one of the respected 19th century Honorary Municipal Commissioners of our city. He was the descendant of an aristocratic Muslim family that claimed close ties with the Nawabs of Arcot, his father Khan-e-Alam Khan being a powerful grandee at court. Jaan-e-Jahan Khan was secretary to Prince Azim Jah and played an important role in the 1857/8 correspondences between his master and the British Government that finally ended in the former being given the honorary title of Prince of Arcot and a permanent pension.

Both Khan-e-Alam Khan and Jaan-e-Jahan Khan were scholars who respected other faiths. When the American Unitarian Association planned to set up a mission in Madras, its first preachers, the Rev. William Roberts and Rev. CT Brooks were welcomed by the Khans. They read Unitarian literature, satisfied themselves as to the noble intentions of the mission and sent its American headquarters a letter assuring it of all help. This missive, dated April 10, 1854 bears the address Royapettah, thereby indicating that the Khan residence was in that area. An 1877 Madras Corporation listing of printing presses in the city gives the name of this thoroughfare as Janay Jahan Khan’s Road — the apostrophe indicating without doubt that he lived in this street and that it was named after him when he (presumably) died in 1875 or so. He was an Honorary Municipal Commissioner of the Corporation of Madras between 1865 and 1875.

Such was the man whose name is now mangled beyond recognition!

This article appeared in The Hindu under the Hidden Histories column on May 16, 2015

Chennai’s Mixing Water Supply and Sewerage Board (CMWSSB)

May 13, 2015

The Man from Madras Musings often chuckles at the thought that water supply and sewage are combined in most Indian cities. Chennai is no exception and these onerous twin responsibilities are handled by the organisation that rejoices in the name of CMWSSB – Chennai Metropolitan Water Supply and Sewerage Board. Every once in a while, this organisation reminds us humble denizens that it takes care of both these liquid forms by mixing them up. And so it came about that early one morning MMM had just stepped into his bath along with his pet duck and other important accessories when he realised that all was not well with the bathwater. In simple words, it stank to the high heavens.

MMM and family then made enquiries among the neighbours, many of whom replied rather unconcernedly that they too had smelt the odour but what could be done? These were difficult times, said a couple of them, and we need to accept it. Not so, felt members of MMM’s household, and off went a couple of the more energetic ones to lodge a complaint. The concerned official, or, since we are referring to the Government here, shall we say appropriate authority (AA), was not in his seat and so the registering process took quite a while. But when it happened, the AA was not in the least perturbed. Such occurrences, the AA implied by his demeanour, were commonplace and scarcely merited a notice. If he had been Marcus Aurelius he may have added that the befalling of such an aught was a good thing and was meant to make us more spiritual. But to do him credit, he did not temporise but promised action. He also informed the complainant that the mixing of the water and the sewage had happened three days earlier and had since been detected and stopped.

Back home all this led to much emptying of water tank and sump and then the cleaning of both before (presumably) fresh and (supposedly) clean water was let in. A couple of relatives from abroad who call daily thanks to the proliferation of free channels of communication wanted to know if MMM could sue. The least that the AA could have done, they opined, was to inform all the residents of the locality as soon as the contamination occurred so that they could have taken suitable precautions. A good lawyer, they felt, could bring in a claim for substantial amounts on the grounds that MMM and neighbourhood had been exposed to the risk of cholera, typhoid and jaundice, not to mention glandular botts and a whole host of other illnesses.

MMM was tempted for a moment. Then he reflected on the number of years it may take for a judgement to be given and decided to abandon the idea.

Know Fort St George – 2, The Flagstaff

May 11, 2015

The second part of a series of 25 articles on Fort St George, to commemorate its 375 years.

The Fort, as seen from Rajaji Salai

The Fort, as seen from Rajaji Salai

Part 1 can be read here

One of the distinctive features of Fort St. George is its flag-staff, its immense height of 148 feet towering over the rest of the mostly low topography. In fact, it is one of the tallest flagstaffs in the whole country.

The flagstaff portrayed by William Daniells in 1793

The flagstaff portrayed by William Daniells in 1793

The Fort by William Daniells showing c.1833 flagstaff (Courtesy: Madras Chamber of Commerce and Industry collection).

The original teak mast stood erect from 1688 till 1994 when it made way for a steel replica. The origins of the monumental teak beam are rather hazy. The story agreed upon is that it was the mast of a ship that sank off Madras in the 1680s. The beam was stored in Fort St. George and came in handy in 1687 when Elihu Yale took over as Governor. Permission was received from King James II of England for Fort St George “to wear his colours”, which meant that the King’s flag could be flown from the ramparts. The Fort’s Diary and Consultation Book for 1688 has it that “the Garrison and Train’D Bands are therefore order’d to bee in Arms and the Chief Inhabitants of all Nations invited to the solemnity.”

The event took place on June 12, 1688 when, it is recorded, the Governor made a “handsome collation upon the Fort House Tarrass”. The garrison and trained bands comprising 100 English men marched around the Fort while the Governor and Council, the free merchants, the important natives of Madras and representatives of other nationalities gathered at what was known as the English bastion of the Fort. This no longer exists, but it formed the southeastern corner of the old Fort which, as we saw in the last instalment, was then nothing more than the Fort House and a little more.

The teak beam was erected to form the flagstaff and Yale hoisted the Union Jack on it. He then “opened a glass of Toby” and asked everyone to drink to “our Gracious King’s health & Royall families & his happy long reigne”. The soldiers, who were “as merry as Punch could make them” shouted their hurrahs and the guns boomed 31 salutes for the king, 21 for the East India Company and 19 for Sir Josiah Child, the domineering Governor of the East India Company who sat in distant England but kept a sharp eye on what was happening in Madras. The ships in the roadstead answered the salute and it must have been a noisy evening.

H.D. Love in Vestiges of Old Madras thinks that the clerk who documented the evening may have erroneously written ‘toddy’ as ‘toby’. But what is interesting is that Yale University has a tradition of ‘Elihu Yale Toby mugs’, which are all made in the profile of the former Governor of Madras. First modelled in 1933 by Prof Robert G. Eberhard of the Sculpture Department of the University, these have since been in production. Mugs from the original batch, brought out by Josiah Wedgwood, are now collectors’ items!

But to get back to the flagstaff, it has never been properly established as to when it made the shift from the English bastion to the centre of the eastern face of the Fort. In 1697 it was where Yale had installed it. “On the south east point is the standard” wrote Dr. John Fryer that year in his account of the Fort. Sometime later, it shifted to the Parade or Fort Square. By the 1780s, it appears to have made it to the eastern face of the Fort. Even then, it appears to have moved a couple of times. A painting by F.S. Ward (Fort St. George, looking from the North West Curtain towards the St. Thomas Gate) done in 1785 shows it pretty much where it is now, but another painting by William Daniell in 1793 shows it at the southeast corner of the fully constructed Fort, above the St. Thomas bastion. By the early 1800s, it had definitely made it back to the ‘Great Bulwark’ above the Sea Gate where it remains.

For three years, 1746 to 1749, when the French occupied Madras, their flag flew from this post. According to Mrs Frank Penny in her Fort St George, Story of Our First Possession in India, when Madras was returned to the English in November 1749, their first act was to lower the French flag and raise the Union Jack on the flagstaff. By 1801, it was such a symbol of Madras that when the Marquis of Wellesley, then Governor General of India, commissioned a portrait of himself to commemorate the British victory over Tipu Sultan, he was depicted seated in a pillared verandah with the Fort St George flagstaff in the background.

What is a wonder is that the flagstaff endured for so long and survived bombardment by the French from the sea in 1746 and 1758. The second attack was the more vicious, when not a single building in the Fort was spared. The flagstaff having then been within Fort Square must have afforded it some protection. Perhaps its sheer staying power created a legend that was most popular in the early 20th Century, according to Lt. Col. D.M. Reid. He notes in his Story of Fort St George that the troops believed that “a ship was blown up the beach in a great storm, and had one mast remaining upright. The mast was used temporarily for signals and was so useful that it was left there and was built over, and today, under the masonry, the old ship sleeps in her solid foundation.” But as to whether it survived in one piece is not certain. Records of a cyclone on May 8, 1820 have it that the upper part of the flagstaff was carried away along with the signalling crew. That regular repairs were carried out is evident from House of Commons papers from the 19th Century. “Tarring the rigging” of the flagstaff was a routine expenditure.

The morning of January 26, 1932 saw considerable commotion around the tarred rigging. Arya Bhashyam, a freedom fighter, had shinned up the ropes, climbed the 148 feet, torn down the Union Jack and hoisted the Indian tricolour. He was arrested when he descended and on refusing to express regret for what he had done was sentenced to rigorous imprisonment. Bhashyam would, after Independence, refuse the pension awarded to him as a freedom fighter and eke out his life doing portraits of Subramania Bharati and sculpting statues and busts of Mahatma Gandhi. The official portrait of Bharati with the handlebar moustache is his and some of his works adorn the Tamil Nadu legislature.

On August 15, 1947, the Indian national flag was hoisted on the flagstaff at 5.30 am. The flag unfurled that day is now a treasured possession of the Fort Museum, displayed in the third floor. It is the only surviving flag among the countless ones hoisted across the entire country that day. But what had survived wind, weather and war, could not escape the clumsy removal in 1994 to make way for the steel replica. The wooden mast had to be cut to pieces and is now confined to some unknown yard in the Fort. It would perhaps have been more appropriate if the old teak beam had been preserved in entirety and erected elsewhere in the Fort with protection from the elements. What a sight it would have been!

To read part 3, click here

You may want to read the following stories on Fort St George:

The Fort at 375!

The Sorry State of Fort St George

Stepping into Fort St George

The Fort where it all began

Hidden Histories column Mahatma in Madras – The Hindu

May 8, 2015

Hidden Histories column Mahatma in Madras – The Hindu.

The Madras Ark

May 6, 2015

This article is dedicated to all the Vidya Mandir teachers – Leela Sampathkumar, Saraswathi (Amma), Gomathi, Alamelu Gopalan, Kanaka and others who taught the Man from Madras Musings some of the songs referred to in this article. It is also dedicated to the LKG batch of 1969 who sang along, and as they did not know much English then, made up the lyrics as they deemed best.

”The Lord said to Noah there’s going to be a floody floody” thus began a song that The Man from Madras Musings learnt when he was a young cherub. He remembers singing it along with several other tiny tots even as a school marm played the piano. And the song came rather spontaneously to MMM’s mind the other day when it rained.

In the case of Noah, as MMM is sure most of his readers remember, the rain lasted forty days (fo-orty daisy daisy, as the song went for some reason) and everything became so muddy muddy (refrain – Children of the Lord). In Chennai, the rainwater, as you know, stagnates mainly in the plain. Not that there is much plain, what with the high plinths of multi-storey buildings, the deep excavations of the Metro rail, and the perennial road cuts done by the Electricity Department which in this regard is perpetually in a battle of one-upmanship with the Water Supply and Sewerage Board. Add to this the sand mounds created by construction activity and you have what geographers refer to as a land of high relief. No wonder the water charts its own course until evaporation removes it. And, so, at the end of the brief shower, everything was as muddy as in Noah’s time.

To get back to the rains – the animals in Noah’s time, if you recall another song, went in orderly rows of two by two, led by the elephant and the kangaroo. But the bipeds of Chennai chart their own rules. Never the most law-abiding when on the roads, they become firm adherents of laissez faire once it rains. To each one’s own, they declare, and rush in all directions. Suddenly lanes where everyone was going in three by three like the wasp, the ant and the bumblebee, becomes four by four resulting in a great hippopotamus getting stuck at the door, by which MMM alludes to those massive private vehicles referred to as SUVs which get by only on the power of their horn. Traffic snarls and accidents are the general result and it often makes MMM wonder as to why and how Chennai’s accident roster is not longer than what it is.

Father Noah who was a famous man, from what MMM remembers of yet another song from his (by which MMM alludes to his own and not Noah’s) childhood, settled down beneath the rainbow’s end. Later, MMM came to know that this meant Mount Ararat. The day it rained this was also perhaps what a minibus driver had on his mind. Having decided that he had to get to rainbow’s end as soon as possible, he raced over a flyover, shot over the boundary wall and landed his vehicle on the Metro rail construction below, from where it dangled for quite some time before a crane arrived to remove it. This caused another traffic build up chiefly because this became one of the sights of the city, with every man and woman wanting to take a look. It was a wonder that the Corporation did not sell tickets for viewing the suspended vehicle from which all passengers luckily escaped unscathed.

A lady whom MMM knows was catching an international flight the day it rained. Having reached the airport she was informed that departure was delayed by at least five hours. She decided to summon her vehicle back so that she could go home and return at the appropriate time. But what with all the chaos caused by the bus and its shenanigans the vehicle took two hours to reach home. And once there, it was time to leave for the airport again! Such things happen only in Chennai. When the animals began going eight by eight, Noah, if MMM remembers correctly, worried that the weight was too great. The same situation prevails here – our city, like Noah’s ark, is bursting at it seams and only God can give us a way out of the present mess.

The flagstaff and the freedom fighter

May 2, 2015
The Fort, as seen from Rajaji Salai

The Fort, as seen from Rajaji Salai

Fort St. George turned 375 last week. My favourite anecdote about the place has to do with a small but significant event connecting its flagstaff to our freedom struggle.

Today it is a steel replica, but until 1994, what stood here was a teak beam. Rising to a height of 148 feet, it was considered the tallest flag post in the country. Salvaged from a shipwreck in 1687, it was used by Governor Elihu Yale for unfurling the Union Jack the subsequent year. The Indian tricolour was hoisted on it on August 15, 1947.

But that was not the first time the flagstaff had sported the Indian flag. It had done so for a brief while on January 26, 1932, thanks to ‘Arya’ K. Bhashyam, a freedom fighter. This may not be a well-recognised name today, but in his time he was a livewire, organising flash stirs against foreign rule and burning foreign goods in public. In her biography Naan Kanda Bharatham, S. Ambujammal writes that Bhashyam had a Bachelor of Arts Degree from the University of Madras but had become a freedom activist from 1920 or so.

Bhashyam’s activities were not to the liking of his aristocratic family. His uncle was Sir N. Gopalaswami Aiyangar, of the Madras Civil Service, later Dewan of Kashmir, and still later, the Railway Minister of free India. Bhashyam’s brother Sadagopan was a senior officer in the South Indian Railway. Their displeasure, however, had no effect, and on January 26, 1932, he committed an act of unparalleled daring. When it was still dark, Bhashyam climbed the ramparts of Fort St. George, and having shinned his way up the riggings of the flagstaff, managed to reach the top. There, he unfurled the Indian tricolour that he had brought along.

All this activity had not passed unnoticed and a considerable police force had assembled at the base waiting for his descent. Bhashyam made his way down and halfway through, jumped on the policemen thereby injuring a few. In the ensuing scuffle, he also managed to thrash a few of them before being arrested. In court, Bhashyam refused to tender any apology and was sentenced to rigorous imprisonment. It was not the first and it would definitely not be his last tenure as a guest of the State.

Post independence, Bhashyam refused the pension to which he was entitled as a freedom fighter. He eked out a living painting portraits of his idols — Subramania Bharati and Mahatma Gandhi, all of which he signed as Arya. The best-known depiction of the poet, with handlebar moustache and turban, is his. He also sculpted busts and statues of Gandhi and one of these is present at Thakkar Bapa Vidyalaya. His statue of S. Satyamurti stands at Ripon Buildings.

Bhashyam passed away in 1999 at the age of 93. If we had any sense of history, we would have a plaque in his honour next to the flagstaff inside the Fort.This article appeared in The Hindu dated May 2, 2015, under the Hidden Histories column.

Other articles on Fort St George

Know Your Fort – Part 1 – Its Topography

Why not give the Fort its due?

The Fort at 375!

The sorry state of Fort St George

Stepping into Fort St George

The Fort where it all began


Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 3,746 other followers

%d bloggers like this: