There was a time when Shimla held the record for the maximum number of heritage buildings burnt down. The excuse given there was that the structures were largely of timber and so this was bound to happen. Now it would appear that Chennai is giving the erstwhile summer capital some tough competition. The fire in the State Bank of India (SBI) building on Rajaji Salai (First Line Beach) is the latest in a series that stretches back to the 1980s. Most of them have had only one reason – poor maintenance, something that could have easily been avoided.
The fire at the State Bank building was quickly put out – but not before a part of a floor caved in. It is understood that experts from the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) have been called in to assess the damage. What is heartening is that the Bank has not announced any decision to demolish, and is most likely to restore, the structure. The SBI has had a fairly good track record of conserving its built heritage and it is expected that it will take up work on the Rajaji Salai property in the same spirit. That said, we must caution that the restoration will not be an easy task given the building’s location and its undoubtedly intricate architectural elements and interiors. It is to be hoped that the SBI will NOT follow the example of the Department of Posts, Government of India, when the latter restored the neighbouring General Post Office. That was largely a wasted effort the way it has panned out. The building is back to a bad state and the only satisfaction that can be got out of it is that the structure is still standing.
The fire at the SBI building was waiting to happen given the way the structure was maintained – unwanted furniture dumped at all corners, water seeping through at most places, an enormous number of files stored disorderly and above all, arbitrary electric wiring and use of false ceilings and partitions. The last named had been put up as and when the necessity arose, without any proper planning. Thus, what was essentially a single storied banking hall became a two-storied structure with the intervening floor being put up for accommodating more office space. This is the floor that has now collapsed. Those in charge of the restoration will need to debate on whether the floor has to necessarily be put back or whether the old hall can be splendidly restored with the space in it being put to better use.
The SBI fire is symbolic of a larger malaise – the shocking lack of upkeep of public buildings and spaces in our city. That cleanliness and safety standards have never been Chennai’s virtues is only very well known, but it is of late that these have reached epidemic proportions. It is the heritage buildings that have suffered the most. Consider this – Spencer’s, Moore Market, the GPO, Gandhi Illam, the Mint, Khalsa Mahal and now the SBI have ALL had fires attributed to short circuits. That must certainly have made someone somewhere sit up and take notice by now. But we are to be sadly disappointed in such expectations – there are plenty more heritage buildings crammed with paper, old furniture and bad wiring that are awaiting a fate similar to that of the worthies listed above*. It is a sad blot on a city that is aiming to be international in its standards.
For a matter of record, the SBI building in question was built in 1895 by T. Namberumal Chetty, the master contractor of that period, to the design of Henry Irwin. It was the head office of the Bank of Madras which, through its amalgamation with the other Presidency banks in 1921, formed the Imperial Bank of India, which in 1955 became the State Bank of India. The Bank of Madras incidentally, can trace its origins to the first bank of the country – the Government Bank, Madras, set up in the 17th Century in Fort St George. Apart from being a splendid piece of architecture, it is all this history that the bank building represents. Hopefully, the SBI will be conscious of this in its restoration exercise.
*Editor’s Note: Even before this story could go to press, another heritage building has been made a shell – a salvageable one, though – by a fire in it. Humayun Mahal joins Khalsa Mahal, its core having burnt down for all the same reasons listed above.