It is the centenary of the First World War. When it ended in 1919, several memorials were put up for those who sacrificed their lives. Chennai has a few, of which the war memorial near the beach is the best known.
Among the private commemorations is a marble tablet let into a wall of the guest chambers at the Madras Club. It has travelled with the club as it moved from Club House Road to Mount Road and finally to the Boat Club area when it merged the Adyar Club into itself. In terms of artistic value, this memorial does not amount to much — an elegant vertical slab with a curved base, featuring an engraved cross below a list of club members who fell in the war. What is significant, however, is that it was designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens, the architect of much of New Delhi, including the former Viceroy’s House, now the Rashtrapati Bhavan. Given that he was very busy with his bigger projects, Lutyens was to drag his feet on this war memorial, completing the design in 1922 after which it was executed by J. Fenn & Co in 1924.
Lutyens was no stranger to Madras, having come here to study its architecture before embarking on his Delhi work. He detested the Indo-Saracenic style prevailing here, describing the towers and domes as the “Raj’s own particular form of vulgarity”. Left to himself, he would have preferred to design New Delhi in a classical style, but in the end he had to compromise, given the pressures that were brought to bear on him — everyone from Queen Mary to Viceroy Lord Hardinge to the former Consulting Architect of Madras, R.F. Chisholm felt that the Indo-Saracenic style was the form associated most closely with the Empire and so New Delhi had to be built that way, with Lutyens bringing his own elegant stamp to it.
In his Cochin Saga, Sir Robert Bristow remembers seeing Lutyens at the Madras Club, then at Club House Road, “eating oysters cooked as only the Madras Club could in those days. He held his fork in his left hand and made rapid sketches on a sheet of foolscap with his right.” Lutyens’ stay here may have been brief but not that of his wife. Lady Emily and he were not a happy couple when together, finding compatibility only towards the end of their lives. She, however, knew his worth as a brilliant architect, and thanks to her aristocratic lineage, her father being a former Viceroy of India, did much to further his career. An ardent Theosophist, she practically lived in Madras while Sir Edwin worked in Delhi. She later identified herself completely with the philosopher J. Krishnamurti. A warm friendship sprang up between the two, with Krishnamurti declaring that he found a mother’s love in Lady Emily. The Lutyens’ daughter Mary became a close confidante of Krishnamurti and among her various books is a much-acclaimed three-volume biography of the philosopher.
This article appeared in The Hindu dated October 11, 2014, under the Hidden Histories column