Archive for the ‘Chennai (Madras) History’ Category

Hating heritage – with good reason for it

October 8, 2015

There are three reactions to heritage – some love it, and these are most often those who have no stake in it; the second variety is completely indifferent, this is largely the Government that sadly controls most of it; and some would rather wish it away, these are the private property owners who find themselves saddled with something they do not want and, more importantly, something they cannot profit from. Last month saw matters coming to a head at Pallavaram where residents protested against the heritage status that they feel has been imposed on their neighbourhood. A lot can be done by the Government to dispel any fears, but by keeping silent, it is only flaming discontent with heritage being the ultimate victim.

This matter in Pallavaram has been pending for over seven years now. It was in 2007 that plots of land were sold to people, all of them having purchased properties with the intention of developing them for residential purposes. The sale deeds were all registered as per due process. But when the purchasers began making plans to construct houses, they were asked to get No Objection Certificates (NOC) from the ‘appropriate authority’ which in this case is the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) as the land falls under the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Sites and Remains (Amendment and Validation) Act 2010.

The entire area, according to the ASI, is a centrally protected site, with ‘megalithic cairns and cists, showing clear structural postures’. However, as to what this actually implies has not been spelt out clearly by the ASI and the organisation has done precious little by way of actually protecting the place.
The owners on approaching the ASI were informed that the issue of NOCs could be considered only after the ASI conducted a joint survey of the area along with the revenue officials of the Kancheepuram District. A date was fixed for this in 2011 but matters made no headway as the residents, not understanding clearly as to what this implied, protested and prevented the survey from happening. Matters have been hanging fire since then and the residents approached the High Court of Madras, which in March this year ruled that it was necessary for the joint survey to be done. The Court directed the petitioners to file a request before the Collector of Kancheepuram who, on receipt of such a request, was to organise a meeting of the revenue officials and the ASI. This has not happened thus far.

It would appear that the Government is missing a golden opportunity to promote private participation in heritage. What is happening is that the owners are getting increasingly frustrated over the continued stonewalling. What is on the other hand required is a public meeting to be called so that the process of the joint survey and what it proposes to find can be explained to the stakeholders. This is to make the latter a part of the survey, which ought then to be undertaken without delay. The findings of this need to be published immediately thereafter.

What is likely to emerge from this is that not every property owner is sitting on a megalithic cairn or cist. Those that are not affected ought to be allowed to get on with their construction. The affected owners – whose interests need to be met with and their concerns assuaged – can either be offered land elsewhere or they can be permitted to construct on parts of their properties that do not have these remains. Lastly, the entire colony ought to be taught the importance of the pre-historic finds and how they need to be proud of what they possess. The residents can be made a part of a committee that administers these sites and helps promote tourism in the area. Revenues from such activities can be used for improving the locality and maintaining the relics.

All this calls for some enlightened thinking. Can we expect this from our Government – and citizens?

What is heritage, and what is not…

October 7, 2015
The Harbour Police Station - facing an uncertain future

The Harbour Police Station – facing an uncertain future

The past few years have seen a spate of writings on heritage, accompanied by a lot of media attention. This has naturally resulted in a huge amount of interest concerning old buildings, especially among the reading public, though this has admittedly not resulted in much action on the ground. It has, of course, created an enormous dislike among the bureaucracy about what it terms ‘heritage activism’. That body of officials would be most happy if there was no opposition to the complete demolition of all heritage structures, to facilitate their replacement with modern highrise. Unfortunately, this hostility is only enhanced by those who, even if in a well-meaning fashion, brand any reasonably old structure as heritage and begin questioning its removal. This makes any heritage activity appear obstructionist. The latest in this series is a newspaper article that mourns the proposed pulling down of the Esplanade police station.

A careful reading between the lines would reveal that the structure in question was built only in 1961. It is a modern PWD building that replaced an earlier structure even then. It is this 54-year-old structure that the Government proposes to replace with a modern building. What is the heritage value of the existing structure? None probably. And whatever there was earlier probably vanished with the demolition in 1961.

What cannot be denied, however, is that a police station has existed in the area since 1856. This needs to be commemorated. The Tamil Nadu Police has in the past displayed a sense of history – it has not only preserved its headquarters by the beach, it has also retained the old bungalow in Egmore that served as the Police Commissioner’s Office even after a multi-storeyed building came up alongside for the same. It is to be hoped that when it constructs a new police station at the Esplanade, the department will put up a plaque commemorating the history of the place. That would be more than sufficient.

The Triplicane Police Station, a survivor

The Triplicane Police Station, a survivor

While on the subject of new buildings for old, it must be pointed out that the Police has a chequered history when it comes to their stations. The one at Flower Bazaar made way for a tasteless piece of modernity. The Mount Road station was demolished but replaced by a new structure that vaguely recalls the architecture of the old Spencer’s showroom. The Grame’s Road station was retained in full, as there was sufficient space to the rear, where a new building has come up. The most fortunate among all of them is the Triplicane Station on Wallajah Road. This heritage structure, once the langar-khana of the Nawabs of Arcot, has been splendidly restored, ironically when all heritage buildings surrounding it – Government House, Cooum House, the bandmaster’s house, Gandhi Illam and Kalaivanar Arangam – were all demolished!

Hanging fire is the fate of the Royapettah station which was also slated for demolition but has not yet gone under. Also facing an uncertain future is the Harbour station. Both these buildings are undoubtedly heritage structures that date to over a hundred years. They certainly need to be preserved. If the Police needs to expand its activities in these two stations, it would be better off looking for new buildings in the surrounding areas rather than demolish these two to make way for highrise. While the Royapettah station is in use, the Harbour one is at great risk. It has been cordoned off and is now devoid of maintenance for over five years. The media would be better off highlighting the plight of these buildings rather than raising a hue and cry over structures that are of dubious heritage value at best.

Know Fort St George – 11, Charles (and James) Street

October 6, 2015
ECHS Building, Charles Street, once probably the Town Hall, Fort St George

ECHS Building, Charles Street, once probably the Town Hall, Fort St George

We have in the last two episodes focussed on two principal buildings on Charles Street – the Great aka Admiralty aka Clive House and Wellesley House. This extremely broad thoroughfare has very few buildings on it today. Between Clive’s and Wellesley’s houses is a large edifice belonging to the army and accessed through an arched gateway. This must have in its time been an important building. On the opposite, i.e. the eastern, side runs a long colonnaded building for most of the street’s length. This is today the Ex-Servicemen’s Contributory Health Service (ECHS) Centre of the Fort, but in its long years of existence has served several functions, most notable of which is that of the Town Hall for Madras. This was where the important residents of the Fort met to discuss and decide on important matters concerning the city. But this was not the only building to serve this role in the Fort. It was also till recently the embarkation headquarters for the Southern Command of the Indian Army.

San Thome Gate

San Thome Gate

Charles Street ends at the San Thome Gate of the Fort, an arched structure with alternating bands of white and black. This is today closed to the public but gets its name from the fact that it is the southern entrance to the Fort, the pathway from it leading along the sea to the once Portuguese settlement on San Thomè. In its time it must have been a busy thoroughfare with much comings and goings between the two settlements, of which, of course, San Thomè was the older and bigger. But by the time Fort St. George began growing, this once prosperous Portuguese settlement had seen better days and many of its residents began moving into the British town where they settled at the northern end, a place that came to be called Portuguese Square and which we shall deal with in detail later. Others commuted from San Thomè every day to work in the Fort or visit relatives. This influx of people must have happened via the San Thomé Gate.
Today there may be only so many visible reminders of the historicity of Charles Street, but in its time this was a very busy thoroughfare. While we wander along it, it may be worthwhile to pause a while and reflect on the various buildings that do not exist. But before that the broad width of the street also has a history. This was once two parallel streets running north to south, from Parade Square to the San Thomé Gate. The western one was Charles Street and its eastern counterpart was James Street. These, and the easternmost street of the Fort, named after St Thomas, were all connected at the northern end by the church of St Mary’s and at the southern end by road across which lay San Thomé Gate. Sometime in the 18th Century, James Street vanished – the buildings that separated it from Charles Street were demolished and the two roads became one broad thoroughfare – known in early years as Charles and James Street and, then, just Charles Street. Perhaps this was an early instance of renaming streets, something our city specialises in – in the early 18th Century, King Charles II was revered in public memory but not his successor King James II, who had been deposed in a bloodless coup in 1688!

In the early years, when the Fort was nothing more than the present area occupied by the Assembly and Secretariat, Charles Street had the Elambore River flowing along its western periphery. Difficult though it may now be to believe, there was once a river wharf on this street, with eight small guns mounted on it. This was constructed in 1740, following a petition by the street’s residents. The river not being perennial “left shallow grounds,” they said and added, “low swamps which, by the heat of the sun, became a nuisance to the Town. Your petitioners, at very great expense and trouble, have effectually prevented and remedied these mischiefs by building a Wharf Wall upon a foundation of brick wells and filled up with lime stones and other materials for cement. Your petitioners have also faced the said Wharf Wall with Iron Stone, and raised thereon Brick Pallisades, to the great Ornamentation of the River and Beautifying the Prospect of the Town.”

Today, not a trace of the river or the wall survives. Also not traceable are several prominent landmarks that keep surfacing in Company records. The most curious is ‘A Statue of the Goddess of Commerce’ which was set up in a rectangle between Charles and James Streets. It appears to have been there in 1734 and vanished by the 1750s, most probably brought down by the French. The principal cloth godowns of the Company were also on Charles Street, the one at the corner belonging to Thambu Chetty. Another dubash who owned a godown here was Tepperumal Chetty. These buildings were organised by function and bore names such as Calico or Sorting Godown, the Embaling godown and the Import Warehouse. Missing today is also Jearsey House, a stately residence with a long history. Built in the 1640s by Agent Greenhill and used as his residence, this was in 1699 acquired by the Company for its Calico Beating Godown and Granary. By then, it had passed through several hands. William Jearsey had bought it from Greenhill and enlarged it. A consortium of which Elihu Yale was a member later owned this building. In 1692, Sir John Goldsborough arrived in Madras to investigate charges against Yale. He was sworn in as President in Council (the equivalent of Governor), and eight months later, after a full investigation, exonerated Yale. He then embarked on a tour of Cuddalore and Bengal, leaving his wife and children as tenants of Jearsey House. Six months later he was dead and his family moved out. By the 1710s, the building had become a Charity School. All we know of this house today is that it stood close to the ‘Great House on Charles Street’.

Among the most important residents of Charles Street was the Nawab of Arcot himself. In 1758, shortly before the French unsuccessfully laid siege to Madras, Muhammad Ali Wallajah petitioned his friend and Governor, Pigot, for a house in White Town, where he might “lay in a stock of provisions and himself retire thither in case of necessity.” The house assigned to him was at the southern corner of Charles Street, once occupied by a Dr. Munro. On the approach of the French in December that year, Wallajah shifted in and remained there for some time. By the 1770s, with Fort House being in a deplorable condition, Du Pre, the Governor of Madras, shifted to Charles Street, as did his successor Rumbold.

On the same side as the ‘Great House’, but shown as standing further south of it, which means it stood where Parade Square is today, was another stately building. This was by the 1790s owned by Andrew Ross, Secretary to the Government. With its front on Charles Street and its rear on Palace Street, it was described as having ‘offices, the accommodation of a family, and large spaces of Ground (all of which open into the Back Street where the Arsenal stands, as well as into the street in Front)’ and was offered on rent of 80 pagodas a month for housing the new Courts of Justice. This office later moved to the Choultry Gate Street, which then came to be known as Court House Street.
Standing on Charles Street today, all this hustle and bustle can only be imagined. But in its peace and quiet, we can easily conjure the procession that went down it on July 24, 1727, to the accompaniment of “civic authorities, a foot company and with all English musick.” This was to celebrate the firman of the Mughal Emperor Farrukhsiyar granting the English the continued use of Madras.

Pics courtesy: San Thome Gate – Mukund Vedapudi, ECHS – Ramakrishnan Mohan

This article is part of a series on Fort St George. Click on the links below for the earlier stories:

1. The Fort- Its Topography
2. The Flagstaff
3. The Sea Gate
4. The Moat
5. The Cornwallis Cupola
6. The Assembly and Secretariat
7. The Parade Square
8. The Barracks
9. The Great House on Charles Street
10. Arthur Wellesley’s House

Know Fort St George – 10, Arthur Wellesley’s House

September 30, 2015
A still standing portion of Wellesley's House, Fort St George

A still standing portion of Wellesley’s House, Fort St George

Charles Street, on which the Great House that we saw last fortnight stands, also has some other stately buildings. Strolling further south on it, pause at the last house on the right, just before the erstwhile San Thomè Gate of the Fort that now leads to the Military Police headquarters. One half of that stately home has completely collapsed, while the other barely stands, held in place rather ironically by the roots of a huge banyan tree growing out of it. If you peer closely at a slate panel on the extreme edge of the house you can make out just three letters of an inscription. These read ‘TON’ and they are all that remain of the full text that once read “Colonel the Hon. Arthur Wellesley, later 1st Duke of Wellington, lived here – 1798.” Yes, this was indeed the residence of the man who would one day defeat Napoleon and also become Prime Minister of England twice.

Arthur Wellesley was of aristocratic stock, for he was the fourth son of the Earl of Mornington, born to the latter’s Countess Anne in 1769. In keeping with the choices open to all younger sons in the British aristocracy, especially those of highly placed but impoverished families, he joined the army in 1787, being commissioned as an ensign. His eldest brother Richard had succeeded to the title and was of great help, ensuring that Arthur was an aide de camp to the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland and also became a sitting member of Parliament. As time went on, Arthur, with financial assistance from his brother, was to repeatedly purchase promotions in the army, though it cannot be denied that he did have a flair for military matters. By 1796, he had become a full-fledged colonel and was then serving in the 33rd Regiment. That year, he set sail for Calcutta. Having spent a few months there, he went on an expedition to the Philippines and returned in 1797, only to learn that the new Governor General of India was none other than his elder brother, Richard, the Earl of Mornington.
In the meanwhile, even before his brother took charge in Calcutta, Arthur Wellesley had begun travelling around British possessions in India, his stature now considerably enhanced by his brother’s appointment. It is therefore in that light that we must view his being allocated such a large and brand new house (it was built in 1796) in the Fort when he reached Madras. According to Sir Charles Lawson in his Memories of Madras, Wellesley also “occupied for many a day” a small house at Teynampet, Madras “conducting incessant, and sanguinary warfare against the mosquitoes bred in the adjacent Long Tank.” Governor Lord Hobart had left the city by then leaving General Medows as the acting head of the administration. In 1798, Madras got its next Governor in Edward, the Second Lord Clive, son of Robert, the man who got for the Company much of its dominance over the Carnatic and its possession of Bengal. But Edward was not a patch on his father, preferring to lead a life of luxury and pomp. The Wellesleys, Richard and Arthur, did not think much of him.

This was partly the reason why they chose to largely bypass him when it came to the final war with Tipu Sultan. The conflict became urgent when news came of Napoleon landing in Egypt. It was believed that he would soon be on his way to India. Rumours gained ground about Tipu being in correspondence with him. The British were also worried about a large French presence in the court of the Nizam of Hyderabad. Fearing quite correctly that Lord Clive would do nothing about it, Richard Wellesley, the Earl of Mornington and Governor General of India, decided to take a leaf out of a predecessor’s book. In 1792, Lord Cornwallis shifted his office from Calcutta to Madras to wage the Third Mysore War. Now, Richard Wellesley would do the same.

Madras was however not enthusiastic about battle with Tipu. The Chief Secretary, Josiah Webbe (who has a memorial for himself in St Mary’s Church), remonstrated stating that the Government was unprepared – the deficit stood at eighteen lac pagodas and the Government’s 8 per cent bond carried a 20 per cent discount on it. But the Governor General would have none of it. Fortunately for him, the Commander-in-Chief, George Harris, was of the same view and it was decided that battle would commence. Arthur Wellesley and his 33rd would be a part of the force.

The march to Srirangapatnam began in February 1799, the Governor General remaining behind in Madras and keeping a close watch from there. His brother’s role in the war against Tipu always remains a matter of controversy. He certainly lost his way and on April 6th entered a dark grove at Sultanpettah where, in the confusion, troops of his regiment probably shot at each other. Be that as it may, the assault on Tipu, led by Sir David Baird, was successful and Mysore soon fell. Rather interestingly, and perhaps not surprisingly, it was Arthur Wellesley who was now given the command of Mysore, much to Baird’s disgust. In all the jubilation over Tipu’s death however, this was forgotten.

There were promotions all around. Harris became Lieutenant General and several years later would be elevated to the peerage, becoming 1st Baron Harris of Seringapatam and Mysore. Lord Mornington became the Marquis of Wellesley and left for Calcutta, but not before sitting down for a portrait of himself, depicted against a backdrop of the flagstaff of Fort St George. Arthur Wellesley went on to participate in the second Anglo-Maratha war in 1803 where he scored significant wins at Assaye, rising to the level of Major General. In 1804, he applied for home leave and when this was not forthcoming, resigned his commission. He came to Madras en route to England where a glittering reception awaited him. It was resolved by the European residents that a portrait of his be commissioned for the Long Room of the Fort Exchange building. He was received in a grand durbar at Chepauk Palace on February 18, 1805 by Nawab Azim Ud Daulah, the scene being the subject of a sketch by George Chinnery for a full length painting that was never done. On March 2nd, he was given a grand farewell dinner at the Pantheon, Egmore. A full-length portrait of his was unveiled on the occasion, as reported by the Madras Gazette. Wellesley returned to England with a large fortune, chiefly prize money. There he married his childhood flame, Kitty Packenham – the union was, however, not happy.

Wellesley being received at Chepauk by Nawab Azim Ud Dowlah, sketch by George Chinnery, courtesy: Wikipedia

Wellesley being received at Chepauk by Nawab Azim Ud Dowlah, sketch by George Chinnery, courtesy: Wikipedia

He was however destined for greater glory. He scored several victories for England, rising steadily in rank and title. In 1815, he defeated Napoleon at Waterloo and earned his nation’s eternal gratitude. He was elevated to the highest rank in the peerage, becoming the Duke of Wellington. He also became Prime Minister of England twice, his first tenure being from 1828 to 1830 and his second for a brief while in 1834.

In 1808, the European residents of Madras, acquired by public subscription, a portrait of his. This had been executed a year earlier by John Hoppner of the Royal Academy. The portrait hung for several years at the Banqueting (now Rajaji) Hall and after Independence was quietly consigned to the storerooms of the Madras Museum. His house in the Fort is now coming apart, brick by brick.

This article is part of a series on Fort St George to commemorate 375 years of its construction. The earlier parts are linked below:

1. The Fort, its topography
2. The Flagstaff
3. The Sea Gate
4. The Moat
5. The Cornwallis Cupola
6. The Assembly and Secretariat
7. Parade Square
8. The Barracks
9. The Great House on Charles Street

Dry Tales from Tamil Nadu

September 14, 2015

The possibility of Prohibition brings to the mind of The Man from Madras Musings the several interesting happenings that took place when our State was last dry. That was during the time the Old Monk had a lot of influence – and by that MMM alludes to the venerable old sage (if you believed Kalki magazine) and wily old fox (if you trusted the Dravidian parties). It was during his tenure that State-wide Prohibition first came into effect and then it remained in force off and on till the early 1970s when the very Dravidian party that Old Monk helped bring to power and which had by then elevated him to the status of Teacher and gave him a Royal Salute, decided to wet the state with a vengeance. The Old Monk took it up as a Royal Challenge but he was told to drown his sorrows in a butt of malmsey, as Shakespeare would have said. The venerable sage retired in high dudgeon thereafter, his spirit corked and was ever bitter thereafter.

It was, however, when Prohibition was in force that it was noted that busloads of seemingly enormously pregnant women were coming in from neighbouring la Francaise towne to our city. Closer inspection revealed that the ladies were all of an advanced age and could not be in an advanced stage of pregnancy. A still closer inspection showed that the reason for the embonpoint was a tube that was wound around the stomach and carried precious liquids. The ladies were let off after a strict warning which, MMM is sure, they obeyed. Not that there were no official outlets. These required the aforementioned permit and the vending contracts for these outlets were highly profitable. It is not as though nobody benefited from Prohibition.

Prohibition times were also when those manning air and seaports were much in demand as also were those who were fly out to the Emerald Isle just south. These men, known colloquially as sparrows because of the short flights they took at enormous risk, invariably returned with goodies that did you good. And given that those were days when electronic surveillance devices had not yet made their entry, it was easy to slip in a cask or two. Capture invariably meant the caging of the sparrow for a temporary period but then there were always plenty of others. As to the commodity they brought in, these were immediately confiscated and were supposed to be destroyed. But if that did happen, those manning air and seaports would not have been in demand, would they?

Foreigners were exempt from such laws. And they too found their popularity skyrocketing overnight. Given that we were just emerging from our post-independence xenophobia, this was surprising. But then alcohol, like the politics that is currently driving the demand for prohibition, makes strange bedfellows.

Know Fort St George – 9, The Great House on Charles Street

September 8, 2015
The Great House aka Clives House

The Great House aka Clives House

Parade Square, as we saw in the previous issue, stands more or less in the middle of the Fort. Radiating from it are streets in all directions. It must not be forgotten that the Fort was once very much a town with its residents. And these needed houses, all of which were placed along the various streets that crisscrossed the entire precinct of White Town, as the Fort was known. Interestingly, as H.D. Love points out, the residents of Madras referred to the Fort as the City and to what lay outside of it as Town. The East India Company reversed the nomenclature – according to it, Madras was the city and the Fort was the town!

It was Elihu Yale who, as Governor in 1688, decreed that the streets of Fort St George be given names. These names have survived till today. Thus, three streets emanate from Parade Square and the Assembly in the southern direction, these being St Thomas’ Street, which is at the eastern end of the Fort, James Street, which lies behind it, St Mary’s Church connecting the two, and Charles Street which lies at the rear. St George’s Street radiates in a westerly direction from Parade Square and eventually connects with St. George’s Gate, the principal entrance to the Fort on the western side. Three streets link the Parade Square and the Assembly to the northern end of the Fort. The easternmost, corresponding to St. Thomas’ Street on the southern side, is Gloucester Alley. Behind it is York Street, which is also known as the Middle Gate or North Gate Street as it connects to the North Gate of the Fort. To the rear of this is Choultry Gate Street, which once led to the Choultry Courts that were just outside the Fort. This entrance is now blocked. At the extreme western end of the Fort is a thoroughfare that runs south to north. This is known as Palace Street and it has an interesting history of its own, of which more later.

Charles Street must have been an important thoroughfare, for it houses some very stately buildings. The most striking, and indeed the best-maintained building in the whole Fort today, is the headquarters of the Archaeological Survey of India. It goes by the names of Clive House and Admiralty House. The residence dates to the 18th Century, a time when, apart from the British, some Portuguese, Armenians and Indians also owned property within the Fort. One among these was Coja Nazar Jan, a rich Armenian who settled in Madras in 1702. It was he who built this residence and, on his death in 1740, it passed on to Coja Sultan David and from him to his son, Aga Shawmier Sultan. It was during David’s time that the residence first began to be called the Great House. Several covetous eyes were cast on the building and when in 1749 the British moved back to the Fort after the French had vacated it, this became the residence of Richard Prince, the Deputy Governor of Madras – he was the administrative head till 1752 when the Governor officially moved his headquarters back to Madras from Fort St David in Cuddalore.

The house was restored to Shawmier who then let it out to its most important occupant – Robert Clive.
Among the few marble plaques that commemorate heritage structures in Madras, one is to be found on this building. It reads that “Robert 1st Lord Clive lived in this building in the year 1753. Truly great in arms and in council, he founded an Empire.” By then Clive was no longer a depressed writer or lowly clerk. He had emerged as the hero of the sieges of Arcot and Trichinopoly and was now back in the Fort as its Steward. Moreover, he was in love with Margaret, the sister of his close friend Edmund Maskylene. She arrived in Madras in 1753 and Clive, ever the determined soul, doggedly wooed her till she consented. The wedding was conducted on February 18, 1753 in St Mary’s Church in the Fort, the Rev Fabricius, who did much for Tamil and for printing in India, officiating. Clive’s married life was one of bliss and he lived the first year of it at the ‘Great House’. But he was in ill-health and had applied for home leave. This was granted in 1753 and he left for England where he fought battles of a political nature before returning once again to India, this time to conquer Bengal. His second tenure had very little to do with Madras.

After Clive’s departure, Shawmier sold the house to de Castro, a Portuguese, who in turn sold it to the Company for 6,000 pagodas. It became the guest house for accommodating important visitors and it was in that capacity that it hosted Admiral Charles Watson, who in 1754 sailed from England with a large squadron fitted exclusively for the protection of the “possessions in the East Indies”. He appears to have stayed here for just a year. In 1755, the building was assigned to the then recently set up Court of Admiralty to try naval mutineers. The name Admiralty House stuck, though the court vacated the premises by 1762 when it once again became a guest house. That year the Company supplied at its expense “Furniture, Cotts, Linen and all other necessarys for the reception and Accommodation of Strangers”, a housekeeper being appointed to take care of the establishment.

By the late 1700s, Admiralty House became the Governor’s residence in the Fort. With Robert’s son, Edward, the second Lord Clive preferring to live outside the Fort when he was Governor, the ‘Great House’ served briefly as the Banqueting Hall. With a new building being erected in 1802 for that purpose on Mount Road (the present day Rajaji Hall), the ‘Great House’ became the office of the Accountant General, in which capacity it was used till the mid-20th Century when the ASI took it over.

An interesting aside is that the East India Company consistently defaulted on the rent to Shawmier between 1749 and 1752, the arrear amounting to 1,866 pagodas. He appealed repeatedly and it was only in 1773 that Governor Alexander Wynch forwarded his request to the Court of Directors in England. There his prayer bore fruit with compensation being paid in 1775. Landlord travails evidently have a long history in Madras!

INTACH’s publication Madras, the Architectural Heritage by K. Kalpana and Frank Schiffer gives details about the architectural magnificence of the house. “The house is truly great both in its external and internal appearance. Squarish in plan, the upper floors of this three-storeyed building are the most spacious, consisting of huge halls with extremely high ceilings, and were most probably living spaces with other service facilities located on the ground floor. The focus is a large centrally placed hall on all floors, the one on the first floor designed with a tall, two-floor high ceiling. Lined with a series of circular columns along the inner edges and wonderful fenestrations facing the street, the ambience of this space is certainly fit for a king. Fronted by a small verandah-like ante space that faces the street, it is the expression of this face with strong architectural details that is the capturing feature of the exterior and distinctly different from all other buildings within the Fort. Raised in the centre due to the increased height of the first floor, an ensemble of tall Ionic columns in the upper floor rests on a series of semicircular arched openings on the ground floor, with deep sloping wooden shades sprinkled on either side. Bridging the gap between the columns is a combination of louvred and glazed windows that catch the morning sun in a most dramatic manner.”

The write-up does not mention it but one of the exquisite features of this building is a staircase that rises from the ground floor to the top-most storey. In recent years, the ASI has created a ‘Clive’s Corner’ in one part of this building. This has a reasonably aesthetic display of various portraits and copies of documents pertaining to Robert Clive’s life. It is clear that, no matter who the occupants of the building before and after him were, it was he who gave it its place in history.

Earlier parts from the series on Fort St George

The Fort, its Topography

The Flagstaff

The Sea Gate

The Moat

The Cornwallis Cupola

The Assembly and Secretariat

The Parade Square

The Barracks

Know Fort George – 8, the Barracks

August 17, 2015
The southern face of Kings Barracks

The southern face of Kings Barracks

The Parade Square has barracks fronting it on three sides – the south, west and north. In the initial years of the Fort, and Madras, the soldiers camped outside the Fort and there were several complaints about their many “notorious Actions (and villainous crimes)”. In 1684, it was decided that the garrison ought to move into White Town, or the Fort. Temporary barracks in Tuscan style were constructed on the western side, opposite the inner gate of the then Fort and the building was named New House. It was a terraced building with a tiled roof and at each end had a prison for “Souldiers that offend”. This ‘temporary’ accommodation was given permanent status by 1687.

Soon other buildings were put up alongside the barracks. At the northern end was a house, followed by the fort hospital. Then came the barracks, after which was the Mint and then the company’s import warehouse. All these buildings were in a precarious state by 1715. It was decided that the entire area would be rebuilt, with the Mint, the warehouse and the residences moving elsewhere in the Fort, leaving the space for an extended barracks and hospital. John Payne, writing in 1717, noted that “opposite to the west gate of the Fort is the barrack, or rather a long room, in which all the Company’s soldiers are obliged to lodge when off the guard, and adjoining on the north is a commodious hospital.” It can be concluded from this that the reconstruction was complete in two years.

By 1750, both the hospital and the military had expanded considerably and each was jockeying for space at the expense of the other. This resulted in moving the hospital out of the Fort to Peddenaickenpettah in the city in 1752. It was decided at the same time that the erstwhile hospital buildings would be handed over to the military. However, the north-east monsoon of that year proved to be so severe that the barracks suffered extensive damage.

The derelict eastern face of King's Barracks

The derelict eastern face of King’s Barracks

Work then began on the construction of the King’s Barracks adjacent to the old buildings and with its alignment being north-south. The principal entrance was located on the west. Executed between 1756 and 1762, it acquired its name from the fact that it housed a royal regiment from the inception. A simple double-storied structure, it is rectangular in shape, with each floor having two sets of rooms, one behind the other on all fronts barring the western face, which has just one set of rooms. The northern part houses the army canteen and can be accessed from Parade Square. The whole building encloses a massive central courtyard that lets in much needed light and air to the inner rooms. The western face of the King’s Barracks also has a very interesting feature, one that repeats in several other buildings of the Fort – two helical stairways leading to the upper floor. The King’s Barracks is also known for its variety of roofing – Bengal terrace, Madras terrace and Mangalore tiles. The lower floor was meant for ancillary facilities and the upper floor for the men, who were all quartered in eight sections, each with a sergeant’s room.

The ill-ventilated casemate barracks at St George's Gate

The ill-ventilated casemate barracks at St George’s Gate

In recent years, K. Kalpana and Frank Schiffer, as part of their work for the book Madras, the Architectural Heritage funded by the Indian National Trust for Arts and Cultural Heritage, undertook a complete study of this building. Published in 2003, it noted even then that the Kings Barracks was in a terrible condition, its roof having caved in at places owing to ingress of moisture. There is nothing to show that matters have improved since, though the Army did announce in 2013 that it intended to shift from here to Pallavaram so that the Archaeological Survey could undertake some much-needed restoration work.

The barracks on the southern side, facing King’s Barracks were constructed as part of the Fort’s restoration; post the French siege of the 1750s. John Call, then in charge of much of the work, proposed that Officers’ Lodgings be built on each side of the “New Square which is to be formed before the West Side of the Inner Fort” and the Company agreed that this was a very “usefull and convenient Distribution.” That these buildings were constructed to be bomb-proof is evident from a detailed note on their extension in 1771 proposed by Colonel Ross, the Chief Engineer. He suggested among other things that “18 rooms over the Bomb Proof Barracks, North Side of the Parade, which can conveniently lodge nine Gentlemen” be built at a cost of 25,950 pagodas. It would appear that by 1781, most of these buildings were completed, for a minute that year recorded that the “Quarters South and North of the Parade” were to have accommodation for six captains and twelve subalterns. A noteworthy feature is that this spate of reconstruction saw both King’s Barracks and its smaller counterpart on the southern side being given identical facades on the sides facing Parade Square. These are in the Classical style – double storied with pillars supporting a pediment that sports a rather complicated coat of arms. This gives a harmonious frontage to Parade Square.

George Robert Gleig, arriving as a soldier in 1817, wrote in The Subaltern’s Log Book (1829) that the “barracks at Fort St George are the most commodious and magnificent I ever was in. The rooms in our apartments were lofty and the windows extended almost to the ceiling from within two or three feet of the ground, they have Venetian blinds in them instead of glass which keep the rooms cool and admit sufficient air.” A Parliamentary Committee reporting in 1871 was not so impressed. While it commended the design for aligning the buildings from north to south, thereby allowing for sea breeze from the east, it noted that the effect “is a good deal influenced by high buildings on the east”. It also noted that the first floor of the barracks had good ventilation but the lower floor was not so blessed as it was surrounded by other structures. Evidently, married quarters were also part of the same block, for the report notes that these were very good, each family having two rooms of good size. The most unfortunate among the lot was the Battery of Artillery, which was quartered in a series of casemates close to the western end of the Fort. They were completely cut off from the sea breeze and had no ventilation of any kind.

The western side of the Parade Square has a set of three or four independent barracks. Writing in the early 1900s, Mrs. Frank Penny has it that these were “built in recent years; they replaced some low wretched buildings utterly inadequate to the requirements of the troops, if they were to be kept healthy and free from disease. The basement of the old barracks was below the level of the ground and were small and airless.” The old ones that Mrs. Penny speaks of probably traced their roots to the original barracks that stood on the western side of the Fort. Alas, today most of even the later construction, once termed handsome by Mrs. Penny, is in a bad way.
Much of Fort St George is owned by the military but no garrison is housed in it today. The army’s departments occupy its various buildings and offices and these are all in a reasonable shape of repair. Not so lucky are the barracks which, devoid of occupation and maintenance, are collapsing. King’s Barracks is part canteen and part stores. The barracks to the west are largely abandoned. As you walk around them you will notice additional floors were added later with cement concrete and architecturally unrelated grille work. Most of these buildings are filled with rubble to prevent them from collapsing.

Abdul Kalam and the MIT Gate: When Kalam visited the Madras Institute of Technology – The Hindu

August 1, 2015

Abdul Kalam and the MIT Gate: When Kalam visited the Madras Institute of Technology - The Hindu

Abdul Kalam and the MIT Gate: When Kalam visited the Madras Institute of Technology – The Hindu.

Abdul Kalam at the Music Academy

July 27, 2015

It is long past my usual bedtime but I am unable to sleep. Somehow Kalam’s passing is like the death of a close relative. True, he was 83 but somehow I thought he would always be around – simple in his joys, straightforward in his communication, honesty personified, friendliness radiating from his eyes…In a nation whose leaders are by and large arrogant crooks (except during elections), he made a difference and somehow held out a hope. If a man of such humble origins could make his way to the top through just hard work, surely India was a meritocracy? And now he is gone. Today I am able to understand why men wept and women broke their bangles on January 30, 1948.

I met Kalam only once and briefly at that. And that is not the story I want to relate. The one I am writing about is of his coming in 2002 to inaugurate the December Season at the Music Academy. The Sikkil Sisters were selected for the Sangita Kalanidhi and this being the platinum jubilee of the Academy, four great musicians – Semmangudi, MS Subbulakshmi, DK Pattammal and Pt. Ravishankar were to receive a special award. Of the four, only Semmangudi made it, MS and DKP were quite frail in health and Raviji was abroad.

The Music Academy as you know, has a fetish for punctuality. It had in the past once drawn the curtain when Madurai Mani Iyer failed to finish on time. A wooden box that had a red bulb in it would greet those giving lecture demonstrations. This would be placed on the lectern just below the nose of the speaker and in case he/she exceeded the time limit, it would begin to glow. Time if not tide, did not wait for anyone at the Academy. It was said that its second President, KV Krishnaswami Aiyar began the trend. It slackened somewhat under his successors but picked up pace from 1982, when TT Vasu became numero uno.

Vasu became the red bulb himself. Giving his trousers a characteristic hitch, he would think nothing of bounding up to the concert performer or speaker and wag an enormous finger in front of their face in case they exceeded time. He would also begin a countdown of sorts, waving five, then four fingers and so on till just the forefinger would remain standing. The curtain would descend almost simultaneously. I cannot say I disapproved of what Vasu did. In a tightly packed typical Season Day, this discipline was needed. But perhaps it could have been done more gently.

Vasu’s terror tactics did not work with Kalam however when he, as President of India, came to inaugurate the Academy’s platinum jubilee concert series. The curtain went up to reveal Vasu, Kalam, a couple of Secretaries, Semmangudi and the Sikkil Sisters on stage. It was clear from the word go that the time schedule was going to be shot to pieces. After the standard nAdatanum anisham invocation, Dr VV Srivatsa, one of the Secretaries, led Sikkil Kunjumani to the mic. They were so slow in their progress that Vasu began to grunt impatiently. Kalam however beamed beatifically. Kunjumani then began a longwinded speech that clearly overshot the time allotted to her. Vasu began to get up, finger already uplifted when Kalam smiled at him in a soft fashion and grasping his hand, pushed him gently back into his seat. “It is all right Vasu sar,” said Kalam. It was a quite a sight – the President of India cajoling the President of the Music Academy to calm down! Poor Vasu did not say anything and squirmed considerably in his seat. Kunjumani eventually finished her speech and was led back by Srivatsa as slowly as she had come to the mic. Semmangudi received his award and when asked to speak said in his characteristic fashion that Vasu had told him to be brief (Vasu enna romba pEsa kUDadunnu sonnAn). He spoke little and then sat down.

This was a day when Vasu got an award as well – a silver plaque with a verse in his praise. Kalam handed it over. Vasu spoke briefly and then it was Kalam’s turn. We were already ten minutes behind schedule and with some luck would get the concert of the evening going some half an hour late. But the Academy had not contended with Kalam or the audience adulation of him.

Every move he made was received with thunderous applause. This was no President but a matinee idol. The Academy lectern was too tall for him and a special platform was placed behind it for him to climb on. When he achieved this simple task, we all cheered. He delivered his speech in English and there was loud clapping at the end of every sentence. This was no prim and proper Academy inauguration but a college graduation day.

The speech came to an end and everyone clapped once again. Vasu stood up, ready to get a Secretary to deliver the vote of thanks. Kalam however was not getting off so easily.

“Mr President,” he said. “I am aware that there are many people in the audience who know only Tamil and so I have brought a Tamil translation of my speech. With your permission sir, I will now read it.”

I don’t think anyone else could have got away reading the same speech twice in the same evening, even if its second declamation was in another language. But Kalam achieved this impossible feat. And what’s more, the audience cheered all over again. Vasu had to grin and bear it.

The speech came to an end and Vasu was once again on his feet. But Kalam had other plans.

“This is a great occasion Mr President Sar,” he said. “And so I have composed a special song for it. My DRDO members will now perform it. But before that one of my colleagues will read out the lyrics.”

The applause hit the rafters even as what looked like a minor army came on stage bearing all kinds of musical instruments. Vasu had given up by then. The instruments were tuned and then even as Kalam beamed with joy, the song was sung by a couple of scientists to the accompaniment of other scientists in the orchestra.

By the time the national anthem was sung (and here Kalam entreated everyone of us to sing loudly), we were a good 45 minutes late – an unpardonable crime at the Academy.

The next day’s papers revealed that Kalam drove from the Academy straight to MS Subbulakshmi’s house and presented her with the award in person.

We have never seen such crowds at any Season inauguration day ever since at the Music Academy. And never again has the audience cheered a speech or song so much. Simplicity was the hallmark of this great man and that is why we loved him. India and the world is poorer by his passing.

Hidden histories: The seedy past of Chennai’s Lockma Nagar – The Hindu

July 25, 2015

I saw this street sign where Kilpauk gives way to Purasawalkam. On consulting my usual references, I came to know that the place was known as Lock Cheri at least till 1968 or thereabouts. That was when the Corporation decided to do away with slums, in thought, if not in deed, and renamed all cheris as nagars, a couple of them becoming ma nagars (big colony). And that is how Lock Cheri became Lock Managar, which later transformed into Lockma Nagar. A street directory of 1933 revealed that this was Lock Street at least till then, the slum coming up later. By 1943, when this area was among the worst affected during the great flood of Madras, it was known as Lock Cheri. I speculated momentarily on whether it was where one of the many locks on the Buckingham Canal once stood, till I realised the waterway is miles away. The Otteri Nullah is closeby, but that never had locks.

Heritage enthusiast Karthik Bhatt speculated whether the name had anything to do with the Lock Hospital. And sure enough, that was it. Corporation reports of the 1800s reveal considerable outlay of funds on the maintenance of the Lock Hospital at Kilpauk, set up in 1810. This institution was part of a chain, a colonial phenomenon. London got one in 1747, and thereafter, Lock Hospitals were opened wherever the British Empire spread. It was a necessity, for it specialised in treating venereal diseases. The reason for the name is lost in time.

The East India Company was largely an all-male establishment till at least the 1840s. That meant that prostitution was fairly rampant wherever the British set up base. In the 1600s, houses of pleasure in Portuguese San Thome catered to the new conquerors. By the 19th century, Mount Road alone had nine brothels. Chengam Bazar in George Town was another flourishing centre. The now lost Vodacaul Street, that connected First Line Beach to George Town, catered to the sailors. It was no wonder that the city desperately needed a Lock Hospital and got not one but two — one exclusively for the military and the other, civil. It is the latter that stood at Lockma Nagar. Overall, Madras Presidency had nine Lock Hospitals.

Some interesting statistics emerged over the years. It was noticed that admission of women surged during famines when they were left destitute and took to immoral trafficking to earn money, thereby contracting the disease. Aged prostitutes admitted themselves to the place, considering it a good retirement home. A more intriguing find was that army men came in larger numbers when there was a war. A report dated 1879 noted that soldiers on the move were “always prone to fall into mischief”.

The administration was forever in doubt about the efficacy of these hospitals. The one in Kilpauk was closed in 1835, only to reopen again a few years later. It survived till the 1880s. The name, however, has lived on.

This article appeared in The Hindu dated July 26, 2015 under the Hidden Histories column.


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