Updated: June 6, 2013 12:48 IST

An account of the buildings of grandeur

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A welcome addition to the literature on colonial architecture in general, and bungalows in particular.

Bungalow, as a building type, may have had a humble origin in a Bengali hut, but after it was modified and used extensively by the British since the late 18th century, it came to be associated with the elite. Encircled by a large garden space and compound walls, the bungalows stood in sharp contrast to the contiguously built traditional houses. Collectively, they created new street forms and changed the cityscape. Despite their important role in the Indian architectural an d urban history, bungalows have not received the attention of scholars or conservationists to the extent they deserve. Seminal works by scholars such as Anthony King provide an overview of their development and spread, but city-level studies and monographs on individual buildings are few and far between.

Colonial architecture

This book, The Raj Bhavans of Tamil Nadu, is a welcome addition to the literature on colonial architecture in general, and bungalows in particular. It gives a detailed account of three of the grandest bungalows — the Governor’s residences, or Government Houses as they were called earlier. The residence at Chepauk, mostly completed in 1801 (recently demolished), and the one at Guindy, which “acquired its present shape in 1863,” are located in Chennai. And the third one that was “made fit as a Government House” in 1879 is located in Udhagamandalam (Ooty).

As S. Muthiah, the lead author describes, Governor is probably one of the few names of colonial offices that are still in vogue. Under the Constitution, the Governors are constitutional heads at the State level and, in certain functional respects, representatives of the Union Government. In the pre-Independence era, under the British regime, they were the “white rajahs” — power centres of the respective Presidencies or regions of administration. It was therefore understandable that their residences had to be the colonial equivalent of the traditional palaces, and this offered an opportunity to explore the bungalow-type structures on a grand scale.

The book traces the circumstances that led to the construction of the three residences for the Governor in the then Madras Presidency. The first three chapters, which provide information about the choice of the sites, the debates that surrounded the buildings, and the expenses incurred, are among the best in the book and make for an interesting reading.

What distinguishes this publication from the general run of ‘coffee table’ editions on heritage buildings is that it does not confine itself to the history and architecture of the buildings concerned. It goes on to locate them within the urban history of their place, list the art and the furniture collections found in them, and describe the fauna and flora that abound on their campuses. This serves to broaden the notion of heritage to include the man-made and the natural.

Sumptuously illustrated

The book is sumptuously illustrated with excellent photographs. The archival pictures in particular, collected from different sources, are a treat. Although the chapter on ‘architecture’ gives a good description of the building layout and style, it is not sufficiently anchored in the archival research. As a result, one is not able to comprehend how the architectural choices were made or to know about the building process. These palatial residences emerged, as noted in the book, when the Indo-Sarcenic architecture was a popular choice for civic buildings. However, a European style was chosen. Was it because, like the Churches built during this period, Government Houses had to be “stubbornly European” and ought to remain outside the realm of experimentation? How did the Governors who, on many occasions, appeared opinionated, view the question of “suitable style”? Answers to such queries would have enhanced the historical value of the book. Similarly, discussion about the original garden layouts and subsequent modifications, “green fantasies” as the book calls them, would have been useful.

The annotated biography of Governors, given at the end of this well-produced book by the South Zone Cultural Centre (of which the Governor of Tamil Nadu is the chairman), should serve as a handy reference. These Raj Bhavans are not open for the public. With its colourful photographs, interesting details, and graphic descriptions, the book seeks to make up for it by conjuring a vivid and rich picture of them.

THE RAJ BHAVANS OF TAMIL NADU: S. Muthiah; Published by the South Zone Cultural Centre, Thanjavur-600613. Rs. 2500.

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