I have never seen an aberration in this column quite like the one that appeared in it last Monday. And I’m surprised the postman has not brought in even one perceptive correction. How the First Line Beach buildings seen above today and referred to last week – the National Bank of India building, the Mercantile Bank of India building and the Arbuthnot Bank building – became buildings on Mount Road seen c.1970s (see inset) beats me. But the latter gives me the opportunity to tell their stories this week.

The two old buildings in the picture that appeared last week are of the South India Cooperative Insurance Society building (SICI) and the V G Panneerdas building (VGP) – as the signboards make quite clear. But their beginnings go a long way before last week’s picture of them.

The SICI building has a traceable history to 1893 when T R Tawker & Sons bought the site and raised on it a palatial building fit for a firm considered amongst the leading jewellery firms in South India. The Indo-Saracenic building was designed by Henry Irwin and built by T. Manavala Chetty. The Tawkers, one of the earliest Gujarati families to settle in South India, go back in this part of the world to Nilakanta Tawker, who in 1759 is mentioned in Ananda Ranga Pillai’s diaries as a diamond merchant who helped the French to sell booty plundered from a British vessel, 54,000 pagodas worth of diamonds.

T Ambasankar Tawker, speaking about T R Tawker’s in 1914, said the family had “no difficulty in tracing the business to over 200 years.” That business saw Tawker’s and P.Orr & Sons the only two representatives of the Madras Presidency in the Jewellery Court that was a highlight of the Coronation Durbar held in Delhi in 1903. The Tawker collection at the exhibition was valued at the time at Rs.60 lakh! Imagine that money in today’s currency!

Some years after that, the Tawkers were in financial trouble. The sixth Nizam of Hyderabad died in 1911 before he could settle a bill for a gold zaried robe embedded with diamonds. When his heirs did not make good the debt, the Tawkers’ woes grew worse and, in 1925, they were declared insolvent. And the Tawkers were out of the jewellery business. Descendants of the Tawker family, which once called the campus that became New College its home, Tawker Gardens, continue to live in Madras, but are mainly professionals.

The situation the Tawkers found themselves in led to the Tawker Building being sold to the Maharajah of Venkatagiri in 1926 and five years later he sold it to Kasturi Estates. SICI acquired the building in 1948 and in 1953 leased its ground floor to the newly-founded Indian Airlines as its booking office. When insurance was nationalised in 1956, the SICI building became the property of the Life Insurance Corporation. With the heritage movement in its infancy in 1979, when Indian Airlines moved to premises in Marshall’s Road, there was no protest when demolition of the SICI building began in 1980 to make way for a new LIC building to be raised on its ruins and inaugurated in 1988.

The SICI’s neighbour is also a building with a long history. Thought to be a Chisholm-designed building pre-dating the Tawker Building, it is believed it was built for Calcutta-headquartered Whiteaway Laidlaw’s, Furnishers and General Drapers, second only to Spencer’s as a department store. Suffice it to say that when Whiteaway’s closed down shortly after Independence, the building was bought by C R Srinivasan of The Swadesmitran who named it Victory House. That leading Tamil daily, faced with increasing competition in the 1970s, sold Victory House to the VGP group in 1975. And it was shortly after that the picture which strayed its way into this column last week was taken.

The South India Cooperative Insurance Society Ltd was an inspiration of V Ramadas Pantulu, who became its founder Chairman. He was succeeded by P.S. Kumaraswamy Raja, who was to become a Chief Minister of the State. This rural-focused enterprise was founded in 1932.

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A 250-year contribution

This is not strictly speaking a Madras City item. But when many associated with it have had links with the city and hundreds of others call Madras home, that is reason enough for the 250th birthday of St. John’s Vestry School, Tiruchchirappalli, to be taken note of by this column.

Like the school in St Mary’s in the Fort and the Civil and Military Orphans’ Asylums in Madras laying the foundation for St George’s in Madras, the oldest Western-style school in British Asian territories, it was the Vestry Orphanage and School that was a part of the Trichinopoly Cantonment’s Church of St John that in 1763 laid the foundations for what is today St John’s Vestry Anglo-Indian Higher Secondary School.

It was in 1763 that many soldiers died at the foot of Trichy’s famed rock when an ammunition magazine in the Fort exploded. Major Archilles Preston, who commanded the Garrison, immediately started a fund for those left orphans by the tragedy. The 300 pagodas collected were given to that famous Tranquebar missionary, Christian Frederick Schwartz, and he established a school and orphanage attached to it in Trichy. In 1766, he received a further 300 pagodas from Nawab Muhammad Ali Khan of Arcot (and later of the Carnatic) after the siege of Madurai led to the defeat and death of Yusuf Khan, then considered a traitor by the British. In 1772, another magazine explosion in Trichinopoly Fort was followed by Schwartz collecting the money necessary for an expanded school and orphanage necessitated by the new tragedy.

All those mentioned here had connections with Madras. The Nawab, shortly after this, was to make Madras his home. Schwartz in his early years spent time with the Vepery mission. And Preston and Yusuf Khan, later Commandant of the Sepoys, rode side by side to break Lally’s siege of Madras by, guerilla-style, cutting his lines of communication. When Yusuf Khan turned rebel and the siege of Madura ensued, Preston was wounded and Yusuf Khan called a halt in the battle so that his former colleague and friend could be carried off the field. Preston, sadly, died of his wounds.

When a new Cantonment was established in 1805 three miles south of Trichy Fort, the Church of St. John’s was built there and consecrated in 1807. The school was then entrusted to the care of the Vestry of St. John’s. The Vestry took full charge of the school in 1826. It was some 50 years later, in 1880, that the school was moved from suburban Puthur to the Cantonment where, in 1918, twelve surrounding acres were obtained from Government for what had became a full-fledged school.

T.E. Moir, Finance Member of the Government of Madras, and the South Indian Railway, many of whose employees had schooled there or had children there, helped in adding better facilities and new buildings that were needed. Among these buildings was the assembly hall named after the Rev Frank Penny, later to serve as Chaplain in St Mary’s in the Fort in Madras and write, together with his wife, much about the city. The foundation stone for the building was laid in February 1929, by the Bishop of Madras, the Rt.Rev. D H M Waller, another name remembered in the city. The Hall was opened in July 1932. And became a landmark on the campus, benefitting a school with a proud history of contributing to the railways and several government services in Madras and beyond.

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Questions on Heritage List

Some time ago 66 heritage buildings were listed by the Heritage Conservation Committee of the Chennai Metropolitan Development Authority and, presumably, ratified, as nothing has been heard about the listing since. Now, a second draft list of 42 heritage buildings has been sent for ratification, it is reported. There are, however, a couple of questions arising out of the latest list that strike me.

The list mentions the historic Central Jail building. But the building no longer exists. More importantly, if the HCC considered it a heritage building – and it did, if you go by its preliminary listing a couple of years ago – how did the Committee permit the building to be razed? In this context, I wonder whether listing has any sanctity.

A second question arises out of the listing of Humayun Mahal. What about the rest of Chepauk Place, which includes Khalsa Mahal and Chisholm’s Tower besides a couple of other historic structures? Surely what should have been listed is Chepauk Palace and its precincts?

Yet another question arises out of this partial listing of the Chepauk Palace complex. Why was, in such piecemeal listing, Khalsa Mahal and the tower that was called the Record Office not listed? In the case of Khalsa Mahal in particular, much of the building remains and the plans for restoring it do not involve razing it and raising a new building but incorporating in the restoration effort much of what stands. Surely that would merit heritage status?

One last question. In this listing, is the HCC considering the classical format of listing which divides heritage buildings into three categories, A, B, and C. Certainly all buildings listed so far are not A grade buildings and should so be listed in categories, keeping in mind what the owners can and cannot do in each category.