The National Art Gallery, a victim of bad maintenance, has been closed for about a decade, and the Government’s promise is to give it a new life

Even as I await news of a promise of restoration of a heritage building being kept, namely that of Khalsa Mahal, I’m delighted once again with the promise of funds for another restoration, that of the National Art Gallery in the Museum complex in Egmore. It would be most appropriate if work on the latter began this year, for it was 125 years ago that the building was thought of as one of two to be raised in Madras in 1887 to commemorate the Golden Jubilee of Queen Victoria’s reign. The other building planned at the time was the Victoria Public Hall, often called the Town Hall, which is now under restoration and will, hopefully, be ready by the end of the year.

The National Art Gallery, a victim of bad maintenance, has been closed for about a decade now, and the Government’s promise is to give it -- and its valuable holdings -- a new life. But it was not as an art gallery that Sir A.T. Arundel, president of the Corporation, and his fellow councillors had thought of it when the building was first suggested as a permanent marker of the Golden Jubilee. It was decided to start an institution to promote local arts and crafts and build a venue where they could be exhibited and sold by local craftsmen. Called the Victoria Technical Institute (VTI), it successfully got off the ground as an institution together with the Victoria Public Hall in the Golden Jubilee year, but plans for what was to be the exhibition hall of the Institute got delayed and then, further delayed when Government began to drag its feet on support once the Jubilee Year was over.

When Queen Victoria died in 1901, everyone suddenly woke up and decided to establish a fund that would raise money for what would be called the Victoria Memorial Hall and Technical Institute. But once again, funds were slow to flow in, so it was 1906 before the foundation stone was laid and 1909 before the Henry Irwin-designed, Namberumal Chetty-built edifice was completed. But even before the building was ready, the VTI moved in and began proving a success. When completed, the Mughal-inspired architecture of the building, featuring pink sandstone cladding, sculptural work, minarets and a doorway out of Akbar’s dream palace in Fatehpur Sikri, became a new Madras landmark.

During World War II, the VTI was asked to move out of the Hall and it put down roots in Mount Road. Its Egmore home was then put to Government wartime use and was in a sad state when returned for public use. With India setting up four National Art Galleries after Independence, this was chosen as home to one in 1951 and restored to house a part of the National Collection. But little maintenance over a period of 50 years saw the building becoming decrepit by the time of the new Millennium and brought to the point of closure. Now, at last there’s hope again.

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Heritage Town development

Many moons ago, I was part of a committee set up by the Town and Country Planning Department to review plans submitted for the development of 35 towns that had been designated Heritage Towns. At the first meeting, I submitted that virtually all the towns listed were nominated for their religious significance, with temples the focus of much of the greater part of them, and there was necessity to list towns which had historical, architectural, cultural or natural significance. Following discussions, about three or four more towns better known for their historical/architectural significance were added and I hear that, recently, about a dozen more towns, but again mainly with a religious focus, have been added to the list, making about 50 towns in all but missing out on least a score of other towns with heritage - but not religious - significance.

During the past few months, I’ve had occasion to visit four of these towns and found in them, in several places, large signboards proclaiming the heritage status of the town and with what should be seen in and around them. But visit any of the recommended sites and you will only find signs of neglect and the total lack of attention paid to them. Or if any attention had been paid to a particular feature, how incongruous or cinematic it was in the context of the place's heritage!

In one of these towns, where a particular road in it and the neighbouring area was being described as a heritage precinct, there was, smack in the middle of it, work getting underway to develop a block of nondescript flats. And this in a town where no flats had hitherto existed! Obviously the Town Panchayat or whoever was granting permission had not a clue about what could or could not be done in a Heritage Town.

Another feature of these Heritage Towns is signboards proclaiming Heritage Museums. Heritage Centres are also promised in some of them. A couple of the museums I have seen hold collections in a room or on a verandah of what would be best suited for the dustbin or appear, in their state of decrepitude, to have been rescued from those receptacles. The Heritage Centres promise museum displays, exhibitions, libraries and research facilities. But ask for details and there is no mention of professional historians, librarians, artisans and scholars being associated with their development. They will, I am certain, wind up no better than the museums referred to.

These developments raise the question of whether any guidelines were ever drafted to ensure protection and conservation in such heritage destinations after our short-lived committee, which had just a couple of meetings. If none have been drawn up, it is time they were.

Linked to this question is the recent case of the storming of the Shore Temple in Mamallapuram. That World Heritage Site was one of those first declared a Heritage Town in the State. It is the absence of rules and guidelines that enabled permission to be granted for a mass meeting so close to the town’s most valuable heritage sites. Surely if there were guidelines they would not have allowed mass gatherings anywhere near the town’s most precious holdings.

TAILPIECE: What strikes me as sad about what happened in Mamallapuram is that none of the State’s political leaders, particularly those connected with the events, have thought it fit to condemn what happened at the Shore Temple. Or tried to take to task those responsible.

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When the postman knocked…

The illustrated postcard featured today was printed by Higginbotham’s in 1916, tells me reader Pradeep Chakravarthy, who wants to know whether I agree with him that the temple in the postcard “looks remarkably similar to the one just next to Valluvar Kottam - the one to your left as you pass Valluvar Kottam and before the Park near the roundabout.” I'll leave readers to answer the query, but the card itself intrigued me from a historical point of view. Higginbotham’s were probably among the earliest to print picture postcards in Madras and they were probably printed at its own printing press. But earlier than the Higginbotham’s cards were those of Wiele & Klein (later Klein & Peyerl), who had printed in 1903 a Coronation Durbar series and in 1904 a series using pictures from Madras, Ooty, Tanjore, Madurai, Malabar and other South Indian destinations. These cards, it is said, were printed in Saxony (Germany). Many of these Wiele & Klein photographs in the original negatives are now in the Vintage Vignettes collection in Madras. Others are in a museum in Heidelberg. Wiele & Klein allowed publishers in Bombay and Calcutta to use their photographs for picture postcards for a handsome fee and those of topless rural beauties were bestsellers worldwide. It is also stated that Spencer & Co had picture postcards printed in 1897, just three years after the Royal Mail allowed private publishers in Britain to print picture postcards. But this is a claim that needs greater substantiation.

Reader K.R.A Narasiah, a marine engineer, recalls a fellow marine engineer who passed away recently, Achanta Rama Rao, the youngest son of Rukmini Lakshmipathi, the freedom fighter and one of the earliest women legislators in the country. While his mother spent time in jail in the cause of freedom, Rama Rao was aboard the training ship Dufferin in Bombay, preparing for an officer’s career in the Merchant Navy. He was later to write, “It is an irony that while my mother was actively involved in the ‘Quit India’ Movement, I was saluting the Union Jack twice a day. When someone asked her why I had been sent to a British institution, she replied that sooner or later India would attain her Independence and would need trained officers to take over when the British left.” The Dufferin, incidentally, is no more, its history as a training ship at the Ferry Wharf in Bombay from 1927 coming to an end in 1972. Its place was taken from 1972 to 1993 by another training ship, the T.S. Rajendra. In 1993 the Rajendra was replaced by the T.S.Chanakya, a shore-based training establishment. Many a merchant navy cadet from the Madras Presidency passed out from the Dufferin, but the South Indian connection continued in the name Rajendra, no doubt a tribute to Rajendra Chola's sea-going exploits, and in Chanakya, which is the Mumbai campus of the Madras-based Indian Maritime University, the country's first. A naval footnote to this recounting is reader Narasiah's recollection that Rama Rao’s elder brother Srinivasa Rao was born on the day the Emden shelled Madras and he was ever after called by all by the name of that marauding cruiser!