Readers of this column are looking accusingly at me these days. No sooner had I written something about the General Post Office building and featured a picture of it in its heyday before other winds blew off its Kerala ‘caps' (Miscellany, October 31), than a part of its roof came tumbling down. That's for putting the hex on it, they seem to be saying.
But hex or not, what were the authorities doing after it had been pointed out to them a while ago, from what I've heard, that a portion of the roof was unsafe? It was certainly a warning that led to the staff being moved out from under that roof, so why wasn't restoration — or, at least, repair, — undertaken right away? Does it really take a few weeks for action to be taken on repairs that are urgent?
There could certainly be a debate on the answers to these questions, but what can't be debated is what happened after the fire in 2003. This was a glorious chance to restore the building, as was recommended by INTACH, but, instead, restoration, in the form of creating a new Great Hall, was carried out without consulting experts in the conservation of heritage buildings. Both the fire and this ‘restoration' would certainly have affected the solidity of other parts of the building. Be that as it may, it's still not too late to restore the entire building to the magnificence Chisholm had created. Will the Postal Authorities, who have listed the Chennai GPO as one of their heritage buildings, seize this opportunity and bring the whole building back to its old glory instead of doing piecemeal work on it or, worse, looking at other options?
In this connection, it must be asked what the Heritage Conservation Committee, that the CMDA initiated, has been doing other than examining a couple of threatened buildings that are being fought over in Court and getting some listing work started? When the HCC was started, it agreed to ‘save' the 400-odd buildings listed in the Justice Padmanabhan Committee Report. Other than sending out a notice asking the owners not to do anything to their respective buildings without the HCC's permission, this toothless committee that rarely meets, has done nothing else as far as this column is aware. Has it visited all the ‘listed' sites and examined in what state the buildings are and what needs to be done to them? Has it looked at the state of Senate House, Chepauk Palace, the National Art Gallery in the Museum complex, or Victoria Hostel? Has it looked at ‘listed' buildings that are having some kind of restoration or repair work being done to them and found out whether this is being carried out with permission or not, whether it is being done in keeping with the building's heritage etc.?
If the HCC had been doing its job in this fashion, perhaps what happened at the GPO might not have happened.
Footnote: That ‘jinxing' item of mine on the GPO has Ramineni Bhaskarendra Rao telling me that I was not quite right about the origins of the Madras GPO and that its beginnings dated to before Sir Archibald Campbell. He's right — and I had written extensively about those beginnings (in Miscellany, November 12, 2007). In the most recent reference, I was trying to cut a long story short, but for the sake of anyone who missed the earlier narration I offer this summary:
It was J.P. Burlton, a junior civil servant in Madras, who first submitted a plan for a Madras GPO. That plan was submitted to Governor Lord Marcartney (who arrived in Madras in 1781) shortly after he took office. Little action followed. A more senior civil servant, Thomas Lewin, then amended the plan and submitted it to Provisional Governor Alexander Davidson a month after he took charge in June 1785. Davidson strongly recommended it to the Court of the East India Company in London and it was on the Court's approval of this plan that Sir Archibald Campbell acted in 1786 when he took office in January 1786 from the Acting Governor. As Bhaskarendra Rao says, “Credit for establishing the GPO should go to Burlton, Lewin and Davidson more than to Campbell.” In fact, Campbell blotted his copy book by appointing a kinsman, A.M. Campbell, who was not in the Company's service, as the first Postmaster-General. The Company, overruling the appointment, named Burlton to the post. The Council in Madras then decided against Burlton and appointed Richard Legge Wilks but had to remove him from the post and Oliver Colt was named in his place, becoming, de facto, the first Postmaster-General of Madras.
The knowledge hub
One of the reasons given by Government for moving the Anna Centenary Library to a new building alongside the Knowledge Centre planned for the DPI campus is that it will be close to several educational institutions that form a knowledge hub. As far as I can see, there is no greater knowledge hub in the city than in the vicinity of where the Anna Centenary Library is situated at present.
Starting with some of the oldest institutions, there are here the College of Engineering, AC College of Technology and the School of Architecture and Town Planning, all the core of Anna University. Then there are the Central Leather Research Institute, IIT–Madras and the Highways Research Station.
A bit further away are the Polytechnics, the Regional Institute of Printing Technology, The Institute of Hotel Management, The Institute of Mathematical Science, the M.S. Swaminathan Research Foundation, the Asian College of Journalism, and Institutes specialising in international Tamil research and the Indus Valley script.
And on their periphery are the National Institute of Fashion Technology, the Teachers' Technical Training Institute, and Madras University's AL Postgraduate Institute of Basic Medical Sciences.
The MGR Medical University is not far away. Nor are the Central Electronics Engineering Research Institute and the Institutes of Textile Technology, Petro-Chemical Technology, Chemical & Leather Technology, and National Environmental Engineering Research. Also near here are the Murugappa Research Centre, the Institute of Water Studies, the Building Research Centre, and the Institute of Road Transport. And I might have missed a few.
Surely these educational, research and training institutions are the pride of the city. Surely there can't be a better location for a first class library than the site of the Anna Centenary Library. If it is thought the quality of the Library's content does not quite meet the requirements of this educational constellation that few cities in India can boast of, by all means upgrade the holdings. Moving the Library ten kilometres from here is not the answer.
Is it really necessary to deprive this splendid educational hub of a modern library — and centre it next to a hub of educational bureaucracy?
High Court's first home
As the Madras High Court gets ready to celebrate its 150th year, I hope the Justices — and the High Court Museum, a well-maintained exhibition centre worth visiting — spare a thought for where Sir Colley Scotland and brother Justices first sat as High Court judges. I wonder how many remember that the High Court's first sessions were held in what was called Bentinck's Building on First Line Beach (now Rajaji Salai) and that when the building was ‘evacuated' in 1985 and pulled down some years later, no one in the High Court really showed any concern over this part of the Court's vanishing history.
Bentinck's Building, a splendid example of Classical architecture, was built on the site of the old Marine Yard. It was opened in 1793 to provide office space for the merchants who had been asked to move out of the Fort. In 1817, it became the home of the Supreme Court and housed that venerable institution till it was abolished in 1862. The High Court then became occupants till it moved to its handsome own buildings in 1892. Bentinck's Building then became the Madras Collectorate — the rather unimaginative building that has replaced it continuing to serve as the Collectorate.
Of extent 27,000 sq. ft. on each of its three floors, Bentinck's Building, with its teak rafters, liberal use of cut stone, and heavy iron windows, cost Rs. 3,60,000. One remnant of the past here is the largest of the Cornwallis Cupolas which has been on this site from 1925 and has now been slotted into the Collectorate's new wall.
Lord William Bentinck was Governor of Madras from 1803 to 1807 and the building was named in his memory after he left the city. He went on to become Governor-General of India in which role he abolished sati, took on the thuggis, and implemented Macaulay's recommendations on education and jurisprudence in India — which, for better or worse, still survive.