Ninety years ago last month, Laxman Mahadeo Chitale became one of the first Indian Associates of the Royal Institute of British Architects, if not the first. Nine years later he became a Fellow of this prestigious institution. The previous year, 1932, he started his practice in Madras after leaving the PWD which he had joined in 1929 after a seven-year stint in the U.K. That he was the first Indian architect in South India with British qualifications — much valued at the time — was to get him off to a flying start at a period when all major architecture in India was being designed and built by British architects who had established themselves in India.

Also helping him with that start was a long association with the then renowned town planner, Henry V. Lanchester. Invited to be Town Planning Adviser to the Madras Presidency, Lanchester, who had stayed as Sir P.S. Sivaswamy Aiyar’s guest in his palatial house Sudharma on Edward Elliot’s Road — now the Amalgamation Group’s headquarters — travelled throughout India studying towns — but also designing buildings for Princely India as well as for Presidency and Provincial Governments. During his travels, he visited Kala Bhavan, the University of the Arts founded by the Gaekwad of Baroda, and there he spotted in the draughtsman’s course the talent of a student from Ratnagiri District, Maharashtra, who was studying there on a scholarship. Lanchester invited Chitale to join him as soon as he finished his course. Over the next few years, Chitale worked with Lanchester on all his projects, including his best work, the Umaid Bhavan Palace in Jodhpur.

When Lanchester left for Britain in 1922, Chitale sailed with him to become an assistant in the firm of Lanchester, Lucas and Lodge. While working there he was to study at the University of London’s Schools of Architecture and Town Planning, where, at the latter, he was the first Indian to win the Lever Prize for Town Planning, the School’s highest award. Shortly after finishing his studies, he spotted an advertisement for an Assistant Consulting Architect in the Public Works Department, Government of Madras. With his record, the job was his, despite his not being British. And so the young man from the Konkan Coast arrived in Madras — to make it his home where his son and grandson have followed in his footsteps.

In the Madras of the 1930s to the early 1950s, the age of Art Deco, Laxman Chitale was to establish an enviable reputation, raising many of the most striking buildings of the time, some of them still landmarks.

Chitale’s first buildings were the main ones at Annamalai University, designed in 1932. The next year, at Vice Chancellor Dr. S. Radhakrishnan’s request, he was designing most of the buildings of the Andhra University, Waltair. Then, in 1935, he built his first landmark building in Madras, the Oriental Building at a corner of Armenian Street in George Town, where it is the LIC’s City Branch office now. That same year he designed Dr. Radhakrishnan’s home, Girija, on Edward Elliot’s Road. In the years that followed, among the landmark buildings he designed in Madras were Pachaiyappa’s College (1938), A.C. College of Technology and Central Leather Research Institute (1947), Rajah Annamalai Hall (1950), and the LIC tower block (1958). Apart from these and many other buildings in the South, he designed landmark buildings as far away as Nagpur, Durgapur and Delhi. Indeed, his is an architectural portfolio that must be one of the best in India on either side of Independence.

Who ‘discovered’ Australia?

The postman has been bountiful this last week. Apart from letters, he brought the booklet on Laxman Chitale’s life, which gave me the previous item, and a rather solid book called Colonial Cousins by Joyce Westrip and Peggy Holroyde which traces Australia’s links with India from the founding of the first colony. But in their introduction, the authors had me sitting up and paying attention to a much earlier link that had a Madras connection.

I don’t know whether William Dalrymple is a kinsman, but Alexander Dalrymple’s story is one that he might like to follow up. I’ve, thanks to Colonial Cousins and my usual Madras sources, been able to lay hands only on the bare bones of the story, but that’s enough to say there’s a tale well worth telling there — including the part Alexander Dalrymple played as a Councillor to Governor Pigot in that infamous coup against Pigot that saw the death of him.

The Alexander Dalrymple tale begins with him arriving in Madras as a 15-year-old Writer in 1752. Three years later he was to be groomed as an assaymaster, but local bickering put an end to that training. It was around this time that Dalrymple began hearing local tales about Gondwana and the stories that South India was once linked to a vast land far to the South. Gradually he became convinced that there was indeed a Great South Land waiting to be discovered, particularly as he had heard that Dutch and Spanish cartographers who had sailed further east insisted that below the islands of East Asia there existed a large land mass waiting to be discovered.

Dalrymple got an opportunity to get closer to his obsession when, while a Junior Merchant, he was sent on “a secret service mission to Sooloo, a group of islands in the Eastern Archipelago” (Sulu archipelago) to spy out the area for establishing trading posts. In March 1764 he was in Manila to close down the East India Company’s establishment there and then he sailed for Balambangan island (just off Sabah the north coast of Borneo) to found a settlement there. All these sailings in Southeast Asian waters had him drawing up charts of those seas and, when these were published, Alexander Dalrymple’s reputation as a maritime cartographer was established. He was appointed Hydrographer to the Company in 1779 and to the Royal Navy in 1795.

Neither of these appointments were compensation for what he felt he had been deprived of by the Company and the Admiralty in the 1760s. On his return from the eastern seas in the second half of the 1760s he had sought command of a vessel to search for the Great South Land “merely to discover the figure of the lands.” Despite all his appeals, he was passed over for the command of the Endeavour and it was given to James Cook in 1766. A biographer of Capt. Cook was to write that Dalrymple’s belief in a Great South Land “was obsessive to the extent that it became the corner-stone of his life; he was never to forgive Cook for destroying his dream.” The “discovery” of Australia for settlement — it had been “discovered” in outline form by European sailors from as early as the first quarter of the 17th Century — has been credited to Cook; the man from Madras who wanted to be there first seldom gets mentioned, but he’s remembered in Australia in the southernmost reaches of Tasmania where there’s Port Dalrymple.

When the postman knocked…

- Satenig Batwagan-Toufanian (Miscellany, March 17) writes from Paris that when the Armenians in Julfa in Azerbaijan were ordered to move out they founded in 1605 a new settlement and called it New Julfa. This was in a suburb of Ispahan, then the capital of Shah Abbas I’s Persia. It was from this new settlement that the Armenians of Madras arrived and established trading links from Manila to Venice. There is a plan, she writes, to erect a monument in George Town to commemorate the Armenian contribution to Madras from the 17th to the 19th Centuries. A “central island in NSC Bose Road has already been chosen for this and sports a sign that it is maintained by the Consulate of Armenia in Madras,” adds Satenig. But echoing what I wrote about the Anglo-Indians (Miscellany, March 31), I wonder whether monuments are what are needed or whether the need is for the study of such communities. There is, I rather think, space in the Armenian Church premises for a study centre to be developed there.

- K. Ravi writes of an intriguing coincidence in tributes paid to Thamizh Thatha, U Ve Sa, by Tagore (Miscellany, March 24) and Bharatiyar. Tagore, writing in 1926, says, “are you not the one, like sage Agasthya, who gave the glorious throne to Mother Thamizh?!” while Bharatiyar wrote of the “Scholar Saminathan” that he was “Agasthya incarnate”. Was it coincidence, wonders my correspondent, or was Tagore drawing from Bharatiyar who had written his tribute many years earlier and whom Tagore may have read?