New neighbour

for Memorial Hall

Memorial Hall, on Mint Street, a little past Central Station, is to get a new neighbour, it is reported. Let's look at Memorial Hall first.

The pillared and pedimented Hall was built with ‘subscriptions', read donations, from the British residents of Madras in the 19{+t}{+h} Century as thanksgiving for being “spared from the horrors of the Indian Mutiny.” The Mutiny, Sepoy Revolt, First War of Independence, call it what you will, barely affected Madras. There were a few incidents in Triplicane and ‘Black Town' (George Town) and elsewhere in the Province, but they were all put down with a heavy hand in no time. No British lives were lost – and that the British residents thought should be gratefully commemorated. So, raising Memorial Hall was suggested at a meeting of several British residents.

The building was designed by Col.George Winscom, who in 1857 had taken over as Principal of the Civil Engineering College (now the College of Engineering, Anna University). Work on it started in 1858, but appears to have dragged on – probably for want of money – during which period a Col.Horsley made several modifications to the design.

The Hall was built on a raised platform and has a handsome pedimented, Ionic-pillared portico. At the base of the portico's pediment are the words, “The Lord has been Mindful of us: He will bless us.” The Christian tone was a pointer to the ultimate use of the Hall. On completion it was handed over by the citizens' committee to the Anglican Bishop of Madras and from then was closely connected with the missionary activities of the Church.

In time, in an adjoining building raised later, the Christian Literature Society was headquartered. Once, it had a significant publishing programme beyond Christian literature alone. It also has been, and still is, associated with the oldest surviving printing press in India, though what was once the huge Diocesan Press is now much abbreviated.

It's the CLS's building that is now to be pulled down and a new building raised in its place. The City's Heritage Conservation Committee, in granting permission for this, has said that the new building should not be the eight stories as planned, that it should be only four stories and should not dominate Memorial Hall. It has also stated that it should be in a sympathetic architectural style (it has even given design suggestions). The Bishop has indicated the Church's willingness to go along with these guidelines – and I hope that will be kept.

The last time, however, I heard such a promise made things turned out rather differently. That was when Bentinck's Building was ‘saved' on Prime Minister Indira Gandhi's word in Chief Minister MGR's ear. His view of saving it was to vacate its occupants, the Madras Collectorate, and let it fall into decay after disuse. Then the PWD condemned it, much against INTACH–Tamil Nadu's assessment, and, while it was being pulled down, the PWD engineers promised INTACH that they would build the new Collectorate in the same style of the old. My pictures today show how that promise was kept on Rajaji Salai.

Be that as it may, let's get back to Memorial Hall. It was for long a venue for public meetings, lectures, sermons and exhibitions connected with the Church and other such institutions. But too often in the recent past it has been used for garish sales of clothing ‘seconds', rather demeaning it. I hope that with the new CLS building coming up, the Hall too will be restored and put to the better use it once was.


MGR's first

film steps

It's been a while since I bumped into film historian Randor Guy. When we met the other day, he, as usual, had a tidbit for me. Did I know, he asked me, that it was 75 years ago that M.G. Ramachandran first made his film debut? I didn't, but now I know, It was in a bit part, as a police inspector escorting an accused, that MGR took his first film steps in Sathi Leelavati. Wearing a service bush coat and shorts with a laced turban and a baton, the booted and belted MGR might have looked the part, but it did not win him any recognition. It was to be a little over ten years later, after a series of minor roles, that he got his chance to play a hero. That was in the 1947 film Rajakumari – and with it he was on his way to stardom.

Sathi Leelavathi, released in 1936, is a film to be remembered for many other reasons. It was American Ellis R. Dungan's first film in India as a director – and was to take him to great heights in Tamil cinema. M.K. Radha, then a popular stage actor, comedian N.S. Krishnan and character actor T.S. Balaiah all made their film debuts in this adaptation of Mrs. Henry Woods Danesbury House, yet another of her melodramatic tear-jerkers. The adaptation had been written as a Tamil novel by S.S. Vasan, and when he sold the movie rights to the makers of Sathi Leelavathi, it was his first brush with the film industry. And when Dungan introduced cabaret in the film, it was yet another first.

With Dungan introducing several other cine-techniques new to the Tamil Cinema of the 1930s, Sathi Leelavathi was a trailblazer whose path later Tamil films were to follow.


A decade of

this column

With MetroPlus and photographer V.Ganesan having made me the city's newest pin-up boy to judge by all the calls and messages I have received, it's time to remind readers that I do other things besides modeling for old typewriters and older buildings. Like writing this column and trying my best to respond to readers.

One of those requests, one I've received from several readers over the years, is for a collection of these columns in book form. Several readers have told me that they've been cutting out the column over the years and filing them, but that a book of them would be so much easier to store.

With Westland coming forward to publish such a collection, this is yet another reader's request answered. A Madras Miscellany – A Decade of People, Places, and Potpourri will be available early in May.

The book, covering the period November 1999 to November 2009, does not include every word that's appeared in this column during that decade. It does, however, include about three-fourths of the items that appeared – and even that amounts to over a thousand items, midst which the postman has a field day. The items that appear are the timeless ones; those left out are “current” items, the bits and pieces of interest only at the time they were published. I hope that will satisfy all those who've been suggesting the book.