MADRAS MISCELLANY

This year is the 200th anniversary of the founding of an institution than contributed significantly to the languages of South India by encouraging the development on modern lines of grammars and dictionaries in them. This institution that functioned till 1854, the College of Fort St. George, was where the newly recruited civil servants of the Madras Presidency spent their first two years learning one of the South Indian languages.

It is on this campus that the Directorate of Public Instruction now functions and it is here that Government proposes to develop a major Knowledge Centre. Given the history of the campus, I hope that the Centre will have in it a Centre for South Indian Languages and that the authorities will demonstrate their appreciation of the contributions of the past by naming it the Francis Whyte Ellis Centre, after the civil servant who proposed and saw through its development the College of Fort St. George.

During the forty years of its existence, the College benefitted tremendously through the contributions of civil servants and missionaries who came from abroad and became experts in the languages of South India. Among those whom the College worked with or published were Beschi, Winslow and Ellis (Tamil), C.P. Brown and A.D. Campbell (Telugu), J. Mckerrel and Reeve (Kannada), and C.M. Whish (Malayalam). Their work led to ancient works being re-created as modern grammars and dictionaries. Their’s was truly a tremendous contribution to the development of modern language in the Madras Presidency. Will it be remembered in the Knowledge Centre?

An even older anniversary will be marked next year when the Corporation of Madras marks its 325th year. The oldest Corporation in India, and the oldest in any part of the erstwhile British Empire outside the British Isles, should have its home, Ripon Building, which will also celebrate an anniversary next year, its 100th birthday, all restored and ready for the commemoration.

There was some talk a couple of years ago, when restoration of the building was first thought about, to develop in one wing of it a heritage museum of the city. One of those with whom this was discussed thought it should follow the model of the Images of Singapore Museum on Sentosa Island. I think that, in principle, that is a great idea, the history down to present-day life told in a series of life-size tableaux with automatic commentaries coming on the moment a visitor stands in front of each presentation. But while the idea is great, the execution in Singapore is in part disappointing. My fear is that if we follow that style we’ll go even more overboard and it all could turn out ghastly.

In Singapore, the first part of the presentation is subdued as are many of the other tableaux. But there were a large number I almost literally raced away from, they were so loud and cinematic. Given the possibility of that, I can imagine what we’ll do with the opportunity, particularly if you judge by what we’ve done at several places of worship and in the eulogising of our politicians in posters and cut-outs.

Here is a grand opportunity to do something world class — a Knowledge Centre and a South Indian Languages Centre in buildings reflecting the architectural culture of the region and a tastefully presented story with a well-scripted and well-spoken commentary in Ripon Building. Will the authorities do something different for a change?

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The Naik of Madras

As I prepare for another Madras Week (August 19 to 26 and beyond and before) I’ve been catching up with my reading on Olde Madras and in that exercise caught up once again with a person I had long lost track of, Mollay (or Mallai) the Naik of Madras.

It was during the government of Francis Day, which commenced on August 27, 1643, that the Dutch, operating from Pulicat, drew up plans to undermine British trade on the Coromandel Coast. This they did by providing their Chief Merchant, Chenana Chetti aka Mollay/Mallai, with men and arms to overthrow Venkatadri Naik — who had granted the East India Company the three square miles of no man’s sand where the first buildings of Fort St. George were raised. Mollay was then made the representative of the last vestiges of the Vijayanagar Empire by the Rajah of Vijayanagar and, in effect, became the Naik of Madras. Once he replaced Venkatadri, Day wrote, “hee made demands to have the Governmentt of this place and all the profetts to himself” instead of the half that had been negotiated with Venkatadri. But, Day wrote, “wee Intend not soe Easily to part with our emunities; and if hee shall any way mollest us, if opportunity presents for a retaliation, wee shall make the best use thereof.”

Fortunately for Fort St. George, Rajah Sri Ranga Raya of Vijayanagar fell out with the Dutch and ordered Mollay to besiege Pulicat instead. He also requested the British to assist Mollay with arms and ammunition. In return, Fort St. George reported, the Rajah confirmed “our old privalidge, with some addition”! That grant, made to Day’s successor Agent Thomas Ivie, dates to October 1645.

Whether it was due to this or not, Mollay and two other Naiks fell out with the Rajah. Taking advantage of this, Golconda invaded Tondaimandalam and Mollay was the first in 1646 to surrender his fort to General Mir Jumla in return for safe passage for himself and other inhabitants. The next we hear of Mollay is that he was being “kindly entertained” by the Dutch in 1647, but with the economy uncertain in a battle-ravaged country he was of little benefit to them. Mollay then vanishes from the pages of history.

White House inspired?

Picking up something from my library for my bed-time reading the other night, I found I had in my hands Upstairs in the White House by J.B. West who had managed the White House domestic staff during Presidencies ranging from Harry Truman to Richard Nixon. Now what he had to say, particularly about his interactions with the various First Ladies, is not what this item is about. It’s about what struck me a couple of nights into the reading of this rather aged title. One night I paid a little more attention than usual to its cover and, at the bottom of the design, spotted a sketch that suddenly seemed very familiar; it bore a striking resemblance to the way the Governor’s house, his Council chamber, and his Secretariat had been re-developed some time in the 19th Century (see pictures).

The 1640 ‘Castle’ or ‘Fort House’, the first home of the Governor of Fort St. George, then known as Agent and later as President, was demolished in 1693. A new three-storey building was built to the east of the ‘Castle’ closer to the Fort’s east wall and facing westwards. Work on it was completed in 1717. This was left in a sad state after the French had marched out of the Fort in 1749 after their three-year occupation of it. The building was then repaired and extended, but leaving its core intact, a core that still survives as the second oldest British construction in Madras. Work on this restoration was completed c.1785.

Further improvements were made to the building in the early 1800s, by when it was only Council Chamber and Secretariat with no residential accommodation for the Governor who had moved to Chepauk. The work on this building was completed in 1825 and its handsomeness is seen in the photograph taken in the early 1900s. To the rear of it was constructed the Assembly Hall, readied for use by 1910, and, today, what was elegantly the curved central entrance and the rest of the façade seen in the photograph are hidden by new construction that was completed in 1958.

It’s that curved frontage of the 19th Century and the half pillars, balustrades, and windows that make the Fort St. George Secretariat look rather like the White House’s façade. The White House was built between 1792 and 1800. Did it inspire the architects and engineers in Madras 25 years later?

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