All that the police photographers remember about the old building they are lodged in, is something they have heard over the years: "policemen, hunched over their horses, riding up to the doorstep and alighting." Little do they know that they are occupying one of the first offices of the Commissioner of Police, Chennai.
The original yellow paint of the building in Egmore may have given way to bright red bricks and the memories may have all but faded away, but one small circular plaque clings steadfastly on to the building's history. A careful look reveals ‘1882' inscribed in the centre of the plaque, indicating the year the building was built. Some of the letters have disappeared, but parts are still legible: Colonel W.S. Drever CSI Commissioner of Police, R.F. Chisholm, architect.
“The photographers' wing in the Commissioner's office is one of the few buildings designed by Robert Chisholm that is not mentioned in many history books,” says Sriram V., convener of the Chennai chapter of INTACH, or Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage. “Chisholm is considered the father of the Indo-Saracenic style of architecture. The year inscribed on the plaque - 1882 - fits perfectly into the period when Drever was Commissioner. However, I have not come across any records of this building,” he adds.
While most other buildings designed by Chisholm including the Senate House and Presidency College are renowned, historical landmarks such as this building have not been in the limelight.
In 2008, the Justice E. Padmanabhan Committee report, recognising the historical importance of this building, listed it as a grade II A heritage structure, which includes ‘buildings, precincts or open spaces of local importance, possessing architectural, aesthetic or cultural merit. In other words, these are landmarks of the city that form an important part of the city's heritage and contribute to the image and identity to the city.'
Only a portion of the building is occupied by police photographers. The rest, belongs to the Tamil Nadu police hospital. A large portion of it has collapsed and wears a deserted look. The ground floor is almost abandoned with creaking doors and slanted wooden stairs that go up to the first floor. This floor has been partitioned to create dark rooms for photographers to develop their 'black and white' pictures. “The water seeps through the thermocol ceilings during rainy days and renovations have not helped,” says a policeman, on the sorry state of the building.
As Sriram puts it, “It is unfortunate that though the Justice E. Padmandabhan Committee report requires that the building be ‘saved' as a heritage structure, there is no effort being made at conserving it."