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The splendour of bankers' row


Big business may have shifted out... but the banks are still very much here. Bankers' Row, First Line Beach, is, however, not quite the impressive skyline it once was when the splendour of Indo-Saracenic architecture created a veritable gallery.

BETWIXT SURF and the heart of New Black Town lay three or four parallel streets that were - and in many ways still are - to Madras what The City is to London and the Wall Street area is to New York. First Line Beach, now Rajaji Salai, Second Line Beach, now Moor Street, and Armenian Street are where the major business houses in the city, the houses of agency, and the leading banks had their headquarters. Big business may have, for the most part, shifted out of here, except for old names like Parry's, Binny's , Shaw Wallace's and a couple of others, but the banks are still very much here. Bankers' Row, First Line Beach, is, however, not quite the impressive skyline it once was when the splendour of Indo-Saracenic architecture created a veritable gallery.

Going North from Parry's, where American Express once had its office, there was the National Bank of India, founded in Calcutta in 1863. Located at the northern end of First Line Beach when it opened its first Southern branch in 1877, it moved closer to the High Court in 1915, into one of the handsomest examples of Indo-Saracenic in a city renowned for the style. While the city's leading building contractor Thaticonda Namberumal Chetty was raising the building in 1914, one of the shells that famous German raider, the Emden, lobbed on the city struck the unfinished bank building. Fortunately, the damage was negligible and work continued uninterrupted, offering when complete a building with a 150-foot frontage, a width of 30 feet and a height of 60 feet, with Saracenically-domed towers rising 95 feet.

Why this splendid bit of construction was pulled down in recent times I'll never know - except that when it was heritage was not the concern it has now become even minimally so. By that time the National Bank had passed into the hands of Grindlay's Bank. Grindlay's too had opened its first branch in South India in 1877. Represented in Madras as it was at the time by Binny's, its offices were in Binny's premises in Armenian Street. When Grindlay's took over the National Bank in the post-Independence era, it moved into the National Bank's premises but, some years later, pulled the building down. In 1981, Grindlay's moved into the regional headquarters it had raised on the site, one of the first post-Independence buildings in Madras to use polished black granite.

When Grindlay's became ANZ Grindlay's in the 1990s, it pulled down its manager's home in Morison's Gardens, a garden house on Haddow's Road, Nungambakkam, and developed in its vast wooded acreage banking and training facilities for the South Asian region as well as managers' quarters, all in a style that looked forward to the 21st Century. With the Bank taken over by Standard Chartered, building has been continuing apace in the same `with-it' style and a huge complex is rising here which will, it is stated, in the next three or four years be workplace for over 5000 young persons who will handle Standard Chartered's worldwide back-office operations.

Standard Chartered Bank's first branch office in Madras was not far from Grindlay's first home. The Chartered Bank, incorporated in Britain in 1853, built a home for a proposed branch in Madras in 1871. But the branch moved into the handsome premises meant for it only in 1900. Today, Standard Chartered's main branch still occupies the building at the corner of Armenian Street and NSC Bose Road, but old timers are hardly likely to recognise the building, so much has the façade changed in the attempt to `modernise' its looks.

North of the black granite, glass and steel building that Grindlay's built is a multi-storeyed, multi-verandahed building called Circle top House. Built in the stableyard, then car lot of the old headquarters of the Bank of Madras, this 1971 building houses the regional headquarters of the State Bank of India. Adjacent to it is the Samuel Jacob-and-Henry Irwin-designed, Namberumal Chetty building that was the magnificent headquarters the Bank of Madras built for itself on land acquired in 1895. The Bank of Madras, first established in Fort. St. George in 1795, had by 1843 acquired the other early Madras banks, like the Carnatic Bank and the Asiatic Bank, and moved to Popham's Broadway. The move to First Line Beach followed about 50 years later. Its magnificent new home had one of the country's finest banking halls, marble-floored, with a large vaulted ceiling, and embellished with beautiful stained glass, monogrammed glass doors and richly embellished wood, brick and granite arches. There are said to be 1200 stained glass panels in the building, which now houses the main branch of the State Bank of India in the city.

The Bank of Madras in 1921 merged with the Banks of Bombay and Calcutta and became the Imperial Bank of India. In 1955, the Imperial Bank became the State Bank of India, branchwise the world's largest bank. Till the Reserve Bank of India was formed in 1935, the Imperial Bank additionally played the role the new Central government bank was to play. The RBI, when established, shared the SBI's regional headquarters premises till its own building came up near the Fort in 1961.

North of the State Bank buildings is a magnificent English Renaissance-style building, its exterior splendidly renewed in the 1990s, when its interior was also imaginatively re-designed. Looking very much as it did when it opened its doors in 1923 on the site of the first home of The Madras Mail, the building now houses the Madras main branch of the Hong Kong (and Shanghai) Bank. The Hong Kong and Shanghai had, shortly before the restoration, absorbed the Mercantile Bank of India, which had raised the building. It was in 1854 that the Chartered Mercantile Bank of India, London and China had opened for business in Moor Street. In 1893 it was reconstituted as the Mercantile Bank of India, by when it had moved to McClean Street. It then moved to First Line Beach in 1875 and about 50 years later built the impressive building that still stands with its two 90-foot tall square towers.

The last of the banks on Bankers' Row is the Indian Bank, the first Indian-owned bank to be established in Madras. The Indian Bank, incorporated in 1907, rose from the ashes and dust of the Arbuthnot Bank, which had belonged to the city's premier commercial establishment of the day. Established in Rattan Bazaar, the Indian Bank moved its headquarters in 1910 into the severely classical style building that was Arbuthnot & Co.'s home and which it had acquired a year earlier for Rs. 1,35,000. In 1970, it razed the historic building and built on it a common-or-garden high-rise. The only reminder of the sensational Arbuthnot crash, more of which next week, is Arbuthnot Street, the northern boundary of the Indian Bank.

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