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An impressive record

PRESERVED FOR POSTERITY At the Records Office   | Photo Credit: grjgm

“Meet me at the Records Office opposite Egmore station,” Hemchandra Rao told me when I asked him for some information. “I'm working on the bridges of Madras.” I walked into the large compound and stood transfixed in front of the Indo-Saracenic building. The Gothic columns, exposed brickwork, arches, stone steps, the board above the doorway (Madras Records Office 1909), the 1938 annexe, polished wooden stairway to the right — together they made a gentle announcement: I am a heritage building and I have a story.

I would get it from Commissioner Siddique. But outside his office I bumped into officials who had researched its past. Just strolled down the corridor to find out, they said, with a sweep of hand. “In 1672, Governor William Langhorne decided to record all government decisions. In 1801, the East India Company took over the Madras Presidency and in 1805, Governor William Bentinck saw the need for organising and preserving Secretariat records, and centralised them at Fort St. George, appointing one Muthiah of the Political & Military Department as the Record Keeper. The files piled up, overflowed from the shelves, were moved to a “pillar-godown” and, in 1888, shifted to the Secretariat's ground floor.

That's when Grassmere was spotted. The officials believe it was a cemetery, but one version says it was a garden house to be turned into a hospital, but the station across squashed the idea. Grassmere would be the new Records Office. The Rs.2.2-lakh-plus contract for its makeover went to T. Loganatha Mudaliar of St. Mark’s Church fame. In October 1909, the office became functional. C. M. Schmidt, Registrar of the Secretariat, kept an eye on it till Henry Dodwell, Additional Professor of English, Presidency College, took over as curator in 1911. In 1973, it was renamed Tamil Nadu Archives.

It's hard to find a place so fastidiously built for preserving documents. The iron girders, stacks and ladders were imported from Birmingham and fabricated locally. The building has a research hall and nine stack rooms, with a Commissioner's office on the first floor. The stack rooms branch off on either side of a central corridor, the space between them ensuring air and light. Their perfect three-level symmetry allows one to see through the windows all the way to the last room. The walls are tiled. The records are stacked on floating shelves, with legs placed in small moats that were once filled with oil. The stacks are arranged in chronological order, department-wise. The oldest book is from 1633, the oldest record dates back to 1670.

Boards proclaim the presence of Dutch/Persian/Danish/English/Tamil records and palm manuscripts. Records include those of the arrest/hanging of Kattabomman, history of Pudukkottai, sati, details of Gandhiji, his letters…. The records of Tipu were displayed at the World Exhibition in 1986. You can go through the entire electoral rolls since 1960, freedom-fighters' list, jail-slips, land records and gazettes from all across Tamil Nadu, read the first issue of the Madras Courier (1795), and check out innumerable maps.

Most official records are written in Indian ink, the neat cursive writing a teacher's delight. Researchers come from all over the world and a regular visitor could have spotted Balakumar, Vairamuthu and actor Kamal Haasan, who researched on Marudanayagam. A separate library has a remarkable compendium of information — a heritage gazetteer — on the districts of Tamil Nadu.

The speciality of this place is the preservation of records. Preservation clerks and binders fumigate and de-acidify old files in special chambers, sandwich the pages between handmade, translucent chiffon fabric using a maida/glycerine/copper sulphate paste, press them to remove undulations, and dry them on racks before binding them into books. In the digitisation room, the pages are scanned, microfilmed, checked on a reader machine and stashed away on racks. Lamination is done only for new books and files. “Tamil Nadu Archives... has evolved into a repository of invaluable historical and administrative records, dating back to 1670 AD,” says Commissioner Siddique. “It is engaged in preserving these treasures on scientific lines and making them available for historical research.”

This story won't be complete without the mention of Dr. B. S. Baliga, the “Architect of Archives in Tamil Nadu.” Historian, trained archivist and scholar, he was curator for 25 years and made the Records Office a mine of information on government work, adding explanatory notes to the files. Following McQueen's efforts, he established scientific management, administration and conservation of the Madras Archives. When the threat of a Japanese attack loomed during World War II, he moved the records to the Chittoor office so efficiently that the British government gave him the title ‘Rao Bahadur.’

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Printable version | May 7, 2021 10:22:22 AM |

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