The Mahals of Chepauk

Khalsa Mahal on left and the entrance (on right) to Humayun Mahal seen in this early 20th Century picture.  

Looking through a collection of pictures I’d squirreled away over the years, I recently came across the picture published with today’s column. I had long forgotten that I had it, but I hope that it now serves as a reminder that it is time work began on restoring Khalsa Mahal to what it was like in this early 20th Century picture. Finding the picture led me to do some research on Chepauk Palace that I had kept putting off for a while now. And what I found, retailed below, has only convinced me that there’s a lot more archival digging to be done before the whole story of the Palace, as it survives today, can be told.

My most important finding was that Khalsa Mahal, the southern building, has remained virtually as it was – discounting what Government usage and the fire have done to it – when first built in 1764. On the other hand, Humayun Mahal, the northern block, was virtually rebuilt between 1868 and 1871 by Robert Chisholm when assigned the work of creating offices for the Revenue Board by Governor Lord Napier.

Khalsa Mahal was a two-storied building with two handsome, minareted entrances in the south and the west. Humayun Mahal was a single storey building in the middle of which was the Durbar Hall with a dome towering over it to about the height of a second floor. That dome when constructed must have been a remarkable feat of engineering, given that it was in the 18th Century.

What Chisholm did to transform Humayun Mahal into Government offices was to bring down the dome and create a first floor of rooms – with a Madras terrace roof – following the contours of the ground floor. Then, to integrate it with Khalsa Mahal, he created the Khalsa Mahal-inspired facade we see today from Wallajah Road. And finally, as if to compensate for what he had done to the dome, he designed an impressive new eastern entrance facing the beach, again drawing inspiration from Khalsa Mahal. What Humayun Mahal’s original entrance was like I have no idea, but Khalsa Mahal’s entrances are certainly striking.

Curiously, the new Humayun Mahal entrance, instead of being integrated with the Mahal, was created as the front of a square block of a building which was what was linked to the Mahal. This building was called the Records Office and was well-shelved in its day. He then linked the two buildings with the 75-foot tall, domed-and-minareted square tower, completed in 1870, that is the most visible aspect of Chepauk Palace today. Called the Records Tower – the shelves in its limited space reflecting the excuse for building it – it more than met Napier’s view that the imperial presence must be proclaimed by building in a regal local idiom that Her Majesty’s subjects would relate to.

And so there came about Chisholm’s transformation of the Palace that Paul Benfield designed. Chisholm’s creation is what you see in my second picture today, from the Vintage Vignettes Collection. Uncluttered by the buildings and trees of today, what a striking complex it was on the Marina till the 1950s!

Footnote: Whether the huge arch, with space on high for musicians to provide melodious entertainment to beach-goers, which was by the Wallajah Road curve to the Beach, was by Chisholm or was an earlier creation I don’t know. But that too is no more. All this and more needs dedicated archival investigation. Any volunteers?


Thamizh Thatha’s birthday

Why don’t you write something for Thamizh Thatha’s birthday, on the 19th, someone I bumped into the other day suggested. Much has been written about a person whom many consider the greatest Tamil scholar of the last 150 years, so what is there I, who knows little about the subject, could add? But having been asked, let me see if I can find something about him not so well-known.

In this day and age, when everyone in Thamizhagam wants to learn English and admissions in Tamil medium schools are diminishing, there’s a lesson in the story that even as a ten-year-old Uttamadhanapuram Venkatasubbaiyer Swaminatha Iyer – hereafter U Ve Sa – not only decided that he wanted to learn Tamil but that too from the best there was at the time, Trichy Meenakshi Sundaram Pillai. A friend of U Ve Sa’s father who heard this is said to have exclaimed, “Your boy must be mad; everyone is learning English!” U Ve Sa’s father, for his part, wanted him to learn music and Telugu. In the event, U Ve Sa went on to learn all three. But in an era when the music scene was dominated by Telugu and Sanskrit, he focussed on the traditions of Tamil music in centuries past and, by throwing fresh light on them, pointed the way to researchers to give new life to what had been a great tradition.

It was in 1871, as a 16-year-old, that U Ve Sa realised his ambition of becoming a sishya of Meenakshi Sundaram Pillai. For the next five years, they were constantly together and it was only a few years after Meenakshi Sundaram Pillai passed away in January 1876, that U Ve Sa joined the then renowned Kumbakonam Arts College as a Tamil teacher (1880) and moved into a more mundane world.

In 1880, persuaded by Salem Ramasamy Mudaliar, he also began what became his life’s work – the search for ancient Tamil texts and ensuring they reached a wider audience. He collected over 3,000 paper and palm leaf manuscripts and they resulted in over 90 books on them being written by him and published. The first was a Jain epic, Ceevaka Cintamani, and it was in connection with his plans to publish a study of it that he came to Madras that same year. Thereafter, there were regular visits during the College breaks to discuss the publication of other books in the city. On one of these visits, he met C. Rajagopalachari who was at the time with the S.P.S.K. Publishing House in Purasawalkam and they became friends.

Eventually, U Ve Sa moved to Madras and Presidency College in 1903. And discovered the intellectuals of the Cosmopolitan Club. Ramasamy Mudaliar would pick him up at the College every afternoon and they’d drive in his coach to the Club where their animated discussions would draw in several others. But despite this world of new friends, nothing stopped his search for manuscripts from the past and seeing that commentaries on them were published.

In 1892, Silappadikaram, for whose palm leaf manuscripts he had searched in over 50 villages, was published by Jubilee Printers, Poonamallee High Road. U Ve Sa narrates in his autobiography, En Charithram (an English edition is long overdue), that the Press was hustling him for the Foreword as printing drew to a close. But exhausted by all the effort he had put into the work, he fell asleep one evening in the house of Eardley Norton’s clerk, Viswanatha Sastri, in Triplicane. He suddenly woke up in the night and saw in the moonlight’s glow a picture looking down at him, almost accusingly. He immediately got up and got back to work and finished the Foreword. Then in the light of a new day, he looked at the picture again. It was of John Eardley Norton, a lawyer known for being a stern taskmaster who expected the same dedication to work from his associates as he himself had aplenty.


Madrasi? What do you expect?

At last I’ve been able to get a copy of Wisden’s Indian Almanack 2013 ( >Miscellany, January, 28) and catch up with C.D. Gopinath’s personal recollection of that historic win by India for the first time in a Test match. But in this article of his, he, for the first time, breaks his silence on an oft-speculated issue and reveals why he didn’t go further in the game.

He writes, “My own unfortunate experience throughout the English tour in 1952 was to be repeatedly sent in to bat at number seven or eight and sometimes even number nine, although I was selected as a pure batsman for the tour.

“When you bat at number eight you face only two situations. One is that the team has already achieved a substantial total and is looking for a declaration; the only other possibility is a collapse and a possible defeat and therefore, the need to defend doggedly and stay there to try for a draw. In either case there is no question of making a reasonably big score. My friend Ghulam Ahmed suffered the same kind of treatment during the English tour and this was the reason both of us declined the invitation to tour the West Indies the following year…

“When I expressed my anguish at being sent in to bat at number eight in the Madras Test to Ghulam, his comment was, ‘Well, you are from Madras – what else do you expect?’ Which sums it up.

“Luckily, with the passing of time things have changed for the better…”

But if you listen to all the stories doing the rounds, many still wonder whether things have really changed. It may no longer be from where you come from or what language you speak, but differences in its teams continue to dog Indian cricket.

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Printable version | Mar 6, 2021 4:08:29 PM |

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