Musing on Madras, from Madurai

December 18, 2015 04:58 pm | Updated 04:58 pm IST - Chennai

Tirumalai Nayak Mahal, Madurai Photo: S. Krishnamoorthy

Tirumalai Nayak Mahal, Madurai Photo: S. Krishnamoorthy

Years from now, when the grandchildren cluster around me and ask me what I did during the great flood of Madras, I can only shamefacedly tell them that I was holed up in Madurai and Trichy. But that has given me enough time to wander around the two towns. I took a close look at the Tirumalai Nayak Mahal in Madurai in particular, and reflected on how much it influenced the University Senate House in Madras.

That impact was largely due to the way the Mahal captivated Robert Fellowes Chisholm, the architect whose biography I hope to write some day. He would have remained a forgotten engineer in the Puri Division of the Bengal PWD, had he not won the competition for designing the Presidency College, Madras in 1865. The Government transferred him to the South and appointed him Consulting Architect, Government of Madras.

Reading Shanti Jayewardene-Pillai’s Imperial Conversations: Indo Britons and the Architecture of South India , you get the idea that Chisholm’s initial works were all copied from buildings elsewhere. The Presidency College was ‘inspired’ by a hospital in Italy, the old Madras Club building (where Express Avenue now is) was classical and the PWD Building fronting the beach was Scottish baronial. The Lawrence School, Lovedale, was copied from something in Malta. I wonder what his original design for the Senate House was. But it changed once he set his eyes on Tirumalai Nayak’s palace.

The building was in a bad way when Lord Napier, the Governor of Madras, ordered Chisholm to go and restore it. The architect grumbled about having to travel by ‘bandy’ all the way to Madurai, but forgot his troubles on seeing the palace. He made detailed notes of its pillars, entrance, arches, domes and wagon-vaulted roof. History is not clear as to what restoration Chisholm did at the palace, but the prevailing theory that he rebuilt the dome is false, as he does not mention this in the talks he gave at the Royal Institute of British Architects. He, however, became an authority on native construction techniques, swearing by terms such as ‘chunam’, ‘bulpum’ and ‘maistry’.

The design for the Senate House was altered to include much of what had impressed him at the Mahal. It now came to include ‘a Saracenic arcade and Hindoo cornice’, domes of a ‘Saracenic form’ and plenty of polychromatic decoration, all of which survive in the Mahal even today. The photo alongside shows a section of pillars from the Mahal that have been copied almost entirely at the Senate House. Much of the Mahal would later find its way into other Chisholm works, in Madras, Baroda and elsewhere. While in Madurai, Chisholm also designed St. George’s Church on West Avani Moola Street. This is now sadly much altered.

The University Senate House, splendidly restored in 2007, has been out of bounds to the public since then. Happily for us, the Mahal is open to all and is a joy to explore.

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