Society

Chennai's houses of history

Robert Clive's quarters  

Clive’s quarters

Three centuries. That’s how old Joseph Mohan’s residence is. It’s dark and quiet despite the achingly bright sun and a noisy bunch of kids outside. Cobwebs blanket the windows and walls of the many unused rooms.

The building, which is on the campus of CSI St Paul’s Higher Secondary School, was where Robert Clive — a noted commander and leader in the East India Company, unwound, brainstormed and celebrated his wedding reception in late 1740s. It’s now the home of Joseph, the Principal of the school.

Though he is proud to be sheltered within the same walls that saw the moods of Robert Clive, the poor state of the building haunts him. “Every morning, I am grateful that the dizzyingly high roof did not crash down on me,” he laughs and adds on a serious tone, “A few years ago, a part of the pillar at the entrance fell off.”

The house wears a sense of gloom. There are amoeba-like patterns on the walls where patches of paint have fallen off. A seepage near the roof has given shape to wet shadowy figures.  Outside, the remaining pillars look like thick piles of ash that might get blown away in a strong wind any minute. Joseph walks us to the main hall where Clive used to hold meetings with his army; along the teak wood spiral staircase that lead us to three big rooms, a small balcony, and a terrace. “It is advisable not to take those steps,” Joseph’s son says politely. We obey and leave.

French love

A lone car stands inside the gates of Votive Shrine Church in Kilpauk. A family sits on the steps, engaged in a light conversation, while a bunch of heads bend in prayer, inside. To the right of the church, a small gate opens into a building with long and wide windows. For a building that has been standing since the early 1900s, as we learn, it looks relatively new. There’s a pleasant shade of pink on the outer walls and light yellow on the walls inside.

Sister Felisie, the head of Mercy Home, an old age home, stops writing and looks up curiously. She doesn’t get many visitors. Just abandoned elders. There are 150 such people in an array of houses that surround the building where we stand. “This building is only for the sisters,” she clarifies in her calm voice.

Over a 100 years ago, the property, called Fontenoy, was the house of a Frenchman called Edgar Raphael  Prudhomme, who donated it for charity, and the adjoining compound for the construction of a church in honour of the Immaculate Heart of Mary after the Second World War. The then Archbishop of Madras-Mylapore, Louis Mathias, handed over this property to the Sisters of the Society of the Salesian Missionaries of Mary Immaculate (SMMI), to start what today is the Mercy Home. The foundation stone was laid on May 24, 1957 by Mathias.

Sister Felisie points to his photo on the poster at the reception area, and says that they observe a mass prayer during his death anniversary.

Inside, the hall expands to a long dining area through a narrow door, and a winding staircase leads to another set of rooms on the top. “See this? It is as old as the house,” she taps on a circular wooden table topped with a neat slice of marble. We spot another at the reception area.   

Hostel story

A bunch of girls giggle their way to the hostel. Most are unaware that they are rejoicing what was then ‘queenly’ comfort. Umda Bagh hostel building inside the campus of Quaid-E-Millat Government Arts College (Women) was once the residence of Nawab Khairunissa Begum, the widow of Ghulam Ghouse Khan Bahadur Azam — the last Nawab of the Carnatic. He is said to have opened the doors of the Madrasa, which was on the premises since 1760s, to children from various backgrounds.

K. R. Seetha Lakshmi, the Principal, reads out bits of info from the college archives. “The property earlier belonged to Aga Samuel Moorat, an Armenian who was the leader of the community in the late seventeenth century. His son Edward Moor inherited it and it retained the name Umda Bagh, which is the hostel’s name now.” In 1910, the property was bought by the Wallajah family. The then queen is the grandmother of the present Prince of Arcot, she informs us.

The 19th century building retains its sheen. It looks like a train of uniform wire-meshed windows from the outside. The rooms are compact with a small window facing the garden outside. “We have retained most of the old trees. There was also a pool here, which couldn’t be maintained. It is now filled with mud and stones,” she says.

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Printable version | Nov 26, 2020 3:25:59 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/features/metroplus/society/chennais-houses-of-history/article7557479.ece

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