Society

Madras miscellany

What is left of the Elephinstone Bridge (on right)  

The bridges of the city

I recently read that M. C. Bhide, a former Railways engineer, who is the founder and honorary Director-General of the Indian Institute of Bridge Engineers, wanted States to focus on the heritage of some of their bridges and tap their potential for tourism. I couldn’t agree more. Every heritage bridge has stories of those who worked on it, it has explanations for unusual technology used in its construction, and it has its own aesthetics. They are all just waiting to be packaged for the tourist.

Tamil Nadu has several such bridges starting with the Scherzer Bridge that links Rameswaram on Pamban Island and Dhanushkodi. Called the Pamban Bridge, it is now known as the Indira Gandhi Sethu, I am told. Crossing the Scherzer, watching it operate, and looking at the rocks of Adam’s Bridge as you cross is a fascinating experience. Throw in the Mandapam Marine Park and the sun, sea and sand of Dhanushkodi and there you have a destination that can be one of the best in Tamil Nadu.

Closer home, in Madras are three bridges that could certainly be listed as heritage bridges. The Maraimalai Adigal Bridge across the Adyar may be a 1950-60s bridge, but it replaced an older bridge which linked a still older bridge, the Marmalong Bridge that Petrus Uscan, the Armenian philanthropist, had built in 1726 at a cost of 30,000 pagodas (about £10,000 at the time) to replace the ancient causeway that linked Saidapet with St .Thomas’ Mount. It’s a bridge that should be called the Petrus Uscan Bridge, for what a story there is to tell of him and the Armenians of Madras, not to mention Thomas, the Apostle of India.

My second bridge is the Napier Bridge, which in 1943 replaced an older bridge that had replaced an even earlier bridge. The Napier Bridge that links Chepauk with the Fort will have many a tale to tell of Nawab Wallajah and several governors, not to mention Paul Benfield, the building contractor about whom a book is waiting to be written. Once the Cooum is developed, as an inviting stretch of water, as has been promised for years, the Napier Bridge, the first bowstring bridge to be built in India, can become another heritage destination, as much for the stories the crossing can tell as for its engineering.

The third is my favourite bridge, the Elphinstone Bridge over the Adyar which replaced in1840 a causeway and itself has been replaced by the parallel Thiru Vi Ka Bridge declared open in 1973. The once iron-girdered bridge still stands, but without its girders. For years it was being recommended that it be developed as a promenade and a bird-watching site to enjoy the fauna of what should rightfully be called the Adyar Estuary Sanctuary. Promises were made and promptly forgotten and a few years ago it was put to mundane, load-bearing use. But it is still not too late to become a heritage destination with tales to tell of Brodie Castle on one side and the Theosophical Society on the other, not to mention the opening up of the southern Nagars of Adyar in the 1940s. It’s time we put at least this bridge to use as advocated.

The city’s bridges as heritage destinations? Perhaps the heritage authorities and government won’t take me seriously, but will they listen to Mr. Bhide?

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Yet another Sister City

And so historic Chongqing, which I grew up knowing as Chungking, that Chiang Kai Shek was forced to make China’s capital as he fought to hold the Japanese advance in the late 1930s, is to become Madras’s latest Sister City.

If I remember right, Denver, Colorado was an early Sister City, the twinning brought about, with the help of Municipal Commissioner C N Ramdas, by the Indo-American Association and Indians some of its members knew in Denver. That was in 1984 but except for exchanges of visits at Association level, little came of this partnership except a statue of Mahatma Gandhi being raised in the ‘Mile High City’ and a business delegation visiting Madras (Miscellany, July 7, 2008).

Then came a more formal twinning in 2008 of Madras and San Antonio, Texas. With Mayors exchanging visits, it looked like something would come of it, especially in bringing the Cooum to life the same way the San Antonio River had become a major recreational space (Miscellany June 23, 2014), but I haven’t heard anything further on those lines. Two years later Kuala Lumpur and Madras twinned with hardly anyone hearing about it – and there’s still little being heard about it.

How the twinning came about with Volgograd (historic Stalingrad) I have no idea. In fact, the first I knew about it was when I was invited a couple of years ago to the Russian Cultural Centre for an exhibition providing glimpses of Madras’s Russian Sister City. I haven’t heard any more of that twinning. But what I did find out was, to my surprise, that the twinning had taken place as far back as 1966! What’s been happening to the relationship for nearly 50 years?

And now we are twinned with Chongqing, all official at the highest national level with India and China even signing a bilateral agreement on the decision. With Mayor Saidai Duraisamy present on the occasion it would appear that the Tamil Nadu Government has also blessed it. Does this mean we will now see more committed interaction between these two Sister Cities and that we will benefit from the relationship at even the mentoring level? I hope so. And if that happens, perhaps it will wake up the other relationships already in place.

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More Olde Madras photographs

Reader R Ashwin of Ashvita, a collector of antiquities, referring to my item on photographers of Olde Madras (Miscellany, May 11), tells me that there’s another set of photographs of that age in London that few know of. It is in the Victoria & Albert Museum collection and is known as the Francis Frith ‘Universal Series’, its photographs dating to the 1850s-1870s period. But the pictures of Madras and other parts of India were not taken by Frith.

Frith, a Quaker from Derbyshire, became disillusioned with accountancy while working as an accounts clerk in Sheffield. After a bout of depression and a grand tour of northern Britain with his family as part of the recuperation process, his wine merchant family helped him to become a partner in a grocery business in Liverpool. And there, while making a small fortune while in his early thirties, he got interested, sometime between 1851 and 1853, in photography, to the extent of even helping found the Liverpool Photographic Society.

By 1856, he sold off his interest in the grocery business and was in a position to concentrate on his passion. That year, Frith set off to Egypt and was to photograph extensively during that trip and two that followed Egypt, Sinai and Palestine, with, in the case of the last named, a focus on the Holy Land. Back in England, he established ‘F.Frith & Co., Photographers’, to print multiple copies of his photographs for sale. Finding a considerable British interest in scenes from abroad, he began sending out photographers as far as Japan to supply him with pictures. He also began buying negatives from abroad. In the next decade, Frith & Co became, possibly, “the most successful commercial photographers” of the period in Britain. His 670-page catalogue offered 4790 photographs of Britain, Europe, what the British called the Near East, India and the Far East. The V&A collection has a little over 4000 of these pictures.

How many of these pictures are of India, leave alone Madras, I have no idea. But reader Ashwin sent me nine pictures printed from this collection. All of them were taken using glass plate negatives and the style seems very much that of the Nicholas Brothers, particularly when it comes to the four harbour area pictures. These are certainly not Wiele, Klein or Peyerl pictures; the steel pier in the harbour pictures dates to 1861-71, long before Klein and company. The other possibility is Samuel Bourne from Simla and Calcutta who travelled in South India from 1867 to 1869 building up a large portfolio. But whoever took them, enjoy the pictures I include with this item of views never seen by today’s readers. Certainly, I have never seen a picture of the Agri-Horticultural Gardens dating to this era.

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