Watch the paise, lose the past

July 20, 2014 06:51 pm | Updated 06:51 pm IST

Fortunately for Madras there has been a growing awareness of heritage in the city and there has been commitment to restore some buildings

Fortunately for Madras there has been a growing awareness of heritage in the city and there has been commitment to restore some buildings

It was many years ago that I met several times an enlightened manager of the State Bank of India who worked out of that building that burst into flames the other day. She was passionate about the building and, though she could not get it restored, she recorded it in a little booklet and an exhibition. Some years later I met someone else who was equally passionate about the building. He took me around it and pointed out all those artistic and architectural features it held in its nooks and crannies. I doubt if anyone knew the building better than this Head of Security there. And over the years I was a part of an INTACH team that met several successive managers who all seemed interested in restoring the building, but who appeared to get stymied by officials who kept quoting the rule books and who thought crores in single digits were too much to be spent by one of the richest organisations in India — even if its Non Performing Assets run into zero suffixes the average citizen would find hard to count. If only the SBI had spent those few crores ten years ago, the present sad loss to heritage may never have happened.

It constantly amazes me that hundreds of crores get sanctioned three or four times for a project and no questions are asked about the lack of progress after successive sanctions. We find Rs. 200 crore being sanctioned for a statue, but have to go to an international organisation to get three-quarters of the Rs.10 crore-or-so needed for a heritage project as though this sum that a middle-level bureaucrat could possibly sanction was too much for a State Government to bear. That being the attitude of State Governments and institutions in India, what does the future hold for the SBI building on Rajaji Salai?

Fortunately for Madras there has been a growing awareness of heritage in the city and there has been commitment to restore some buildings, like Victoria Public Hall, Ripon Building , and Khalsa Mahal , besides some like Vivekananda Illam , the Old Town Wall and the old Reading Room of the Connemara library being given new life in whatever fashion. With the damage in the SBI building being rather similar to that in Khalsa Mahal , from what I hear, there shouldn’t be too much opposition to its restoration in due course — provided the State Bank has the will to spend a few crores. That will might just possibly be there to judge from the statements of senior managers that the building would be restored provided the teams from IIT, the Archaeological Survey of India, and the CMDA’s Heritage Conservation Committee say restoration is possible. (I see no mention of INTACH, the country’s leading heritage conservation NGO).

In its day, this building, raised as the headquarters of the Bank of Madras c.1900, was one of the most striking buildings in Madras, drawing its architectural splendour particularly from its magnificent banking hall, one of the finest in the country (my picture today). Designed by Samuel Jacob and refined by Henry Irwin, it was built by Namberumal Chetty, the total cost being c. Rs. 4 lakh. But apart from its architectural heritage, it deserves restoration even more to serve as a memorial to modern banking in Asia.

The Bank’s voluminous history, written in Bombay and Calcutta, does not give enough credit to Madras for the beginnings of modern banking in India. It was Governor Gyfford and his council who established the Madras Bank in 1682, when Job Charnock was still to ‘found’ Calcutta and Bombay, still in its first decade, was taking toddler steps. Discounting this bank as not being a formal joint stock company creation, the SBI history gives greater recognition as Madras’s first Bank to the Carnatic Bank established in Fort St. George in 1788, the Bank of Madras in 1795 and the Asiatic Bank in 1804. All these banks merged in 1843 and became the Bank of Madras which together with the earlier established Banks of Bengal and Bombay merged to form the Imperial Bank of India in 1921 and became in 1955 the State Bank of India. Surely an institution with such a history and such a building deserves a memorial that the restored building can serve as?!


Coins that tell a story

At first glance it looked like a catalogue, its information tabulated in what seemed like code, and I almost shelved it without studying it further. Fortunately, taking a second look, I found the story Dr. T. Sridhar and N. Sundararajan of the Government Museum in 2011, Dr. S. Suresh, an expert on Roman antiquities in India, and sundry Italian officials in India had to tell, and this catalogue of Roman Coins in the Government Museum, Chennai suddenly took on a more interesting avatar.

The Roman connection with India, almost wholly with Tamizhagam — from the Malabar Coast to the Coromandel — began around the 3rd Century BCE, reached a peak between 27 BCE and 68 CE — from the Emperors Augustus to Nero — and then gradually declined before dying out in the 7th Century CE. The Romans sought cotton goods, ivory and gemstones, spices, sandalwood and peacocks; in turn, they brought wine and olive oil, coral and gold, silver and copper. All that’s left of this trail are Roman coins that have been discovered in several places along it, from what was once called Musiris on the Malabar Coast to Arikamedu and Kaveripoompattinam (Poompuhar) by the Coromandel, and the fragments of ceramic jars that once held oil and wine.

It was from the late 18th Century that Roman coins have been found — and then searched for along this trail, though the first recorded find was near Nellore (now in Andhra Pradesh) in 1786. The largest finds in what is Tamil Nadu today have been in Budinatham (a temple town, near Udumalpet), Pollachi, Vellalur, Kodumanal, Karur and Uraiyur, all on that Musiris-Kaveripoompattinam trail.

These hoards have enabled the Madras Museum to possess the largest collection of Roman coins in India and one of the largest in the world outside Europe. The largest collection is from Budinatham — 1407 coins. The Budinatham hoard of silver Roman coins was unearthed in February 1946 while a farmer was digging for mud to build his hut. A sampling of coins from the Museum’s large collection is displayed in its Numismatics Gallery, which was established on the first floor of the Bronze Gallery in 1978.

The cataloguing project was made possible by the Italian Institute of Culture of the Italian Embassy in Delhi and the Indo-Italian Chamber of Commerce and Industry teaming with the Madras Museum and Dr. Suresh.


When the postman knocked

*On July 11, “our oldest telephone line” began its 100th year of service, writes Ramesh Kumar. When the lines were installed the subscriber was the Beehive Foundry Engineering Works, then owned by Oakes & Co. (Miscellany, June 2). The billing was changed to the Indian Commerce & Industries Co. P Ltd, in whose stable of businesses Beehive still is, only in the 1990s.

Writes Kumar, the earliest traceable number is 2020, which might have been the original number, though your columnist rather thinks it might have been a three-digit number at the time, given that in 1910 there were only 350 lines and substantial growth was recorded only after 1923 when Oriental Telephones became Madras Telephones (Miscellany, May 6, 2002). Over the years, the number has changed to 21071, 555021, 512221, 5231477 and 25231477, while “all this while the telephone exchange kept moving, but we remained rooted in the same premises whose door number kept changing from 95 to 27 to 57.”

*Writing from West Virginia, U.S.A., Dr. S N Jagannathan states that the recent report of the raising of a statue in Coimbatore of R.K. Shanmukham Chetty, India’s first Finance Minister, reminded him of Sir RK’s visit “to the apiary that my father, S.R. Narayana Ayyar, had in his Coonoor gardens.” On that occasion, Narayana Ayyar took out a few honeycombs to extract fresh honey for Sir RK at the cost of nine-year-old Jagannathan being stung on his eyelid — making it a doubly memorable occasion. Narayana Ayyar also supplied fresh honey from his apiary to Gandhiji on two occasions while the Mahatma was in Yerawada jail.

Narayana Ayyar wrote a series of articles on bee-keeping for The Hindu c.1940. These were later published as a book, Experiments in Bee-Culture , and the Foreword was written by Sir RK who had, together with K. Srinivasan, then Editor of The Hindu , suggested that the articles be published as a book. The book went into a second edition thanks to Coimbatore industrial legend G.D. Naidu.

*It’s just about a month to go for the Madras Week celebrations (August 17th-25th) and the Coordinators, now nearly a dozen, tell me that I haven’t done what I should have with what the postman had brought me. But better late than never: So, come join the Madras Week celebrations — especially on the city’s 375th birthday on August 22nd — in your institution/ locality/neighbourhood/apartment block/colony/campus. I would personally like to see volunteers lead heritage walks in their localities, particularly the less-known or newer ones. Let’s make this year’s Madras Week really a bash!

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