Art Deco in a crowded city

August 15, 2014 08:42 pm | Updated April 20, 2016 08:28 pm IST - Chennai

SBM Building

SBM Building

Madras Week is just a few days away, bringing with it much promise of interesting walks and talks. Among those I particularly look forward to, is the one by renowned architect Sujatha Shankar on Art Deco in Chennai, which she will present at the Residency Towers on 31 August at 6.00 p.m.

Art Deco is an eclectic style that combines traditional craft motifs with machinery age materials and shapes. Beginning in France in the 1920s, it became popular world over and lasted till the 1940s. It came somewhat late to India where it is perhaps best associated with cinema theatres. Art Deco arrived in Madras by the late 1930s, with Parry & Co’s Dare House, constructed in 1938, being among the first.

With that iconic building dominating the skyline of NSC Bose (China Bazaar) Road, it was but natural that neighbouring structures, when built, decided to follow the same style. All of these came up on land once occupied by the classical edifices of the Madras Christian College and School, which functioned in this area before shifting to Tambaram in the 1930s. Its buildings were all bought up by finance and insurance companies, which functioned in them till the 1950s when they began demolition in order to build new offices in modern styles. The sole survivor of the college structures is the Anderson Church.

Of the Art Deco buildings here, the one belonging to the State Bank of Mysore, is a personal favourite. The bank, which came into existence in 1913 as the Bank of Mysore Limited, was set up under the patronage of the Maharajah of that State, as per the advice of Sir M. Visweswarayya. It was, however, only in the 1950s that it opened an office in Madras, purchasing the erstwhile College Hall of the Madras Christian College. This was demolished and the new structure came up in pristine Art Deco style. The chief architect was B.R. Manickam, then the Chief Engineer of the Public Works Department, Mysore (afterwards Karnataka). Interestingly, he was also the architect of the Vidhana Soudha in Bangalore. Assisting him in the Bank of Mysore building was the firm of C.R. Narayana Rao, which is today among the leading architect firms of Chennai.

Built with the grey stone with which several of the Bangalore edifices of the period were constructed, the Bank of Mysore building was inaugurated on 5 September 1957 by K. Kamaraj, Chief Minister of Madras, in the presence of S. Nijalingappa, Chief Minister of Mysore. Two years later, the bank was reconstituted as the State Bank of Mysore, becoming a subsidiary of the State Bank of India.

The building continues to be in use and is well maintained at least from outside, barring a distressing tendency to replace the original windows with plate glass. Along with its neighbours, the Bombay Mutual Building and Dare House, it presents a uniformity of skyline that is rare in an increasingly cluttered city.

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