Madras miscellany

The Irwin masterpieces

One of India's most visited tourist attractions is the City Palace in Mysore, Amba Vilas, which was completed a hundred years ago this year. This Indo-Saracenic masterpiece, work on which began in 1900 after an earlier palace had been destroyed by fire in 1897, is perhaps the finest work of Madras architect Henry Irwin. It was built at an estimated cost of over Rs. 40 lakh. Irwin's design of the Palace undoubtedly inspired N. Grayson when he designed the Madras and South Mahratta Railway headquarters — now the Southern Railways headquarter — in Madras. If this is on a smaller scale than the Palace, almost on the same grand scale is another palatial building inspired by it, the Vidhana Soudha, the State Legislature and Secretariat, in Bangalore. It was a Vidhana Soudha-like building that I was anticipating when the Karunanidhi Government decided on a new legislature and secretariat; alas, what was raised was a far cry from such impressive architecture.

Irwin, who succeeded J.W. Brassington as Consulting Architect to the Government of Madras, completed — with his own additions, variations and adaptations — the Madras High Court buildings that Brassington had initiated. He then went on to design the Law College buildings in a manner that harmoniously blended on the same campus with the High Court buildings. He then designed in the same regal manner the Bank of Madras's headquarters (now the State Bank of India's Main Branch on Rajaji Salai), the Egmore Railway Station for the South Indian Railway, and what I think was probably his best work, the Victoria Technical Institute's Memorial Hall, now the sadly neglected, virtually derelict National Art Gallery in the Government Museum campus, Egmore.

Perhaps the most lavish work Irwin did was the Viceregal Lodge in Simla. Apocryphally it is narrated that Income Tax — introduced the year the building was completed — was invented to pay for the construction! It is also related that Edward Lutyens had a low opinion of the design. He is reported to have said, “If one was told that it was built by monkeys all one could say was, ‘What wonderful monkeys!' But they must be shot if they tried to do it again.” Lutyens, however, never accepted that he and Baker were designing on a conceptual foundation laid by Robert Chisholm and Irwin who, in turn, derived inspiration from Paul Benfield's Chepauk Palace.

On the other hand, the building Irwin did at a pittance of a fee was probably the building he was fondest of — the second pavilion of the Madras Cricket Club (Miscellany, September 13, 2011). A building right out of the splendid cricketing past of the counties of England, it was pulled down a few years ago with little thought for the fact that cricket in Madras owed its beginnings to it. Irwin's affection for it was due to the all-round sportsman he was, though he did fare better as an amateur jockey than as a cricketer.


The Suryanarayanas of Oxbridge

My mention of two Suryanarayanas who were friends of mathematician Ramanujan in England (Miscellany, May 28) brought in much information about both. But before getting to that material I must note that a couple of readers significantly pointed out that while Ramanujan was sure that S.S. Suryanarayan Sastri would not make it to the I.C.S., because of his eyesight, he had felt that Tenneti Suryanarayana might. In the event, both Oxbridge graduates made their presence felt in academia in the Madras Presidency and not in civil administration.

Satalur Sundara Suryanarayana Sastri was the founder in 1927 and first head of the Department of Philosophy of the University of Madras and became well-known for his original contributions to Indian Philosophy. Sastri, before being awarded the Government of India scholarship that took him to Merton College, Oxford, had passed out of Pachaiyappa's and got his post-graduate degree at Presidency, where he was a student of Dr. S. Radhakrishnan, then just beginning his teaching career. After Merton, Sastri stayed on in England and qualified as a barrister.

While returning to India during the Great War, his ship was torpedoed by the Germans and he survived the North Sea's icy waters only because a Sinn Fein group (the Irish freedom fighters) rescued him. He was to later write, “Never having been anything but C-3 physically, there was no possibility of my ever having been a combatant. I have, however, had some experience of War. I have lived through the rationing days, and seen food queues; I have slept through an air-raid and been torpedoed in mid-winter; and in John Bull's other island I made acquaintance with barbed wire, dead horses and dead men. The horrors of war, physical and mental, are in some measure matters of experience to me, not mere hearsay; so that I may be presumed to have a little more right to speak of them than the arm-chair philosopher of tradition.”

The Irish experience was to affect his life for a while; his contact with the Sinn Fein made the Government suspicious of him on his return to India and he could not get a Government appointment. He therefore began practising law in Madura with the help of P.T. Rajan, achieving but modest success. But his friendship with Rajan eventually got him into what he wanted to do: teaching. He was appointed Principal of Madura College and then went on to head National College, Trichy, gaining along the way a reputation as a good academician. This led to his appointment as Secretary of the Tamil University Committee, whose report, which he was instrumental in drafting, led to the founding of Annamalai University. This record and his outstanding lectures on Indian Philosophy led him to the University of Madras where he headed the Department of Philosophy till his death in 1942. By then he had become blind, glaucoma taking its toll, but this did not stop him teaching, lecturing and writing, all adding to his reputation.

His home in Casa Major Road was host to anyone who wanted to discuss Indian Philosophy. A regular visitor was his former mentor, S. Radhakrishnan. Another was his student and successor T.M.P. Mahadevan to whom he left his library and papers. The Collected Papers of Suryanarayana Sastri edited by Mahadevan and several other publications by Sastri were published by the University of Madras and were always in demand.

The other Suryanarayana came back with a Cambridge degree in Mathematics but without the I.C.S. letters after his name. He taught for a while in Lahore, then joined the Madras Educational Service and was Lecturer in Mathematics at Presidency. In the 1930s he was posted to the Arts College, Rajamundhry, and in time became its Principal. Back in Madras in 1941, he first served as the Deputy Director of Public Instruction and, then, in 1946, as Principal of Presidency College. After retirement the next year, he was invited by Hyderabad State to be its Director of Public Instruction. He later served, in turn, as the Principal of Alagappa Chettiar College of Arts, Karaikudi, and SRR&CVR College, Vijayawada, where he retired in 1957. He passed away in 1963, his chain-smoking greatly responsible for the lung ailment which caused his death.

Those who remember him recall that he was always immaculately suited and booted in office and at official functions and always had a hat handy when needed outdoors. With his impeccably British attire, he brought a little bit of England into wherever he served.


When the postman knocked…

*N. Vittal, a Tamil Nadu Maharashtrian, points out that I should have stressed that Sir T. Madhava Rao's initial stood for Tanjore/Thanjavur (Miscellany, June 4). He adds that Madhava Rao was the tutor of Sayaji Rao Gaekwad and was, later, instrumental in arranging the prince's marriage with a princess from the Tanjore royal family. He also notes that a Thanjavur-Baroda connection still exists; the wife of the present senior prince of Thanjavur, Babaji Bhonsle, is from Baroda. Another Tamil Nadu link has been Bharatanatyam; Vittal states that Mrinalini Sarabhai of Madras, when she moved to Ahmedabad after marrying Vikram Sarabhai, spread the gospel of Bharatanatyam in Gujarat when she started her dance school ‘Darpan' there. Her daughter Mallika continues the tradition. And they have been responsible for Sayaji Rao University having a course in Bharatanatyam in its School of Fine Arts.

*Could you give me some information about the broken footbridge across the mouth of the Adyar River, wonders Akhilnandh Ramesh. I'm afraid I'm at a loss, but perhaps there is a reader out there who could tell us when it was built and when it broke up and how the damage occurred.

*Two choultries opposite Central Station still function in a kind of a way, writes Sarah Ribeiro. One is run desultorily by the Tamil Nadu Tourism Development Corporation, the other by a Muslim charity. Could you tell us something about them, she writes. The TTDC-run place was established in 1884 by Raja Sir Ramaswami Mudaliar, the first Indian Sheriff (1887) of Madras. He was a most successful dubash of Dymes & Co. (later Bombay Company) and was given the title Rajah by the British in 1891. The adjacent choultry, Siddique Sarai, was established in 1920 by another merchant prince, Abdul Hakim Sahib. Is there a reader who could tell us something about him?

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Printable version | May 15, 2021 1:17:18 PM |

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