Madras Miscellany History & Culture

Fort St.George: The pillars of power

Those gleaming black pillars of the Fort deserve more than the passing reference I made to them speaking about Charnockite an January 29. Embellishing the portals of power, the Legislature-cum-Secretariat building, their granite only adds to the impression of power contained behind those brick-and-chunam walls. At the same time, as you pass by the handsomest building in the Fort, the pillars are what first capture the eye. They probably have hundreds of tales to tell, but mine are just what the records narrate.

These pillars were once part of a 32-pillar colonnade built in 1734 by Governor Morton Pitt from the Sea Gate, the Fort’s main entrance, to Fort Square fronting the Inner Fort. There were four rows of pillars, with a Madras terrace roof shading those coming on business with the Government. But whether the colonnade was really necessary, was long debated. In fact, when proposed, it was a project taken up as is so often done today: Have money, let’s use it as I please.

In fact, this was said in almost such words: “There being now in Cash upwards of one thousand six hundred Pagodas under the head Town Conicopoly’s Duty, it was proposed by the President, and unanimously Approved of, to make a Coverd Walk from the Sea Gate to the Back Gate of the Fort with four Rows of Stone Pillars, as being a thing would Conduce very much to the Beauty of the Town…” London, while not saying ‘No’, commented, “… but the words Commodious and Ornamental are what we don’t so well like, and are poor reasons for parting with Sixteen hundred pagodas….” To which Pitt’s Council replied, “The Seagate is now near finished… and as the building at the Seagate is by Farr the greatest ornament of Madras, We hope that you will not think the Mony misapplied.” Nothing changes in the world, does it?

When the French occupied Madras in 1746, they dismantled the colonnade and re-erected it in Pondicherry. Obviously there was no disagreement over its beauty. But when the British captured Pondicherry in 1761, they sent back to Madras the pillars before razing the French town. In 1762, the Chief Engineer, Madras, reported, “The noble Stone Pillars which formerly composed a usefull Colonnade …having been brought back from Pondicherry… have been set up in the Position they formerly stood…”

The open-sided colonnade had once served as the Merchants’ Exchange. But it was later walled between the pillars and converted into a granary. The Sea Customer (Customs’ head) then in 1781 requested that it be returned for use by the merchants. He wrote: “The Piazza, My Lord, in former times was the public resort of the Merchants, and considered the Exchange (trading venue) of the Place, and was always open for the Reception of all kind of Traffic of the Company’s and others that could not lay out at the Hazard of Weather; and for the want of it for this purpose I have lately seen very valuable property lying upon the Beach for a Week together….”

The colonnade was, from time to time, called the Piazza, the Veranda, and the Banqueting Hall, the latter predating what’s now Rajaji Hall. The names reflect other uses the pillared hall was put to over the years, but I’ve not been able to trace those periods.

The colonnade was, after the merchants moved out of the Fort, used to house the Government Press. And when that institution moved out it became the Records Office, the forerunner of the Archives. Eventually, in 1910, when the Legislature building was being rebuilt, the ‘Pillar Godown’ was dismantled and the 20 best pillars were selected to embellish the new building. Those are what you see today, handsome, even if they are painted and not polished pillars.

The Tamil Hindi filmmakers

I’m no authority on Tamil films, but after a recent talk on the subject, I had wondered why, given its expertise, Kodambakkam had not ventured into the bigger Hindi film world. I was soon set straight, though I was also told that Tamil filmmakers had made more of a mark in the Hindi filmdom in the 1940s-60s than in more recent times.

Fort St.George: The pillars of power

The first Tamil filmmaker to make a Hindi film, I learnt, was K Subrahmanyam in 1939. But after his film Prem Sagar flopped, he didn’t try again. SS Vasan’s all-time classic, Chandralekha, however was a tremendous success amongst Hindi audiences in 1948 and paved the way for more made-in-Madras Hindi films. He made over half a dozen.

Then came AV Meiyappan who made Hindi audiences look forward to ‘The Madras Formula’. He started with releasing his Vazhkai, made in 1949, as Bahar (1951) and scoring a winner. It was the film that introduced Vyjayanthimala to Hindi audiences. He followed it with about 15 other Tamil films being re-made in Hindi besides dubbing several more, making him as well-known in the Hindi heartland as he was in the South. But then the anti-Hindi movement in the South affected the trend and it virtually died out in the 1980s till the occasional film was re-made in more recent years.

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Printable version | Feb 17, 2020 12:05:29 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/society/history-and-culture/fort-stgeorge-the-pillars-of-power/article22855941.ece

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