The House that Chisholm built

We often read and hear of the history of Chennai’s Senate House — but what of its present and future?

Published - March 04, 2019 11:46 am IST

I am delighted to see that some use has at last been made of the University of Madras’ Senate House as was promised, when this magnificent “Work of Genius” was restored in 2008 to celebrate the 150th Anniversary of the founding of that premier educational institution.

Parts of the Chennai Photo Biennale exhibition were mounted here recently and had visitors once again admiring the interior of this bit of architectural splendour.

The story of this building goes back to July 1864. It was suggested at the time that the first office buildings of the University, then located in Presidency College, be established in a building called Senate House to be raised on Marshall’s Road. However, Governor Lord Napier, in his Minute dated November 28, 1867, stated his views categorically. He wrote:

“The site on Marshall’s Road stands at a great distance from the Presidency College, the College of Civil Engineers, the Medical College, the principal schools and the quarters which supply the greatest number of students and persons concerned in literary pursuits. But it is hoped that the University buildings will not be circumscribed to a mere hall or Senate House for the offering of Degrees and other rare solemnities. We expect that, eventually, University Professorships will be established and that University lectures will be delivered (emphasis mine). Even at the present moment it is most desirable that a University library should be founded, which would serve as the General Public library for the studious classes in the capital, a library in which the valuable Manuscripts belonging to the Government may be lodged and in which the past and current publications of the Presidency (which we are now directed to register and preserve) may be deposited and, as I trust, united with an ample collection of works useful to the general student and particularly interesting to the educated inhabitants of Southern India. If such should be the eventual character of the University buildings, it is obvious that nothing is more desirable than to place them in some degree of juxtaposition with the principal haunts of education and to provide them with cheerful attractive aspects as well as a good supply of air … (emphasis mine).

“The proposals which I accordingly submit to Council are comprised under the following heads:-

(i) To affirm that the proper site for a University building is the ground between the Marine Villa and the Revenue Board office” (off the beach).

Work then began 150 years ago, in 1869, at a site where the Nawab’s Artillery Park fired gun salutes to greet visiting dignitaries, and in the style of The Nawab’s Octagon , Nawab Wallajah’s bathing pavilion. The University offices moved into Senate House in 1879.

The design of the building was by Robert Fellowes Chisholm. The designs of Chisholm, a young engineer who had joined the Bengal PWD in 1859, were chosen the winners of two competitions in 1864. A 21-year-old Chisholm arrived in Madras in 1865 to supervise the building of both sites. In 1872, he was appointed Consulting Architect to the Government of Madras, an appointment pushed through by Governor Lord Napier who virtually became his patron. In 1877, he was also appointed the Superintendent of the Government School of Industrial Arts (now the College of Arts and Crafts). He retired in 1889 to take up similar positions with the Gaekwad of Baroda. He left India in 1902 to practice in London. Apart from his work in Madras he was responsible for designing some of the finest 19th Century buildings in India. Amongst them are the Lakshmi Vilas Palace and the Museum in Baroda, the Napier Museum, Trivandrum, the Lawrence (Asylum) School and Town Library in Ootacamund, and the Rangoon Cathedral. He was also responsible for the restoration of the Tirumala Nayak’s Palace in Madurai. During his twenty years in Madras, he not only changed the city skyline, but he spread the Indo-Sarcenic architectural style he was considered master of throughout India. Senate House was planned to integrate with Chepauk Palace, to which he made several additions and amendments.

In 2006 a committee was formed at the University to celebrate in 2008 the 150th anniversary of the Institution. This committee, together with the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage, Chennai chapter, as well as several corporates raised around ₹7,00,00,000 to restore Senate House and ready it for the sesquicentenary celebrations. Restoration completed, promise was made that the building would, as in the past, be put to good public use.

This never really happened and Senate House became virtually a godown. Fortunately the Chennai Photo Biennale has lit a candle that may yet prove the lamp to lead the way to regular public use of this magnificent building.

The forgotten plaque

It was a fairly prominent story the other day and its headline read “Facelift for Saidapet Bridge”. A fresh coat of paint and new grills at a cost of ₹43 lakh were promised. Not a word about heritage significance here.

The Saidapet Bridge is officially called the Maraimalai Adigal Bridge and connects Saidapet with Guindy. But from ancient times it has been called the Marmalong Bridge, though those with a sense of history remember it as Coja Petrus Uscan’s Bridge, recalling that that legendary Armenian, “John Company’s most loyal friend”, developed a causeway here into a bridge linking Saidapet with St. Thomas’ Mount. He also endowed its maintenance as well as that of the steps to the Mount.

A stone plaque at the northern end of the bridge remembers the munificence of the Armenian who left a fortune for the public good, particularly the Roman Catholic Church. For years, heritage enthusiasts have campaigned to save this historic memorial stone and it is only good fortune that has still kept it in sight despite all the Metro work around it. What is surprising is that in the most recent news story no mention has been made of the Uscan memorial and saving this listed heritage monument for posterity.

My picture today shows the plaque in position during the last week of February 2019. Surely a facelift to Saidapet Bridge must include giving prominence to this plaque and narrating the story of the city’s benefactor who died in 1757.

I hope that during the facelift for the Marmalong / Saidapet / Maraimalai Adigal / Petrus Uscan Bridge, more attention will be paid to the plaque than there is in the news story or in real life.

The chronicler of Madras that is Chennai tells stories of people, places, and events from the years gone by, and sometimes, from today

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