GPO: awaiting restoration

ON EITHER side of where once stood Bentinck's Building (Madrascapes, January 22) are historic buildings awaiting decisions on their fate: To be - or not to be. These buildings once constituted the northern half of Madras's handsome skyline that was a mix of Indo-Saracenic and the Classical when viewed from the eastern Bay; the southern half were the buildings on the Marina, separated from the northern half by Fort St. George's own classicism.

Amongst these landmarks to the north of the Fort, the one needing attention at the earliest is the General Post Office building south of Bentinck's Building and northern neighbour to the State Bank of India's main branch, whose architects were determined to make it a handsomer building than the GPO but probably wound up in a tie. The GPO's interior was gutted by a fire in October 2000. By then, enough damage had been done to its splendid postal hall by making it a rabbits' warren of partitioned cubby holes; the fire, in fact, did a service by burning down several of these cubicles and providing an opportunity to restore the hall to its original shape. But ever since the fire, there's only been promises and talks of restoration. In fact, at a stamp release function a few weeks ago, the Chief Postmaster General said that plans had been drawn up for the restoration work and that the work would start soon. Curiously, local conservationists who had been invited after the fire for discussions on the best way to restore a heritage building, have not been invited to see these plans. Raising the question: Are conservation and restoration planned or only the everyday use of space with only lip service paid to the heritage of the building?

That heritage goes back to its inauguration on April 26, 1884, work on it having started 10 years earlier to a design by Robert Chisholm. By then, Chisholm was well into his Travancore phase, after having completed the Napier Museum there, disdaining the European gothic style the Maharaja had been keen on and producing a splendid design that might be called Travancore - Saracenic. It was this style that he used for Madras's GPO, its basic features seen in the central hall, the towers, the high-pitched roofs and dormers. The Building News, London, wrote on completion of the building, "Beneath the Travancore-styled eaves, all work apparently of wood (and really of wood in the original style) has been changed to stone, as sanctioned in the very beautiful example in Beejapoor, which meets with universal admiration, and from the study of which the projecting canopies have been designed. The arches, columns and other details are in cut stone, in the Ahmedabad style of art." And the journal, to allay the fears of those "apprehensive of the adaptations of specimens so widely scattered geographically", not only published a picture of the new building (featured here) but emphasised, "Great care has been taken to preserve artistic unity in the whole design", creating a style that may be described as "Hindoo-Saracenic". With the Madras Post Office, adds a later student of this imperial style, Thomas R. Metcalf, "Indo-Saracenic architecture - with its self-assured mastery of Indic detail and its elements from across India - took on a mature form." Surely that form deserves to be conserved for posterity?

The building of the GPO marked the coming of age of the postal service in the headquarters of the southern Presidency. The beginnings of the largest postal service in the world, with over 140,000 post offices and 5,00,000 post boxes today, were, however, in Bombay, where a post office was established in 1688. There was simultaneously, or not long after, a post office set up in Madras by the East India Company. But it was not till Governor Harrison in 1714 started a Company Postal Service to carry mail to Calcutta by dak-runner from Madras that the beginnings of a more organised postal service got underway. This became better organised in 1736 and, then, in 1774 Madras got its first Postmaster-General, following Lord Robert Clive's 1766 minute "For the better regulation of dauks". Regulation, however, continued desultorily until Governor-General Warren Hastings, and old Madras hand, in 1784 ordered the reorganisation of the postal services in the Presidencies, asked them to frame rules and appoint officials for a postal service, and allowed private persons to post letters for a fee.

The rules for Madras were first drawn up by a junior civilian, John Philip Burlton, in 1785, then by a more senior civilian, Thomas Lewin, in 1786. Acting on this, Governor Sir Archibald Campbell put Lewin's plan with adaptations into practice on June 1, 1786, established a General Post Office, and appointed Archibald Montgomery Campbell, a cousin of his, as Postmaster General with Robert Mitford as his deputy. In 1789, there was a weekly dak-runner service started, linking Calcutta, Bombay and Madras via Masulipatnam on which the dak runners from each Presidency capital would converge - rather like the Dakotas of another age converging on Nagpur at midnight! The dak rate was fixed at 2 annas for every hundred miles and 65 stations on the runners' routes were served. The Indian Postal Service was on its way. In 1837, the three Presidency capitals were integrated into one All-India Service and on October 1, 1854, the Imperial Postal Service linked the whole country and introduced stamps.

Campbell's General Post Office was first set up just outside the Fort's Sea Gate (now walled in between the two main gates). It moved into the old Bank of Madras's premises (now the Fort Museum) in 1837. By then, Madras had two other post offices, functioning in Vepery and Royapettah from 1834. With the establishment of the Imperial (now Indian) Postal Service, the post offices in the Presidency towns needed more space for the extra load, and the Madras GPO moved to Popham's Broadway in 1856. By then, in 1855, the city's first post box had put down roots - in the Mowbray's Road.

By 1874, there were nine post offices in the city and others in the mofussil areas, a growth necessitated by the railways connecting by 1871 the widespread areas of the country. However, postal transport in the city was by horse cart (jutka) till 1918, though by 1915 the first motorised postal transport too had begun to make its appearance. The telegraph came to Madras in 1853, but became available for civilian traffic only from February 1, 1855.

Both moved together from Broadway in 1884 to the splendid building they are now located in. It's time those occupying those premises recall both postal heritage and the coming of age of Indo-Saracenic in it by pressing for its proper conservation and restoration.

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