Madras miscellany

A college that deserves better

ROBERT CHISHOLM, that architect of many of Madras's gracious public buildings that are standing monuments to him, would weep if he saw the state of what he created are in today. His greatest grief could well be not only for a little-known building he raised but for the institution within that was perhaps the closest to his heart. That institution, today the Government College of Arts and Crafts, languishes with little attention to the building Chisholm built, its facilities within in a sorry state or non-existent, and the students and faculty trading charges, the former alleging the lack of up-to-data instruction, the latter alleging indiscipline and lack of numbers, and both complaining about the lack of infrastructure and facilities.

What a pass this once-famous institution, the oldest art school in the country, has come to. Yet what a forward-looking institution it was over the years. Founded as a private institution in Popham's Broadway in 1850 by a military surgeon, Dr. Alexander Hunter, it was taken over by the Government two years later and Hunter was requested to reorganise it. What he created was the Government School of Industrial Arts with an Artistic Department concentrating on drawing, engraving and pottery and an Industrial Department focussing on building materials and embellishments. Appointed superintendent in 1855, Hunter introduced a Department of Photography the same year; it was to lead to the founding of the Photographic Society of Madras the next year, with Walter Elliot, the saviour of the Amaravathi panels, its first president. Hunter was committed to "nullifying the injurious influence which the large importations of European manufactures of the worst possible designs have had on native handicrafts and to train students for engraving and other useful occupations".

Hunter retired in 1868 and was succeeded by Chisholm, who had to wait nearly ten years before being officially appointed superintendent. Chisholm, a Gothicist as interested in painting as in architecture, encouraged both art and the school's contribution to artefacts. He also started the Metal Working Department and introduced working with aluminium in India.

An instructor at the school, Debi Prasad Roy Chowdhury, became at 30 its first Indian principal. A legend in his lifetime as much for his prowess in hunting and wrestling as for his talent as a painter and sculptor, he was perhaps the best-known contemporary artist of the 1940s and 1950s. During his tenure he attracted talent from all over the country and the school became virtually a national institution, producing some of India's best-known artists in the years that followed. Chowdhury himself will always be remembered for his 'Triumph of labour' and Gandhi on the march' statues on the Marina.

Chowdhury was succeeded by K.C.S. Panicker as Principal and Panicker encouraged the academy-minded art instruction to flower into a freer Madras School. On retirement, he was to found the country's first artists' cooperative, Cholamandal Artists' Village, and encourage several of his students to settle there and develop what is now internationally known as the Cholamandal School. After Panicker, the numbers and the lack of them when it came to finances and staff, began to overwhelm a school that became a college without having the necessary facilities.

The saddest part of this story is the pathetic state the college's exhibition hall and its valuable collection put together over the years are in. In its collection is a splendid treasure of old Madras photographs dating to the 19th Century. A little-known collection, it needs wider exhibition and microfilming or digitising for posterity.

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When alumni team up

THE University of Madras's Department of Journalism and Mass Communication has graduated over 400 young men and women in the 25 years since it expanded from being an elective in another department to a full-fledged department itself. A silver jubilee calls for some sort of celebration - and the celebration a couple of weeks ago took the form of inaugurating an alumni association intriguingly named MCAUM, the Mass Communication Alumni of the University of Madras. More significant than the MCAUM website launched on the occasion was the mention of the possibility of a new mass communications laboratory for the department. If all went well, Dr. Tyagarajan, the Registrar of the university said, the lab might be in place next year if there were sufficient helping hands to supplement the university's commitment. He no doubt hoped for that help from the industry as well as the alumni - as is the practice that has made a success of education in the U.S. What a difference such a lab would make to a department that has suffered from a woeful lack of equipment yet has graduated numerous students who are today in the front ranks of journalism and audio-visual communication. A lab with the necessary equipment, the right faculty and the experience of the best of the alumni could well make a department treated until recently in stepmotherly fashion into a centre of excellence.

Among the many alumni from the world of journalism and other media present on the occasion was a young woman of whom special mention was made, as much for moving into a field different from most of the alumni and which was not in NGO work, fashion designing or boutique entrepreneurship - which the exceptions were in! - as for achieving appreciation with her very first effort in her new field. Janaki Vishwanathan's feature film Kutty had been previewed just a few days earlier, released just the day before and had received critical acclaim that had immediately made her one of the better known of the department's alumni.

Janaki Vishwanathan had moved from print journalism to copy- editing for Sivasankari's 'Knit India Through Literature Project' to ad-film making and then took a different track altogether, directing the feature film she scripted and made with her husband Ramesh Arunachalam. The subject she chose is a hardy perennial for journalists - child labour. But basing her story on a Sivasankari novella, her film focusses on child labour in a more unconventional setting, the middle class home.

A film of lights and shades, of moments of hope and moments of despair, it's a film that's been acclaimed by critics on all counts. But does the box-office ever react the same way as the critics? Many that evening who had seen the film hoped it would.

The tram was once a popular mode of transport in the city as bus services had not been nationalised.It would move so slowly that people on the road could walk alongside and chat with friends seated inside.

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When the postman knocked

READER S. Murugesan takes up cudgels on behalf of the TNCA with regard to my statement about the Buchi Babu Tournament "losing its lustre" (Miscellany, August 6). "This may have been true in the Nineties," he writes, "but both last year and this year there's been an all-star cast". I stand corrected, indeed, both the National Cricket Academy and the New Zealand Cricket Academy participated in the tournament last year and are doing so again this year, apart from teams from several other States which have included many a test player and several who are awaiting calls to represent India in tests, one day internationals and India 'A' matches. Yes, there has been a reasonably attractive "all-star cast" last year and this, but where's the publicity for the tournament? There's been little or no pre-publicity and match coverage is only now beginning to improve. And without that coverage that would bring the public back to the boundaries, the tournament will lack lustre.

Another reader, N. Dharmeshwaran, points out that I erred with the e-mail identity of the Consumer Association of India (Miscellany, July 30). After advising me to be "extremely and doubly cautious about singular or plural, dot or dash, i or t" when recording e-mail identities, he says he discovered, after his first e-mail had "bounced", that the correct e-mail identity of CAI is 'consumerassnofindia@vsnl.net'. Pointing out that I had omitted the plural 's', he mysteriously adds, "and thereby hangs a tale". If I ever hear the tale and it is as intriguing as reader Dharmeshwaran makes it out to be, I'll share it with readers some day.


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