Registered with the Registrar of Newspapers for India under R.N.I 53640/91
Vol. XXV No. 16, December 1-15, 2015
Why is it happening?
at a another heritage building
The recent rains did not wreak as much havoc on heritage buildings as we feared. The roofless Bharat Insurance Building and Gokhale Hall (both declared structurally weak over a decade ago) are still standing and may they continue to remain till their owners see the light and begin restoration activities. But the iconic India Silk House building on Anna Salai/Mount Road was not so lucky. A suspected electric short circuit caused a fire that left a large part of its interior damaged. This incident, the latest in several electricity-caused conflagrations in our city, has robbed us of another piece of history.
For the record, the building, officially known as Lawley Hall, belongs to the Anjuman-i-Himayat-i-Islam (AHI) Trust. Constructed in the first years of the last century, it was meant to be a hostel and training centre for indigent Muslim children. Built in the North Indian style with chattries and named after the then Governor, Sir Arthur Lawley, the building has had the honour of hosting a lecture by Mahatma Gandhi in 1915. The Trust moved elsewhere in the 1930s and the structure was leased to several commercial entities. India Coffee House was on the first floor for several decades, but the one surviving occupant from early times is India Silk House and the edifice is synonymous with this retailer of garments. The building is listed as being in Grade 2 A category according to the ruling of the High Court of Madras, thereby making it a structure of local importance with no changes possible on its façade, though its interiors can undergo modifications.
Given Chennai’s history of heritage buildings catching fire (see box), the administration has had ample data to analyse and come up with fire safety codes for heritage structures so that more of these do not fall prey.
Church Street is one of the oldest thoroughfares in the Fort, for there are records of its existence from the early 18th Century. There is some doubt as to its exact location, the name having been given to at least two passages in the early years but by the mid 18th Century, the alley that connected James (now absorbed by Charles) Street and St Thomas Street was known variously as Church Lane/Row/Street. H D Love states that it was immediately south of the Church and ran on an east west axis. Today no such thoroughfare exists. When you walk out of the southern doorway of the Church of St Mary’s, you step into a beautiful walled garden on the other side of which is the immense bulk of the ex-servicemen’s hospital. At the end of the garden, just before the health facility’s wall is a paved walkway with wrought iron arches at either end, connecting it with Charles and St Thomas Streets. If so, is the garden and the walkway the space occupied by Church Street? We can only hazard a conjecture.
It was, to quote from the well-known A Tale of Two Cities, the best of times and the worst of times. The recent deluge saw two different faces of Chennai on display and such were the contrasts that they could have been two entirely different cities altogether.
First the positives – the infrastructure did not quite breakdown as thoroughly as was expected. The telephone lines worked in most localities and as for power supply, it continued uninterrupted except in areas where trees fell, cables snapped or transformers combusted.
In January 1948, K.V.Al.Rm. Alagappa Chettiar of Kottaiyur went to see Jawaharlal Nehru in Delhi, to ‘sell’ Karaikudi as a town to house one of India’s new science research institutes. He offered 300 acres of land and 1.5 million rupees to set up the institute in his native Chettinad. Impressed by his commitment to people and the country, Nehru introduced Chettiar to his sister Vijayalakshmi Pandit, as the socialist capitalist.
K.V. Ramanathan, distinguished civil servant, writer, scholar, music expert and sports enthusiast all rolled into one, passed away last month at the age of 87. An avid reader of Madras Musings and S. Muthiah’s long running-column Madras Miscellany, he was a regular correspondent with both. He was also a great mentor and friend of mine. He will be sorely missed.