Registered with the Registrar of Newspapers for India under R.N.I 53640/91

Vol. XXXI No. 18, January 1-15, 2022

The stained glass marvels of the State Bank of India – Madras branch

by Sujatha Vijayaraghavan

It was in the 1980s that Sujatha Vijayaraghavan, then Manager at the SBI, wrote this article on the SBI’s main office at First Line Beach, Madras. A landmark building if there ever was one, it is now a sadly burnt out shell, awaiting restoration, of which there has been no sign for over many years now. The article is being carried as it was written, with no changes made to reflect the present situation. It gives you an idea as to what has been lost.
– Editor

The exterior view of the State Bank of India Madras Branch.

In their application to the Government in the year 1881 for transfer of a piece of land on First Line Beach, the Directors of the Bank of Madras gave the assurance that they “undertake to erect such a building as will meet with the approval of Government and which will materially add to the architectural embellishment of the city.” The majestic red brick and granite structure which stands today as the Madras Main Branch of State Bank of India, more than fulfills the promise made a century ago. With its minarets, turrets, arches and staircases in the Indo-Saracenic style, it is verily one of the most magnificent examples of 19th Century architecture of Madras. Designed and supervised by the architect Henry Irwin, C.I.E., this edifice evokes the spirit of a bygone era, of a grandiose way of life, of the delight of the connoisseur in the ornate and the artistic.

While the outer shell of the building remains unchanged, the interior has undergone such drastic alterations that a goodly percentage of the original beauty lies hidden behind and beneath new fixtures and facades.

The interior view of the State Bank of India Madras Branch.(From S. Muthiah’s collection.)

Mohanasundaram, an employee from the Imperial Bank of India days points out to the boarded up ceiling in the central hall, above which are domes with lattice work, now concealed from view. D. Ethiraju, another employee who has served from the early forties in this building speaks of the wrought iron gallery railing on the second floor, now replaced by a plain brick and plaster retaining wall. These men and their. contemporaries remember that the spaces above the arches in the hall once had foliage patterns in bas-relief, which have since-been cemented smooth and painted over.

Shorn of the delicate ornamentation, the once massive central hall, now cramped with counters and plywood partitions, is saved from total drabness the moment you look above at the vaulted ceiling and encounter a breath-taking array of stained glass panels.

As you walk around the rooms on the first and second floors a magic world unfolds as the eyes rest upon each panel above the doors and windows. It is like walking right into a kaleidoscope.

One of the stained glass windows at the State Bank of India Madras branch.

Most of the contemporary buildings such as the Connemara Public Library and the Senate House, Madras University have been adorned with such panels. But the ones found in the Madras Main Branch of State Bank of India building far surpass them in subtlety and sophistication of design and colour. The colours used here are more delicately tinted and tastefully juxtaposed than the bright reds, blues, greens and violets found in other buildings.

History of stained glass

The origin of stained glass is obscure. The earliest known examples are from Egypt, where the art was in vogue prior to 9th Century. It spread to Europe, presumably through Italy. The art reached its pinnacle in the Medieval Churches and Cathedrals.

Primarily designed to allow light into the dark Gothic Churches, the stained glass panels came about to play a greater role in creating an awareness in religion and art in the mind of the congregation.

The Churches and Cathedrals in England, France, Germany and Italy have some of the most beautiful stained glass windows. Noteworthy among them are those at Canterbury, York, Oxford (England), Rheims, Chartres, Notre Dane (France), Augsburg, Cologne, Ulm (Germany), Milan, Florence, Rome (Italy), etc. Centres of stained glass production were situated all over Europe, especially in ecclesiastical cities such as Coventry, Canterbury, York, Oxford (England), Rouen (France), Strasbourg, Augsburg, Cologne (Germany), Milan (Italy). Some of the renowned artists over the centuries were Barnard Flower (Netherlands), Guglielmo de Marcillat (France), John Prudde, William Morris (England), Hans Wild (Germany) etc.

It is not confined any more to Churches and places of worship. “Coloured glass became very popular in domestic architecture around the turn of the Century, in doors, windows and even as panels in the porch” says Julian Barnard. The all round demand for stained glass inspired an enterprising printer to come out with multicoloured paper to be stuck on the inside of the window pane to give the appearance of coloured glass. This was used by the lower middle classes who could not afford the real thing.

The post-war period witnessed a resurgence in stained glass. Whereas the techniques remained more or less as of old, the subject and the style were entirely modern and abstract. West Germany, where most of the churches had borne the brunt of the war, was the pioneer in this period.

History of the Craft

A stained glass window is a translucent mosaic of pieces of coloured glass held together by lead matrices called CAME or KAME. The earlier variety was called the Mosaic and the one of later origin was the Enamelled glass.

Mosaic stained glass

The first step in its production was to make a full size drawing of the window on one end of a white-washed board supported on trestles. The other end was used to spread the coloured pieces of glass according to the drawing. Each piece of glass was shaped into segments as per the design. It was cut first with a hot iron and then shaped with a tool called the “grazing iron”, which was a flat piece of iron with a notch at one, end like a spanner. Until the diamond-edged cutter was introduced in 1500, the grazing iron was used to cut and shape the pieces of glass.
The designs were out in further detail on the pieces of glass with an opaque brown paint called grisaille. This was a mixture of powdered glass, metallic oxide and gum. The painted glass was fired in the kiln to fuse the colours into the glass, In medieval times the glass was fired in a pan, which was filled to the top with alternate layers of glass and whiting (ground chalk). By this method the glass was coloured throughout its layers and was known as “pot metal.” To retain translucence in dark colours like “ruby red”, the glass was “flashed”, which meant dipping the pliant, clear glass in molten coloured-glass.

Then these pieces of “pot metal” or coloured glass were cooled and arranged on the glazing table. They were connected by strips of lead or KAME, whose cross section was like the alphabet H. The strips were inserted between the glass segments and were soldered at the points of junction. Crevices between glass and lead were filled with cement or putty, The whole panel was strengthened by leaden strips soldered to the leaden matrices and fixed to iron saddle bars whose ends were embedded in the masonry or the wooden frame of the window. Larger windows were made in smaller units fitted on to an iron frame work. The bars of such armatures often formed a geometric pattern, enhancing the intricacy of the work.

Until the discovery in the 14th Century of a yellow stain derived from a solution of silver, the colours available to the craftsmen were limited. This new stain made possible hues like lemon yellow, orange and brilliant green. Another innovation in the 16th century was the fusing together of two sheets of glass of different shades to produce a third colour. One layer was partially ground away or ‘abraded’, or eaten away by fluoric acid to produce delicate shades.

Grisaille Painting

In the 13th and 14th Centuries ruby glass was in scarce supply. This gave rise to a new technique called Grisaille Painting. Square or diamond shaped coloured glass called quarry were set in a geometrical pattern outlined by coloured bands. Patterns of foliage or trellised plant were drawn in black or brown enamel on these panes.

Enamelled Glass

In the late 16th Century availability of “pot metal” dwindled. Consequently, the new craft of enamelled glass came into vague. Ground glass was mixed with various metallic oxides to obtain different colours, such as copper for green, cobalt for blue, manganese for purple, etc. The design was painted with these colours on a clear sheet of glass and fused on.

Stained Glass in State Bank of India, Madras Main Branch

The agreement dated 3rd March 1896 between the Bank of Madras and the contractor Thaticonda Namberumal Chetty contains as its annexure a detailed estimate of the proposed building for the Bank. Item No.61 of the estimate reads as follows:

Forming a mere 2.16 per cent of the total estimated cost of Rs.3,00,087-14-11, these “coloured glass in leaden sashes” nevertheless have brought in light and life to what might have otherwise been a sombre and drab interior.

Other buildings attributed to Henry Irwin, the architect, as also those executed by Namberumal Chetty, the contractor, during the period, abound in the leaded stained glass windows. The Law College, the High Court, the Museum and the Museum Theatre, the old building of the Connemara Library, the Senate building of the Madras University are some of them. Other contemporary buildings, both public and private, include this feature in good measure. Among them the San Thome Cathedral Basilica, the Higginbothams building on Mount road, the Spencers building and some of the old mansions in George Town have exquisite windows.

Wide use of leaded glass, which is a typically European mode of ornamentation, makes us wonder, whether the panels were imported in large quantities from abroad or were produced locally, in India. It was common practice to import a number of building materials used in these palatial structures, which were a legacy of the British Raj. Thus the black and white marble floor tiles came from Italy, the teak from Burma and the stained glass from England, Germany and Italy. Despite their fragility it is quite probable that the stained glass panels were imported. Those were the times when importing a luxury item like ice was considered neither extraordinary nor extravagant. Moreover, had there been a manufacturing unit in Madras or elsewhere in India, some vestiges of the craft should have remained till date. It could not have vanished without a trace within the space of a century.

The stained glass painting at San Thome Basilica. (From Madras that is Chennai: Gateway To The South by S. Muthiah.)

On the other hand, there are old timers who speak of stained glass panels to have come from Bombay. The strikingly Indian Motifs and patterns make this theory tenable. The slim handbook entitled Some Important Churches of Tamil Nadu, brought out in 1986 on the occasion of the Pope’s visit, makes a very clear statement about the San Thome Cathedral Basilica constructed in 1896. “The back wall of the sanctuary has a large three panelled window of stained glass. The three panels contain representations of St.Thomas, and the other apostles, the former placing his finger into the wound in Christ’s side. The window was manufactured by M/s. Mayer & Co., of Munich. On either side of this window there are two other stained glass windows made at Madras under Capt. Power’s supervision.”

(To be concluded next fortnight)

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