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Vol XXXI No. 19, January 16-31, 2022

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

by Sujatha Vijayaraghavan

(Continued from last fortnight)

Some of the old residential bungalows in Madras display panels depicting scenes from Indian mythology and the figures of gods and goddesses of the Hindu pantheon.The crude workmanship and the garish colours of these panels lend credence to the idea of indigenous attempts a imitating the European craft.

As far as the stained glass panels in State Bank of India, Madras Main Branch (Bank of Madras building), are concerned, it is obvious even to the lay viewer they are far superior to their contemporary counterparts in their designs, colours and workmanship. Even though there are several panels with typically Indian motifs, they are marked as a whole by a distinct finesse which might denote their European origin. These Indian designs might have been specially adapted by the English, German or Italian factories to cater to the Indian builders.

Inset: Namberumal Chetty and his sprawling ancestral bungalow Crynant.

Namberumal Chetty’s grandson T. Ramachandra, who lives at the sprawling ancestral bungalow Crynant, a stark, unornamented, functional mansion, dating back to the late Nineteenth Century, brings out a wooden frame of coloured glass samples. The frame bears the name St. Gobain, which might have been the name of a manufacturing unit in England in the Nineteenth Century. Apart from this relic there are no records to show the origin of the stained glass panels.

The stained glass panels in the State Bank of India building are found above doors and windows in the external walls as well as in some of the dividing walls in the interior. These panels have been used only in the first and second floors of the building. Since the ground floor was originally designed to serve as a godown, it has no such ornamentation.

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

Apart from these, the sides of the high vaulted ceiling of the main banking hall is a panorama of square stained glass panels. The roof of this ceiling is surmounted with five lattice work cupolas, which were later boarded up and hidden from view when they became infested with bats. The glass vault is protected on the outside by a tile roof with its side walls covered by ground glass windows. This protective shell is reported to have been added about two decades ago. While serving the purpose of protecting the delicate stained glass the outer sheen almost completely shuts out the sunlight. As a consequence the gorgeous colours of the panels are just about barely visible in patches glimmering here and there.

The square panels in the sides of the roof are arranged in twenty four large segments, seven each on the eastern and western side, one each in the north and south, two triangular segments in each of the corners. The glass panels themselves are arranged within each segment in horizontal rows of seven and vertical rows of eight. Of the two, triangular segments joined at the corners, one contains square panels while the other has rectangular ones, which, to a casual observer, appear square.

The colours and motifs of these panels are strikingly Indian, mostly symmetrical rangoli designs. At an overall view the various segments appear to have the same designs and colours. A closer observation reveals that the pattern remains more or less the same for every horizontal row, whereas the colours vary from segment to segment. Dark, primary shades such as red, viridian green, ultra-marine blue, violet and leaf green are predominant. Red and blue are used liberally, particularly for the borders of the squares. The harshness of the primary hues is alleviated to a certain extent by pale, neutral shades like flesh tint, white and light green. Extensive use of chrome yellow brightens the patterns. Out of the panels nearly 1200 in number, as many as 17 have been broken and replaced with plain white, ground glass. Some of the smaller pieces of glass within the leaden sections in the panels have been replaced with plain coloured glass without the patterns done in grisaille. The fact that the broken sections or whole panels were not replaced with identical ones substantiates the theory that the panels were imported.

The old building of the Connemara Library has an identical vaulted ceiling made up of stained glass square panels. Here the panels are of pale, straw yellow colour with designs done in grisaille. In comparison, the ceiling of State Bank of India is a phantasmagoria of vibrant hues. Open to sunlight the latter should prove to be a glorious riot of colours, a gem-set canopy of breathtaking beauty.

The panels above the door’s and windows in the State Bank of India building are remarkably different from those in the ceiling. All doors and windows are topped by a Moghul arch. The wooden frame of the arch curves with a broad sweep to meet on top in an inverted V. The glass panels follow the line of the frame. The first and second floor have a total number of 138 arches, out of which only 91 at present have stained glass panels. The others have been covered with an iron mesh or with plywood. Most of these windows are open to direct sunlight. Until few years ago the north and south wings in the first and second floors had central court yards open to the sky. These have been covered with roofs to create more space for the various departments of the Bank. As a result these walls which once were open to sunlight are now hemmed in by dark passages and interior rooms. One such newly created room is adjacent to the Securities Department on the first floor and is now occupied by cupboards and discarded furniture. Its northern and eastern walls have beautiful stained glass panels whose colours are visible only when the tubelights are switched on.

The panels in the arches are found in several sizes all over the building. Most of them have a 125 cm. (49”) base with a height of 102 cm (40”). Some panels have the same base of 125 cm, with a height of 61 cms. (24”) These are to be seen in the northern wing of the second floor, in what at present functions as a dining hail. There is a peculiarly tall and narrow arch with a base of 67 cms. (26”) and a height of 71 cms (28”). Only two of them are found in the extreme ends of the front verandah of the second floor.

The north and south walls of the main banking hall on the first floor have one large arch each, which might have once enframed stained glass. The arch in the southern wall is covered with plywood and the one in the north with ground glass.

The Chief Manager’s Secretariat contains two of the largest panels on the wall adjacent to the granite stair case. The wooden panelling of the interior has hidden these and five smaller arches in the wall from view. The eastern, northern and southern walls of the Secretariat have rectangular panels with a base of 43 cms. (17”) and a height of 74 cms. (29”).

The designs on the stained glass panels are so varied that it is often assumed that no two panels are alike. There are, on the other hand, several pairs of similar panels. But they are either placed alternately with a different panel in between (I0A Department, first floor, south wing) or they are fixed in opposite walls not exactly facing each other (Securities department, first floor, north wing). Such clever juxtaposition of the panels has created the illusion of each one being one of its kind. The only wall which has two identical panels next to each other is on the first floor north wing, between Securities Department and Central Mail Department.

The designs consist of foliage with flowers, leaves and buds and geometric patterns of circles, squares, triangles, diamonds, hectagons. Some of them present the appearance of a bright hued rangoli. Some look like a gaily coloured Persian carpet. A good number of panels have large semi-circle of clovers or moghul arches at the centre, surrounded by foliage. Indian motifs abound. Paiseleys, peacocks, parrots, kumbam (a round pot) occur in quite a few panels. The lotus is a more frequently used motif. Traditional ‘kolam’ designs like the six pointed star formed with two triangles, is a commonly found theme. The Chief Manager’s Secretariat has rare panels with hooded serpents and the gandaberunda, the legendary bird with two heads.

The Moghul influence is strong in the outlines of scalloped arches and domes in the panels. The European influence is no whit less. Formal motifs characteristic of the Victorian Age, such as flower vases, on tables, fruit bowls, canopies supported on pillars with winding creepers occur in a number of panels. The leaves and flowers of the foliage are not native to the Indian soil. Rather European in appearance, a number of the flowers look artificial and unrealistic.

Each panel has a border of two or more strips of colours. The designs on these are floral or geometrical or a combination of both. The designs in the borders are usually painted with grisaille on transparent white glass. In some panels the white glass is stained yellow at regular intervals to depict flowers.

The colours are of a very wide range, from pale flesh tints, mist greys and light jade greens to ultramarine blues, viridian greens and deep magenta. It is significant that red is used very rarely. Apart from the red borders in the square panels in the ceiling, it is found in less than half a dozen arch panels. Even in them the colour red is no more than a dot here and there. Similarly crimson, orange and violet are used sparingly. Except for the lines of brawn grisaille appearing as black outlines, black is never used. Various hues of blue, red, pink, green and grey are used extensively.

There are rare shades of blue ranging from the light sky blue and pale turquoise to the darker hues of cobalt and ultra-marine. The greens range from-pale jade, leaf green, moss green and green to the darker viridian, and peridot. Exotic hues like mauve, fawn colour and salmon pink used with finesse are a delight to the eye. Some tints appear to be a combination of two shades. For instance, the Chief Manager’s Secretariat displays a shade that is neither purple nor magenta but something in between, like a light amethyst. It is a combination of pink and blue.

Each panel contains no less than six-different colours. A keen eye can detect as many as fourteen different colours in some of the panels. (Southern outer wall, second floor), Each coloured segment is used as it is without much shading, except for suggestion of outlines with grisaille. There is a multi-coloured parrot (Panchavarnakili) on the aforesaid wall, whose wings have been shaded. Another example of shaded colours is the cluster of leaves in a panel on the southern wall of the first floor. Sometimes a shaded effect is wrought by arranging a fine mosaic of different shades of the same colour, like the purple and mauve petals in a panel in the northern outer wall of the first floor.

Distribution of colours in a panel are so judiciously planned as to create a harmonious and pleasing effect. Neutral shades of grey, straw yellow, buff, flesh tint and white form the ­background for darker and brighter shades sharply outlined. Occasionally the colour combination on a panel is jarring and harsh. One such is the tall and narrow panel on the eastern wall of the second floor, adjacent to the Shares Department. The border is of cobalt blue and viridian green. The design has vivid patches of leaf green with a queer sort of bow in viridian green at the top.

Use of colours is not always realistic. There are flowers with petals of pale pink and sepals of turquoise. (First floor, northern outer-wall, Central Mail Department). The peacocks have a turquoise blue and leaf green body (second floor, northern wing, Eastern wall). The winding stems of foliage in the various panels are not necessarily green or brown. More often they are yellow, salmon pink or of flesh tint.

One wonders whether it was more than a coincidence that the most of the beautiful panels are found in the northern outer wall of the first and second floors. Pastel and bright shades in designs resembling embroidery patterns adorn these walls.

Dark and sombre shades of turquoise, slate grey, yellow ochre and dark green with intricate geometric patterns and foliage designs ornament the walls in the southern wing of both the floors.

The leaded sections are arranged closely as in an intricate jigsaw puzzle. Even the slender stems of the foliage are made of thin strips of glass framed in lead, criss-crossing all over the panel. The petals of the flowers, sometimes the sepals as well, are made up of different coloured glass. One of the panels (second floor, northern wing, eastern wall) contains a row of petals arranged all around as a border. Each petal is encased in a tiny lead frame with a leaden stem. Some panels (second floor, south wing, eastern wall) have square, or rectangular lead matrices covering large expanses of the panel. The different coloured segments do not, however, correspond to the squares, but follow the outline of the designs.

The present condition of a sizeable number of panels is unsatisfactory. Apart from the dust accumulated over decades, there are several which have a number of broken segments. Breakage has occurred even at the time of fixing the panels. Henry Irwin in his certificate dated 8-7-1899to Namberumal Chetty’s final bill, lists out the flaws to be rectified in the newly constructed building. He mentions therein, “Coloured glass over doors and windows badly fixed. Many pieces of glass cracked. This is the case all over the building.” (First floor – Accounts Department Item No.17).

The contractor’s comment on this reads as follows: “The fixing of this will be set right and broken glass replaced. It is due to the frames having been altered from fixtures…….” Regarding the square panels in the vaulted ceiling over the main Banking hall, Henry Irwin remarks, “Coloured glass, all broken, cracked and missing pieces to be replaced.” Again Namberumal Chetty adds his comment, “This has been done and additional clips will be put on to secure the leaded glass.”

Since the time these delicate and fragile entities have suffered further damage over the years. Warping of the lead strips either by strong winds or by expansion due to heat have made a few panels sag and buckle. More damage has been caused by the callousness and insensitivity of the human beings. There are several panels in every room where a corner segment of glass in the right or left bottom has been neatly removed to make a pasage for electrical wiring. This could have been avoided easily by boring a hole in the wooden frame work.

In some cases the panels are hidden from view by plywood boards. Especially while air-conditioning some of the rooms these panels have been boarded up on one or both sides with plywood. In some rooms there are wooden pelmets for curtains, which cover half the area of the panels. A wing in the outer walls cut off sunlight from some panels. Thus, ignorance neglect and mishandling have left a large number panels in bad shape.

Still they continue to enchant the beholder with their many tinted iridescence, lending a touch of poetry and magic to the grim haunts of Mammon. It is imperative that steps are taken to preserve the remaining panels so as to hand down to the future generations what was once the pride of a bygone era.

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