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Vol. XXXII No. 13, October 16-31, 2022

W(h)ither Chennai’s Art Deco?

-- by The Editor

Mumbai has done it. In 2018, thanks to a concerted effort by citizens and a sympathetic Government, the city’s Gothic and Art Deco precincts were accorded UNESCO’s world heritage status. Since then, the movement to protect the city’s heritage structures has only gained ground. While the challenges of protecting the buildings, especially those in private hands continue, it cannot be denied that there is a growing awareness in the city about built heritage. Chennai has lagged behind considerably in this. For all that it is considered the birthplace of the Indo-Saracenic style of architecture and has several examples still standing, there has been no move to seek world heritage status, given that the Government here, no matter who is in power, is forever deliberating over whether it needs to protect what it feels is colonial heritage, which by itself is a worthless doubt to have when it can happily cash in on such structures by preserving and promoting them. The fate of Art Deco is even worse.

This art form, for rather than an architectural style it came to revolutionise design of many other things including furniture, silverware, jewellery, printing and textiles, evolved in the early 1900s in Europe and America and had its heydays there till 1928 when it slowly began giving way to modernism. The designs however came to India only in the late 1930s and from them on held sway till the mid-1950s at least. Over that period, cinema theatres, public buildings and residences were constructed all across the country in Art Deco. Bombay, now Mumbai, admittedly had the largest number but close on its heels came Madras. Mount Road had a whole line of cinema theatres, First Line Beach and NSC Bose Road had several towering insurance, banking and commercial edifices, and the new housing areas of T ’Nagar, CIT Colony, Mandaiveli, Adyar, Alwarpet and Shenoy Nagar had several residences in the style.

What has happened since then is not such a happy story. Mumbai has continued to hold on to much of its Art Deco, although admittedly the ­draconian Rent Control Act that prevails there has been a cause. Chennai, with a freer environment when it comes to hiring out and selling off of property, has ironically seen much of its Art Deco vanish. Mount Road has no cinema theatres, leave alone any in this style of architecture.

As for the residential colonies, most such bungalows, many of whose designs were inspired by ocean liners, have long vanished to make way for high rise. The only area where Art Deco still thrives is George Town, where with probably the exception of Dare House, the others survive only because of owner-tenant conflicts. But nevertheless, they do survive. Mount Road has a few commercial buildings in this style still standing.

Is it too late to now press for preservation of our Art Deco? Assuredly not. And if it can be combined with what is left of our Indo-Saracenic, we have a formidable case for recognition. And just in case our Government is dithering over whether Art Deco is colonial, they should know that it was pioneered in this city by insurance companies founded and run by Indians with a decidedly Swadesi outlook. Of course, several of them, including the pioneering architect (see Heritage Watch) who brought the style to the city were not sons of the soil, which consideration seems to weigh rather heavily over not just our State but the country as well. But if we can rise above such petty considerations, we do have a case for preserving our Art Deco. So, who is to take the plunge inspired by the Mumbai example – private owners or the Government?

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