Whenever a heritage structure of Madras city bites the dust, those who lament its passage are branded as apologists for the British Raj and all that it stood for. Part of the reason why the city’s built heritage of the 18th and 19th centuries remains unprotected is that there is a very common notion among the powers that be that these are buildings built by the British and so Indians have no necessity to protect or restore them. But were these purely British? Was there no Indian participation at all?


The recent restoration efforts at the Senate House have revealed an altogether different angle which may require those who brand such buildings as alien to do some serious rethinking. For while the design of the building may have been RF Chisholm’s and therefore can be branded as English, though here again it is in reality an amalgam of Indian, Byzantine and Saracen styles, it is clear that the execution of that design was very much Indian or more specifically Madras. The details are too numerous to go into, but just one example would suffice, namely that of “Madras Plaster”. This lost technique, entirely unique to this part of the world and completely unknown outside, was used extensively in Senate House. To quote from the book “A Genius at Work, The Senate House of the University of Madras”, this “kind of plaster involved the application of ground lime mortar in many layers over several days, the final layers of which contained egg-white and quartz sand… (The) preparation of lime mortar required slaking and grinding at the site along with organic additives such as gallnut (kadukkai) and a brown sugar (jaggery) solution. After several days of preparation, the plaster was applied on the walls in coats. Starting with large-sized to very fine-sized sand, the numbers of layers varied from 2-4 depending on the location. The ‘base’ coats were cured for at least ten days before the final finish was applied.” Several other indigenous methods used can be cited in just this one building.


So were buildings such as Senate House purely British? No, argues Shanti Jayewardene Pillai in her book “Imperial Conversations, Indo-Britons and the Architecture of South India”. Basing her work on the construction and subsequent history of four buildings of Madras city, the Chepauk Palace (and the Revenue Board Building), St Andrews Kirk, Pachaiyappas College Building (NSC Bose Road) and the Senate House, she states that all such work were purely collaborative and involved British design interacting with a robust and thriving native engineering. Such collaborations have been termed as Imperial Conversations by the author and she cites several examples in her book to support her claim. These vary from the most commonplace such as the making of bricks to the building of the great edifices of the Raj.


Prior to the coming of the British military engineers, states the author, native architecture flourished under the rich patrons and was designed and executed by native stapathis. However, the absence of pre- Raj palatial mansions and public edifices leaving aside those used by royalty, points more to the ascetic nature of the South Indian population which believed in building residences that looked inward onto a courtyard rather than put up a massive display to the outside world. The Indian brick too prevented the building of tall structures as it could bear only about 350 lbs/sq.inch. This was changed with the arrival of Thomas Fiott de Havilland in Madras as a surveyor and architect in the employ of the army. de Havilland had in 1807 built the Banqueting Hall in Mysore and this was in its time considered a wonder, for the roof was unsupported by columns. For this de Havilland had built a prototype arch in his garden with native help, to establish that such a feat was possible. He also studied the barrel-vaulting and wagon-vaulting techniques of roofs as followed by native masons and as evident in the palaces of Tanjore and Mysore. It must be remembered here that such techniques had been in vogue for centuries in India.


In 1816, the elders of the Presbyterian Church of Madras decided on a circular plan for their own Kirk in Madras and were keen to begin work.  The design for this was provided by the Presidency Superintending Engineer, Lieutenant Grant who modelled it on an earlier unused design for London’s St Martin-in-the-field Church. The technology of putting up a dome, even one as shallow as the one in the Kirk was fairly alien to those in charge and both Grant and Col. Caldwell, the Chief Engineer recommended a wooden structure with a metal covering. In 1818, de Havilland, fresh from the success of building St George’s Cathedral (Cathedral Road) and by then Superintending Engineer, took over the task. He persuaded the authorities to go in for a brick dome, confident of the abilities of the native masons to produce one. He argued that a timber structure was subject to the depredations of white ants and would wear out soon in the harsh climate of Madras.


To convince the patrons, de Havilland had a test dome built in his garden on Mount Road. From the absence of any drawings it has been assumed by the author that de Havilland relied on local talent to complete it. To ensure its success, he modified the dimensions of the dome from the original Gibbs design and made it shallower and smaller in circumference. He also increased the number of columns to support it. This was later copied in full when the Church was finally built. Indians did not document their skills and the building of the prototype helped de Havilland to note their methods, document them and have hands-on contact with the material where required.


De Havilland was of the view that Indian bricks were of poor quality and this is why they were inferior in load bearing capability when compared to British bricks that could withstand 1000 lbs/sq.inch. He regulated the manufacture of bricks in Madras by stipulating that soil for brick making must be dug before the monsoon. A dimension was fixed for the standard brick and a mould made by the police was given out for this. The 1804 “Regulations for Controlling the Manufacture of Bricks, Tiles and Pots and the Burners of Chunam” were modified and a license fee, Rs 4 for brick and chunam, and Rs 2 for tiles and pots were issued. Applications for license were considered after the Superintending Engineer had inspected the soil on the spot. A Committee of Police would measure the produce and also fix market rates for it. With these improvements in brick quality, the construction of the St. Andrews Kirk and subsequent buildings of Madras became possible. 


The laying of well foundations for St Andrews Kirk is an oft quoted story. De Havilland opined that “the time immemorial Madras method of well sinking” be used for overcoming the problem of soft soil on the site. Well sinkers were very much in demand at this time and de Havilland observed that they were a very useful set of people and left behind his opinions of their community. “They are a very hard working people but not provident though well paid while employed. They are given to drinking, perhaps more than other classes of labourers from their practice of taking spirits while sinking wells, in order to sustain them in their great exertion, and to preserve them against the effect of the cold and wet”.


Finally the dome was constructed, perhaps on the same lines as Captain Underwood’s description written in 1836 – “the centrings were principally composed of crooked old bamboos laid over and tied to jungle-wood Malabar trusses, supported on sun-burnt bricks and mud pillars- sun burnt bricks were packed closely together on the bamboos, earth strewn on these, and a plaster of wet mud applied over all, to render the curve smooth”. Speaking on this method a good 90 years after the Kirk was built, Robert Fellows Chisholm said that “if a dome was turned on true Hindoo principles without a centre, the cost of doming was very little more than the cost of walling.”


An inherent trust on the native method of building the dome however meant that acoustics had to be given the go by, resulting in a dismal echo in the Kirk. The service could scarcely be heard but de Havilland conveniently blamed it on the “age of the reverend!” During this time, he also experimented and studied the benefits of mixing jaggery with mortar as the Indians did. He came to the conclusion that this made the mortar more plastic and therefore easier to work with.


If the Kirk depended heavily on Indian methods, the next grand building, the Pachaiyappa School, was a mix of European design, Indian construction and meant for mixed usage. The old school building on the Esplanade, close to Bunder Street was demolished in 1844 and Captain Ludlow, an officer of the Madras Engineers came up with the new design. The brief was to build a school and a hall. The hall, which still dominates the structure, was in the severely classical style, said to be based on the Temple for Theseus in Greece. This section had 15 classrooms as well, all fronted by a verandah. To the rear of this hall came up the school proper and this is a tiled roof structure, completely Indian in its design. What better example of an Indo-British conversation, commemorated in stone, chunam and tile? In keeping with the nature of the structure, the laying of the foundation October 2nd 1846, was a multi-cultural event, with people (Indians and English) assembling at Kovur House in nearby Bunder Street and being led in procession by Kovur Ekambara Mudaliar and George Norton to the venue. Here Tamil, Telugu and Sanskrit poems were sung in praise of Queen Victoria, Lord Hardinge (the Governor General) and Lord Elphinstone (the Governor). The Governor’s Band played airs such as “British Grenadiers” and “Roly O More” and while speeches in English were being made, Brahmins were given gifts of money! In direct contrast, the inauguration of the building, on 20th March 1850 was completely European with a sprinkling of Indians. The Governor, Sir Henry Pottinger presided and a vocal band sang the British Anthem. This was perhaps indicative of the growing divide between the masters and their subjects which resulted in the mutiny of 1857, of which however, Madras was spared. Those that attended would not have failed to notice the unique roof which was truss supported and had three coverings of zinc, felt and slate. The zinc was imported from England but wrought-iron rafters, tie beams, king and queen bars, struts, bolts and nuts were perhaps not, leading the author to surmise that there was a thriving industry in cast iron in Madras. What is certain is that the iron columns supporting the verandah stairs were made locally for they bear the stamp of C Copaul Nayagar and Sons, Madras.


By the time the Pachaiyappa School building was completed, the Public Works Department had begun to grow in stature. In 1851, it was called the Maramut Maintenance Department and was chiefly involved with the care and building of canals, roads and irrigation. The Grand Anicut of Tanjore, had been made over to the British in 1801 in full working condition and many Civil and Military Engineers learnt their lessons in hydraulics from it. Tank supervision committees were the norms even prior to this and there is no doubt that men on such bodies gave freely of their knowledge to the English. In the 1830s, Major (later Sir) Arthur Cotton began work on the renovation of the Grand Anicut. He supervised the building of dams over the rivers Godavari and Krishna in the 1840s. In 1859, he acknowledged his debt to sub-engineer T Veeranna and petitioned the Government to grant the latter a piece of land in free hold. The early records carry names such as Polony Vellur Moodelliar and Vencataramiah who were praised for their expertise in building bridges. The coming of the PWD in 1858 however saw to it that such native experts were hidden behind the mask of officialdom. Thus, as the author notes, while Cotton got a knighthood and was promoted, Veeranna remained a sub-engineer all his life! By then however, the construction industry had moved to other areas such as the building of Colleges, Government offices and most importantly, the Senate House.


Surprisingly, the author has not dwelt much on Chepauk Palace, perhaps the first among the buildings to follow the Indo-Saracenic style. She has cited lack of information about the original plan of the building as the reason. She also cites the lack of any authoritative source to back the claim that the Records Tower, built in 1870 to link the two wings of the palace, is a Chisholm construction. The role of the tower as a repository of records is also doubted as the interior is largely a cone around which the stairs wind up, leaving no space for storage. However the author has painstakingly documented the changes that were made to the palace by Lord Napier, the Governor during the 1860s, once he has decided to convert the building into office space.  From drawings dating to 1858, the author concludes that the Diwan Khana, once a Palladian pavilion, had been modified into a two storeyed Revenue Board building. This was, as per the drawing, already clad in the classical style and was transformed into an Indo-Saracenic façade by Chisholm in 1868, to match the frontage of the Khalsa Mahal. This is backed by a minute recorded by Napier where he proposes a “whole new façade” for the Revenue Board buildings that “might be harmonised with the fantastic but agreeable style of the old Native Palace”. But where did the inspiration for the old palace come from? Here the author suggests the Chow Mahalla palace of the Nizams in Hyderabad which was built in the 1750s. The Nizams were the titular bosses of the Nawabs of Arcot and this may be a plausible explanation. But with no records extant of the residences of the Nawabs in Arcot town itself, this can at best be an assumption.


By the late 1860s, architecture in Madras was largely defined by the work of Robert Fellows Chisholm. He moved to the city from Calcutta when his designs for the Presidency College were approved in 1865. By 1866 he was so indispensable to the Madras Government that at the instance of Lord Napier, he was appointed Consulting Architect to the Government of Madras. Presidency College is largely Italianate in style and seems to suggest that Chisholm was yet to imbibe the local styles. But in 1872, Chisholm was sent by Napier to Travancore to design a museum for the Maharajah. Here he had the opportunity to study the Padmanabhapuram Palace closely and its style exerted a strange fascination on him. He made detailed drawings of it and while designing the museum did so in what he called “a very beautiful form of domestic art”. Later, his design for the Madras GPO was to be based on this.


At the same time, Chisholm was also asked to study the Tirumalai Nayak Palace in Madurai and under the instructions of Napier, he carried out restorations and renovations to the main Durbar Hall. It was here that he indulged in full his taste for intricate plaster sculptures, ornamental decoration and artwork. Coming back to Madras, he studied the famed method of Madras plasterwork or “bulpum” and marvelled at it. Having thus equipped himself, he was ready for his masterpiece, “that work of genius”, the Senate House. All this indicates that Chisholm must have interacted heavily with local artisans, but in his writings he mentions none save a Mr Lewis, who was probably a member of the Anglo Indian community and who was Chisholm’s draughtsman.


Senate House was begun in May 1869, when Chisholm submitted a detailed estimate for its construction. The idea for a Byzantine look probably came from Napier who was fascinated with Istanbul and Constantinople. But within that framework, Chisholm managed to incorporate all the features of Indian architecture that he admired. The work reflected the influence of many schools. Thus the domes were certainly borrowed from the Deccani tombs and the windows from the Mihtar Mahal of Bijapur. The central structure was inspired by the Tirumalai Nayak Palace whose façade Chisholm described as a “Saracenic arcade with a Hindoo cornice”. He could have been describing Senate House! By then Chisholm also supervised the Government brick factory and ensured that it produced bricks to the specifications required for the exterior of Senate House. The Government Art School (of which Chisholm would later become Director) was converted into a workshop for glazed tiles, painted glass and terracotta, most of which was used up for Senate House. The domes, of which there were plenty followed the “Hindoo method” and the stone friezes that adorned the exterior were clearly inspired by the sculptures at Mahabalipuram.


Ironically, when it was completed in 1873, Senate House was declared to be an important effort in the revival of Indian art, as though it had died previously. Indian art had flourished all along and it was by depending heavily on its practitioners, that designers and architects such as Chisholm, Ludlow and de Havilland could fulfil their dreams and aspirations. So was Indian art really dead? The author does not make a comment on this, but the death of native methods and artisans was to come much later, almost a 100 years later, when a generation of new architects began slavishly copying Western ideas most of them unsuited to Indian conditions and buildings based on such designs began coming up.


Though dry in parts and suffering from excessive information, “Imperial Conversations” plays an important role in bridging a gap in the mindset of present day government functionaries and a largely indifferent public which views the heritage buildings of Chennai as alien. It is a pity that such a detailed work will not be read by many.


“Imperial Conversations- Indo-Britons and the Architecture of South India”, by Shanti Jayewardene Pillai


Yoda Press, New Delhi, 2007.


Price: Rs 895


Pp 326