If Paul Benfield gave the world its first example of the Indo-saracenic style of architecture with Chepauk Palace, it was Robert Fellowes Chisholm (1838-1915) who made it a complete form and the true architectural statement of the British Raj. Chisholm’s finest works survive in two cities in India – Madras (Chennai) and Baroda (Vadodara).

Not much is known of Chisholm’s early years, though it is certain that he was born in London. By the early 1860s he was in the employment of the Government of Bengal, being Executive Engineer, Puri Division, Bengal Department of Public Works. It was around this time that the Government of India was pressing ahead with the spread of education on Western lines. Universities had been set up in Bombay, Bengal and Madras and it was felt that buildings suitable to their stature ought to be constructed. In Madras, land for the Presidency College and a University Senate House was allotted by 1865. But two years prior to this, the Government of Madras had, for the first and only time in its history, announced an architectural competition for the design of these two buildings. With Rs 3000 being the prize money, it was a prestigious affair and by 1865, 17 designs had been received. The best of the lot, as per the committee that sat in judgement, were those of Chisholm.

He was accordingly transferred to the Madras Government in 1866, his arrival in the city coinciding with that of the new Governor, Lord Napier. The two were to become close friends though in private the Governor was to refer to Chisholm as a “clever little cockney” even while accepting his being “crammed with high art.” Napier was to make Chisholm’s transfer to Madras a permanent one, getting the Government of India to sanctioning a new designation for him – Consulting Architect to the Government of Madras. It was rather significantly, the first time that the word architect was being used in Government circles, at least in the city.

Napier was a man with a high imperial vision and in Chisholm he was to find someone who could translate his schemes into reality. To Napier, the Chepauk Palace, recently acquired in full by the Government from the Nawabs was a symbol of the times when the English had been subservient to the natives. No doubt the palace, rising in all its glory on the beachfront irked him and so among Chisholm’s first contracts was the building of the offices of the PWD, on the eastern face of the Chepauk Palace, hiding it from public view.

Revenue Board building rear, designed by Chisholm

It is significant that none of Chisholm’s early works in the city or in the Presidency, were examples of the style for which he would eventually become famous. In his early years he experimented with the Scottish-baronial (the PWD building), the severely classical (the Madras Club buildings as they stood till recently on Express Estates and the gates of the Buckingham and Carnatic Mills at Pulianthope) and the Italianate (Presidency College and the Lawrence Asylum which later became the Lawrence School at Lovedale, Ooty). He was asked to convert the old police courts at Royapettah into Amir Mahal, a suitable residence for the Prince of Arcot and this he did in the style of the Italian villa, copying the design of Queen Victoria’s Osborne House on the Isle of Wight.

Then came two projects that would transform Chisholm’s ideas forever. The first was a commission from Napier to restore the Tirumalai Nayak Mahal in Madurai. Chisholm was to grumble about the heat and dust of travel by bullock cart but when he arrived at the site, he was to fall in love with the place. Back in Madras, he was to rework his ideas for the University Senate House, incorporating into it several elements from the Mahal. He was to also add ideas and designs that had inspired him in other places such as Bijapur, Mahabalipuram and Ajanta. As a consequence, Senate House, completed in 1878, emerged as a curious but beautiful amalgam of various styles and became a new genre by itself – the Indo Saracenic. A smaller example of this, built at around the same time when Senate House was being constructed, was a tower that connected the two wings of Chepauk Palace – the Humyaun and Kalsa Mahals.

The Tower between Humayun and Khalsa Mahals, built by Chisholm

To fill the interiors of Senate House, Chisholm began working on a bewildering variety of stained glass, mosaics and painted canvases. These were all done at the Madras School of Art (now the Government College of Arts and Crafts, Poonamallee High Road) of which Chisholm became Principal in 1877. He probably lived on the campus from then on and one of the buildings there is said to be his work.

Yours truly leading a heritage tour of Senate House

In 1872, Napier sent Chisholm to Travancore where a museum was to be built. There he saw the Travancore style of roofing and concluded that it was “a very beautiful form of domestic art.” Even as he designed the Napier Museum in Trivandrum he began work on a General Post Office for Madras and this was to incorporate his new fascination – the Travancore roof. The GPO on First Line Beach was completed in 1884.

By this time Chisholm was a very busy man, designing jails, court houses, offices and much more. Some of the other buildings in the city that bear his stamp are the Victoria Public Hall (1887-9), the tower of the Central Station (1880s) and the main offices of P Orr & Sons. Napier had long left the city and Chisholm was to work with his successors. He became a Fellow of the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) and whenever he went home on leave, he was asked to address the Institute. Chisholm was an avid painter as well and some of his watercolours are at the RIBA while others are in the Madras Museum.

Chisholm left Madras in a huff. He had been lobbying for being made the Superintending Engineer of Madras Presidency but the Government was not keen. There were charges against him of irregularities in accounts. In 1887, he resigned and after completing some more of his private projects in Madras, he moved over to Baroda. The British architect in charge of building Lakshmi Vilas, the grand palace of the Gaekwar, was another master of the Indo-Saracenic – Major Mant. He unfortunately lacked Chisholm’s breezy confidence and obsessed by the fear that the palace would collapse he went mad and committed suicide. Chisholm stepped in to complete Lakshmi Vilas and stayed on till 1902, working on several buildings there.

Then he retired to England, where he passed away in 1915. He was largely unknown in his home country. Indeed, of his works, just two or three are outside India. One is a church in Rangoon and another is a church in London, which has recently been converted into a concert hall. But by the time of his death, his style was all the rage in the entire sub-continent. All the Raj edifices would follow the path he had laid. The construction of New Delhi was to be its grand finale, climax and apogee. But rather ironically, it also marked the end of the British Raj.

This article appeared on XS Real’s blog -http://xsreal.com/blog/?p=133