This year, when our city turns 375, the Corporation becomes 325 and its landmark headquarters, Ripon Buildings, turns a 100.

Ripon Building, from A Book on South India by JC Molony
Ripon Building, from A Book on South India by JC Molony

It was on September 28, 1687, the dynamic and domineering chairman of the East India Company, Sir Josiah Child, penned a detailed minute on the necessity for a Corporation for Madras. The Charter came into effect on Saturday, September 29, 1688, when the Corporation was inaugurated with all due solemnity, the Mayor and eight Aldermen taking their respective oaths.

After dinner, towards three in the afternoon, the whole Corporation marched in their robes, the Aldermen in scarlet serge gowns and the Burgesses in white China silk, with the Mace carried before the Mayor in procession to the Town Hall at Fort St. George. Three of the Aldermen were Indians.

The first Mayor was American-born Englishman — Nathaniel Higginson. From then on, the Corporation has had a continuous existence, making it the second oldest such body in the whole world. Not so continuous has been the history of its mayoralty and council. The office of the Mayor was abolished in 1801 and then revived in the form of a non-executive president in 1919, with Sir Pitty Theagaroya Chetty becoming the first incumbent.

In 1933, this post was redesignated as that of the Mayor’s, thanks to the then president, Kumararajah (later Rajah Sir) M.A. Muthiah Chettiar. From then, till 1972, when both the Mayor and the council were suspended following the Muster Roll Scandal, the mayoral election was an annual affair among the councillors and always held on September 29, also celebrated as Corporation Inauguration Day.

During these years, the office of Mayor passed by convention among various communities and classes. That practice was done away with when, in 1996, following the re-establishment of the mayor and the council, elections to both were by universal franchise. M.K. Stalin became the first publicly-elected Mayor.

Certain features have survived intact — the mayoral robes, the chain and the mace. As for the official part, the Corporation was, till 1919, headed by a president who was an ICS officer. From then on, it became the office of the commissioner and is today filled in by a senior IAS officer.

It cannot be denied the Corporation of Madras and those of other Indian metros derived their teeth from the resolution of Lord Ripon who, as Viceroy, felt Indians needed to play a greater role in local governance. The Corporation headquarters designed by G.S.T. Harris, when built in 1913, was therefore named after him. His statue in the front, however, has a more interesting history.

Sculpted by Francis Derwent Wood, it was installed on Mount Road in 1918, fronting the offices of The Hindu at the intersection of Wallajah and Ellis Roads. In 1940, following war-time scares and at the insistence of then Mayor S. Satyamurti, it was shifted to the Ripon Buildings compound. Interestingly, Lord Ripon, after being Viceroy of India, was Mayor of his village of Ripon.

This article appeared in The Hindu dated 29th September 2013