University Senate House, Madras

Professor P. Duraisamy
Vice Chancellor,
University of Madras

Dear Professor,
On behalf of Madras Musings, the fortnightly that is brought out thanks to the support of several corporate houses of the city and numerous readers and subscribers, I congratulate you on your appointment as Vice Chancellor of this 160-year old University and wish you the very best in your three-year tenure.

Ours is a magazine that focuses on the history, culture and heritage of the city of Madras that is Chennai. And it is in that context that I write this letter to you. I am sure that your taking office will have you immersed in several administrative responsibilities. There is also the task of putting the University back on rails, for the absence of an incumbent VC has taken its toll. In the midst of all this, I request that you also spare a thought for the University’s Senate House, which after its restoration in 2007 has been locked up once again, thereby putting it under threat of decay and neglect.

The Senate House will of course be a familiar landmark to you, what with your having been an alumnus of and, later, a stellar academician of this University.
Its importance in the world of architecture and the general history of our city is immense. Designed by R.F. Chisholm, the architect who gave the Indo-Saracenic style a new meaning and direction, thereby making it the dominant form for all Government buildings for years to come, including Parliament House and Rashtrapathi Bhavan, Senate House is considered to be the most outstanding example of his work. It is also believed to be one of the best Indo-Saracenic creations across the world.

It is therefore a cause for concern that the building is now almost perpetually locked up, a state that it has been in since the mid-1970s. For long used for storage of examination papers, when its original purpose was that of a convocation hall, it was allowed to decay. It was only in the first decade of the new millennium that efforts gathered steam for the restoration of the building. Donations from alumni and corporate houses of the city were solicited and these flowed in generously. The work was completed in time for a rededication during the sesquicentennial celebrations of the University, in 2007. None other than the Hon A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, then President of India, declared the building open.
It was understood then that the Senate House would be made available for public functions, as is the case with the University Centenary Auditorium even now.

However, most inexplicably, the Senate House was locked up immediately after this high profile rededication and has since remained out of bounds for everyone. There was a half-hearted attempt at making it an exhibition centre for the University but this too did not take off. In 2010, it was announced that a permanent curator would be appointed for the Senate House and advising him would be a Committee. This proposal too did not see the light of the day.

In the meanwhile, there have been reports of the building going to seed. Birds are roosting in the eaves and their droppings are littering the verandahs. Plants are once again sprouting from the crevices. The interior, not having been exposed to fresh air, is gathering moisture, which is affecting the plasterwork and decorations. It is indeed a pity that a masterpiece of our city’s heritage, which the citizens ought to enjoy, is being treated like this.

I do hope your enlightened administration will change the situation and make Senate House a vibrant cultural space.

Yours sincerely
S. Muthiah
Editor, Madras Musings.