Domes of heritage

The Indo-Saracenic architecture of buildings found across Chennai gives it a distinct old-world charm.

Published : Aug 20, 2014 12:30 IST

The Records Tower  of the Chepauk Palace on Wallajah Road. In 1870, the architect Robert Chisholm added the tower to link the two palace blocks Humayun Mahal and Khalsa Mahal.

The Records Tower of the Chepauk Palace on Wallajah Road. In 1870, the architect Robert Chisholm added the tower to link the two palace blocks Humayun Mahal and Khalsa Mahal.

Adjacent to Parry’s Corner, a popular landmark in Chennai, are three buildings built in the Indo-Saracenic style—those housing the Madras High Court, State Bank of India (SBI), and the General Post Office (GPO).

Near the Chennai Central railway station is another cluster of buildings built in the Indo-Saracenic style: the Victoria Public Hall, the erstwhile Moore Market, and the Central railway station. The imposing Ripon Building (built in 1913) nearby, housing the Corporation of Chennai, is not Indo-Saracenic but neoclassical in style.

Less than two kilometres from the Central railway station is the Egmore railway station, another example of the Indo-Saracenic style of architecture. Opposite the Egmore railway station is a red-bricked building that houses the Tamil Nadu Archives and Historical Research, which was formerly called the Record Office. This was also built in the Indo-Saracenic style.

The British architect Robert Chisholm, who is called the father of the Indo-Saracenic style, played a key role in designing several of these buildings. However, Paul Benfield, who preceded Chisholm by almost a hundred years and who designed the early buildings of the Chepauk Palace, was the first to experiment with this hybrid form.

Sadly and mysteriously, fire has ravaged five of these Indo-Saracenic edifices in the past 20 years. Moore Market was the first to go up in flames—on May 31, 1995. Although it could have been restored, the Southern Railway decided to demolish it and build in its place an unimaginative office complex. Next came the fire in the GPO on October 24, 2010. Khalsa Mahal of the Chepauk Palace went up in flames on January 16, 2012. Fire wrecked the SBI building on July 13 and Humayun Mahal on July 26 this year.

Hybrid style “The Indo-Saracenic is basically a hybrid style, which is European in plan but has a blend of Islamic and Moorish influences as far as the superstructure of columns, domes, arches and other ornamentation are concerned,” said P.T. Krishnan, a practising architect and a former convener of the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH) in Chennai, who was in charge of the Senate House restoration project. He is currently an active member of the Tamil Nadu chapter of INTACH. He was responsible for bringing out the well-researched book Madras: The Architectural Heritage , first published in January 2003 by INTACH’s Tamil Nadu chapter.

The book, authored by K. Kalpana and Frank Schiffer, has a collection of essays by city architects and historians. In his essay in the book, Krishnan calls the Senate House “the high point in the development of this style”.

Krishnan explained to Frontline : “Chisholm was apparently searching for a language of architecture that would be European but at the same time Indian in character. What the British considered Indian was basically Mughal architecture. Mughal architecture, in turn, had influences of Persian architecture and Islamic architecture…. So the Indo-Saracenic architecture was basically a hybrid one, evolved out of the desire of the architect and the colonial rulers to give India what they thought was its own architecture and which was approved by them. [For in their perception,] this would influence Indian architecture for years to come because it incorporated the elements of British imperialism and the local architecture and craftsmanship, giving it a unique form.”

Historically, according to Krishnan, the first known Indo-Saracenic building is the old part of the Chepauk Palace, comprising Khalsa Mahal and Humayun Mahal. Paul Benfield reportedly designed the old Chepauk Palace for the Nawab of Arcot in the 1760s. About 100 years later, Chisholm designed and built the additions to the old Chepauk Palace. These additions, facing the Marina beach, house the office of the State Public Works Department now. The Senate House and Presidency College, situated along the beach, came up around the same time. Chisholm designed the Senate House and also the Victoria Public Hall. The Victoria Public Hall, flanked by the Ripon Building and the Central railway station, is a fine example of the Indo-Saracenic style. These four buildings were built between 1850 and 1900 . “Thus, the high point of the Indo-Saracenic style of architecture was in the second half of the 19th century,” Krishnan said.

Subsequently, said Krishnan, the style started changing. For example, the Central railway station was not built in a purely Indo-Saracenic style. It has a European facade. The small arches on the top are Indo-Saracenic in character but the roof and the towers are late European classical. The original terminal, designed by George Hardinge, was opened to the public in 1873. Modifications and the addition of the clock tower were made by Chisholm almost two decades later, notes the book.

Interestingly, the first building that Chisholm built was not an Indo-Saracenic structure. It was not built in Madras either. It came up in Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala, and now houses the Government Museum. “It looks nothing like the Senate House or any of the known models of the Indo-Saracenic style. It is a reinvention of the Kerala style of architecture and has a distinctly local flavour,” said Krishnan.

Subsequently, in Madras, Chisholm made an addition to the old Madras Club. The timber framing of the roof, which is all that is left of the old structure, points to an architectural character that is similar to that of the museum in Thiruvananthapuram.

Krishnan said: “Chisholm was interested in Indian architecture and crafts. The British influence had to be predominant in the public buildings built at the height of the British colonial era…. If you look at the plans of the Chepauk Palace and the Senate House, they are European in nature. They are symmetrical and large in scale. They have colonnades. They are not like traditional Indian plans which have a different architectural idiom.

“The association with the European classical style ended there (that is, in the buildings’ plans). Once you come to the facade, there are all kinds of influences. Apparently, Chisholm was searching for a language of architecture that would be European and at the same time Indian.”

Chisholm was familiar with the Spanish/Moorish styles of architecture and borrowed a lot from Moorish architecture. This explains why the facade of the Indo-Saracenic buildings in Chennai have a lot of arches, a typical idiom of Islamic architecture. Dravidian architecture never featured arches. It had beams, lintels, chajja, and so forth. It was, therefore, easy for Chisholm to translate the Mughal style and merge it with the European classical plan.

This plan could have colonnades and arches but the arches were not necessarily Gothic. “They were Islamic,” Krishnan said. “So a lot of these building elements were picked up and superimposed on a European plan. That is where the mix comes in,” he explained. However, this style of architecture had no connection with the Dravidian or local style of architecture except in its ornamentation and bas-reliefs in the spandrels and column capitals. Apparently, no effort was made to look beyond the Mughal influence in understanding Indian architecture.

The ornamentation of the Senate House is equally interesting. In Krishnan’s assessment, the ornamentation became “a free for all”. It was apparently left to the the craftsman to do what he liked as long as he worked within the larger format assigned to him. So the Senate House has a curious mix of spandrels, classical Greek capital columns, carvings of Hindu gods and goddesses in the traditional temple format, traditional Islamic lotus motifs and so on. Indeed, one column has a Corinthian capital. Another has an Egyptian papyrus capital.

“You should note the spontaneity in details, which you will not see in a calculated and controlled design. In our temples also, the craftsman who carves the stone has freedom of expression as long as it fits into the overall scheme of the building. So is the case with the Senate House and many other Indo-Saracenic buildings, where detailing was essentially left to the craftsmen involved,” Krishnan said.

The Senate House is typical of the Indo-Saracenic hybrid style and its four towers are essentially an adaptation of chhatris, which were strong architectural elements of Mughal buildings. These domes were not built the way domes were built in Europe or in Mughal architecture. In Europe, during this period, domes were built using copper and steel. They had an internal framework of steel covered with copper sheeting. Copper becomes dark as it tarnishes over a period of time. “Since this technology was not available in India at that time, the Senate House’s domes were Indianised in their construction,” Krishnan said. They have an internal framework of timber. The external skin is made of just two-inch-thick brick tiles and lime plaster. “This is an interesting aspect of how the Indo-Saracenic architects Indianised the construction techniques as well,” he added.

The Senate House has a colourful interior too, with frescoes revealing the Moorish influence.

Krishnan said: “I will say the Senate House represents the high point in the development of the Indo-Saracenic architecture. In the case of the Chepauk Palace, attention had been paid only to the facade, whereas its ornamentation and interior decoration, including frescoes, were not well developed and appear plain. Since the Senate House was a ceremonial building, everything was worked out in its detailing.”

The imposing Senate House, which was meticulously restored by INTACH’s Tamil Nadu chapter, has gone shabby again. The University of Madras has not put it to any great use since INTACH restored it in 2006. Nearly Rs.6 crores, collected by the university and INTACH from the public, alumni and several business houses based in the city, went into the restoration effort.

Such is the phobia of university officials towards the Senate House that they declined to give permission to the Frontline photographer to take pictures of it!

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