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(ARCHIVE) Vol. XVIII No. 10, september 1-15, 2008
Historic Residences in Chennai
(Sriram V.)

Chennai that was Madras has had for over 300 years a glorious heritage which is now under threat. With enormous pressure on land today, the city is witnessing a phase when old properties are being developed, with the buildings and gardens standing on them giving way to highrises. Bungalows set in large parcels of land are only viewed as potential locations for putting up multistoreyed buildings with no thought of their architectural and historic values. The stately bungalow, once an integral part of Chennai, is now more or less a thing of the past.

The smaller town houses which opened out to the street and which shared common walls with their neighbours were also typical of Chennai. Such houses abounded in the four Mada Streets of Mylapore and Triplicane and in the commerical district of George Town. These houses, which were built with ventilation and coolness in mind, have suddenly become unfashionable. They are being replaced with shopping complexes and flats that need airconditioning and artifical lighting, both of which are unsustainable in the long run.

With such buildings rapidly vanishing, Chennai stands in danger of losing its unique architectural identity. It will soon be no different from any other city in any part of the world. Is this sameness something worth aspiring for? For years, a small but dedicated and now rapidly thinning band of heritage-conscious people has been fighting for a Heritage Act which will save whatever is left, built and natural, of the city’s past. But the city, by and large, has only displayed apathy towards its heritage.

The Sanmar Group has for years been an active supporter of the city’s heritage. Each year, under the guidance of Mrs. Chandra Sankar, the group brings out a free-for-distribution publication connected with heritage. This year, when I was asked to write it, I initially thought of a booklet on the historic buildings of the city, but S. Muthiah, the City’s chronicler suggested a focus on historic residences. The idea was warmly espoused by Mrs. Sankar.

The book hopes it will get a few more people to appreciate the city’s heritage after they’ve read it. So, the book released on August 17th as part of Madras Week, Historic Residency of Chennai, featuring a random sample of heritage houses, is as much a tribute to the few heritage residences that survive in the city as it is to the spirit of those who live in them and maintain them, notwithstanding the many temptations and tensions that come their way. It is also an appeal to those institutions that occupy heritage residences to spare a thought for conservation and not accept demolition as the only solution.

92/32, Periyar EVR (Poonamallee High Road)Road, Kilpauk

 The South Indian Export Company (SIEC), founded by DeClermont and Donner, was one of the old trading houses of Madras. Located at a vital intersection of George Town, it was in its time an exporting agent to several companies of repute, such as Titagurh Paper Mills, Indian Iron and Steel Company, and Tide Water Oil. Its main business was in hides and skins and, during World War II, it was appointed the sole inspecting agency for these items by the Government.

Dewan Bhadur V. Shanmuga Mudaliar (1874-1953) was the dubash of the Company. This position involved being a representative for the Company and the dubash or agent was entitled to a share of the earnings. Ajmer was built in 1931 for Shanmuga Mudaliar’s daughter. Her husband, Rao Bahadur Kachapikesa Mudaliar, succeeded his father-in-law to the position of dubash at SIEC. Shanmuga Mudaliar was also on the Board of the Imperial Bank of India, which later became the State Bank of India. His son-in-law was also co-opted to the Board and remained a Director till the Bank was nationalised. He then became a director of the Indian Bank and remained on its Board till the Bank was nationalised in 1969.

A large and stately house, Ajmer probably acquired its North Indian name from Shanmuga Mudaliar having had to interact with several Muslim families dealing in hides and skins. The curved sunshades and the projecting balconies are interesting features of the house. Today, Kachapikesa Mudaliar’s son, T.K. Singaram, and his family live in the house.

(This is the first of the heritage residences of Chennai that will feature in these pages in the fortnight’s ahead).

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