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(ARCHIVE) Vol. XIX No. 9, august 16-31, 2009
It’s time for a real
Indian architecture
(By P. T. Krishnan)

Driving over the Kotturpuram Bridge recently, I noticed a huge hoarding, with pictures of fancy glass buildings, asking viewers to guess whether the vision they were being asked to admire was in Oslo, Stock­holm or Helsinki. The answer, meant to shock and awe the public, was ‘No, it is in Chennai!’ This, and many others like it, say it all Architecture, in the minds of many, is no longer something to be cramped in its style or expression by geocultural realities. In due course, it may break free of all earthly realities (gravity notwithstanding) and then we can all feel humbled by the presence of buildings that look like spaceships.

How did all this come to pass? We are all aware that the modernist movement which spawned the international style of the 1950s was embraced by newly independent nations with great fervour. These were nations emerging from the shadow of colonialism to a modern identity seeking a new social order and architectural expression free of their oppressive past. With the traditional and cultural influences taken out, its stark geometric forms soon came to be seen as lacking in humanism and the sterile public spaces it created were alienating, to say the least. Even so, geographical influences were carefully kept in sight, as seen in the works of Jane Drew and Maxwell Fry.

A modernist off shoot, Tropical Architecture made its appearance in India and several African countries during this period and successfully addressed climatic factors through the use of passive systems integrated with building design. So how green or how new is the hyped up ‘green’ building of today?

The Post-Modernist effort to somehow link architecture more closely with people and cultures took many different forms with a revival of the regional vernacular in several areas, a rediscovery of the ‘Raj’ architecture, and the unabashed use of colour (a no-no to many modernists) as a form of expression in building design. Architecture has always followed other art movements in its expression modern, post-modern, humanist, de-constructionist etc. and could always be viewed as something belonging to a culture or regional ethos. But the current struggle with newfound freedoms, brought on by the availability of a slew of high-tech products and a liberalised economy, defies interpretation.

The defining feature of post-independent India, before liberalisation, had been a sense of austerity and a life accustomed to shortages. Decision making was simple, because choices were limited and available resources had to be stretched to fulfil just your basic needs. The architecture of this period, however, was highly focussed and extremely innovative, something to which the works of some of the Indian Masters of this period will stand testimony. Further, we were on the verge of a body of work which could definitely have been classified as ‘Modern Indian’.

Suddenly we shifted gears and moved into a system of plenty brought on by so-called global­isation – a shift from a socialist economy – to a consumerist eco­nomy with free-flowing credit. This paradigm shift, which made available multiple choices and, literally, unlimited credit to the consumer, made decision-making a complex process. To be able to evaluate several options and make what can be called an educated choice required access to information and skills not hitherto considered essential. Architects needed to re-train themselves to remain relevant and fulfil their social responsibilities as creators of rapidly growing cities and towns.

Instead of engaging in this complex and multi-dimensional process, we have fallen prey to the worst aspects of globalisation a compulsion to mindlessly imitate Western symbols of progress in a desperate bid to cover up the reality. Where we cannot provide even basic sanitation to substantial sections of our city, we spend lavishly on exclusive development in selected sectors as symbols of our rapid progress. But, then, we as a nation seem to be always satisfied with symbols rather than the real thing. Our democracy is symbolic. We have all the necessary institutions that constitute democracy, but they exist only as symbols. We know that in reality they function in a corrupt and Byzantine manner denying citizens their basic rights.

In such an environment, and through our lacking in self-esteem, we have allowed our minds to be colonised by global (read Western) business, and stand converted into a market to indiscriminately consume their products – something which even two hundred years of foreign domination could not achieve. Big businesses in their effort to align themselves globally and seeking to re-package themselves in a way that can be accepted by their peers elsewhere insist on imitating design styles of the great commercial centres of the world, disregarding the psycho-geographical context altogether. What is the rationale behind an IT major imitating the glass pyramid of the Louvre Extension in Paris at its Bangalore campus with roadside teashops forming the foreground? When cold climate designs are reproduced in the tropics, the energy required to sustain them increases several fold. Knowing this, we still indulge in this form of imitation because India Inc. demands it. If this kind of mindless imitation continues, architects in India will find themselves being replaced by their ‘foreign’ brethren who have a better understanding of this game and a greater familiarity with their homegrown technologies. They will find a captive market not only among big businesses in India, but also several sections of our government who still feel that foreign connections somehow add value to the process, regardless of the professional content of their services. We can then look forward to being ‘local architects’ (read ‘fixers’ and ‘draughtsmen’) to prima donnas and adventurers from Singapore and America looking to capture global markets. This harks back to the colonial days when the first architectural schools were established by the British to produce draughtsmen for the PWD to process designs made by English architects.

This need not necessarily be our future. Lessons can be learnt from the fast-food industry which is now successfully competing with the onslaught of major multinationals by re-inventing themselves. Not by copying their products, but by adapting traditional Indian cuisine to new techniques now available to meet the changing demand. The fight for retail trade is now on and I am sure traditional retailers will succeed because there is no substitute for ‘local knowledge’.

Historically we have survived several invasions and still maintained our Indian identity even while absorbing the cultural mores of the invaders. It is not beyond us to produce an architecture that responds to the real India an architecture that does not flatter to deceive.

A simple but
effective restoration
By A Special Correspondent
While bureaucrats discuss how best to go about saving historic buildings, a private initiative at restoration appears to have been successful going by the results. This is the Pattinathar Samadhi which stands by the sea shore near Tiruvottriyur. This correspondent, who visited the place recently, was amazed at the work that has been done and the cleanliness that is being maintained.

The samadhi is the burial spot of the mortal remains of Pattinathar, a 15th Century saint. While a superstructure appears to have existed even in early times, the present structure over the sepulchre cannot be more than 100 years old. In recent years, the building had become a den of vice with anti-social elements having the run of the place. But that appears to be a matter of the past and, certainly, today the shrine is well tended and draws a stream of visitors. The access to the samadhi, however, is not easy as it is now completely hemmed in by a vast slum.

The superstructure over the samadhi is a building of low height, which has a flat wooden planked ceiling above which is a vaulted roof. It is divided into three sections – a congregational hall in the front, a narrow vestibule in the middle, and the sanctum at the rear. The flooring is of black slabs, probably of the Cuddappah variety, and the walls are of chunam. The building is fronted by a space covered by a sloping roof with Mangalore tiles. The recent renovation has kept all these elements intact.

Too often, temple renovation in Chennai has meant use of red granite, marble, or, even worse, glazed tiles, all of which are alien to temple architecture. However, none of these has been used here (by intent – or due to a paucity of funds?). After attending to minimum and essential structural repairs, the place has been given a coat of whitewash and the woodwork has been painted over. The wooden planks have been left as they are. Even records of recent donations have been inscribed on black stone slabs that blend harmoniously with the building.

If only trusts that own similar buildings and structures would pay attention to what they possess and take some care of their maintenance, heritage would be a matter of everyday life.
Boating down the Canal
The Vincent d’Souza view

We are planning a boat journey on the Bucking­ham Canal. From a point off Panayur on the East Coast Road to Mahabalipuram.

Many senior citizens of our city have shared with me stories of their picnic trips to Mahabalipuram fifty years ago. From the Lattice Bridge point it was a long, slow but pleasant journey. The sail would go up if there was sufficient wind but in most cases two men would pull the boat from the landside.

Long before Mahabalipuram became a destination for tourists from the city, the boats were the only mode of transport.

Recently, I joined heritage buff D. Hemachandra Rao in rediscovering the Canal south of our city. Rao is documenting the Canal. Armed with a simple but informative book written by the English engineers who worked on the project, we undertook the journey by road.

We wanted to look at the locks and bridges of the Canal, and thanks to a Jack of all Trades resident of a Mahabalipuram village who appeared out of the blue and knew lots more about the Canal and its life, we discovered a lot.

Ramu has promised to organise a boat trip on a section of the Canal he knows best. But it will have to be undertaken only after a good monsoon when the water level will go up. The boat can take at least 10 people.

The boat landing place in Mahabalipuram where Rao, then a six year old, and his family got off is now a garbage dumpyard (you will notice it on the left of the new bridge that links the ECR bypass on the fringe of Mahabalipuram town).

If the PWD can dredge the Canal and the Tourism Department can arrage traditional boats, an Adyar - Mahabalipuram boat service will be an attractive proposition.

A need for space

Koothu-p-pattarai is a well known theatre company based in our city. It is run by N. Muthuswamy, the celebrated playwright and director.

Some years ago, the company moved to the Chinmaya Nagar area in the western part of our city and developed a simple but attractive theatre space.

Catching up with the K-p-p people recently, I learnt that the company would now have to rent an alternative space because the present owner of the property had given them notice to move out.

Here was theatre space that was simply the best for contemporary plays, with unlimited facility for lighting and space for the audience that made them an intimate part of a play... but soon it would be a thing of the past.

Chennai is a cultural capital and we don’t have space for our theatre community. Not even space to rehearse.

On another Sunday I met Vidya Sagar who runs his own TT academy in South Chennai. “How often I wish Chen­nai Corporation helped us with space for our sport!” Sagar said.

Our civic body has lots of space. It is developing many of them. Perhaps Mayor Subramanian could think of ways of collaborating with the Muthuswamys and the Sagars to create specialised spaces in all our neighbourhoods – for sport, theatre and the arts.

(Courtesy: Mylapore Times.)

The scholar missionary
By Sriram V..

On January 8, 1838, the Mary Ann weighed anchor off Madras. On board was a young man filled “with a compound of anxiety, wonder and hope.” He had been preparing for a missionary career in India for four years when he joined the Congregational Church of Glasgow. In 1834 he offered his  services to the London Missionary Society (LMS) which had sponsored his education at the University of Glasgow. His missionary training had taken place simultaneously. When he boarded the Mary Ann on August 30, 1837, he would not have realised that this was the first step of a career that would last for half a century in one of the hottest parts of India Tirunelveli. The young man, then 24 years of age, was Robert Caldwell.

In Madras, Caldwell worked on the evangelisation of the untouchables. He also spent time learning Tamil. Later, he was transferred to English-speaking churches in the city, as there was a shortage of priests there. This, he felt, was drawing him away from what he felt was his true calling and, in 1841, he submitted his resignation to the LMS and joined the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel (SPG), a Church of England ­mission. Towards the end of the year, he set off on foot to Idayan­gudi in Tirunelveli District, which would be his headquarters for the rest of his life. That same year, he married Eliza, the daughter of the Rev. Charles Mault of the LMS, Travancore, and in her he found the ideal wife.

Caldwell was fascinated by the name Idayangudi, for it meant the dwelling of a shepherd and he felt “that it was a very appropriate name for the residence of a Missionary Pastor and very suggestive of the duties which I had come there to discharge.” The state of the Idayangudi congregation, largely comprising Shanars, was wretched in the extreme. Though Christianity was not new to Tirunelveli, having come there c.1771, conversions increased only from the 1790s. This had resulted in clashes between the converts and Hindu revivalists, leading to an underlying tenseness. Arriving in such an atmosphere, Caldwell saw that his first task would be to spread education among the masses and also create some sense of order in the village, which, apart from the church buildings, was a complete mess. He concentrated on education for the children of the lower castes and, the sarcastic remarks of School Inspectors on the futility of teaching to such children notwithstanding, achieved success. He revived the boys’ schools and, together with his wife, opened a boarding school for girls, an unthinkable concept for the times. She introduced lace-making as a vocation for women which ensured that they had a steady income.

Caldwell in those years travelled from village to village and set up churches in each. By 1844, the original 300 members of his parish had expanded to 2000. By 1851, the SPG, in its summary of missions in South India, singled out Idayangudi for the progress it had made.

A lasting memorial to his work is the Holy Trinity Church, Idayangudi, for which he was the fund-raiser, architect and manager. Begun in 1847, it was completed in 1880 when over 8000 people attended the dedication ceremony. By then it had attained the status of a mother church for over 40 churches. Basing his ideas on the panchayat system in Indian villages, Caldwell established Christian-municipalities which followed Christian laws, governed by a Nyaya Sabha on the lines of the panchayats. He also developed a chain of native agents comprising missionaries, pastors, lay-helpers, catechists and schoolmasters who helped European missionaries in their work. They were trained to carry out routine activities; they were also asked to mingle with the locals in a way that European missionaries could not and, thereby, encourage greater adherence to Christianity.

Caldwell’s greatest concern was the tendency among the converts to carry their caste prejudices with them into Christianity. He took several steps, such as organising common feasts and counselling and, as the extreme step, suspension from communion and dismissal from mission employment. All these had limited impact, for caste ideas were firmly rooted among the Christians. His moves, however, had the positive impact of the Shanars banding together in their villages which became symbols of resistance against oppression from higher castes. Ironically, Caldwell’s monograph, The Tinnevelly Shanars, which portrayed the community as a backward one, resulted in vehement protests from Shanars themselves. This resulted in a schism of sorts with the emergence of Sattampillai who broke away and formed the Hindu Christian Church of Lord Jesus in 1857. Sattampillai fashioned his own version of the history of the Shanars and protests over Caldwell’s monograph were to become a regular feature for very many years. It also heralded the tradition of various communities and castes creating their own romantic versions of their histories, a trend that still continues.

In 1877, Caldwell was made Coadjutor Bishop of Madras with his jurisdiction being the SPG churches in Tirunelveli. His attempts to convert Hindus of the higher castes became stronger after this, but met only with limited success. 

Caldwell today is, however, remembered more for his writings than for his missionary activities and in the former field his achievements have been memorable. He viewed India with its multiple languages as the best place to study comparative philology. In this he was carrying forward a tradition of several European missionaries and several English officials who had made a serious study of Indian languages. Tamil had received great attention from them; even in the immediate vicinity of where Caldwell functioned, there were at least three scholars the well-known G.U. Pope of Sawyerpuram, John Thomas of Meganapuram, and Edward Sargent of Suviseshapuram. Caldwell enjoyed a relationship of mutual respect and admiration with all three and this undoubtedly helped in his work.

At least three decades earlier, the establishment of the College of Fort St. George (1812) had spurred an interest among civil servants on matters oriental and this saw the establishment of what was called the Madras School of Orientalism with F.W. Ellis (1777-1819),  A.D. Campbell (1798-1857) and C.P. Brown (1794-1884) being important figures associated with it. The College funded research in South Indian languages and it was Campbell’s works, a Telugu grammar published in 1816 and a Telugu-English dictionary in 1821, that first posited the thesis that Telugu, Tamil and other South Indian languages were not of Sanskrit origin but belonged to a unique Dravidian family. In his preface to the Telugu grammar, Ellis offered substantial evidence of this. Caldwell, who had interacted with Brown during his voyage out to India in 1837, was to follow this school of thought.

He began his work on South Indian languages in 1853 when he went to Britain on furlough.  The four years at Home gave him an opportunity to recoup his health and also share his experiences with congregations there. In 1856, while still in Britain, Caldwell completed the Comparative Grammar of Dravidian Languages, a ground-breaking philological work on the history and structure of Dravidian languages. In the words of Thomas Trautmann, “the real significance of what Caldwell accomplished was not the first conception of the Dravidian family but the consolidation of the proof.”

It was for the first time that the term Dravidian was used, albeit for philological reasons, to describe the region of South India and its languages. In time, this was to become a political identity that still thrives. Caldwell argued that Tamil in particular “was the most cultivated of the all Dravidian idioms. (It) can dispense with Sanskrit if need be and not only stand alone but flourish without its aid.”

His literary effort also dealt with a number of ethnological issues. It criticised Brahmin domination over religion and social customs and questioned the “undeserving prominence” gained by Brahmins in the socio-cultural order of Tamil-speaking regions. The Brahmin, according to Caldwell, may have imparted a “few higher forms of civilisation” but these had been “more than counterbalanced by the fossilising caste rules, the practical pantheistic philosophy and the cumbersome routine of inane ceremonies.” He dismissed them by saying that few Brahmins “have written anything (in Tamil) worthy of preservation. The highest rank of Tamil literature which has been reached by a Brahmin is that of a commentator.” It is ironic that even as this work was being written, U Ve Swaminatha Iyer was born in Utthamadanapuram.

Caldwell’s work was received with great acclaim. The University of Madras which was set up the next year approved the work as a text book for higher examinations. Caldwell’s alma mater, the University of Glasgow, bestowed its LL.D on him for the work. He also became a Fellow of the University of Madras and delivered its Convocation address in 1879. His reputation as a philologist soared in Europe.

In 1881, Caldwell published his Political and General History of the District of Tinnevelly in The Madras Presidency, from the Earliest Period to its Cession to the English Government in AD 1801. He spent years researching for this book and his efforts were rewarded when it was published by the Madras Government which also, unasked for, gave him an honorarium of Rs 1000. The work, governed by Utilitarian and Evangelical thinking, held the British Government to be the best thing that happened to areas such as Tirunelveli. He disagreed with the early Orientalist view that idealised India’s past. The work is significant in that it documented the history of a region that had not received much attention earlier. In the same year Caldwell also published his History of the Tinnevelly Mission.

Throughout his life, he was to keep writing. He translated the Bible into Tamil and created a Prayer Book in Tamil. In collaboration with Sargent, he revised the Tamil Hymn Book and rearranged it for use in the Anglican service.

In 1882, Caldwell shifted the seat of his episcopate from Idayangudi to Tuticorin as the latter town had all the “establishments and institutions as should make it a strong, influential centre.” He then focussed more on education, upgrading the Anglo Vernacular School, establishing a school suitable for Hindus, and, along with Eliza, setting up infrastructure to encourage education among women. The college department of the Tirunelveli SPG was shifted from Sawyerpuram to Tuticorin and this was the seed of a new college for higher education in the latter town. In 1883 this was named the Caldwell College.

Caldwell’s last years were his toughest, with frequent arguments and disagreements with the Madras Diocesan Committee of the SPG. There was friction in his own circles, and one among them, the Rev Margoschis, was to prove a major irritant. A much younger missionary, the latter came from England full of the new Oxford Movement ideas and with much greater energy. The MDC generally sided with Margoschis and several of Caldwell’s recommendations, especially his desire for independence of the Tirunelveli Church, were successfully negated. The Rev Sharrock, a Caldwell protégé, came in for targeted attacks and was finally dismissed from the MDC on grounds of ill-treating his subordinates. There were moves to cripple the Caldwell College by taking away its grants and scholarships, all of which Caldwell managed to stave off.  The efforts of Eliza in setting up further educational institutions were also not encouraged. In 1890, Caldwell offered to step down citing his  age and requesting that he be paid a pension for his remaining years. The condition of a pension roused the SPG’s ire and this was the subject of much debate, but the SPG London finally sanctioned it a year later. Caldwell retired to Kodaikanal in 1891 and passed away there in August that year. His body was brought to Idayangudi and laid to rest in the church he had built. Eliza joined him in eternal rest in 1899.

In between, the MDC finally succeeded, with Margos­chis ­closing the college in 1893.

On August 19th, as part of the Madras Week celebrations, The Madras School of Orientalism edited by Prof. Thomas Trautmann and published by Oxford University Press, New Delhi, will be released at the Connemara Hotel. It is appropriate this article appears at a time when yet another book looking at Caldwell’s contribution to Tamil and the Dravidian Proof becomes available to readers.


Author’s Note: This article is based on material in Robert Caldwell: A Scholar-Missionary in Colonial South India an extensively researched book by Y Vincent Kumaradoss. It makes for fascinating reading and is a detailed account of a man who came to South India on missionary work and stayed to make an impact on its political consciousness and in the spread of education. Caldwell is remembered today with a statue on the Marina for his significant contribution to Tamil.

In this issue

Officialdom looks...
Down memory...
Arch Bridges...
Madras Week..
Memories of Kilpauk...
Karpagambal Mess...
Thiruvalluvar's shrine...
New Cricket stadium...
Chennais first ...
Historic Residences..
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