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VOL. XXIII NO. 22, March 1-15, 2014
The Chitales of Chennai – Part I
Designing landmarks
(by R.V. Rajan)

The Life Insurance Corporation Building.

The Oriental Insurance Building.

The Chitales have been leading architects in South ­India for the last 81 years. The present head of the firm, Sri­krishna Laxman Chitale (Krish as he is popularly known), is also 81 years old because L.M. Chi­tale & Son, as it was known then, was founded in 1932, the year Krish was born. His father, Laxman Maha­deo Chitale, established himself as a freelance architect and Town Planner in Madras that year.

L.M. Chitale was born in Ratnagiri District, Maha­rashtra, in 1892 in a family of limited means. A bright boy from his early school days, Chi­tale discovered that he had an inborn gift for drawing, which impressed Sanjay Rao Gaek­wad, the Maharaja of Baroda, who had established the Kala Bhavan Technical Institute, a school of arts and science, in Baroda. Chitale got a full scholarship to study there and he decided to opt for a draughtsman's course which offered good employment opportunities those days. Besides, the course offered him a stepping stone to do architecture. Dame luck was also in Chitale’s favour, for he was noticed by H.V. Lan­chester, a leading architect in Eng­land, who hired him as his Assistant to help him on the many projects that he was working on in India. When Lan­chester sailed for Home in 1922, he took young Chitale with him.

Chitale enrolled himself as a student of the School of Architecture of London University and later studied Town Planning at the School of Town Planning of the same university. He also qualified as an Associate and, later, as a Fellow of the Royal Institute of British Architects.

It was during his stay in England that Chitale discovered that he had a flair for writing too. While busy with his work as an architect, he also did a correspondence course in journalism. During his seven years in England, he wrote many articles which were published in journals both in India and England. Writing was to become his regular hobby in later years.

In depression-affected 1929, Chitale returned to India and joined the PWD, Madras, as an Assistant Consulting Architect (ACA). Though he performed well there, he soon realised that he could not become a Consulting Architect (CA) as the post was reserved for British officers.

By then he was married to Leelavathi from Tarapore near Bombay. Nevertheless, he decided to take the plunge, resigned from the Department, and established L.M. Chitale & Son, the first Indian architects’ firm in South India, where the scene was dominated by British architects. That same year Chitale was blessed with a baby boy who was named Srikrishna.

No sooner had L.M. Chitale announced his new venture than clients came knocking at his door. His first big assignment was building the Administrative Building, Convocation Hall and Library at Annamalai University in Chidambaram. Impressed by the work, Dr. S. Radhakrishnan commissioned him to work on the buildings of Andhra University. Chitale became a friend of Dr. Radha­krishnan and later built his beautiful home Girija on Edward Elliot’s Road, Mylapore.

Chitale’s reputation as an architect who could build quality structures at low cost brought him assignments from several other universities.

But, meanwhile, he had designed the noteworthy Oriental Insurance Building on Armenian Street in George Town. It was the first multistorey building in Madras, having six floors, a basement, and a corner entrance and was constructed within 15 months, a record of sorts at the time. The windowless basement with special steel reinforcement, fully air-conditioned, was to serve as a vault for the safe deposit of valuables. This vault was later taken over by another enterprising business family of Madras – the Kotharis (D C & H C Kothari) – who founded South India’s first safe deposit company under the name of Madras Safe Deposit Company Ltd.

When World War II broke out, Chitale was asked to lend his expertise to Government. He was appointed its Regional Camouflage Officer. The job ­involved rendering objects on earth less conspicuous to the enemy in the air through ingenious use of dummies, paints, nets and vegetation. Camouflaging helped objects to be distorted or concealed. He spread the message of civil defence not only through his writings but also through his talks called ‘Lantern Lectures’ – because he used a technology which was later adapted to project cinema slides in movie halls.

Chitale lost his wife Leela­vathi in 1941 and was left with the responsibility of bringing up his 8-year-old son Krish as a single parent, which had its own impact on the boy’s life. Immediately after the War, Chitale was back in buisness as an architect. During the following years he was to create buildings for several insurance companies, like National Insurance and Indian Mutual Insurance. His best known project was the 14-storey skyscraper that he, as associate architect, helped build for the Life Insurance Corporation of India on Mount Road. It is one of the important landmarks of the city. Work on it had started as the United India Insurance headquarters before insurance was nationalised. Chitale also built several colleges, universities, cinema houses, government buildings, and monuments.

Some well-known buildings that he built after the War included the Ram Mohan Palace, Ernakulam, for the Maharaja of Cochin, tem­ples for Masonic lodges, a mo­nu­ment for Poet Subramanila Bharati in Ettaya­puram, the Central Leather Research Institute (CLRI), Adyar, and the Reserve Bank of India building in Nagpur.

While he was seriously pursuing his career, he dreamt of introducing architecture as a subject of study at the university level in Madras. This dream became a reality during his lifetime. He served as the Chairman of Board of Studies in Drawing and Architecture, University of Madras, during 1940-46, and also on the All India Board of Technical ­Studies in Architecture and ­Regional Planning.

Chitale was a visionary and had foreseen several things for the city which came true later. For his pioneering service as an architect and town planner, the Indian Government honoured him with Padma Shri award in 1957. Three years later, L.M. Chitale passed away at the age of 68. His son Srikrishna Laxman Chitale (S.L. Chitale) was left to carry forward the firm that had become Chitale & Son.

(To be concluded)

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In this issue

Better times for Chepauk Palace?
Legalising the Illegal will Court ruling Stop it
What's Needed for Urban renewal here
Beyond Botany to Medicare
Koothu P-Pattarai's First on poster culture
Designing Landmarks pre Independence
Following Medical trails tigers' too
Nights out by Pulicat backwaters

Our Regulars

Short 'N' Snappy
Readers Write
Quizzin' With Ram'nan
Madras Eye


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