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Magnificence restored

S. MUTHIAH

How Chennai's Senate House, a beautiful landmark building in the Indo-Saracenic style, was restored to its original glory.

PHOTO: K.V. SRINIVASAN

REFINED STYLE: The Senate Hall has been restored to 85 per cent of its earlier splendour.

"WHAT a work of genius! If only one heritage building in Madras is to be saved, restored and conserved, it must be this one," enthused leading British architect and conservationist Donald Insall, a member of the Historic Buildings Council of England, after he visited a run-down Senate House in the 1980s. Ever since then there has been a quiet campaign to restore to its former glory this magnificent bit of architecture in the Indo-Saracenic style. Despite one or two earlier efforts that never took off, it was only in 2003 that a dedicated effort was launched to restore the first building of the University of Madras. When the 150th Foundation Day of the University is celebrated on September 5, 2006, the culmination of that effort will be seen in a Senate House restored to a glory first seen in 1873.

* * *

The University of Madras came into being on September 5, 1857. Its first affiliates were Presidency College, founded in 1855, where there also studied students taking Law, Madras Medical College (1833) and the Civil Engineering School that was to grow from a survey school to a college in 1861. It was to test the students of these institutions and grant them degrees that the University of Madras was founded, with its first offices in Presidency College.

Deciding the design


As Presidency College expanded and the University began to consider where it should be headed, greater built-up space became the need of the early 1860s. In 1864, the Madras Government advertised an all-India competition for the design of two buildings — one for Presidency and the other for the University.

The designs of Robert Fellowes Chisholm, a young architect, who, at the time, had newly arrived in Calcutta, were the winners. Chisholm arrived in Madras in 1865 to supervise the building of both. In 1869, he began work on the University building.

Originally, it was proposed that the University should be erected on Marshall's Road. The suggested site provoked a controversy. Finally, Governor Lord Napier, in November 1867, stated categorically: "The site on Marshall's Road stands at a great distance from the Presidency College, the College of Civil Engineers, the Medical College, the principal schools and the quarters which supply the greatest number of students and persons concerned in literary pursuits. But it is hoped that the University buildings will not be circumscribed to a mere hall or Senate House for the offering of Degrees and other rare solemnities. We expect that, eventually, University Professorships will be established and that university lectures will be delivered (emphasis ours). ... If such should be the eventual character of the University buildings it is obvious that nothing is more desirable than to place them in some degree of juxtaposition with the principal haunts of education and to provide them with cheerful attractive aspects as well as a good supply of air...(emphasis ours)." So Chepauk was chosen. Eventually, work on Senate House began in 1869.

* * *

Senate House consists essentially of a cellar hall, a ground floor hall with a high ceiling called the Great Hall, and northern and southern wings with the main entry porches. In addition, the building is adorned with minarets and has porches on the eastern and western sides.

The Senate House initially housed offices of the Vice-Chancellor, the Registrar and the Administrator. It was also used for meetings of the Senate and Syndicate. Later, academic departments of a space-short University made use of parts of the building. In some of the smaller halls, meetings of the Academic Council and of various faculties were held. Annual convocations, grand occasions, used to be held in the massive hall.

Apart from convocations, the Hall was used as the meeting place of the first elected Madras Legislative Assembly when it was convened in 1937. It was also the venue for the Madras Music Academy's music sessions in the first years of that institution. Exhibitions, seminars and conferences, Government and institutional functions and major concerts have been held here. In 1932, when the final battles of the Anti-Nautch movement were being vigorously fought between E. Krishna Iyer leading the Music Academy on one side and Dr. Muthulakshmi Reddy leading the `prohibitionists' on the other, the former convinced the Academy to hold a public dance performance of the Kalyani Daughters in January 1933 at Senate House. This soon paved the way for the revival of traditional sadhir or `Bharata Natyam'. The grande dame of dance, T. Balasaraswathi, too danced here.

Once the Centenary Building and Centenary Auditorium were inaugurated in the latter half of the 1960s, however, Senate House began to be neglected and deterioration of the building followed. But being structurally sound, it was a building that could be restored to exactly what it had been and that is what happened when Dr. S.P. Thyagarajan assumed office as Vice-Chancellor in 2003 and began to draw up plans for the Sesquicentennial Celebrations in 2006-2007.

* * *

To restore Senate House according to internationally accepted principles of conservation, he empowered a committee of experts comprising conservation architects, engineers and crafts persons from the Indian National Trust for Arts and Cultural Heritage — Tamil Nadu Chapter, the Archaeological Survey of India, the Structural Engineering Research Centre, and the Public Works Department — to conduct studies on different aspects of restoration work. Implementation of the programme got under way in 2004.


Unique partnership

To help collect funds, monitor the restoration and then manage the restored Senate House, Dr. Thyagarajan and the Syndicate agreed to the establishment of a unique private sector-University partnership `The Senate House Restoration and Maintenance Trust'. The Trust, chaired by the Vice-Chancellor, comprises three trustees nominated by the University and three representatives from the NGOs who have played lead roles in helping the restoration get under way, namely the Willingdon Corporate Foundation (who made the biggest donation), the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage — Tamil Nadu Chapter, which has for nearly 20 years been advising on the best means to restore the building, and Chennai Heritage, whose journal, Madras Musings, has for 15 years been creating an awareness about the University's and Senate House's heritage and has campaigned for the restoration and reuse of the landmark building. The Trust's first — and ongoing — commitment has been to collect the Rs.75 million necessary for the completion of the work and another Rs.15 million needed for a corpus that would ensure subsequent management and maintenance. Much of its first target — over 75 per cent — has been achieved as these lines go to Press.

P.T. Krishnan and K. Kalpana, a conservation architect, who volunteered their services for the restoration of Senate House, have supervised the implementation of this unique heritage project, working with a team of engineers from the PWD, the University, and Larsen & Toubro Ltd.'s ECC Division, the contractors for the work. The two INTACH-TN architects laid down the conservation guidelines for Senate House

* * *

The renovation of Senate House provided a lot of insights into building techniques that had been forgotten with the passage of time. Changes in construction methods and materials had resulted in the loss of traditional artisans and skills. Reviving them was a major task. As Kalpana says, "The various construction methods used in Senate House in many ways provided an exhilarating voyage of discovery. In fact, some of the leads came from the most unexpected sources, for instance in conversations with the head mason Paramasivan, who vaguely recollected his experiences in the southern part of the State almost 40 years ago! We had to learn to listen and the men who worked had to learn to talk."

When the President of India inaugurates the restored Senate House on September 4, it would have been restored to 85 per cent of its past magnificence. The rest needs to be completed — and then maintenance must be assured when it becomes a living building, throbbing with activity again. Rs.2 crore are still needed for both. Will you help?

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