The empty cupolas
Following the decision to pull down the Bentinck's Building, a promise was made to build something in the same style, but came to naught. What was left intact was the hexagonal cupola, the largest one built to house the Cornwallis statue.
ACROSS FROM the main gate of the Port of Madras on Rajaji Salai is the Collectorate of Madras, a granite-faced multi-storyed piece of PWD construction raised a few years ago. That Special Courts meet here take us, to a degree, into the past of this site.
It was here that there was inaugurated in 1793 a building to meet the needs of office space for merchants being forced out of the Fort and wanting to be near the new location of the `Sea Customer', on whose site has been raised the newer still Customs House. But as its occupants began, with prosperity, to raise their own buildings in the vicinity, it was decided to expand and improve the merchants' building for the Supreme Court of Madras. And into it, the most handsome Classical building in the Madras of the time, there moved the Court in 1817. The renovated building was named Bentinck's Building, after Lord William Bentinck, who had been Governor of Madras (1803-1807) and became a reformist Governor-General who abolished sati, took on the thugees and introduced, for better or for worse, Macaulay's recommendations for education and jurisprudence that still survive in India. Bentinck's Building, 27,000 sq. feet in extent on each of its two floors and rich with Burma teak rafters, heavy iron windows and much cut stone, cost Rs. 3,70,000. Its pillared façade was later to be the inspiration for the various extensions to Police Headquarters on the Marina. Here the Supreme Court sat till it was abolished in 1872, and the High Court, which replaced it, continued sitting here till its new handsome Indo-Saracenic premises were declared open in 1892. It was in Bentinck's Building that the Socratic Sir Tiruvarur Muthuswami Aiyer became the first Indian to sit on the High Court Bench, as Acting Judge in 1878, as Puisne Justice in 1883 and as Acting Chief Justice in 1891. But, the Madras High Court had to wait till 1948 to get its first Indian Chief Justice, P.V. Rajamannar.
When the High Court moved out of Bentinck's Building in 1892, the Collectorate moved in and stayed till 1985, before temporarily moving out and returning in the 1990s. By then, all vestiges of the `jail' in the premises, to hold accused appearing before the High Court and, later, before the Collector when he exercised magisterial powers, had vanished; Special Courts were not in need of such facilities.
The `jail' vanished with the decision to pull down the heritage building that Bentinck's Building was. It was in the 1970s that a decision was taken to pull it down and build a multi-storey building in its place. When appeals to Chief Minister M.G. Ramachandran failed, an appeal was made to Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. Her persuasiveness prevented its immediate wrecking, but could not stop the Government from emptying it and letting it run to seed and vandalism. Condemned on account of its derelict looks and not on any inspection it was pulled down in 1991-92, over a year being necessary for the task, with each pillar taking 15 days, so solid was its construction. The promise to build a building in the same style came to naught, but left intact, though unrestored, was the hexagonal cupola that had long fronted it. That empty cupola is the largest of the cupolas built to house the peregrinating Cornwallis statue.
The 14.5 foot tall Cornwallis statue created by Thomas Banks in 1800, imperial in mien and with an insensitive frieze around the base, of Tippu Sultan's sons being handed over as hostages till reparation was paid, was first housed at the Mount Road junction with a road that took the name `Cenotaph Road' after the statue was housed in a cupola there. This cenotaph was centred in an oval garden to which European gentry of the time went every evening and "slowly circled as in the gay ring in Hyde Park at home... Partly for exercise, partly for flirting and partly to display their fine cloths..."
Very like due to the tastelessness of the frieze, the statue was moved away from a more vocal public gaze in 1906 and relocated facing the Parade Ground in Fort. St. George with its back to the Council and Secretariat. Whether it got a new cupola or not, is not very clear - because by the Gemini Flyover there stands an unexplained empty cupola which might have been the first one, or it might be Napier's removed from the Binny Road junction, whosoever's that unexplained cupola was, the cupola that housed the statue on the Parade Ground certainly now stands empty by the side of the Fort Museum, in its own patch of garden. The emptying took place in 1925 when the huge cupola opposite Bentinck's Building was built to house Cornwallis. He, however, didn't last very long there; the sea air was not particularly kind to him nor were the public, it seems possible, so he was moved to the Connemara Public Library in 1928 and the North Beach Road cupola was left for vagrants to rest in peace. When the Fort Museum was created after Independence, the statue was moved into it in 1950 - its `cupola' now the stairway, which perhaps accounts for it passing into history from public gaze. The untenanted, cupolas, however, remain part of the public Madrascape.
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