Two pioneering colleges
Growing in the 20th Century as one of the better residential areas in the city, the Kilpauk-Vepery area to the north of the road and the Egmore area to the south were home to two landmark institutions Madras Veterinary College and Government College of Arts and Crafts.
PAST THE Corporation of Madras, Poonamallee High Road heads west into a part of Egmore where were built the first garden houses of the British. Richard Horden's and Thomas Theobald's, built in 1715, were the first of these homes. Over the next hundred years, numerous others were built and north of the road the vestiges of many still remain. Into some of them moved the doctors of Madras, when Government Hospital began burgeoning at the east end of the road. Nursing homes were not far behind in putting down roots and till the 1970s, when corporate medicare came to Madras, this western stretch of Poonamallee High Road was, with its homes of doctors, nursing homes and a couple of medical institutions, virtually the `Harley Street of Madras'.
Growing in the 20th Century as one of the better residential areas in the city, the Kilpauk-Vepery area to the north of the road and the Egmore area to the south were also homes to some of the earliest schools in the city. Besides them, two colleges, on either side of the road, so to speak, almost from where its western stretch begins, are indeed landmark institutions with a proud heritage. Celebrating its centenary this year is the Madras Veterinary College, the core institution of the Tamil Nadu University of Veterinary and Animal Sciences, which occupies premises on either side of the Vepery High Road, parallel to Poonamallee High Road and just north of it. Of its history I've made mention in the past in my Miscellany of January 17, so passing reference here will suffice.
The college started functioning from rented Dobbin Hall, just across the road from the SPCA's Rajah Venugopala Krishna Bahadur of Venkatagiri Hospital, that the Rajah helped establish when the SPCA, founded in 1890, moved into its own building here in 1898. The SPCA building, where there are ground floor kennels in Indo-Saracenic splendour, is a small squarish construction in much garden space in which are the stables that were once kept busy with ailing horses and mules. The main Indo-Saracenic building of the College, reflecting in some ways the SPCA's home, was raised in front of Dobbin Hall by Masilamony Mudaliar in 1904-05 and square-shaped wings in a style similar to it were added some years later, linked to the first floor of the main rectangular block. The main feature of the building is its arches and pillars reminiscent of Chepauk Palace and its later addition, the Revenue Building. Founded here as the country's fifth veterinary school, it became in 1936 the first to send up students for a degree and in 1989 became the nucleus of the country's first veterinary university.
An earlier institution, with claims to being the first of its kind in the country, is the College of Arts and Crafts on the southern verge of Poonamallee High Road. The college goes back to 1850 beginnings when yet another military surgeon - these doctors in their day contributed much to Madras in many a field not associated with their primary responsibilities - Dr. Alexander Hunter, founded the privately-run Madras School of Arts on Popham's Broadway. Two years later, the Government took over the school - whose 150th anniversary passed virtually unnoticed last year. Dr. Hunter was given the task of reorganising the curriculum. He got together an eight-member committee and they recommended the reconstitution of the School as the Government School of Industrial Arts. The two departments they recommended it be divided into were the Artistic and the Industrial, the former to focus on drawing, engraving and pottery, the latter on building materials, in time the metalwork of this department becoming an integral embellishment of many a Madras building.
Hunter was officially put in charge of the School to implement the Committee's plans and, in 1855, appointed its first Superintendent. One of the first things he did in this role was to introduce Photography as one of the majors. He was determined to transform a painting and drawing academy into an Indian version of the renowned South Kensington Institute, in the process "nullifying the injurious influence which the large importations of European manufacturers of the worst possible designs have had on native handicrafts and also to train students for engraving and other useful occupations." It was thinking to be further emphasised by his successor, the prize-winning architect who was to change Madras's skyline, Robert Fellowes Chisholm. On Hunter's retirement in 1868, Chisholm was asked to look after the School, but was officially named its Superintendent only in 1877.
Chisholm, better known as an architect, was nevertheless a talented painter who favoured the Gothic style. Some of his portraits hang in the Madras Museum's Gallery of Contemporary Art. He also introduced to the students in 1898 - and to India - the craft of working with aluminium. Barrister Eardley Norton in 1900 founded the Indian Aluminium Company to develop the work done by the School and in 1903 began introducing aluminium goods into the Indian market. But Chisholm's major contribution to the institution was its buildings.
The north block, with its now-blocked-up main entrance on Poonamallee High Road, was called the Museum. And in its day it not only had a valuable collection, but the College still has in its stores much of that collection, little of which is displayed. Instead, the long rectangular building, with gabling over Gothic arches enclosing stained glass windows uncared for today, and with a roofing of tiles laid to resemble fish-scales, houses the sculpture and textile departments. The slightly younger southern block, a rectangular building divided by a wooden staircase, today houses the library, classrooms and studio. Chisholm's two rectangles are linked by a much later tall, single-storey block that serves as a Museum of Contemporary Art.
The School's first Indian Principal was the legendary Debiprasad Roy Chowdhury, perhaps the best-known Indian artist of the 1940s and 1950s. He was only 30 at the time.
A hunter, wrestler, painter and sculptor, he is best known for his sculptures on the Marina, `The Triumph of Labour' and `Mahatma Gandhi', the latter having recently been copied for installation in the lawns of Parliament House, New Delhi. But Chowdhury's and his successor in 1957, K.C.S. Panicker's greatest contributions were to attract talented students from all parts of the country and produce some of the most important contemporary artists in the South who are today international names and recognised as `The Madras Movement'. The School, now a degree-granting College with a bias towards commercial art, may have the same kind of talent but, sadly, seems unable to offer the atmosphere of the past for the talent to flower in. Neither does it seem to want to do anything with the treasure it owns. And that includes, besides sculpture, a very fine photographic record of South India.
One of the consequences of the introduction of Photography as a course in the School was the founding of the Madras Photographic Society in 1856, just a year later, with Walter Elliot, the saviour of the Amaravati Buddhist panels, as its first President.
That same year, Captain Linnaeus Tripe was appointed the `Photographer' of the Government' and for four years photographed the forts, temples and urbanscape of the Madras Presidency. Some of Tripe's and others' photographs are part of the collection of the college. Not one amongst the `others', however, is Iyahswamy, a photography instructor at the School and who was also Tripe's assistant.
While wondering about what happened to his pictures, it also strikes me that the College should do something about its collection of old photographs. Perhaps an exhibition one of these days?
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