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SURF, SAND AND COURTYARDS
- Madras never forgot the fundamentals of Carnatic culture

On December 21, 2006, Chennai Port — earlier known as Madras Harbour — celebrated the 125th year of its existence. The history of Madras, of course, is much older — the city commemorated its 350th anniversary in 1989. On St. George’s Day — April 23, 1640 — Francis Day, a factor of the East India Company, who had earlier negotiated a land grant with a representative of the waning Vijayanagar Empire, his boss Cogan and local dubashes, christened the fortified factory they had built, ‘Fort St. George’. This was in the little fishing village called Madraspatnam — discovered by the British in 1639 — that was gradually to gain in prominence by the early part of the 18th century. By then, the Company was active on the Coromandel coast and Madras became a gracious town, and then a city where the British tried out various architectural styles. In time, its coastline was developed, pioneering educational institutions established and in 1792, an observatory was set up — amidst hot, humid weather almost round the year. As the first port city in India, it became an important naval base as well as an administrative centre of the growing British dominions in southern India.

However, until well into the 19th century, ships were anchored about a quarter mile offshore and passengers had to climb down into masula boats (photograph) with flimsy catamarans in attendance; their skilled crew were in a constant state of preparedness in case they had to rescue any hapless passengers who might have the misfortune to fall into the water. Cargo to and from larger vessels was transported in a similarly unconventional manner.

The planks of these flexible masula boats were sewn together with coir rope and they had no frames or ribs so that they could withstand the pressure of the surf. Such journeys were clearly treacherous. In the 1820s, Bishop Heber travelled from Calcutta to Madras by sea, and he, as well as Albert Hervey, a cadet in the Madras army, commented on the phenomenal surf near the shore. Hervey wrote in 1832: “Everybody has heard or read of the famous Madras surf — that tremendous barrier which guards the shores of the coast, so replete with danger to the uninitiated; and those dreadful sharks which swarm outside ready to pounce upon any unfortunate victim who may fall into the water...in crossing the surf some degree of skill is necessary to strand boats in safety, and the boatmen usually demand a present for a job, for which they are already well paid.” Bishop Heber’s journey, however, was quite uneventful — though he too made a mention of the dreaded surf — as “the contrary wind that had so long delayed us, ensured us a peaceful landing, as it blew directly off shore”. As the loss of cargo during such brief but tricky forays was not unknown, quite clearly some better arrangement had to be made. Though Warren Hastings had thought about a harbour in 1770, it took over a century for the first masonry breakwaters to be constructed on the suggestion of a Mr Parkes of Karachi Harbour fame. Cyclones with almost the force of tsunamis were not unusual, and one in 1881 badly damaged the newly-built port when “half a mile of the breakwaters (each was 3,000 feet long)” were washed away.

The port catered to a fast-growing trade and passenger traffic while the coastline developed into beaches. Commenting on early 20th century Madras, K.P.S. Menon (former foreign secretary and grandfather of the present incumbent) wrote in his travelogue, Journey around the World, “what we enjoyed most of all was an evening on the beach. Where in the wide world can you see such a spacious beach with such silky sand' But its character has changed since my days as a college student in the Madras Christian College [established in 1837] during the First World War. Then it was almost an exclusive resort for English or Anglicized gentlemen”. Scores of horse-drawn carriages and a few cars used to draw up in the evenings where “on certain days, an English band would play English music for English children”.

Architectural innovation played itself out in Chepauk Palace, the Central Station, Senate House, the Victoria Public Library and so on. According to a well-known chronicler of the city, S. Muthiah, Robert Chisholm, first principal of the Madras School of Industrial Art and consulting architect to the government of Madras, changed the Madras skyline. He introduced the Indo-Saracenic form where the Hindu and Islamic blended with Gothic revival: cupolas, domes and arches melded with the fine lines of European buildings. Domestic architecture flourished through bungalows that combined deep verandahs leading on to central rooms, a kitchen at the back and servants’ quarters at the far end of the compound. In their 1883 bible for wives and homemakers, The Complete Indian Housekeeper and Cook, Flora Anne Steel and Grace Gardiner noted approvingly that “the Madras Presidency is distinctly a cheap place to live in.” Beef sold for 6 annas a seer (2 pounds) and eggs were 3 or 4 annas a dozen. Within the Presidency, a nice house could be rented for between Rs 50 to Rs 100. Life, they noted, was “more Oriental in its ways” than in other parts of the country. In part, this possibly meant that the core of Tamilian society maintained its intrinsic values — even the brown sahibs of the bureaucracy, trade, commerce and learning rarely forgot the fundamentals of Carnatic culture and tradition.

The structure and interior of bungalows and houses of the indigenous elite reflected this ability to balance cultural influences — perhaps most pronounced among the mercantilist Chettiars. It is in the districts of Ramnad and Pudukkottai that an interesting combination of the West and indigenous domestic architecture finds expression in the homes of the Naattukottai Chettiars — Chettiars who live in country forts (naattu means county and kottai fort). Not far from Madurai is Karaikudi, known as the capital of the Chettinad region, a city dotted with mansions of this affluent community. The Chettiars can trace their roots to 10th century traders from inscriptions in Ramnad district, and from the middle of the 19th century till Independence, Naattukottai Chettiars were the bankers of south-east Asia. They were highly successful in Ceylon, Burma, Indo-China, Sumatra, Mauritius, Singapore and Malaysia. Expectedly, houses became mansions and grew in style, size and opulence as their owners prospered under the British. The external verandah was predominantly a male space, separated from the interior by huge Burma teak doors, elaborately carved or even inlaid with Belgian mirrors and Italian tiles. Before one got to the muttram (open courtyard) there were two more smaller, raised verandahs where women spent much of their time. And of course, as with havelis and courtyard houses in other parts of the country, this was the private domain. Elaborate columns supported a narrower verandah that ran around the courtyard from which led off the family rooms.

Marriages were conducted in this central space as well as contracts signed — though of the external world of business, the need for privacy meant opening up this space to outsiders. Many generations lived within these homes, and life-cycle rituals were events of great splendour and sumptuousness. All this started changing after Independence. As with many other communities, younger generations migrated and many homes today are empty, if not neglected. However, to cater to a growing local tourist traffic curious about an India they know so little about as well as to those from abroad, a few of the more enterprising Chettiars have converted homes into heritage sites. These are open to visitors, and often family members and old retainers welcome them, and, if they are lucky, they are served choice items of the famed Chettinad cuisine!

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