Monday, August 16, 2010

When Chisholm, Anglo-Indians and graffiti came alive

Well, it couldn’t have happened at a better time. Just when the visitors were seated and a candle was lit to signal the commencement of the weeklong programme during Madras Week at Studio Palazzo in Alwarpet, there was a power failure. Try as well as the hosts did, power did not return, there was no back-up, and so the audience had to make do with listening to Sriram in semi-darkness and craning their necks to see the pictures on his laptop. Like Ranjan De said, after all it was Madras Wea(e)k!

Well, the lights came on in the end and the visitors did not have to leave disappointed without seeing the pictures on display. There were three exhibitions: of photographs by Ranjan De, titled Graffiti on the Walls of Madras that is Chennai; another by Chitra Ragulan of letters, diaries, memorabilia and photographs of M Gurusamy Mudaliar, a supervisor of the Public Works Department who worked closely with Robert Chisholm (he pioneered the Indo-Saracenic style in Madras); and yet another on the Anglo-Indian community of Madras, pictures courtesy Harry MacLure, editor of that lovely magazine called Anglos in the Wind.

Sriram spoke about the “mysterious man” called Robert Chisholm, mysterious because not much is known about the man except that he first worked in the Public Works Department in Calcutta and then was transferred to Madras. From small beginnings he gained recognition and influence, ruffling many feathers in the department he served. Chisholm is well known for the architecture of the imposing Senate House in the University of Madras, but he was also instrumental in the building of the Victoria Public Hall, P Orr & Sons and the central dome of the Central Railway Station, among other buildings. His influence grew so much that he was made consulting architect for almost every building project in Madras. And, of course, even today we take his name.

What really caught my eye, however, was Ranjan De’s creative effort in capturing for posterity the graffiti on the walls of Chennai. He had spent about six months capturing the images, about 200 of them. What is on display is only a fraction – about a dozen. However, the pictures are reflective of not only the thoughts behind some of the images but also the supreme skills of the unknown artists. I suggested to Ranjan that he produce a book on the subject.

The pictures of the Anglo-Indians of Madras brought to mind my childhood in Calcutta – when several of my neighbours were Anglo-Indians. Up to the early 1980s at least, when I started working, there were pretty Anglo-Indian secretaries for most vice-presidents and CEOs. And they did a fantastic job as secretaries, answering calls on the phone politely, with voices that were charming and pleasant to the ear. Where are the Anglo-Indian secretaries today? Harry can correct me on this one. And yes, they contributed a lot to Indian business, even if was only bringing charm and colour to staid offices.

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