Madras Week: The Fort where it all began
Working out of the Fort St George premises must be quite an experience, especially if you have a sense of history. I wonder how it must be for Sathyabhama Badhreenath, superintending archaeologist, whose office, the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), is inside the Fort. According to her, it is an old private building that once belonged to an Armenian merchant.
Sathyabhama, whose presentation today at the CP Arts Centre was a tad boring, is surrounded by other historic buildings at her work place – the Fort Museum (originally the Exchange Building where trade happened), the St Mary’s Church (built by William Dixon and designed by Fowle), the Fort House ( probably the first built structure after the John Company set up shop, reconstructed over the years), and the Parade Ground. Indeed, whether for trade, religion or other activity, the British had built a conglomeration of buildings around Fort House.
In some strange way, although the seat of Government has now shifted to Anna Salai, the Fort is still seen as a seat of power. Kottai piddippon (we’ll capture the Fort) has always been a slogan during election time. But once upon a time, it was just a dream of Francis Day and Andrew Cogan, John Company agents, happy to get calico cloth at a cheap rate. But from the Fort grew Madras and many institutions of modern India; as Sathyabhama said, it was the “bones of the Empire”.
Sathyabhama referred to the building where Robert Clive lived after his marriage, how later the Company took it over, and which now is Clive House, a museum that brings alive the history of the period. Close by is a building where another well-know figure, Arthur Wellesley, lived.
Sathyabhama showed pictures of King’s Barracks, built in 1755, the earliest barracks in the country. So also the flag mast, the tallest in India, according to her. Most of buildings inside the Fort had long verandahs, huge columns, Madras terraces and Mangalore tiles that together aided sufficient ventilation. While people resided on the first floor, the ground floor was often used as a place for storing goods.
What remains of the Fort today? Sadly, many of the first lot of buildings do not exist. The few that do are in a state of neglect. Fortunately, Sathyabhama has been taking interest in restoring some of the old buildings. Clive House owes its sparkle to her. She said she had plans to restore some of the other old buildings. Work is already going on one of the oldest buildings. Work on a couple of others could begin once she gets permission from the Defence establishment which owns them. Let’s wish her efforts success.
The lady with the mike told the audience she had lived for several years in the Fort and recounted some of her experiences; Sathyabhama with historian K.R.A. Narasiah; historian S. Muthiah and Narasiah chat with visitors; and M. Bhargavi, honorary secretary of the C.P. Ramaswami Foundation, with Sathyabhama and Muthiah.