Requeim for an Art Deco Icon of Madras?, Prathyaksha Krishna Prasad

Requeim for an Art Deco Icon of Madras?, Prathyaksha Krishna Prasad

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“Do Chennai’s Art Deco buildings have a future?”, asks Prathyaksha Krishna Prasad, Urban Conservation architect

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View with Art Deco detailing
photographs: Prathyaksha Krishna Prasad

“The city—and I think of it as Madras and not Chennai—is still the landscape of my dreams…”

– Abraham Verghese, author of Cutting for Stone

“Madras”, the Queen of Coromandel, is where the soul of today’s Chennai- the bustling metropolis, lies. A result of the confluence of great minds that saw potential in the sandy strip of land surrounded by scattered ancient towns, rather villages. Though the historic evidences of human activities have been found dating back to the Megalithic period, Madras as we know it was the brain child of two British officers, Andrew Cogan and Francis Day of the East India Company. Born out of a sale deal between the Nayaks and the East India Company in 1639, Madras was a strip of land six miles long, near Machilipatnam, a small fishing village, where the East India Company established their ‘factory’- their first along the Coromandel Coast. This was the nucleus, the beginning of the city called Madras. The city’s people, the culture and everything that makes it what it is, has superimposed as layers of urban heritage over the years only to remind its denizens its evolution from a group of small scattered villages to a British colony to one of four main metropolitan cities of India.

Like all the Indian cities that were colonized by the British, Madras has been under the constant influx of cultures, that has led to an urban agglomeration[1], thus altering the image of the city in the process – the city showcases a palette of historic architectural styles, with clear indication of the era it belonged to. The most dominating historic architectural style, the Indo- Saracenic Style of the 19thcentury, was an important tool used by the British for its imposing grandeur and as a testament of ‘Power’.  

In India, where ingenuity was required more than anything, we were forcing purity of style. I was told to make Calcutta Classical, Bombay Gothic, Madras Saracenic, Rangoon was to be Renaissance and English cottages were to be dotted about all over the plains of India.”

 James Ransome, address to the RIBA[2]

THE DECO MADRAS

The dawn of 20thcentury, precisely the post-World War- I period, saw an Urban development in relation to capitalism. With the native Indian being exposed to world- class education and as a result travelling overseas for education and work enabled exposure to international styles in terms of culture, fashion and designs. This also meant a shift in Architectural style, which was a major shift to modernity, a shift that enabled the prominent International style- The Art Deco style, a great design movement, happened at almost the same time in Bombay and Madras. The style had a major contribution to the image of the city, the modernecity in the making. The art deco style found its way to India and influenced a gamut of things- Art, Architecture, Automobiles, Lifestyle, Fashion, Graphics, to name a few.

THE ADVENT OF ART DECO

“French in origin, the Art Deco style represents the world’s first initial amalgamation of modern design movements. The style synthesised a number of dynamic influences that culminated in an exclusive fashion of high taste in Europe- primarily Paris during the first two decades of the 20th century. These included forces as disparate as the German Bauhaus, the Ballets Russes, Oriental and African Art, Egyptian, Aztec, Mayan and early Greek architecture, aerodynamism, zigzag geometry, moderne stream lining and visual expression of jazz music. Concurrently the Italian futurists and the French and the Spanish Cubists were graphically changing established perceptions of time and dimension while Hollywood was thrusting its signature glamour across the world’s movie screens. Expanded communications in the forms of radio, telephone and magazines along with broadened travel via the automobile, ocean- liner, locomotive, and airplane facilitated the spread in the awareness of Art Deco’s thrilling combination of romance, sophistication, rhythm and geometry”.[3]

In Madras, Art Deco was designed with influences of prominent styles- Indo Saracenic and Classical, still prevailing in the city. Thus, a lot of these influences can be seen in the 1920s Deco buildings.

Unlike the Bombay Deco, Madras Deco did not form a uniform skyline. They were rather built in significant pockets. Many great Art Deco masterpieces were built- public institutions, hotels, cinema theatres, individual bungalows were the common typologies. As wonderfully as these buildings were designed, culture of eating- out and attending theatres had developed among the upper- middle class, thus actually experiencing the beautiful architecture.

A number of Hotels with the Bed and breakfast facility had been built in the style, had popped up around the city. These hotels, run by master hoteliers, offered world class facilities. Up until the time they functioned, and a few even today, serve the best South Indian food one could ask for.

‘HOME AWAY FROM HOME’

“Shut down for the past 45 months after a cash crunch, “Dasaprakash” was revered by customers from far and wide as a “home away from home.” High quality Indian food cooked and served in hygienic conditions and its large airy 120 rooms enhanced by traditional hospitality, were its USP. “

–       As reported in the article titled ‘Chennai’s landmark Dasaprakash fades’- Deccan Herald 26thDecember 2010

 

Figure 1: Modern Cafe on Thambu Chetty street where K. Seetarama Rao started his service as a dedicated hotelier

This particularly is a requiem to one such icon of Madras that was razed to dust only to give way to high- end residential complex on the ever busy Poonamallee High Road.  The Dasaprakash Hotel, a brain child of the well- known hotelier K. Seetarama Rao who made his humble beginnings at the Modern Café, opposite the Madras High court, offering the “masala dosa” for the first time in the mid-1940s to incite lawyers’ lunch. Known for its Dasaprakash Ice creams, hot coffee and exhilarating South Indian tiffin, the hotel offered a great deal of challenge to its competitor, the Woodlands.

Figure 2: Front facade of Dasaprakash Hotel

The Dasaprakash chain of hotels however dates back to 1921, kicking off it’s pilot branch at Mysore.Dasaprakash, “Light of the servant of God”, was founded in the early 1920’s in honour of K. Seetarama Rao’s father who was indeed a true servant of god. Soon Dasaprakash built landmark hotels in Mysore, Ooty and Madras, the last one being the most magnificent.

THE REQUIEM TO A MASTERPIECE THAT WAS REDUCED TO DUST

Figure 3: Entrance to the Dasaprakash
Figure 4  Queen Elizabeth doing a drive-by at the Hotel Dasaprakash in a convertible Cadillac – 1961

Built in 1954, on 32 grounds and 890 sq. ft. and with the staff quarters on 4 grounds and 541 sq. ft. – in all totalling 36 grounds & 1,431 sq. ft., this masterpiece of a building, in Art Deco style, with one of its find dine-in facilities, delicious food, roof top performance area, ice cream parlour and 100 rooms, this hotel is something Madras has let the hunger for development engulf.

The following pictures are indeed a requiem to the once vibrant and “full of life” heritage that Madras has lost once and for all. Captured right in time for its demolition, these pictures are enough to pique the nostalgia in anyone who has known and been to this Art Deco wonderland.

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THE NOSTALGIC YOUNG GIRL

As a young girl, I remember my parents taking me to this beautiful place for a dine-out, a rare yet enjoyable occasion in our household. The hotel with its ‘Kalyana mandapam[4], the Dharmaprakash, where I remember attending a pooja in 2005, was indeed a landmark that even in its absence today is referred to while giving someone directions in the neighbourhood. As rightly published on The Hindu article titled “Another landmark comes down” dated 27thJune, 2011,

“…the Dasaprakash of Egmore too has passed on. But those who enjoyed its masala– dosais and ice-cream will remember it every bit as well as those who haunted Woodlands Drive-in, also now only a memory. I can’t think of any of the new restaurants in town having the same character — or food and service of their quality — as these oldies.

Some of the restaurants of this vintage are still around. Like Ponnusamy’s, Buhari’s, Palm Grove (for the best breakfast in town) and a couple of others. But in moving up-market they’ve lost that character that was as much their attraction in yesteryears as their food.”

THE VOICE OF A CONSERVATION ARCHITECT

So many memories attached to not just this building but also to the city called Madras, it worries me to see so many iconic structures and not- so- iconic private heritage buildings reduced to rubble and sand to give way to development. Though activists have managed to save a few buildings and a few others are still standing as they house government offices, buildings like the one discussed above have been disappearing at a steady pace.

At this point in time, the general opinion is that the future of Art Deco buildings in Chennai is even bleaker than that of Indo-Saracenic structures. The latter are massive public structures that cannot be done away with so easily, while the former is largely in the private domain. Their rate of disappearance is very fast indeed. Unless something is done quickly to establish a Heritage Act in the city, these examples of the Art Deco style will vanish forever from our city.

–       “Do Chennai’s Art Deco buildings have a future?” by a Special correspondent for Madras Musings Vol. XIX No. 6, July 1-15, 2009

The situation isn’t any different today, even after 9 years. Even today, the government is hesitant to invest in Heritage properties and to add to this the Heritage Act is still a conjecture. The city’s Heritage Conservation committee and various other NGOs like INTACH Chennai Chapter and REACH Foundations, have had minuscule role to play in conservation of the city’s heritage.  It is evident that Conservation of Urban Historic cores calls for a multi-disciplinary approach with an active citizen/ community participation, government and private investments.

Pictures Courtesy

References

  • Madras- An Architectural Heritage. Chennai: Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage by Kalpana, K., & Schiffer, F. (2003).
  • BOMBAY ART DECO Architecture- A Visual Journey (1930- 1953) by Navin Ramani
  • BOMBAY- The cities within by Sharada Dwivedi and Rahul Mehrothra
  • A Concise History of Modern Architecture in India by Jon T. Lang
  • Madras Musings- the city’s fortnightly newspaper – Archives (July 2009 and March 2014)
  • Blog- “Madras Heritage and Carnatic Music” of Mr. Sriram V., columnist, music historian and heritage activist,‘Lost Landmarks of Chennai’ category

End Notes

[1]an urban agglomeration is an extended city or town area comprising the built-up area of a central place (usually a municipality) and any suburbs linked by continuous urban area. The term agglomeration is also linked to conurbation, which is a more specific term for large urban clusters where the built-up zones of influence of distinct cities or towns are connected by continuous built-up development.

[2]Wittet’s Bombay, BOMBAY- The cities within by Sharada Dwivedi and Rahul Mehrothra

[3]BOMBAY ART DECO Architecture- A Visual Journey (1930- 1953) by Navin Ramani

[4]Kalyan mandapam – a marriage hall

1 Comment

  1. Makes quite an evocative point! Well researched and well presented! Fab read BKP!!

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