Friday, November 13, 2015

Heritage walk at the Madras High Court conducted by Mr N. L. Rajah, advocate on July 16, 2015

Took part in heritage walk at the Madras High Court organized by INTACH and lead by advocate N. L. Rajah. It was the first heritage walk that I've ever participated in and it exceeded all my expectations. Now hours after the walk is over, I would say that if you are a heritage buff you are surely missing something if you haven't participated in the walk. I feel glad to have done so and I wish to participate in one or two more future editions as well. Thanks, INTACH for providing it free-of-cost but even if they hadn't, I would've still attended it.

The walk was officially flagged off at the old lighthouse. Rajah explained that the lighthouse was constructed between 1835 and 1842 on what was then the Esplanade, a vast patch of flat, empty land overlooking Blacktown. The walk leader then explained how the the area was bombed twice - in the first as well as the Second World War and made a passing reference to the revolutionary Champakaraman Pillai. Then, he dropped an interesting piece of trivia - that the Madras High Court was the second largest court complex in the whole world.

The leader proceeded to give a short history of the High Court - Of how it had its origins in the the Madras Supreme Court that was started in 1801 with the redoubtable Thomas Strange as the first Chief Justice. And how it moved to its present building that was constructed in 1892 after functioning from Bentick's Building which later became the Singaravelar Maaligai for close to a hundred years, of how it replaced the Diwani Adalut which functioned from a building in Alwarpet which later became the house of Basheer Ahmed Saeed. It was one of the most extraordinary stories about an unique monument. The early history of the High Court also included the tale of the Arcot Nawab's downfall and how Mohammed Ali Khan Wallajah overburdened with debt ceded all his dominions to the British and his narration spanned the late 18th century and the whole of the 19th. But two individuals more intimately connected with the history of the building would be Henry Irwin, the architect and the contractor T. Namberumal Chetty, of Chetpet and Ramanujan fame. The freedom which Chetty gave to his workers resulted in the occurrence of contrasting architectural styles that we find today. (In this regard, I wish to recount an interesting piece of trivia - just as an Indian was largely credited with the construction of the Madras High Court, it was another Indian who had constructed Karnataka's - Arcot Narayanaswami Mudaliar - two similar personalities who left behind lasting legacies of their own). But despite the variation in architectural styles, the essence of the building remained Indo-Saracenic like most others from the latter half of the
19th century.

The leader then took us to what he described as the Sheriff's gate. It was this gate, he said, through which the Sheriff of Madras entered, impressively clad in elaborate regalia and armed with a sword in hand and headed a procession to call upon the Chief Justice and invite him to preside over the opening of the court in company with the Commissioner of Police. While we visited the spot, we found it stacked with bundles and bundles of papers - minutes of court proceedings perhaps.

We, then, walked upto the entrance to the museum building where stood a statue of Sir Vembakkam Bhashyam Aiyangar (1844-1908), a legal luminary of the late 19th century who created history by becoming the first Indian Advocate General of Madras in 1897 and later, a judge of the High Court. The story of Bhashyam Aiyangar, whose article in Wikipedia I created some five years back, reads like a fable. He wished to die with his boots on - ahem, or rather, with his lawyer's gown on, and actually met up with such a death. He was father-in-law to the Swarajya Party's legendary leader, that famous compatriot of Satyamurti and Rajaji, S. Srinivasa Iyengar. Bhashyam was probably not related to his townsman, V. Ramiengar who made a fortune through his Travancore dealings, though.

Next on our itinerary was the museum and it was the museum building which took most of our time. The most valuable artifact in their possession was a framed photograph taken on the occasion of the opening of the Madras High Court on 12 July 1892 by the 3rd Baron Wenlock, the then Governor. Next to him stood Sir Arthur Collins, the Chief Justice and the puisne judges, Sir. T. Muthuswamy Iyer, Parker, Wilkinson and Best. On the wall, were portraits of some of the Chief Justices of British extraction - Sir Gentle, the last of his tribe and his famous predecessor, Lionel Leach who was involved in the Lakshmikanthan Murder Trial. Covering its walls were lists of chief justices and puisne judges of the Supreme Court days. The museum also has in its posesssion an oath of allegiance to the Constitution of India signed by P.  V. Rajamannar the first Chief Justice of the High Court after independence, on the 17th of January 1948 and the documents related to the indictment of "Kappalottiya Tamizhan" V. O. Chidambaram Pillai preserved in a special glass case. The museum also had papers related to some famous judgements made in the 153 years of its history. We also found a prototype of the Sheriff's grandiose costume that Mr. Rajah had earlier alluded to.

But perhaps, the best preserved of the lot were two charters by King George III of the United Kingdom dated 1798 and 1800 which led to establishment of the Supreme Court of Madras, the first European-style court of judicature set up in the Presidency. A lifesize portrait of its first Chief Justice Sir Thomas Strange hung opposite to the Chief Justice's chair in the Chief Justice's court situated in another part of the same building. The Chief Justice's court is probably one of its kind in the whole world - nowhere else would you find a library located in the backdoor of a trial room that too behind the presiding judge's chair and nowhere do you find, a trial room with a stained glass ceiling. (I feel compelled to remark on the fact that the stained glass ceiling was a thing of stunning beauty - the High Court complex might deserve an UNESCO World Heritage site recognition for its stupendous domes alone). Mr. Rajah also made us aware of certain interesting facets of Sir Strange's life. I never knew before that Mr. Strange was the first to attempt the codification of Hindu law and Rajah rightly remarked that it was a widely held misconception that John D. Mayne was the first to codify Hindu and Muslim laws.

A few rooms away lay the Madras Bar Association (MBA) library with volumes of MLJ stacked all over. Here we sat down in a semicircle before our leader who discoursed on the colourful history of the Madras Bar Association. Mr. Rajah gave some interesting anecdotes from the lives of some of MBA's members. He recounted how at the height of the "Simon Go Back" agitations in Madras in 1928, K. Krishnan Pandalai, the then magistrate, refused to order fire on non-violent agitationists and stood his ground despite intense official pressure. Despite confronting the government, Pandalai was given a promotion two years later. This, Mr. Rajah said, stood testimony to the fairness of British justice. Another colourful life from MBA's history would be that of V. O. Chidambaram Pillai who started his life as a respectable barrister and ended up a prisoner of the King Emperor. Mr Rajah paid glowing tributes to the munificence of some of MBA's presidents - V. L. Ethiraj (1945) for example bequeathed a fortune towards the founding of the Ethiraj College for Women which functions from what was previously, his residence.

Next in our path lay the statue of T. Muthuswamy Iyer (as one spelling of his name goes) whose story I know only too well. But Mr. Rajah has very little known things to say even about very well-known people. He kept us on the tenterhooks by choosing to speak not on T. Muthuswamy Iyer the person but his statue. Mr. Rajah described how V. Krishnaswami Iyer, the well-known advocate and and Kaiser-i-Hind medallist, opposed a statue to Muthuswamy Iyer on the strange premise that Hinduism did not allow deification of humans and ended up having his own statue a few years after his demise. And when Krishnaswami Iyer's statue was unveiled, the legendary Sir S. Subramania Iyer who once wrote an SOS to the US president Woodrow Wilson, took up the gauntlet and opposed it tooth and neck. But Mani Iyer too was helpless, having given up his flesh and body, to forestall the setting up of a memorial commemorating his life. But aside these interesting anomalies, it appeared to be a prevailing practice for posthumous remembrances and not many lawyers were opposed to them. But one interesting cause that Krishnaswami Iyer appears to have espoused was the protection of the Marina. To this end, along with 3,000 others (or is it 5,000) he appears to have protested British plans to set up a railroad cutting right across Marina beach. Mr. Rajah opines that Krishnaswami's effort helped save the beach as a tourish destination. But I differ with him on the issue. The setting up a railway line along the beach might have considerably reduced traffic in Mylapore's roads and may have helped us avoid these grotesque monstrosities dangling dangerously above our heads. More importantly, the far-sightedness of the British might have led to the construction of more railroads that would have reduced traffic on the roads so that the need might not have arised for today's politicians to dig right through important throughfares or pull down heritage buildings.

Sensing that the walk was coming to an end, Mr. Rajah took us on a painstaking ritual up the narrow spiral staircase that led to the terrace. Cramped for space, we tried to sneak in one by one holding tightly onto the railings. As we did so black dust settled down on our hands as a thick layer of grime enveloped those iron clutches. As we explored the High Court's fabled terrace, we got fabulous views of the light house and the harbour. The terraces were a photographer's delight for the building peaked into a series of porticoes, domes, corridors, Moorish arches and minarets. Finally, we reached the highest point on the building to assume kinship with the tall lighthouse nearby. A few minutes and few pictures later, we retraced those steps back to the ground floor. The walk concluded at court room number 8 with a speech by Mr. Rajah. A solemn rant by Mr. Rajah underneath the stupendous silvery dome bemoaning the disregard and neglect shown by our authorities towards heritage monuments provided a befitting conclusion to what was an awesome Sunday morning.

There are many things that I've left out for my memory is rather too poor. But I hope to compensate for it by attending one or two more sessions.