About 15 minutes into the heritage walk, we stopped to admire the weather battered façade of an old house on Nadu Street – one of the few streets that still exudes an air of old Mylapore. Tahaer, architect, urban designer and one of the founders of the Houses of Mylapore project, was using the house in front of us as an example of colonial architecture and taking
us through a very specific aspect of heritage residences – the evolution of windows from solid wood to ones set with multi coloured glass panes in the frame. He was also helping us visualise the kaleidoscope these windows created on the inside during sunrise and sunset. Incidentally, there was a lady peering out through one of the missing panes wondering what the walking-congregation in front of her house was all about. One of the more enterprising ladies in the group exploited the opportunity and won us all a ticket to see the inside of the house.
Eagerly but cautiously we entered the house, passing through the closed-type verandah that still had Industrial Age wrought iron grills, we entered a short passage that opened into the house’s courtyard. Courtyards were a typical and essential component in houses back then, especially in ones on streets where houses were constructed wall to wall. Besides being a major source of light and ventilation, they served as a way to harvest rain water and a place of gathering for social and ceremonial occasions in the family. Right across from where we entered the courtyard were three rooms, all empty. We were told the tenants had recently vacated. In one corner was a functional hand-pump that was connected to a well. Tahaer explained that most residences in the Mylapore area still use their old wells and are independent of the metro water system. This is attributed to the effective regeneration of the water table by large temple tanks and the area’s natural hydrology.
To our right was an inviting stairway that led to the upper level. The upper level sat on the lower level’s ceiling that was essentially a brick and lime plaster slab supported by wooden rafters. This style of construction of a second level is called the Madras Terrace. On the upper level, facing one edge of the courtyard’s perimeter, was a neat and spacious master bedroom lit by the golden glow of the morning sun. This appeared to be the spot where the lady of the house spent most of her time. Beyond the master bedroom, facing an other edge of the courtyard, was a verandah styled living space. Dominating this space was a traditional South Indian swing or unjal oriented towards a gallery wall neatly set up with sharp black and white portraits of ancestors. The set up appeared to hold the promise of a pleasant experience for those willing to immerse themselves in the family’s genealogy. Across from the master bedroom and beyond the third edge of the courtyard was a kitchen. It had a clay tiled roof dotted with many pieces of glass, once sources of natural light were now clogged with plant litter. The lady estimated the age of the house to be about 90 years. Despite the age, the construction did not look rickety, it appeared to be solid and strong. The lady said she was vacating the place as the structure was going to be demolished and rebuilt. Other heritage structures on Nadu street and elsewhere in Mylapore are seeing this change. The owners are bringing down old structures and replacing them with new ones. Binsan (a.k.a Bob), a photographer and architect associated with Houses Of Mylapore, said that the major reasons they hear from owners is that the old houses were built for a lifestyle that is no longer valid and they are not malleable to a form that can meet the space and other requirements of the modern world.
Affected by the fast and visible decline in the population of heritage structures, Vincent D’Souza, Editor for the Mylapore Times encouraged like minded architects and conservationists to come together and form the Houses of Mylapore (HOM) movement. The people who formed the core team of HOM were already active in the field of heritage management focussing on identifying, documenting and creating interesting narratives of unlisted heritage zones in the city.
HOM’s first initiative, that began with a sense of urgency, was to identify and document heritage structures in Mylapore. The project’s founders believe that this initiative has led to a greater level of interaction with residents and house owners that has in turn been conducive to instilling a sense of awareness and conservation in them. Beginning in 2017 HOM stepped up efforts to have more engaging conversations with the locals in the form Heritage walks and events hosted during the Mylapore Festival. Despite their efforts, HOM volunteers report seeing fewer structures between quarterly heritage walks. In one instance, a heritage building on East Mada Street went completely missing in a span of about three weeks. HOM has it hands tied down when it comes to actually preventing heritage buildings from being demolished. As most buildings are privately owned, there is little the government or the law is willing to do to help HOM’s initiative other than observing a laissez faire policy. Shalini, a historian and heritage conservationist with HOM, believes that educating people about the heritage value of their buildings and instilling a sense of pride in the owners can go a long way in conservation in lieu of government intervention. From her interactions with the owners, she feels that most of them are unaware of economically feasible alternatives to demolishing heritage houses and constructing multi storied buildings in their place. Considering the tourism Mylapore attracts, one of the alternatives is to retain the old structure and responsibly convert it to a speciality lodging place, boutique or heritage museum. With the understanding that public awareness and local pride are the cornerstones of conservation, HOM is fully focusing its efforts to get the word out about the gems of Mylapore and draw as much public attention as possible. These efforts include increased number of heritage walks, social media campaigns and distribution of hand made souvenirs of certain interesting elements that constitute the houses of Mylapore.
The route for the heritage walk that day was thoughtfully chosen to include a mix of architectural designs. We started off on Nadu Street with an indigenous Agraharam styled house and then proceeded to a group of classical houses. The architecture of the classical houses appeared to have been derived from the Agraharam style with some elements of Roman Classical design added to it. The Thinnai of the Agraharam was replaced with a verandah enclosed by a series of wrought iron grills or large grilled windows. The rustic tiled roof was replaced with the Madras Terrace that supported a second level of living. The vertical columns of Burma teak were replaced by columns of Corinthian order. Some houses had columns true to the Corinthian order – made with ridges in the body and elaborate floral patterns on the capital (capital is the head of a column). Most other houses had simple columns with plain bodies, and rounded and stepped capitals that appeared to match the Tuscan order of design.
Leaving Nadu Street we turned North on to Devadi street, crossed over Kutchery Road and entered Bazaar Road. Along the way we saw a few more classical houses with signatures of Muslim, Gothic, and Portuguese styles of design. These mixed influences were especially visible on the windows and the stained glasses atop them, cast motifs on railings of terraces, supporting arches of verandahs, and the use of arches or crescents at the summit of the front elevation. Shalini took us back in time to explain the different connotations that people drew from the word Devadi (in Devadi Street) before converging on the Persian word that translates to gateway, because the street lead directly to the Chepauk Palace, the seat of the then Nawab of the Carnatic. The market on Bazaar road was one of the places where the predominantly Hindu population South of Kutchery road rubbed shoulders with a more ethnically and religiously diverse North, that was made up of Muslims, Jains, Catholics, and tradesmen from around the world. Residences North of Kutchery road, according to Shalini, were once built for and occupied by the Muslim elite and courtiers of the Chepauk Palace. Continuing on Bazaar road we saw larger houses that evolved from the classical style to include garages, collapsible gates for verandahs and long fibreglass sunshades for windows. Looping back to Kutchery Road and then back to where we started, we saw houses of the Art Deco style where the emphasis was on lines to enhance the elevation of the buildings. These buildings also made use of concrete to produce interesting cantilever shades. One house that we saw had shades in the form of a triangular wave of crests and troughs. There were also cast jaalis set in the railings of the building’s verandahs and the verandahs were no longer supported by Corinthian columns. This replacement was a result of the cantilever structure achieved by using concrete.
Answers to pressing questions
Unlike in Mylapore, old heritage quarters in cities like Pondicherry, Cochin and Panjim are managing to survive reasonably well despite a certain amount of modernisation and commercialisation creeping in. So I was curious to know what was working for these cities that is not working for Mylapore. Tahaer and Shalini patiently explained that the local governments of Pondicherry, Cochin and Panjim were early in recognising the value of cultural heritage tourism and took steps to preserve the heritage quarters in their cities. There is regulation in place that prevents demolition of buildings in recognised heritage zones. There is funding and support from both local and the former colonial governments to conserve and maintain heritage quarters. The French have gone so far as to send special conservation architects to support preservation efforts in Pondicherry. In Chennai, however, we have a very reluctant local government that is sluggish in its approach to identify, grade and protect heritage structures. The first steps in a conservation effort is to identify and grade potential structures. For this the public works department (PWD) continues to adamantly use aerial reconnaissance survey methods. While these methods may be suitable for large structures and monuments, they are absolutely useless in identifying wall to wall heritage houses and gems in unsuspecting corners. As a result many of the little known heritage buildings remain unprotected. After plenty of persuasion from conservationists, the PWD set up a separate entity called the Building Centre and Conservation Division to engage in identification and preservation of unprotected heritage. But unfortunately this body lacks the resources, technical skills and support from the government to fulfil their mandate. Though educating the people and bringing about awareness helps to a certain extent, the process of conservation becomes more streamlined and effective only when things start happening from the top down – from government to conservationists to people. This approach is almost non existent in Chennai.
The actual architects and builders of the houses of Mylapore created distinctive structures taking into consideration the cultural and climatic conditions of the region, and by drawing inspiration from both the vernacular style of construction and classical orders of architecture. So my second pressing question was why the elegant designs of the past not passed down or evolve to something more interesting, that also met the requirements of the modern world? Shalini’s pragmatic response to this was that individual tastes and perspectives change with every generation, so do requirements for housing. Today an architect or builder cannot go to a client and showcase façades with exposed brick and laterite or Corinthian columns and cast balustrades on verandahs. No matter how nostalgic and tempting that idea may be, today’s house owner is bound to be drawn towards a texture finished façade with square edges and an expansive glass balcony. The previous generations used the houses they built as a way to showcase their status in society. Considering that the same idea holds good now, today’s generation is bound to use a form of design or style that is more relevant to the current times. Though there may be pockets of interest in vernacular and classical styles of architecture, evolving trends tend to tune craftsmen and material towards the contemporary style of architecture.
If you are interested in exploring little known heritage residences in the city besides Mylapore, Shalini recommends hiking or cycling through the by lanes of George Town, Triplicane, Royapettah, Mount Road and Nungambakkam.
Libraries with troves of information on local history,
– Muhammadan Public Library, Triplicane
– Madras Literary Society, DPI Campus
– Connemara Library (old building), Egmore
– Roja Muthiah Research Library, Taramani
– A collection of articles on the apathy of government authorities towards heritage structures in the city. By Sriram V.
– Evolution of vernacular construction versus modern urban housing. Design Innovation and Craft Resource Center, CPET University, Ahmedabad.
– The agraharam: The transformation of social space and Brahman status in Tamilnadu during the colonial and postcolonial periods. By C. J. Fuller and Haripriya Narasimhan.
– The origin and evolution of a unique housing pattern in Kerala. By Sharat Sunder Rajeev.
– Beginners guide to Greek architectural orders. Khan Academy.
– Mumbai’s Art Deco heritage. By Aditi Mukherjee for theculturetrip.com.
– Can the vernacular work in the modern settings. By Goutam Seetharaman for The Hindu.
More articles on the Houses of Mylapore
– The gems Mylapore has, but rarely notices. By Seetha Gopalakrishnan for Chennai Citizen Matters.
– Houses of Mylapore. By Tahaer Zoyab and Maanasi Hattangadi for Matter.
– Abodes from forgotten history. By Ashvita Foundation for the New Indian Express.
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