The Madras Gymkhana Club library was not devoid of interest. To enter it, one has to climb over a tall step. This is designed to protect the library when rainfall causes flooding of the Club’s grounds which are on low lying land close to the Adyar River estuary.
Another interesting feature was pinned to the shirt of one of the library staff. It was a rectangular plastic badge with a hammer and sickle on both of its sides. One side had words in Tamil, and the other in English. These words explain to the reader that there was a grievance between the staff and their employers, The Club. The problem about which the employees were protesting concerned pay. Seeing these badges of protest reminded me of a visit to Nizam’s restaurant in Kolkata a few years ago. There, the waiters were wearing similar badges, some in Bengali, some in Hindi, and others in English.
As for the library, it seemed well stocked with books and journals. Several old books were being sold, and there were three that I could not resist!
AT ABOUT FIVE in the morning, a taxi dropped us off at the Madras Gymkhana Club in Chennai. It was late February 1994, and we had just disembarked from an overnight train from Bangalore. We were going to rest at the Club before taking a flight to Colombo in Sri Lanka.
Today, the 8th of January 2023, we revisited the Gymkhana Club, and seeing the place reminded me of a strange experience we had there back in February 1994. The Club, which was founded in 1884, has as its main building an edifice gifted by the Rajah of Venkatanagiri in 1886. Compared with the Madras Club, south of it, its architecture is far less refined.
When we got out of our taxi before daybreak in February 1994, we entered the main building, which was unlit at such an early hour. The night watchman at the reception desk asked us to sit in some armchairs near the entrance until the morning receptionist arrived. After sitting for a while in the hot, humid reception area, the sun began to rise and the Club’s interior began to become visible slowly.
I noticed that we were sitting close to a very large room. As the light improved, I saw that the room was filled with tables. The tables were covered with napkins, cutlery, and plates of unfinished food. Alongside the tables, there were bodies lying on the floor. Soon after dawn, these bodies came to life. They belonged to the Club’s staff – waiters and so on. These people then proceeded to clear up the remains of the previous night’s banquet. Maybe, they had finished too late at night to make it worthwhile to return to their homes for a few hours.
Seeing these people lying in the gloomy light of daybreak and then coming back to life was a memorable experience. Visiting the Gymkhana Club today, 29 years later, evoked this memory powerfully.
Our brief visit to the Club today was quite different. The place seemed far from sleepy, and we received a warm welcome.
IT WAS VERY HOT when we decided to travel from Chennai Central Railway Station to the city’s Indo-Saracenic style High Court, which is about a mile away. A policewoman told us that it was too far to walk, so we must take a bus. Following her sensible advice, we boarded a local city bus.
As with all buses in India, there was a conductor on boarf who sold tickets. On enquiring the cost, we were told that the price was 5 rupees. We asked if that was per ticket or for the two of us. The conductor replied that my ticket was 5 rupees and that on his bus women travel free of charge. Then, he gave us two fragile paper tickets. One was marked with a large ‘5’ and the other was covered with Tamil script, but no ‘5’ (except a small one in the ticket’s six digit serial number). A friend, who reads Tamil, explained that the brown ticket without the large 5 reads ‘lady’s ticket’.
After travelling one stop, we disembarked in a busy street market, and walked about a quarter of a mile to the impressive, oriental-looking Court building’s, which were constructed between 1888 and 1892, to the designs of architects JW Brassington, Henry Irwin, and JH Stephens. As we had committed no misdemeanors and had no legal work to do, we could not enter the complex of buildings.
The saying goes ‘there’s no such thing as a free lunch’, but during our visit to central Chennai, we discovered that there is such a thing as a free bus ride!
BE THEY LARGE OR SMALL, I always enjoy railway stations. Today, the 7th of January 2023, we visited the Central Station in Chennai (Madras). This huge edifice is also known as ‘Puratchi Thalaivar Dr. M.G. Ramachandran Central Railway Station’. It is the busiest station in southern India. When we visited it at about 11 am, it seemed rather sleepy even though there were many people waiting for their trains.
The station was designed by a British architect George Harding. Its distinctive exterior has neo-Romanesque decorative features. It was first opened in 1873, but was rebuilt twice: in 1959 and 1998.
We bought coffees to drink in a canteen within the station. After paying at the cash desk we were given two small plastic discs, like counters used in board games. Each disc had the word “coffee” printed on one side of it. We handed these to a lady who prepared excellent South Indian filter coffee.
The walls of this small café-cum-restaurant are decorated with murals depicting Chennai and the Central Station. Numerous informative notices were also displayed in the walls. One informed customers that all of the water used had been filtered. Another forbids the eating of “outside food”, which means food not bought in the canteen. Yet another reassured customers that “medium refined” cooking oil was used in the kitchen. And another warned clients that they are under cctv surveillance.
One notice puzzled us. It reads: “NO BILL FOOD IS FREE”. Grammatically, it made no sense to us. We asked another customer, who was standing close to us, if she could explain. She smiled, revealing a set of teeth that would have benefitted from orthodontic treatment, and then, as quick as a flash, she explained that these words mean that without paying, no food will be served.
I HAVE VISITED ST THOMAS Mount in Chennai twice so far. The two visits were separated by at least a quarter of a century. Amongst the many interesting things to see and experience on this sacred hill are some examples of Armenian script. This characteristic lettering can be found both on several tombstones and on some framed paintings of saints. Also, there is some Armenian writing inscribed on an ornate pulpit.
The church on the Mount is dedicated to Our Lady of Expectation. There are several sculptures of the pregnant Mary in or near the church, which was constructed close to the spot where St Thomas (the doubter) is supposed to have died. The church was constructed by Portuguese Franciscan missionaries in the 1520s. None of this information provides any clues to the presence of the Armenian lettering.
Armenians began setting in Madras in significant numbers in the mid-17th century. There is an Armenian Street in Chennai, where one can find an Armenian church. This was built in 1712. The two funerary monuments I saw on the Mount are dated after 1712: 1739 and 1764. The paintings with Armenian script are far newer. I am no expert on Armenia, so can say little if anything about their religious practices. Many Armenians are Christians, and a few of them are of the Catholic variety. I can only assume that the graves on the Mount are those of Catholic Armenians, and that some Catholic Armenian donor provided the paintings.
If anyone can give me more information about the presence of Armenian script in this church on the Mount, please share it with me.
THE GOVERNMENT MUSEUM in Chennai has a magnificent collection of mostly early medieval Hindu and Buddhist bronze sculptures. One of these wonderful religious artworks was exceptionally interesting. At first sight, it seems like a sculpture of a human figure, but soon you will notice many odd things about it.
The figure has two right arms and one left arm. It’s left breast is female in form. The right is male. The right side of the torso has male characteristics, but the left side has sensuous female curves. As for tthe shapes of the buttocks, the right one is different from the larger left one. The right leg is largely unclothed, but the left is covered with a depiction of a cloth covering.
The statue I gave been describing is half male and half female. According to an information panel nearby, this sculpture is an 11th century depiction of Artanarishvara. It is a composite of Shiva (right half) and Parvati (left half). It represents the belief that the Godhead, Shiva, and his consort, Parvati, cannot exist without each other. It also shows that without the coexistence of male and female, human life cannot be propagated and continued. No doubt, there is much more meaning encompassed in this interesting sculpture, but I am not competent to discuss this further. Suffice it to say, seeing this unusual sculpture gave me food for thought.
Until today, I had never seen an Artanarishvara. This beautifully crafted work was one of many lovely pieces in the bronze collection of Chennai’s version of the British Museum.
ONE OF THE FIRST things that a visitor sees when entering Chennai’s Fort St George is a cupola supported by eight fluted pillars topped with Ionic capitals. It looks as if it ought to contain something, but it is empty.
In 1792, after losing a military campaign against the army of the British East India Company, the ruler of Mysore, Tipu Sultan, surrendered two of his sons as hostages to be held by the British. They were handed over to the British commander Lord Cornwallis. Tipu’s sons were taken to be held by the British until he had paid them an enormous sum of money, deemed to be reparations for damages that were supposed to have been inflicted on his British opponents. He managed to pay this ‘ransom’ after a couple of years, and his sons were returned.
Cornwallis was regarded as a great hero by the British. In about 1800, Thomas Banks sculpted an enormous stone statue of Cornwallis standing on a tall stone cylindrical base. The base has figures sculpted in bas-relief. The bas-relief depicts the moment when Tipu’s sons were handed over to Cornwallis.
At first, the statue was housed in the above-mentioned cupola. Later, it was moved indoors, first to the Long Room of the Connemara Library, and then later to the museum in Fort St George. It was moved indoors from its original position beneath the cupola, because, to quote an informative panel near it: “… of ill feeling caused by certain reliefs on its base.” Well, at least it was never toppled to the ground as was the case with, for example, statues of Stalin, Enver Hoxha, and the Bristol slaver Edward Colston.
THE CHURCH OF ST MARY in Fort St George in Chennai (Madras) was constructed by 1680, when it was consecrated. It is the oldest Anglican church east of Suez.
The church contains a memorial to the founder of the famous American Yale College – Eliahu Yale. He had been Governor of Chennai’s Fort St George, where the church is located, between 1687 and 1692. He had also been the vestryman and treasurer of St Mary’s church.
The font within the church is made of a form of black granite known as Charnockite. This stone is named after Job Charnock (c 1630-1693). A member of the British East India Company, he is credited with founding a British settlement at a pre-existing village on the bank of the Hooghly River. Although the place had already been settled long before his arrival, Charnock’s establishment grew into what is now Kolkata (Calcutta).
In about 1678, Job entered a romantic relationship with a Hindu woman, whom he called Maria. They produced a son and three daughters. The daughters were baptised in the font in St Mary’s in Chennai in August 1689. A few years later, Job died. His funerary monument is in Kolkata, where he passed away. Like the font in Chennai, Job’s tomb, which is housed in a mausoleum in Kolkata, is made of Charnockite. This form of granite can be found in the south of India. It was local to Chennai but far from Kolkata. This type of rock was first described in Tamil Nadu and was named in honour of Job Charnock.
Apart from the font and the memorial to Yale, the church of St Mary’s has many fascinating sculpted monuments to Britishers who died in India or on their way to or from it.
CAMPDEN STREET IN Kensington is a short thoroughfare running between Kensington Church Street and Campden Hill Road. On it, there is a distinctive building called Byam Shaw House. Until 1990, this edifice with its large centrally placed, north facing window was the Byam Shaw School of Art, which opened in 1910. Named at first as ‘Byam Shaw and Vicat Cole School of Art’, after its founders, Rex Vicat Cole (1870-1940) and John Liston Byam Shaw (1872-1919), it soon became known as the Byam Shaw school.
John Liston Byam Shaw is also known as ‘Byam Shaw’. He was born in British India, in Madras (now ‘Chennai’), where his father was registrar of the High Court at Madras. In 1878, the Shaws moved back to England, where they lived in Kensington. At an early age, he showed artistic promise and at the advice of the artist John Everett Millais (1829-1896), he entered an art school in London’s St Johns Wood. As he grew older, Byam’s works attracted less interest and he turned to teaching to earn a living. In 1910, he and Cole founded the art school in Campden Street. Sadly, Byam Shaw died during the great influenza epidemic that followed WW1.
The school in Campden Street has produced several significant artists including Winifred Nicholson (first wife of Ben Nicholson), Bernard Dunstan, Yinka Shonibare, Mona Hatoum, as well as stage designers, stained-glass makers, and actors. The inventor James Dyson also studied there. In 1990, the school moved to larger premises in Archway, and in 2003, the school was absorbed into the Central Saint Martins College of Arts and Design. Byam Shaw would have been pleased to know that his school produced such fine alumni. Guy Burch, who studied at the school between 1981 and 1984, wrote:
“The innovative independent Art School founded in the early 1900s, Byam Shaw had an open studio policy that suited my inability to fit into categories marked ‘painter’ or ‘sculptor’. Most art schools at the time made you choose one or other with cross-media working tending to be discouraged. Their studios allowed you to move between them. I was in the ‘Image Studio’, and worked on collage, painting and mixed media installations.” (http://www.guyburch.co.uk/?p=4358)
I feel it is a shame that the building in Campden Street, which has now become a block of flats, is without any notice commemorating its former use.
MANY LONDONERS WILL HAVE walked past Mortimer Market without knowing it exists. Yet, I used to visit it every working day for about five years. It played an important role in my life and greatly affected my career. How it did, I will reveal later.
Mortimer Market lies a few feet east of Tottenham Court Road (‘TCR’) between Capper and University Streets. Immediately to its east, runs Huntley Street that is parallel to TCR. I used to enter Mortimer Market through a short, covered passageway leading off TCR. Vehicles can enter the Market via Capper Street.
Until 1886, Capper Street was known as ‘Pancras Street’. This street has existed for over 300 years. Its history is outlined in some detail on an interesting website (https://regencyredingote.wordpress.com/). Before it was laid out, the land on which it runs was part of Capper Farm, which was in existence by 1693. The farmer, Christopher Capper, whose widow died in 1739, kept cattle. Members of his family, his daughters, kept the farm going until at least 1768. After his death, the family moved to crop growing in preference to rearing cattle. In 1756, the Duke of Grafton constructed the Euston Road that ran along the northern boundary of the Capper’s farm. At first, the Capper sisters raised an objection to it, saying that the dust raised by traffic along the new road would spoil their crops. The Duke and the sisters eventually came to some agreement. By 1770, the Capper sisters gave up their farm. It was then bought by Hans Winthrop Mortimer (1734-1807), who merits an entry in Wikipedia and on the History of Parliament website (www.historyofparliamentonline.org/volume/1754-1790/member/mortimer-hans-winthrop-1734-1807 ).
Mortimer was a property speculator and a Member of Parliament between 1775 and 1790. In the 1774 General Election, he was defeated by Sir Thomas Rumbold (1736-1791), who served as British Governor of Madras between 1777 and 1780. Rumbold became well-known for being corrupt. His misdeeds included what was effectively the theft of a precious ring from the Nawab of Arcot (Muhammad Ali Khan Wallajah, who reigned 1749-1795). Rumbold’s corruption preceded his stay in India. This involved, amongst other things, bribery during the election he contested against Mortimer. After a court case against Rumbold, Mortimer was awarded £11,000 in damages in 1776 and also gained the parliamentary seat that Rumbold had tried to win by cheating (bribery). It is a sign of the East India Company’s wobbly ethics that a man as corrupt as Rumbold was appointed the Governor of Madras so soon after losing his case of corruption.
Mortimer spent a great deal of money acquiring property in Shaftesbury, his constituency and also in London.
The land, which Mortimer bought that had been the Capper’s farm, became known as ‘The Mortimer Estate’. Some of this estate was later sold and became the site of University College (‘UC’) London, which established in 1826. Mortimer Market began to be built on the western part of the estate in 1795. Old maps of the area show that in the 19th century Mortimer Market was like a piazza containing two parallel rows of small shops. This can be seen in a photograph published in 1949 and reproduced on a British history website ( www.british-history.ac.uk/survey-london/vol21/pt3/plate-27).
By 1963, the shops in Mortimer Market had been demolished. In that year, a purpose-built structure standing where the rows of shops had once stood was opened as University College Hospital Dental School (‘UCHDS’). It was this architecturally undistinguished building that I used to visit during the clinical years (1977-1982) of my studies of dentistry. The building is so non-descript that it does not get even a tiny mention in Pevsner’s detailed guide to the buildings of north London. Prior to 1914, what was to become UCHDS was known as the National Dental Hospital, founded in 1861 and located at 187-191 Great Portland Street (see: https://ezitis.myzen.co.uk/uchdental.html). In 1894, the establishment relocated to 59 Devonshire Street. Twenty years later, it amalgamated with University College Hospital. From 1963 until its closure in 1991, 9 years after I qualified as a dentist, UCHDS was housed in Mortimer Market. The former dental school building still stands and looks very much like I remember it, but now it houses a centre for the treatment of sexually transmitted diseases.
As mentioned earlier, I used to reach the entrance of the dental school by way of the passageway from Tottenham Court Road. However, the hospital could be reached via the network of underground passageways that linked various building of the hospital both with each other and UCL itself. To the right of the passageway if you face it from TCR, there used to be the premises of the Iraqi Cultural Centre. I went in there several times. On one occasion, I mentioned to one of the friendly men who worked in their shopfront office that I am fascinated by folk music from all over the world. He told me to wait and within a few minutes he returned and presented me with an album containing two LPs of recordings of Iraqi folk music. For years after this, I enjoyed listening to them.
During several of my brief lunchtime visits to the Iraqi Cultural Centre near Mortimer Market, I noticed something strange in it. Men would suddenly appear from what seemed like nowhere, maybe from doors hidden in the shop’s internal walls. When Saddam Hussein’s regime (1979-2003) began to attract western military attention, I remembered these curious appearances, and wondered whether there was something other that cultural promotion going on in this place so near my dental school. My suspicions have been confirmed: according to the writer Said K Aburish (born in Palestine in 1935), writing in 2004:
“Years ago Saddam Hussein used the Iraqi cultural centre in Tottenham Court Road to conduct intelligence against dissident Iraqis and to eliminate political opponents.”
Also, The Guardian newspaper noted on the 30th of April 2002:
“The Iraqi government also used some of the students on its scholarships as spies, and set up a London surveillance network based at a “cultural centre” on Tottenham Court Road. There were sporadic assassination attempts against dissidents: in 1995 Latif Yahia, a defector previously employed by the Iraqi government as the official double of Saddam’s brother, alleged that he had been attacked with knives by five men speaking Arabic while stuck in traffic on the capital’s Edgware Road.”
My time studying in Mortimer was quite exciting but not as much as what must have been going on nearby in the cultural centre. Thinking back to my years of study, we had some lectures given us by a young Iraqi dentist, who was working on his PhD – something to do with denture fixatives. He seemed very pleasant, but now I wonder…
While I was studying at UCHDS, I had wanted to write about the history of Mortimer Market. In those days before the Internet, although I looked at several books in UCL’s very well-stocked library, I did not find anything about the story behind this little-known part of London. So, what you have just read is what I was hoping to write more than 38 years ago.