The Madras Senate House, a 19th century Indo-Saracenic building that sits facing the ocean, and is located inside the Madras University campus, is probably not one of the first landmarks that come to your mind when we say “Chennai”. You are probably thinking of the city's long beaches, the red bricked Central (or should we now say MGR) Railway Station, cheery yellow auto-rickshaws with flamboyant posters and towering cones of crispy brown dosas.
But, this colonial building constructed by Robert Chisholm, a task that took him about 5 years between 1874 and 1879, is quite an under-explored place, even for the city’s locals. For, this exquisite building has been kept away from the public eye for too long, long enough to be forgotten. But this has changed, thanks to the recent Chennai Photo Biennale that literally swung open its gates to an extraordinary view on the inside.
Speaking to TNM, Varun Gupta, CPB’s founding member, tells us that the idea was to bring Chennai’s heritage to the forefront.
“We have statistics from the government that says most of the traffic to India is through Tamil Nadu, yet we have very little tourists choosing to explore the city of Chennai. The problem here is retention. Chennai has beautiful heritage buildings that most of us don’t know about. We’re probably telling visitors to head to Mahabalipuram and Pondicherry but never to places like the Senate House or the Madras Literary Society,” he reasons.
The second and the most ambitious edition of CPB began on February 22. This month-long programme follows an interesting trail across the city, with exhibits in places like the Senate House, Madras Fine Arts College, Madras Literary Society, Egmore Museum and the Cholamandal Artist Village, to name a few.
Quite interestingly, the curation of work inside these buildings has been planned to capture the aura of these exhibit spaces.
“At the Madras Literary Society, for instance, we have a work on burnt books on display. Our curator Pushpamala has worked magic within the constraints of spaces,” says Varun.
Founded in 1812, the Madras Literary Society holds within its walls coveted collections of close to 55,000 archaic books and first editions dating back to the 16th century. Located inside the DPI Campus, The Library of Babel, as this exhibit has been named, houses works by Canadian artist Angela Grauerholz, Germany based photographer Liz Fernando and Putu Sayoga, an Indonesian documentary and travel photographer.
The Senate House, on the other hand, has an interesting mix of exhibits. This includes Chennai-based artist Arun Vijay Mathavan’s ‘Millennia of Oppression’, a compelling photo documentation on how Dalits in the state are forced to handle dead bodies in modern, state-run hospitals. There's also an interesting display on animal slaughter titled ‘Red Carpet II’ by Pakistani artist Rashid Rana.
The Senate House’s imposing hall with its large doorways and high domed interiors might not have been the easiest canvas to paint upon and Varun agrees. “It took us about 11 months to get things rolling. We also had to communicate our idea with the people concerned, and getting permission took its own time. We had to change the way we work within these heritage spaces. We used a lot of installation art in these spaces. Just cleaning up the Senate House took us a couple of months,” he adds.
The Madras Fine Arts College, an 1850 institution established by surgeon Alexander Hunter as a private art school, has given us extraordinary talents like KCS Paniker, Chandru, and Trotsky Marudhu, to name a few, but not many of us have seen beyond its red brick exterior. The Arts college itself has a total of six exhibit spaces and Varun in grateful to principal Vijay Kumar for being instrumental in making this happen.
Talking about the installations, Varun tells us that the Pavilion at Madras Fine Arts College, a recently renovated shed, has been reimagined by Chennai based architect Deepak Jawahar, who with the help of Madras Terrace, an architecture firm, has transformed the space into a very interesting exhibit.
Photo Courtesy: Virginie Vlaminck
Chennai has no dearth of heritage buildings, some better taken care of than the others, and Varun hopes to include more in CBP’s next edition.
“We did consider places like the Victoria Public Hall, the Rajaji Hall and the Armenian Church but couldn’t pursue these due to lack of time and other factors. We were also looking at abandoned spaces and factories in the outskirts but we also wanted our venues to be a hop, skip and a jump away from each other. We sure hope, in future, to be able to help in the restoration and maintenance of heritage spaces as well,” he adds.
CPB is on until March 24 from 10.00 am to 5.30 pm on all days of the week in all venues except the Madras Literary Society that closes at 3.45 pm on the Sundays.