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Showing the way


The Corporation of Madras that is now Chennai continues, I see, to attempt to set precedents. Which, I suppose, is as it should be. For, after all, isn't Madras the first city outside Europe to have a Mayor and a Corporation?!

It's a pity that those beginnings, which it should make every attempt to flaunt, are kept well hidden in the Fort at the southern end of Choultry Street. I'm not very certain whether the Corporation remembers that the streets in the Fort once had names. And Choultry Street was the main north-south street of `White Town' that was the Fort, linking San Thome Gate with the vicinity of Middle Gate, which opened on to the Bazaar and the first `Black Town'. On South Choultry Street are some of the most historic buildings in the city, all buildings protected by the Archaeological Survey of India and meant to be seen by visitors, yet protected from those eyes by an Army barrier that apparently is unconcerned with the State's attempts to promote tourism.

The buildings on the west side of South Choultry Street, going south from the barrier, are Admiralty House, also called Clive House because Robert Clive once lived there and now occupied by the Archaeological Survey of India, the Grand Arsenal, and the crumbling, untended Wellesley House where Arthur Wellesley began learning what it took to become the Duke of Wellington. On the east side, across from Admiralty House, is St. Mary's, and to the east of it is the focus of this piece, Town Hall, the home of the oldest Corporation outside Europe and now the Army's Tamil Nadu, Pondicherry and Kerala Area Headquarters.

In the first days of Madras, the town was administered by the Company's Agent — in time to be called the Governor — and three Indian officials, the Adhikari, Kanakkapulle and Pedda Nayak. Company Chairman Sir Josiah Child, however, decided that Madras deserved better and insisted that the city should have a municipal corporation much to Governor Elihu Yale's chagrin on seeing his authority being eroded. The corporation was created by a Royal Charter issued by King James II in December 1687 and first sat on September 29, 1688. I wonder whether whoever is Mayor or Acting Mayor or Deputy Mayor-in-charge-pro-tem might not like to consider making September 29th an Annual Corporation Day and for at least that day make singara mean something.

The first Worshipful Mayor of Madras was Nathaniel Higginson and he and his 12 aldermen clad in robes of scarlet serge walked with due pomp and ceremony to be sworn in, in the Town Hall. Significantly, the Charter nominated a Council comprising the Mayor and three English aldermen, three Portuguese, three Jews and three Hindus, a rather wide representation. The first Indian aldermen were Beri Thimappa's younger brother, Chinna Ventadri, who was to succeed his elder brother as the Chief Merchant of the Company, Mooda Verona, who also became a Chief Merchant, and Alangatha Pillai who built the Ekambreswarar Temple in Mint Street.

In 1727, the Corporation was reorganised and, in a curious coincidence, the ``First and modern Mayor of Madraspatnam'' appointed was Richard Higginson, the son of the town's first Mayor! Much of the functions of the Corporation during its first hundred years were judicial; the Corporation became more municipal in its activities with an enactment of 1792 which in 1801 did away with the office of Mayor and introduced Commissioners whose meetings were presided over by the Executive Officer as President. This office got a new look under the Act of 1919, when a Council of 50, including Government nominees ``with particular reference to the representation of Muhammadans and other minorities'' elected Sir Pitti Theagaraya Chetty, one of the leaders of the Justice Party, as the first Indian President of the Corporation. In 1933, Kumararaja Muthiah Chettiar, the then President, successfully persuaded the Government to revive the office of Mayor as ``the Presidents of most of the civic bodies in England and the Corporations of Calcutta and Bombay are styled Presidents''. The office of the Worshipful Mayor of Madras came into existence again on March 7, 1933, the Kumararaja being welcomed by the Raja of Bobbili's Government as ``the first Mayor of Madras... a dignity that has long been overdue.'' Some years later, Tara Cherian was to become India's first woman Mayor.

The Corporation today meets in Ripon Building to which it moved from Errabalu Chetty Street in 1913. The move from the Fort to new `Black Town' followed the French occupation, which had a traumatic effect on the English who saw French sympathisers in everyone not English and, therefore, sought to keep them as far from the Fort as possible. Magnificent Ripon Building, whose regular whitewashes tend to keep attention away from the restoration so badly necessary, was built by Loganatha Mudaliar. The construction took four years to complete and cost Rs.7.5 lakh. The 252 * 126 feet building, with a 132-foot tall central tower and 25,000 square foot space in the first of its three floors, was named after someone who had little to do with Madras. Lord Ripon, Viceroy of India (1880-1884) was remembered in statue and name here for the local government reforms he introduced.

They were reforms that led to greater and greater civic commitment at the local level. Sadly, civic authorities in more recent years have been more interested in playing political games than dedicating themselves to a better city.

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