T Namberumal Chetty may have been the biggest, but he was certainly not the only name to contend with when it came to execution of public buildings in the city. Unfortunately, there is not much biographical detail available about the others though some sketchy bits do exist. By far the best documentation is in Somerset Playne’s excellent work Southern India, Its History, People, Commerce and Industrial Resources, published in 1914/15 by the Foreign and Colonial Compiling and Publishing Company, London. Some of the names given in that work are:
S Ambrose- He began life as a clerk in the PWD. Having obtained private tuition from one of the tutors at the Civil Engineering College (later the College of Engineering, Guindy), he joined in 1894, a course of artisans and sub-overseers at the same institution. He was also trained by WN Pogson, the architect of the old Spencer showroom. He then worked at the PWD in Madras and Travancore and after 10 years of service, resigned to set up his own independent practice. Ambrose appears to have obtained contracts for building in various parts of Madras Presidency. In the city, he designed and built that St Ebbas School building and the Church of the Good Shepherd, both standing till now on what was originally Sullivans Gardens, Mylapore. He also built a hostel for Indian girls at the St Thomas Convent, San Thome and made improvements and additions to the Oriental Assurance Buildings, George Town. His office was at Milan House, Royapettah.
AK Venkatarama Iyer and AK Ranganatha Iyer – The brothers set up business first in timber around 1911 or so. They supplied fittings for the renovation of Banqueting (Rajaji) Hall. They supplied ornamental furnishings for the Government Medical College and branched into cabinet making. In 1913 they got into civil construction and among the first projects entrusted to them was the University Library. They also executed the Police Lines (living quarters) in Triplicane (since demolished). In later years, AK Ranganatha Iyer ventured into making bricks and his Krishna Brick Works held almost a monopoly for supply of bricks almost all over Madras. He lived in Kumara Vijayam, a palatial bungalow off Royapettah High Road next to Vidya Mandir School. That has become a multi-storeyed building of the same name.
T Batchacharry – His career was summarised as having grown from apprentice to journeyman, journeyman to manager and from manager to master. As a boy he learnt the carpenter’s trade and in 1894 he set up business, making household furniture on order. In 1899 he began undertaking civil contracts, among the first such being the construction of bungalows in Chetpet and Nungambakkam. In 1911, Bhatchacharry obtained his biggest contract – Rs 170,000 worth of construction for the Madras Christian College, then on China Bazaar Road. Sadly, none of all this survives, the last remnants being demolished by LIC a few years ago. He also did most of the woodwork when the Madras Legislative Assembly was built in Fort St George. He was also involved in the construction of the Church Park School and St Joseph’s Church, Vepery.
G Venkatarama Iyer – A graduate by qualification, he chose to leave Government service and start off as a civil contractor. He appears to have been an understudy to T Namberumal Chetty, for he was involved in the construction of the Bank of Madras and the National Bank of India buildings (the former now the SBI Main Office and the latter demolished). He is significant on a personal note for he built the residence of the District Engineer of the South Indian Railway Company in Tanjore. It was in that house that my father was born, when my grandfather V Ramaiya held that post.
P Loganatha Mudaliar – He it was who came closest to Namberumal in terms of business volumes and stature of projects. It is likely that he marked the beginning of the end as far as Namberumal’s sway was concerned. Beginning in 1902, Mudaliar first executed St Mark’s Church in Bangalore. In Madras he began with a hostel for medical students at Royapuram. This was followed by the Madras Records Office (now the Tamil Nadu Archives), which involved reconstruction of a bungalow called Haslemere at a cost of Rs One lakh. This was in 1909. From then till 1913, Mudaliar worked on his magnum opus – the construction of Ripon Buildings at a cost of Rs 7.5 lakhs (Rs 5.00 lakhs being Mudaliar’s share). The building, one of India’s first to use reinforced concrete for its foundation, was declared open by the Viceroy of India – Lord Hardinge of Penshurst on 26th November, 1913.
T Samynada Pillay – Like Loganatha Mudaliar, he too was from Bangalore where he had done considerable work since 1879. These include the magnificent Sir K Seshadri Iyer Memorial Hall (now the State Library) in Cubbon Park. The South Indian Railway Company brought him to Madras Presidency, where he executed the Tiruchirapalli Railway Station and the Madurai Railway Colony. In 1914, he took on the task of building the Egmore Railway Station to Henry Irwin’s design. After its completion, he embarked on the construction of the Madras and Southern Mahratta Railway’s headquarters next to Central Station. Today that is the head office of the Southern Railway. Samynada Pillay ran extensive brick kilns on Poonamallee High Road to support his construction activity. His brother Chinnasawmy Pillai assisted him right through.
It’s quite an impressive lineup. And to think that we attribute most of our heritage to British builders!
The writer is a well known historian of the city