Wednesday, 24 February 2010

St. Mary's Church, Fort St. George, Chennai

I spent the first 17 years of my life on the West coast of India. It must be quite obvious from a dozen or so of my posts so far, that I have an extremely soft corner for Kerala and most things associated with it. However, I have lived a much larger portion of my life on the East coast of India, in Chennai the capital city of the state of Tamilnadu. I moved here in my late teens to pursue my studies, and I have stayed on ever since. In those days it was called Madras, and it was only in 1996 that the State Government changed its name to Chennai.

The Chennai (or Madras) of my student days was a much nicer city. There were fewer people, and more importantly there were far fewer vehicles on the streets. There were fewer buildings too, very much more open land around these buildings, and life was much slower paced. Having a vehicle made it very convenient to get around, but it did not need to be a car. Even a cycle would do, and that is what I had. The Chennai of those days was also quite pedestrian friendly.

But, in the last few decades Chennai has grown at a brisk pace and in my opinion, it has not grown sensibly. A large number of modern buildings have come up, some of them at the expense of much nicer old buildings. The number of residents as well as vehicles has gone up very steeply. The roads are choked, traffic moves very slowly and chaotically, and the effective width of carriageways is considerably reduced because vehicles are parked along the sides of almost all roads. In the process, Chennai has become an extremely pedestrian unfriendly city. Yet, there is no plan in place to arrest this trend. Instead, the authorities are considering spending huge sums of money to insert more roads to serve an even larger number of vehicles. They also admit, quite unashamedly that, while doing this, they may be further narrowing down the almost non-existent pavements (sidewalks).

However, on the plus side, Chennai has always been known as a very strong cultural centre and it continues to hold this position. It was, until recently, notorious for its giant movie, political, and advertisement hoardings. These were a painful eyesore. But a recent court judgement brought relief and they have all come down. In the immediate aftermath, the city seemed to emerge afresh and it took all of us a while to get our bearings again as old landmarks once again became visible. There are also signs of a new concern for the preservation of buildings of heritage value, and the creation of parks and open spaces for the public.

Strangely, I have drawn hardly any of the buildings or scenes around Chennai, and this is something that I propose to rectify. I suppose that this is largely due to the fact that I have a lot more time to sketch when I am travelling on holiday. I do have one small ink and watercolour of the St. Mary's Church, in Fort St. George, Chennai to share with you. This church was consecrated in 1680, and is the oldest building built by the British in India. At the time of its construction , it was considered bomb-proof because of the way it was built with a foundation capable of absorbing the effects of shelling, four feet thick walls, and a double vaulted, four feet thick, rounded roof capable of withstanding "bombing" with cannon-balls.

There is also a lot of history associated with this building. The marriages of Robert Clive, who was one of the founders of the British Empire in India, and of Elihu Yale, who was associated with the founding of Yale University in USA, were both performed in this church. The records of the church from 1680 to 1819 (and perhaps even more recent records, by now) have been digitized and are used by foreign visitors to check on their ancestry.

You will find more information about this church here.


  1. Very nice painting and commentary on it. Cheers!

  2. Thank you Sandeep.
    I am very much a novice at painting, and therefore very grateful for encouragement from an accomplished painter like you.
    My observations about deteriorating conditions in Chennai are heartfelt, and unfortunately they are applicable to most Indian cities.

  3. I found it very interesting to read about Chennai. It reminded me of the time I spent in Bangalore with its lack of pavements, and modern buildings pushing up everywhere with the dispossessed gathered at the edges. As a passenger my journeys were an eye opener. But in all that chaos a cow lies in the road, peacefully chewing its cud. All so memorable.

  4. This is a beautiful sketch, Balaji. Having lived in Chennai for long, I now realise how many heritage structures exist there and which are totally uncared for. The Central Railway Station is such a stunning piece of architecture. I somehow never ventured into the Fort St. George area. Looking forward to seeing Chennai sketches.

  5. Great sketches on your site. Like the looseness of the watercolour greenery against the lines of the church.

  6. Marmsk, Sketch Gurl, and Keith...thank you for your interesting and encouraging comments. Marmsk & Sketch is nice to know that you are able to relate to some of my comments.