Tuesday, January 24, 2017
Imagine it is sometime in the first decade of the 20th century. You are in your newly acquired motor-car (let us say it is registered as MC-2), driving eastward on the Edward Elliot's Road, taking the left turn at the Marina (the name Kamarajar Salai is a few decades away) on your way to the Fort St George. On your right, the lovely Bay of Bengal bringing back memories of Palermo; on the left - well, there is not much to see on the left. On the turn is the house that was built many years ago by Col. Francis Capper - and now a hotel owned by a native, who calls it Capper's House; after that, a few more houses - Beach House, belonging to Justice S. Subramania Iyer, Pentland House, Stone House and Jeypore House - before you catch site of the Chepauk Palace.
Fast forward to the mid-1920s. You can still catch glimpses of those houses, but you are surprised to learn they are no longer residences. You are told that in 1914, the Government had taken over Capper's House to establish the city's first college for ladies - the Women's College - guided by the Founder-Principal Miss Dorothy de la Hey, admitting 37 ladies in its first batch which began in July 1914. Miss de la Hey, in the early days of her tenure (which lasted until 1936) ensured the college would have enough space for expansion by acquiring all the neighbouring houses - it would have helped that the college had taken on the name of Queen Mary in 1917.
Fast forward to the first years of the 21st century. The State Government has declared that the Queen Mary's College is to be relocated, the buildings demolished, and a new Secretariat complex is to be built there. Mass protests from Chennai's citizens and alumni of the QMC ensure that the Government backtracks. Much later, the buildings are accorded heritage status - but not before most of them have been degraded so badly that they are unsafe for occupation. Capper's House had actually crumbled. The new building that came up to replace it was named Kalaingar Maligai, now shortened as Kalai Maligai. There was some attempt to have elements of the colonial bungalow replicated in the design of the new building, but I am sure the dome on that building was inspired by a Buddhist stupa rather than Queen Mary's tiara!