Friday, December 26, 2008

Administrative block

The District Collector is arguably the most powerful government official in any district of India. The position was instituted by the British and was in many instances the de-facto ruler of the district; so his (for a long time - the first district collector was appointed sometime in the 1770s, but a woman in that position did not happen until the late 1900s) office not only reflected the awe-inspiring nature of his duties but also the prosperity of the district under his control. Considering that Madras was one of the earliest parts of the country to come under the control of the British, it is reasonable to expect that the Collectorate offices are housed in a building befitting that legacy.

But for some reason, the Madras Collectorate was a more workmanlike office; the first building exclusively for the District Collector of Madras was one that was constructed almost a century earlier; it had been built in 1793 for the use of merchants who could not be accommodated inside Fort St George. It was only after some renovations in 1817, when the Supreme Court of Madras moved to it, that the building was named 'Bentinck's Building'. It continued to house the Presidency High Court, after the Supreme Court of Madras was abolished in 1862. In 1892, after the Courts vacated Bentinck's Building to move to their own complex that the building took on the mantle of the Collectorate. It was used as such until the mid-1980s, when they vacated the building for it to be pulled down. The decision to demolish the building was taken in the mid-1970s, but the vanguard of Chennai's heritage movement managed to stave off the act for well over a decade. Once the Collectorate moved out, the building was literally left to rot. However, it didn't cooperate and after about five years of waiting for it to collapse, the official machinery took on that task itself - at it took them more than a year to do it, such was the solidity of Bentinck's Building. The only part of the old complex they left undisturbed was the last cupola that held the wandering statue of Lord Cornwallis.

In its place came up this rather unimaginative and uninspiring block. Even naming it after Comrade M.Singaravelar, that doyen of India's labour movement, has done little to create any feeling of awe, it just looks like an administrative block!

A picture of Bentinck's building can be seen on the Chennai Collectorate webpage.

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