Madras High Court: Are we seeing the wrinkles?

Last Updated: Thu, Aug 09, 2012 19:45 hrs

​The lady is 120 years old, and it is time we paid her some special care. We are talking about the Madras High Court (MHC) building that came up 120 years ago.

On July 12, 1892, when he formally opened the MHC building, Lord Wenlock, the governor, could not have foreseen the kind of landmark judgments, impacting every segment of civil society, issuing out of that red structure.  When Wenlock inaugurated the building, designed along Indo- Saracenic style of architecture, the MHC itself was about 30 years old, having come into existence after Queen Victoria granted a Letter of Patent in June 1862.

So, this year marks both the 150th year (sesquicentennial) of the Madras High Court and the 120th year of the MHC building, that rich red structure sprawling over acres of land in the heart of Chennai.  Legal luminaries have argued their cases with wit and erudition, and judges have delivered their verdict on cases, which have been a watershed in the state's social and political history.

Old timers recall some of the famous cases like the Durairajan reservation case of 1951,when the MHC struck down the Backward Classes (BC) reservation. The Supreme Court upheld this later. In the 1980s MG Ramachandran (MGR) brought in the economic criterion for aspirants to avail of reservation, whereby those with an annual income of Rs 9000 became eligible. The MHC stayed it.  

Who can forget the 1 % reservation for Scheduled Tribes (ST)? In the late 80s, the MHC directed the state government to create a separate quota for STs and not club them with other backward classes.  M Karunanidhi the then chief minister implemented the 1 % reservation for STs.

The MHC turned down an appeal by the then Tamil film superstar MK Thyagaraja Bhagavathar, and comedian NS Krishnan in the sensational Lakshmikanthan murder case that took place in November 1944. A trial court of the murder of CN Lakshmikanthan, who ran a film magazine, had convicted the two.  Eventually, a retrial set them free.  There have been many other cases pertaining to the entertainment industry, where the MHC has led from the front.  Like the quashing of the police ban on the movie, The Da Vinci Code in July 2006. In fact, Justice Prabha Sridevan had, on that occasion observed  "It would be dangerous to allow the State to straightjacket the right to Freedom of Expression, as artistic expressions may be asphyxiated by law if a petulant group of self-appointed 'censors' prescribes the paradigms for suspending the screening of a film, which has got the approval of the Censor Board. "  

More recently, in March this year the MHC passed a John Doe order, which effected a ban on torrent and video sharing websites, when a Chennai firm acting on behalf of the producers of the film '3', sought a ban on indiscriminate sharing of the film's content on the web.

The MHC has also often passed stellar judgments on heritage issues. It came out against the demolition of the stately DGP Headquarters on the Marina, the Bharat Insurance Building and the Gokhale Hall.  

However, in its 120th year, the MHC building itself can do with a bit of brush with heritage, say experts.  "The demand on the building is so great that it is putting pressure on the original, although it is still a very strong structure, " says Tara Murali, member, INTACH (The Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage). Ad hoc modifications have been done to the building, over the years, without consultation with heritage experts, she adds.

A couple of years ago, it was decided to air-condition some parts of the MHC building. However, the ducting work, while adequate, is certainly not a designer's delight, and is not sensitive to the original architecture.  Similarly, when new toilets were added, the work executed without factoring in the heritage quotient. Civil or electrical workers are unlikely to look for aesthetics or heritage components while installing an a/c.  The impact of leaking taps and other aspects can only be guessed, not ascertained, since no one has been commissioned to do a study on it.  The lack of a status report is a huge set back to a city that prides itself on its heritage and is set to celebrate one more Madras Day on August 22. We do not know where the heritage structure needs care.  A plant sprouting from a dome or a crack in the building is easy to spot. But there is no road map for holistic preservation.

Some efforts have been made, in the past. In 2007,  a heritage and environment committee, comprising judges, INTACH members and  lawyers was formed,  with the agenda of proposing a phased restoration of the campus. The proposal was submitted by INTACH, but till date there is no news of progress.  So, where does one begin taking care of the Old Lady of Chennai?

"The MHC is largely well maintained, but it is at a juncture where it needs attention,” says Kalpana Ahmed, an architect with expertise in the field.  "Basically decongest the building, move subsidiary activities to an annexe building and bring in modern services such as toilets and air conditioners in an integrated manner so that it blends with the original structure,” she adds.  

Some of the original design elements are already lost a bit. Originally, the building was designed in such a way that the east-west axis was visible. Now something else has come in the way. A necessity maybe, but it does not reflect the spirit of the original designers and architects.  

If you want to see how the building looks Google would be a better bet, than a site visit. Architects say the building was raised on a very high plinth, but today you can hardly see the original. The plinth has risen in surrounding areas—the roads included—for various reasons. The campus is in need of some pruning, and landscaping, without compromising on heritage or safety and security such a seat of justice demands. In some ways, the MHC is in a time warp.  Walk by the gorgeous eastern gate entrance and what catches your eye are the volumes of paper records. Clearly, digitization is yet to come to speed.

The MHC is said to be the second largest campus in the world. It houses an ancient lighthouse, and a museum.  When SMS Emden shelled Madras in September 1914, a bit of the edifice was targeted.  Today, thousands of footfalls aim for the MHC.  Will the hosts of the building and heritage experts come together pre-emptively and ensure that the legacy of a magnificent building, home to landmark judgments,  is preserved for future generations as well?

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Bhama Devi Ravi is a Chennai based journalist