On the morning of 1st December, after exercising much willpower to wake up following a late night at a friend’s birthday party, I managed to get myself to the Madras High Court at 8:30am. Not to confront the long arm of the law but to go on an inaugural heritage walk of the grounds and its ensemble buildings. The walk was an initiative of a group of extremely zealous lawyers from the High Court Bar and the INTACH Chennai chapter. Justice Satish Agnihotri and Justice Pushpa Sathyanarayana inaugurated the walk.
The walk commenced at the lighthouse… rather one of the lighthouses since the court grounds is home to two of the four lighthouses that have served Chennai; the dome of the High Court’s tallest minaret is Chennai’s third lighthouse prior to the currently operational one . At this point, we were introduced to the hosts of the walk- an advocate, N.L. Raja; a historian, V.Sriram and an architect, Sujatha Shankar. Together, this trio went on to regale us over the next four hours with the most fascinating tales about illustrious lawyers and judges of the Madras High court, the urban legends that surround the High court and the architectural splendors that make up this marvel.
The walk concluded with a brief presentation from INTACH abut the various architectural styles that are manifest in the High Court and a very informative and entertaining presentation by N.L. Raja about the chief justices who have served here. An eccentric judge who fined himself for coming late; a judge who has the distinction of being the first to import an English cow because his wife did not like the taste of milk in Chennai; judges with an unparalleled sense of humour; ill tempered judges; judges who were pivotal to bringing the law college, University of Madras, Music Academy and other premier institutions to the city and judges who were keen on making sure us Indians were capable of self-governance way back in the 19th century… Madras has seen them all and seen the best. Infact, at this point it was hard to tell if the High Court derived its stateliness more from its architectural flourishes or from the remarkable personalities that walked its corridors. After the presentations, we were treated to coffee, halwa and bondas, all of which were polished off with much glee and thanks.
As we walked through the corridors of the High Court and into a couple of courtrooms, the bar association hall, the library and the museum and soaked in the stories, a sense of awe engulfed me. Prior to the walk, though I’ve always been enamoured by its skyline, the High court to me was simply an ensemble of buildings… an abode of justice… but mostly an out of bounds, no-nonsense sort of place… somewhat stoic and impersonal. The walk changed it all. We were let in on the location of secret trap doors and enthralled by a number of what would normally be insider stories.There is always a thrill in being let in on secrets. It establishes an instant connect. A connect that gradually morphs into a sense of ownership and maybe even responsibility.
I had a very brief chat with N.L. Raja during the walk and he told me that the inaugural walk was more of a pilot to demonstrate that there would be public interest towards such an initiative. Going by the numbers that turned up on a Sunday morning, he had nothing to complain about and seemed all the more determined to make the walks a regular feature. In retrospect, by opening their doors to the 100 odd people who went on the walk, the folks at the High Court brought us closer and bound us to the charm of this urban treasure. That, in my opinion, is the first step towards the spirited conservation of our urban heritage- by instilling a sense of pride towards it. I’d attribute this as the greatest success of the walk. Kudos to the team.
Photo credits: Vidhya Mohankumar and Mahesh Radhakrishnan (who also walked and shared my sentiments… but after much coaxing to wake up after said late night)
Vidhya is a reserved architect and an impassioned urban designer with over a decade of work experience in India, Ireland and the United States. She has also been teaching as a guest faculty at various institutions since she returned to India in 2008. In other parallel albeit real universes, she is a wishful artist, an avid wanderer, a constant gardener and a newly enthused cook.