Laxman Chitale - The Architect who saved Madras
CHENNAI: For four years, the Japanese air force threatened to bomb Madras. Their planes flew around most nights, and on just one lucky day when there was a huge cyclone, they managed to bomb it too. It was just one solitary plane dropping a harmless payload in a no man’s land, off the north side of the fort.
From days of censorship and wartime scarcity where information is rare, it can surely be deduced that one Madras architect may have been responsible for hoodwinking the Japanese. Architects have long designed buildings, designed interiors and even planned urban layouts. But conning Japanese bombers was something very unique in an architect’s portfolio.
When homegrown architects were few, European architects had a field day in India travelling to princely states and presidencies designing lofty buildings for the royalty and the British government. Henry V Lanchester, a second-generation architect from England had been invited to be Town Planning Adviser to the Madras Presidency and in course of pursuing his architectural practice landed one day in Baroda.
Baroda was a 21-gun salute state ruled by a Gaekwad with very progressive ideals. The king of Baroda had instituted Kala Bhavan, a technical institute to train students in drawing, carpentry, dyeing and mechanical engineering. The king was also generous with scholarships for talented boys. Henry was asked to visit the college and was struck with admiration for the work of one student when he recognised the Marathi boy’s gift for design. On the spot, he offered a job as a draughtsman to Laxman Chitale when he finished his course. Laxman from a rather needy family in Ratnagiri jumped on the offer and joined his mentor. The duo would work on numerous buildings in India including the Jodhpur palace. The association had become strong for the two and when Henry returned home he booked a ticket for Laxman as well on his ship.
While working in Lancaster’s London firm, Laxman would study architecture as well winning the college’s top award for town planning.
Now a qualified architect, Laxman looked for opportunities closer home and answered an advertisement calling for an assistant consulting architect in the public works department to operate out of Madras city. The credentials of the first Indian Associate of the Royal Institute of British Architects were too good to ignore and the Madras government promptly employed him. Appointing an Indian to a deputy consulting architect was the best the Madras Government could offer. Seeing no growth, Laxman quit his job to start his own architectural firm- the first to be started in south India.
The mercantile Chettiars offered Laxman his first big commission and he did two giant buildings at Annamalai University. It was the age of concrete and architects throughout the world were dreaming of taller buildings. As also exquisite art deco buildings with curves and balconies. Laxman would design colleges, universities, cinema halls, and even the monument for Poet Subramania Bharati in Ettaya¬puram. Many of his buildings are nearing their centenaries within the next decade. His Oriental Insurance Building on Armenian Street was the first skyscraper in a Madras though only having six floors and a basement.
It was then that the world war peaked. Avadi was the world’s largest allied base, a fact Madras citizens came to know long after the war was over. If Madras fell, then the allies would have forever lost the war on the eastern front. But the British were determined to protect their crown jewel at any cost.
As the threat of Japanese bombing increased, people were terrified. Never before had airpower been used so much in warfare and to render the city less conspicuous from the skies, one needed an expert. The government turned to Laxman for his counsel. He had a deep knowledge of camouflage studying nature’s expertise in it.
Laxman advised the government on how to hide the city from the air and it was effective. The city escaped being bombed except once. He also took a deep interest in the defences of a city and wrote a lengthy book on response to air raids.
Laxman unassumingly returned to becoming an architect once the war was over and continued to design buildings of repute across the country. He took up a project whose basic sketches had been done by another architect and had walked out of the project. It was the LIC building which was to be India’s tallest building for two years and thus an appropriate crescendo to his career.
— The writer is a historian and an author