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Documenting the Art Deco designs

This Art Deco Month, artists and architects discuss the influence of the foreign style on the city and its art and architecture

Published: 29th April 2021 05:43 AM  |   Last Updated: 29th April 2021 05:43 AM   |  A+A-

Express News Service

CHENNAI: Architectural traditions and history, for long, have not only defined the character of a place but have in the words of architectural historian Sigfried Giedion — given ‘insights into the moving process of life’. While administrators and governments in different pockets of the globe have taken it upon themselves to preserve and document the transitions of such tangible fragments of history, closer home, the noise has not been disruptive enough to bring about a bigger change. At least, not yet. 

Redrawing focus in chaos

Earlier this year, V Sriram, historian and editor of Madras Musings, had, in his column, written about how another hazy year had ended for heritage in the city. ‘...It is not as though there are no laws in place. The State has a Heritage Act. It also has a Heritage Conservation Committee though as to what it does and how often it meets are all matters of conjecture. Certainly, there are no records of its proceedings in the public domain…

With nobody questioning the Government on matters concerning conservation, arbitrary rules and regulations and contravening decisions are the order of the day…’ he had penned in the article for Madras Musings. While the future for the city’s heritage remains uncertain, it is the enthusiasm and relentless work of individuals and private organisations that have given relief from the apparent chaos that built heritage faces.

For instance, with structures that embraced the Art Deco an eclectic architectural style from France made popular in Madras in the 1930s slowly vanishing from the city’s landscape, conversations about the style and its influences, through art and creative dialogues have helped redraw focus on the once-thriving art movement. “Unlike Mumbai, which has a skyline of more uniform Art Deco structures, the edifices in Chennai are scattered. The NSC Bose Road, Royapettah and Poonamalee High Road are among localities in the city which house buildings that are Art Deco in nature,” shares urban conservation architect and founder of Art Deco Madras, Prathyaksha Krishna Prasad.

The architect who was earlier part of Art Deco Mumbai, the first exclusive Art Deco collective in the country, says that she aims to make conversations on Art Deco conservation more mainstream. “The Dasaprakash Hotel, an Art Deco building, used to be one of my favourite haunts until it made way to a new complex. Several such buildings that were standing testimonies for the global influences that the city housed have been either torn down or have been faced with negligence, especially the private structures. Art Deco in particular is a design movement that had its impact on all walks of life — from furniture and fashion to architecture. While cities like Mumbai have been proactive in preserving this rich heritage, we have lagged. I want to bring a certain depth to the documentation process of Art Deco in Chennai through my initiative,” she shares.

Localising sensibilities
Art Deco, in the 1900s, bridged the structural gap in the city. “Unfortunately, this bridge is somewhere lost in time and negligence. With several of these buildings (Pilot Theatre, Oceanic Hotel, Dasaprakash Hotel) torn down, a lot of research is being done based on the few existing structures and anecdotal information. It is important to bring heritage buildings under THE government’s list to protect them. Unless there are subsidies for private owners to take care of heritage buildings, it becomes difficult to keep the doors open for too long,” she shares.

Sruthi Rao, an architect, who has been studying the neighbourhood of T Nagar, documenting its evolution concurs how researching the locality’s Art Deco buildings was a task. “I couldn’t find libraries which had books specific to Art Deco in Madras. Most books and their context of information were based on the changes that took place during the movement in France and Britain. While it helped me see things from a different perspective and make comparisons on the architecture here and how it was interpreted to local sensibilities, the lack of research and documentation was glaring,” tells Sruthi, who has been turning her research into illustrations.

The old Nalli showroom, Hotel Sudhara, Kamaraja Illam and Krishnaveni Theatre are some notable places that have made it to Sruthi’s illustrative list. “I live in an Art Deco building and this helped me relate to the minute elements. While the interiors of the building have changed over time, making way to modernity, the characteristics like the curved porches, grills, unique ceilings, geometric line, projecting staircases lined with windows have remained. Interestingly, while Art Deco has seen several changes — from bold geometric forms and bright colours to becoming more subdued, it has a very local flavour to it,” she details.

Sruthi and Prathyaksha make up a portion of the city’s young brigade of enthusiasts fighting to save the city’s heritage. “The kind of attitude to heritage in Chennai in comparison to other cities is quite alarming. However, I am hopeful that at some point, we will be able to achieve and create a better space for the structures that tell tales,” shares Prathyaksha. 

lack of local info
Sruthi Rao, who has been studying the neighbourhood of T Nagar, documenting its evolution concurs how researching the locality’s Art Deco buildings was a task. “I couldn’t find libraries which had books specific to Art Deco in Madras. Most books were based on the changes that took place during the movement in France and Britain. The lack of research and documentation here was glaring,” she details. 

For details, visit Instagram page @artdecomadras



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