Historical St. Mary's Church, Ft. St. George, Chennai and its long line of pipe organs

St. Mary's church, Ft. St. George, Chennai. alamy.com

St. Mary's church, Ft. St. George, Chennai. en.wikipedia.org/

St. Mary's church in  Fort. St. George, Chennai, Tamil Nadu  is the  oldest Anglican church East of the Suez and also the oldest British building  in India. Often referred to as  the 'Westminster Abbey of the East', it was consecrated on  28 October 1680 by the Chaplain Rev. Richard Portman.  Construction work began  on 25 March 1678 - on the  Lady Day, hence it got the present name. From 1739 till 1768 when East India company was represented by an Agent, there was no church in this area and the religious services were held in the dinning room of the factory in the settlement area. The church came up later to meet the spiritual needs of the Europeans living in this area. The church was built with special roofing technique  to withstand canon and artillery fire from the enemies.  The church's architect, it is believed, was either Edward Foule, Master-Gunner of Fort St. George, or William Dixon, Chief Gunner of the Fort, in 1678.; this confusion being due to lack of clear historical records.  The church has close links with colonial administrators like Robert Clive Who got married here in 1753 and  Gov. Elihu Yale of Yale university, USA fame. 

Well-known for its unique European style of design, the church is the earliest one in India to have used pipe organ for its church services. Since 1867, for various reasons, the church has replaced its organ four times and the present organ is the fifth one. The latest one is in an alcove to the left facing the altar.  There is a spacious gallery at the western end of the nave, resting on carved Burma teak pillars. It originally housed the seat for the Governor. In 1761, this was enlarged to keep an organ, and provided with the two curved staircases, which still exist, to access the gallery from outside.  However, in the nineteenth century, the gallery was altered to its present size, and consequently the organ was removed later in 1884, coinciding with the addition of the new sanctuary.

The first pipe organ was installed roughly 10 years after the church was founded. It was bought from one Captain Walden and installed in 1687. Until 1718, it had been in service when  a new pipe organ was imported from England, accompanied by  organist John Smith Windsor. This man spent his life time with this church here  till his death in 1735. In 1746, the French after their successful raid on Madras, took away the organ to Pondicherry (then a French settlement close to Cuddalore, TN) as a war-trophy. When the English recaptured Madras, the English placed an order for the second organ. In 1751, a new organ arrived and the price tag was just 300 pounds. It was not in use  until in 1759 when a new  ensemble was arrived. That why did the supplier  Mr. Bridges take so much time to install it is a moot question that can not be answered easily. But, this organ served the church well for more than a century. In 1794, a great classical music concert was held in Madras and the instrumentalists  from the elite community here  played such compositions as Messiah, Judas, etc. Amazingly, the organ was used as part of the music concert. An interesting fact is among the audience were the two sons of Tipu Sultan who were being held hostage there, pending enquiries about war crimes. Apparently, it was related to the revolt against the British soldiers in the Vellore fort near Arcot, TN.
St. Mary's church, 18th C pipe organ. chennai. thehindu.com/
In 1859, the second organ was replaced with the third one  donated by Sir Adam Hay in memory of his son Cap. John who was military Secretary to Gov. Harris. Until  1890s, this organ was used for the church services . In 1894 the 4th organ was delivered after an appeal was made  by Rev. A.C. Taylor.  The installation of this organ took place when Rev. C.H. Malden was  heading the church.  During the WWII the fourth organ was donated to the local church Holy Emmanual Church in George Town. Parts of the organ at his church were used  to repair the organ at St. Marks Cathedral on Chapel Church street, Madras, The old organ remained un-repaired due to non-availability of spares further complicated by the import restrictions in the wake of WWI. 

The historic organ did not play after 1960, however, the CSI (church of South India)  took efforts and commissioned one Christopher Gray  from the UK. He was an organ specialist and was given the task of restoring the old organ back to old glory. It had been  regularly played for the past 110 years during the Sunday service, but  was out-of-use since 2004 due to dirt accumulation and damage of metal pipes.

 For various reasons, the organ has not been used for a long time. The church services were never  accopanied by pipe organ music. At last, the melody  filled the church hall after a gap of two years, thanks to the efforts by an English pipe organ restorer Christopher Gray. It was  rededicated to the Church on 7 january 2007 by Dr Richard Marlow, a renowned artist, professor and Fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge, at 'A Pipe Organ Recital' function. The pipes pealed again and failed to function later. It was bought for a sum of Rs.7120.00  and arrived at St Mary's from England in the 19th century. 

With the advent of ''Electronic Keyboard'', many churches prefer them to the old ones that need spares and it is difficult to repair them if they malfunction. Further, there is a lack of skilled pipe organ players in this region. The electronic musical gadgets are no match for the old instruments but a few people are available to repair them. Yet another hitch is lack of spares for the old organs.
The sound produced from the age-old musical instruments was soulful; it appealed to our heart and mind and in the case of modern electronic musical instruments, they lack this.