Robert Chisholm - Why has the Colonial British architect become an immortal personality in India?

The colonial British architect of great repute Robert Fellowes Chisholm  had made a permanent niche for himself in Chennai, Vadadora (formerly Baroda), GJ  and other places.  In these cities the colonial buildings designed by him stand as part for  his innovative and exotic design, an amalgamation of Hindu, Muslim and European style of design which Chisholm  handled carefully without comporting on their charm and aesthetics. Further, Chisholm,  who was professionally moving up the ladder when the age of revival was on,  naturally he became a trend setter - a maverick. Thus he  broke the old tradition of monotonously  following ''Exclusive European style'' of construction in a conservative foreign  land and tried to blend carefully the native styles prevalent in India then.  

Senate House, Madras Univ, Chennai.

Senate House, Madras Univ, Chennai.

Above images: Madras University, Senate House. It was planned by the then Gov. Napier and designed by Robert Chisholm. He took five years to complete it in 1879. There are beautiful domes on each corner of Senate House which are intricately designed and colored.   In the place where the Senate House now  stands, it is mentioned, a  saluting battery was present then.  Until the  Senate House was built,  the university convocations were held in the  Banqueting Hall (now known as Rajaji Hall). Chisholm added some elements in this structure upon his brief work on the Madurai Nayaker Mahal.......

British architect Robert Chisholm. colonial

Unlike other colonies, in a  vast country like India with diverse culture, tradition and building design styles, there arose a plenty of opportunities for the British architects between  1860 to 1910  to grow professionally. Choices galore, there was ample space for energetic person like  Chisholm  and architects like George Wittet for new innovative and structural design style.  

He thought his 'hither-to-untried building design style'  would add new dimension  and construction dynamics to the  proposed new structures and improve the beauty of the cityscape.  It is often said, the mixing of Hindoo or Muslim   architectural  features on government and public buildings would please the natives  and make them  repose  trust in new colonial rule under the Crown. ''Natives won't feel alien in their homeland''.  

Chisholm was no nonsense design engineer. endowed with  trail blazing instinct he was keen to take a new design approach not tried before. The colonial buildings till then were influenced by  purely European architectural  styles - Greek and Gothic. The former - mostly government buildings dominated by tall columns and symmetry, etc., and the latter - mostly churches with vaulted arches and some public buildings dominated by  pointed arches, colored windows, flying buttress, etc.  These styles were exclusively European in character and out of sync with local design styles.

It had been in practice in those days that many government and public buildings under the English company were designed by engineers like G. G. Scott, William Burgess and others in London offices. The strange thing is  they  had never set their foot on the Indian soil. Nor had they had any on-the-spot practical exposure to exotic various Indian styles evolved through centuries.

Having joined the English company in Calcutta as an engineer (Kolkata) in 1859 and gained considerable  work experience, his arrival in Madras (Chennai) was purely an unexpected turn of event in his professional life that took him to the dizzy heights. 

When the then Madras  government under Gov. Lord Napier invited  nation wide architectural design competition  for the proposed  University and Madras Senate to surpass the splendor of   Bombay university’s Gothic architecture, Chisholm won the competition on merit and moved over to Madras on transfer. It was a turning point in his life and apart  this posting  gave him a rare  chance to have lasting friendship with Gov. Lord Napier, the new Governor of Madras. 

Upon Lord Napier's  advice, he travelled over to Madurai and studied in detail  the design styles of   the Madurai Nayak Mahal. His later study tour of  Kerala and Bijapur (now in Karnataka)  gave him an insight into  the richness  and a vast treasure trove of typical  Indian design style of different regions  that was in sync with the land and local terrain. The onion shaped domes of mausoleums, the tiled sloping roof of Kerala buildings and richly decorative  Hindu temples with shrinking Shikara/ gopura  left a lasting impression on Chisholm and played a part in his pioneering  designs. So were the features like Rajasthan chhatris and lattice windows. He  somehow developed   an  uncanny expertise to blend the native features with those of European elements in a diligent way without showing the dominance of one over the other and, at the same time,  maintaining the quality of architectural finesse..

Architect  Chisholm did not shy away  from blending rich native design elements  with  prominent  European features  resolutely sticking to  visual effects on grandiose building.  This Indo-European classical style called  ‘Indo-Saracenic’ gave  unique expression to a new aesthetic  and exotic stately  design style that slowly  evolved in new  construction projects  and it took the architects globally by storm. This fascinating  style with strong European elements and  superimposed Indian design no doubt caught the eye of other famous architects.  Chisholm  experimented this unique and delightful style  for the first time  with Chepauk palace  - Amir Mahal in  Triplicane, Chennai  the residence of Arcot Nawab. The design included onion shaped domes, minarets, kalasams atop the building  and  classic British staples and windows. etc. No doubt a confluence of different architectural elements. Lord Napier  became his friend and  in 1877, Chisholm  was also appointed the Superintendent of the Government School of Industrial Arts (now the College of Arts and Crafts). He retired in 1889 and soon  settled in Baroda (Gujarat) to  work on many projects  for the Maharajah of Baroda -Sayaji Gaekwad. 

The  cityscape of Chennai has numerous building bearing  Chisholm's  stamp of Indo-Saracenic style. He is  called the father of Indo-Saracenic architecture. Robert Chisholm  who worked between the years 1860 to 1910 became an proponent of Indo-Saracenic style. His initial phase of works  in the Madras Presidency attracted Maharajahs like Sayajirao Gaekwad  and in the erstwhile Princely State of Baroda, now Vadodara his monumental works are subject of discussion and research among scholars. Chisholm, the man who added charm to the skyline of Madras (Chennai) died in London on May 28, 1915, but he is an immortal figure in Chennai, Vadadora and Thiruvananthapuram where his buildings stand apart.