Country-made bombs, a bullet-proof car, forensic kits and a sub-jail you can lock yourself into… The Tamil Nadu Police Museum at Egmore, Chennai, will open shortly to the public.
KR Shenai, in his trademark sunglasses, stands atop an open jeep surveying the crowds. The black-and-white picture taken in the years Shenai, from the Indian Police Service batch of 1947, was Commissioner of Madras (1971-75) exudes an air of power and responsibility. It is a frame that lends itself to the central theme of the Tamil Nadu Police Museum that is poised to open soon with a repository of exhibits that marks the passage of the enforcement agency from colonial India to a technologically advanced force.
It is also the story of the Indo-Saracenic building in which the city’s Police Commissionerate was housed from 1856 to 2014, when it moved to its present location opposite the Kirk.
“Conservation efforts began in October 2020 and the restoration of the building took nine months,” says A Amalraj, IPS, Additional Director-General of Police, Tamil Nadu Commando Force, and the coordinator of the project, adding, “We are working on the ticketing and the visitors’ cafeteria and will be ready to open in a month.”
While the former and the present State police chiefs — DGPs JK Tripathy and C Sylendra Babu — oversaw the project, the Tamil Nadu Police Housing Corporation, Reach Foundation and Conservation Mainstream explored the adaptive reuse of the building. With Steve Borgia, chairman, INDeco, as the honorary executive curator and a team of nine co-curators (Amrutha V, Bhavyasri S, Keerthana Devi, Shobitha R, Sruthi S, Theerthana KR, Vidyalakshmi S, Swetha RV, and Keerthana S), the two-storied building that was on the verge of being demolished was restored.
The once-white structure and its outlying grounds of 14 acres that belonged to Arunagiri Mudaliar were bought for ₹21,000 and became the headquarters of the first Police Commissioner of Madras, Lieutenant-Colonel John Carne Boulderson in 1856. Over time, to accommodate an expanding force, the building’s beauty was lost to temporary partitions.
Step into the space
Today, it stands shielded from the road by trees and guarded by cannon. Doric columns hold up a grand portico where a blue Plymouth Belvedere, once the car that Police Commissioners and Chiefs travelled to work in, is parked.
Massive louvred doors open in from the deep verandah that runs around the building. Beyond the lone armed sentry is a parade of vehicles that marks the evolution of what the beat constable (penny farthing bicycle), the despatcher (Royal Enfield bike), and coastal security personnel (motorised speedboat) used as a means of transport. Lording over is late Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa’s bullet-proof SUV. At the far end is a series of burnished brass bells used by firemen to signify different alarms.
The first high ceiling hall with wooden beams showcases landmark cases dealt by the Chennai police — the 1965 anti-Hindi agitation, the 1975 LIC building fire, the surreal pistols-at-dawn moment when LTTE chief V Prabakaran and PLOTE leader Uma Maheswaran whipped out guns and shot at each other in Pondy Bazaar in 1982; Prabakaran fired his revolver first, leading to the arrest of the duo by a deputy inspector.
A wall panel discusses the gory Auto Shankar case; alongside it is a sub-jail where visitors can enter and look at life from behind bars.
A time-map charts the advent of law enforcement from the Sangam era, the poligars and the Vellore Mutiny to the establishment of the Chief Office in 1865, CID, women’s battalions, the fingerprint and the State crime records bureau and police involvement in flood relief and COVID-19 regulations with the unforgettable picture of a policeman wearing Coronavirus-shaped headgear.
Mannequins wear Sam Browne belts and sola topees, and uniforms of the various wings while a bandsman is surrounded by musical instruments. In an adjoining gallery are rare temple sculptures recovered by the Idol Wing. A confidential document copier as tall as a post box stands in a corner alongside primitive wireless sets and a photograph of men in mitre-shaped caps and shorts crowding around the Control Room in 1955.
A red baize-lined wooden staircase rises from the flag-stone floor to the first storey, past a picture of Usha Rani, the first woman sub-inspector to join in 1973. A battery of guns — from the old faithful 303 to a Bren light-machine — shares space with Winchester and 12 bore bullets. In the ceremonial swords, array of cameras that have captured crime scenes, riot gear, explosives, manacles, handcuffs and service medals is entwined the story of Chennai’s police personnel.
Downstairs, the Commissioner’s office room replete with a roll-top table, unusual paperweights, fobs and ink-wells, parade mascots and portraits of taciturn chiefs who stare down at visitors, has been recreated. Mounted on the wall is the revolver that former Commissioner WI Davaram was presented with for being the best IPS probationer of his batch.
In the foyer, Bakelite switches turn on lights that focus on the honour roll of men and the lone woman — Letika Saran — who have occupied the hallowed office of the Commissioner of Police. Beside it on a brass plaque is written “Oh you men in khaki, you face what others fear.”
The museum is at 483 Pantheon Road, Egmore.
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