The Ice Story

Amit Shanker talks about a random photograph that helped him reveal how Americans kept British cool.

I have been to Chennai several times in the past but somehow never noticed the ‘Vivekanandar Illam’ on Marina Beach road. Recently while sifting through some old photographs of the trips, I came across a picture of the building, shot inadvertently while taking some panoramas. It was a large imposing structure with huge arched windows along a circular balcony, nothing like any of the buildings that exist in Chennai today. I was attracted to the building more out of architectural curiosity and decided to find out who had built it. On zooming the picture I noticed a signboard placed at the entrance to the building, with something written on it in Tamil, which unfortunately I still cannot comprehend, despite repeated attempts at enhancing my linguistic skills. Fortunately, there was another board on the other side of the gate. It said Vivekananda Cultural Heritage of India Exhibition.

“Must be an exhibition hall,” I thought and straightaway in the true spirit of a genuine researcher ‘Googled’ it. I typed ‘Chennai Vivekananda Exhibition’ and pronto Wikipedia popped up. Right in front of me was the building in my photograph. In the very second line of Wikipedia’s description of the building was written ‘also called Ice House’. “An Ice house”, I wondered as I went on to read the history given below. Sure enough there was a mention of Frederick Tudor, the man who built the Ice House in 1842 and later sold it to Biligiri Iyengar. That was all Wikipedia could tell me.

My curiosity was at its peak. “Why would a person with a British sounding name (a guess because Chennai or Madras was under British rule in 1842) build a house in Chennai and call it Ice House. I googled again. This time I typed ‘Frederick Tudor’ and Wikipedia responded, once again, but quite graciously. It said Tudor exported ice to Caribbean Islands, Europe, and even as far as India from sources of fresh water ice in New England. The first thing that caught my eye me was ‘India’ and then ‘New England’. “Why would this man export ice to India”, I thought and then why New England and not just England.

And then it struck me. Frederick Tudor was not a Britisher but an American because New England is in United States. But what was still unclear was why would Indians want American ice, didn’t we have enough of ours, all across the Himalayas? This was turning out to be unbelievable!!!! Wikipedia had done its job but serious investigation was called for. And where else could one do good historical research in Delhi – the Archaeological Survey Library, but of course. 

I have been a regular visitor to the ASI Library and have a fairly good idea of the rare books and journals they have and this was where I went next. The date 1842 was still fresh in my mind and I also remembered having read about the ice having been shipped to Calcutta first. The Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bengal and the Calcutta Monthly Journal and General register of Occurrences had it all. So much so that an 1837 issue even had transcripts of letters exchanged between the Government and Frederick Tudor about the construction of the first Ice House in Calcutta.

The story was finally falling into place. But I still needed a photograph to accompany the story. Fortunately the British Library in London has made available a selection of archival photographs from colonial India on Internet called the Oriental and India Office Collection. I found a painting each of the Calcutta Ice House and Madras Ice House.

The Calcutta Ice House has disappeared and there was no way of knowing if the painting was of the actual building but the Madras Ice House looked nothing like the ‘Vivekanandar Illam’ in my photo. Once again I looked through the magnifying glass and found there was a similarity. The building was exactly the same except for the fact that a circular verandah had been added at a later stage to the original structure by Biligiri Iyengar, who I believe we should all be grateful for having preserved a monument.

Down To Earth