Wednesday, January 18, 2012


My article on India's first Industrial Exhibition,the Madras Exhibition of 1855 that was published in the latest issue of Madras Musings:

The Madras Exhibition 1855
By Karthik A. Bhatt

The Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of all Nations or, simply, The Great Exhibition, was held in London from May to October 1851. It was the first in a series of exhibitions of culture and industry that were to be held all over the world to celebrate modern industrial technology and design. India contributed largely to this Exhibition. Committees organised in all the Presidencies forwarded to London both manufactured goods and raw produce. The jewellery section from India was one of the big draws of the Exhibition.

In July 1854, at a meeting of the Council, the Governor of Madras, Lord Harris, promulgated the setting up of a comprehensive scheme by Government that would aid the improvement of the Province’s agricultural and manufacturing industries. It was resolved that “with the object of encouraging useful productions of all kinds, in agriculture, machinery, manufactures and arts” the Government would take the initiative in such an effort. Thus, the idea of an Exhibition along the lines of the London Exhibition began to take shape.

An Executive Committee and two sub-committees (one for Raw Products and another for Machinery) were set up. The Committee was headed by Lord Harris, with Edward Balfour designated as its Secretary. The sub-committee for Raw Products was headed by W.A. Morehead and the secretarial duties were assigned to Dr. Hugh Cleghorn. W.U. Arbuthnot headed the sub-committee for Machinery. Together, the Executive and the two sub-committees formed the General Committee under Lord Harris.

The first act of the General Committee was to nominate 28 local committees, one for each of the principal districts of the Presidency, as well as for Portuguese Goa and French Pondicherry. Each local committee comprised the principal civil authorities of the district, but also included merchants and medical officers and volunteers interested in such a venture. Rs.1000 was allotted to each of these local committees for it to furnish a consignment of raw materials and manufactured products characteristic of the districts.

It was decided to hold the Exhibition at the Banqueting Hall, which Government placed at the disposal of the Committee. Contributions for the Exhibition began to arrive in the middle of January 1855, just a month before the scheduled inauguration. There were teething troubles, as would be expected for a venture that was the first of its kind in India. Many of the articles to be exhibited did not reach Madras till long after the commencement. Printing of the official catalogues was also delayed, with printing not commencing even a month after the opening.

The opening was a gala affair, with Lord Harris doing the honours on February 20, 1855. A holiday was declared for all Government offices. Many educational institutions and some mercantile firms too declared a holiday to mark the occasion.

The organisation of the Exhibition was on similar lines to that of the London Exhibition of 1851. The articles exhibited were arranged into classes and a jury was nominated for each class. The jury’s task was to critically compare and estimate the relative value of the items shown. Medals of two classes were awarded and a third award was designated as “honourable mention”. In all, the exhibits were divided into 30 classes, such as mineral kingdom, chemical and pharmaceutical products and processes, vegetable and animal substances chiefly used in manufactures as implements and for ornaments and indigo and dyes. The raw materials were displayed in the galleries and the manufactured products were displayed in the main hall.

A major contributor to the manufactured goods was the Madras School of Industrial Arts, founded in 1855 as the amalgamation of the Madras School of Industry and Madras School of Arts, both founded by Dr. Alexander Hunter. Several items of everyday use designed by the School were displayed. Also on display were machines used for cleaning fibres, crushing and grinding metallic ores and colours, grinding grain, etc.

Many native drugs of great importance were also on display. C. Appavoo Pillay, 1st Dresser, from ‘Tinnevelli’, won an honourable mention for his display of Sasaparilla. Two major contributors to the drugs section were Dr. Kirkpatrick, who displayed a collection comprising the indigenous drugs of Mysore, and Mr. Waring, who displayed the indigenous drugs of Travancore.

The Exhibition also featured around 70 works of Linnaeus Tripe, which were views of temples of South India not photographed previously. These were judged to be the “best series of Photographic views on paper.” Tripe was later, in 1857, appointed the Official Photographer to the Government.

Saturdays always attracted better turnouts than other days, one reason being the lower entrance fee for Saturdays. The boys of the Male Asylum and other charitable institutions were charged entry fee of only one anna on Saturdays.

At the close of the Exhibition, private contributors removed such portions of their property as they thought fit. Of the Government property, a part was donated to the India House and the other part auctioned off to defray the expenses of the Exhibition. A large portion of the collection of arms and antiquities was housed in the Madras Museum. The exhibits of drugs were presented to the Museums of the Madras Medical College and the Hyderabad School of Medicine. Examples of all the raw products of the Presidency were sent to the public museums of Kew and Edinburgh and also to the Pharmaceutical Society and other centres in Europe.

The Exhibition was closed on April 28, 1855, having been open for a little over two months. The number of visitors, according to the official record maintained during the event, was 26,563. Thanks to the overwhelming support of the Government, the Exhibition was financially self-sufficient. The expenses came to just under Rs.10,000, which was deemed small considering the amount of good that came out of it. Distant provinces came to be acquainted with each other’s products. The Madras School of Industrial Art received applications seeking models, drawings and plans of machinery, as well as large orders for works of various kinds.

Two men who played vital roles in the organisation of the Exhibition were to go on to contribute in a great way to the field of flora and fauna. They were Edward Balfour, who by then had already set up the Madras Museum and who was to set up the Madras Zoo, and Dr. Hugh Cleghorn, who was appointed the first Chief Conservator of Forests of Madras Presidency. Cleghorn wrote in 1861 the book. The forests and gardens of South India, considered a pioneering work in the field.

That the Government on the conclusion of the Exhibition resolved on the spot to hold another exhibition of the same grand kind in February 1857 spoke of the warm response this novel idea, the first of its kind in India, had received.