Vacations to Madras (Chennai) in the 1960s always included a drive down Mount Road: tourists HAD TO SEE modern India’s very own skyscraper called “L-I-C.” The LIC building was the regional Headquarters of “Life Insurance Corporation”, a government-owned mega-corporation. To the average Indian, it was the saviour during financial risks and disasters. Ironically, the LIC itself faced many risks and disasters before becoming Chennai’s iconic landmark.
Now the building did not start off as the headquarters of the LIC. It began as the brainchild of a dynamic businessman named M.Ct.M. Chidambaram Chettiar, scion of a leading business family in Chennai. He had dropped out of college to join his father’s business and later succeeded him as a Director in the Indian Bank. More importantly, he was a visionary entrepreneur in his own right. He founded the Indian Overseas Bank to exploit opportunities in Burma and the Far-east. He was co-founder and director in the United India Assurance company. He promoted the Travancore Rayon Co., at a time when very few Indians ventured into manufacturing. The ambitious Chidambaram felt that such a large business empire needed a stately corporate office, and chose a site on Mount Road.
He was inspired by the UN Secretariat building in New York and wanted his office to reflect its majestic dignity. In 1953, he assigned the job of creating this design to Brown & Moulin, an established firm of British architects who worked in Madras. The reputed construction firm, called the Coromandel Engineering Company, was appointed as the builder. Just when everything looked good, a series of hurdles hit the project.
Chidambaram suddenly died in 1954, in an air-crash in Singapore. Before the business could recover from this shock, they received another: the Indian Government nationalised all Insurance companies in 1956. Chidambaram’s United India Assurance Co, now became a government company and its Mount Road project became the property of the Life Insurance Company. Enter the LIC! Would the new owner, the government, want to continue Chidambaram’s dream project? Willy-nilly, they did; but the plans were altered and the number of floors was reduced. The project progressed, but the architects were unhappy. The British architects resigned in 1957and LM Chitale, a noted Indian architect, was brought in. He brought stability to the project and completed it in 1959. At 54 metres, it was the tallest building in Independent India. It has 15 floors (13 above ground and 2 basements). The LIC image became Chennai’s image.
Records are meant to be broken. In 1961, the Usha Kiran Building came up in Bombay, and at 80 Metres, became the tallest Indian building. LIC continued to be the tallest Chennai building till 1999 when Arihant Majestic Towers of Koyambedu overtook the LIC in the Chennai skyline.
Problems continued to dog LIC intermittently: a huge fire broke out in 1975. Seabreeze was fanning the flames and debris from the top was constantly falling on the firefighters. The fire-engines ran out of water and Municipal lorries were commandeered to fetch water from the nearby Cooum river. The firemen fought valiantly and doused the fire within 24 hours, without loss of life. Then, in 2012, the 11th floor developed a crack, supposedly because of Metrorail tunnelling. Mercifully, there was no serious damage. So for now, LIC ‘s promise, “Yogakshemam Vahaamyaham” (we will protect your welfare) seems good!
Want to know more about Chennai’s buildings and history? Join Storytrails on the British Blueprints trail along the stretch of the Marina.
Editor’s note: The government’s proposal to divest its shares in the LIC has roused debates in some circles. But in the Chennai-ite’s heart, LIC will always remain LIC, no matter who owns it!