Kaj Schmidt Memorial - Stranded on the beach

On 27th September 2011 eleven inebriated youngsters plunged into the Bay of Bengal from the Elliot’s beach shoreline. One of them was washed away; never to return, three were rescued by hawkers and the rest were chased out of the turbulent waters by ‘alert’ police guards, who as usual arrived late on the scene.

The whole incident unfolded, ironically, in front of a dilapidated white structure built to commemorate the gallantry of Kaj Schmidt, a Dutch sailor, who drowned on December 30, 1930 while helping save other lives. Popularly known as the Kaj Schmidt Memorial the architectural landmark is an inextricable part of the Elliot’s beach situated in Besant Nagar.

Strategically located at the heart of the beach, the floundering cenotaph is surrounded by a large expanse of sand on all sides. The derelict stone monument has been lying in ruins ever since it was last renovated by the Corporation of Madras in 1984. Widely known and referred to as the ‘Ghori’- which is the Hindi word for white- because it is painted in white; the neglected Schmidt Memorial really looks gory today.

The Memorial is fortified on all sides by a fencing of broken pieces of alcohol bottles --as innumerable as the grains of sand-- left behind by drunkards after their mundane brawls. The innocuous structure, at present, not only serves as a bar but also as a public latrine. Men, young and old alike, use the cover provided by it to relieve themselves and to answer nature’s call. Kaj Schmidt Memorial has also been a silent witness to many clandestine kisses and excessive public display of affection by young couples. Lifelong relationships have been forged and transient ones have been terminated before its unassuming eyes. However, the couples’ have made it pay a heavy price for the free entertainment they have offered. They have cruelly scarred the structure’s fair skin by eternally etching their love stories on it. Meanwhile, vandals, who probably did not have Berger easy clean paints at their houses, have used the monument as a canvas to draw horrendous masterpieces. 

The Schmidt Memorial now and then also functions as a non-government organisation by being a home for the homeless. It also humbly poses to photographers, amateurs and professionals alike, who exploit its spectacular silhouette against the background of the setting sun. Thus, in every sense the Kaj Schmidt Memorial is a symbol of oppression, persecution and victimization. It can possibly be taken up as a subject in subaltern studies.

However, until recently, the Schmidt Memorial held an elite distinction. It was one of the most sought after shooting locations in Kollywood. In the late 80’s and late 90’s there were hardly any movies produced which did not feature the Memorial in a song sequence. Popular songs which catapulted the memorial to fame were: Madras-a Suthi paarkka porenn in May Maadham, Oh Pyaari Pani Puri in Poove Unakkaaga, Anjala in Vaaranam Aayiram, Panivizhum Maalaiyil in Meera and Yaaradi Naan Thedum in Pondaatti Thevai. Films like Kaadhal Kavithai, Vinnukkum Mannukkum, Paarvai Ondre Podhume, Dhil, Alaipayuthey, Mouna Raagam, Idhaya Thamarai, and Baana Kathadi also showcased it and made it a famous landmark for the Chennaiites. One of the shots in Zoom Channel’s rehashed version of ‘Miley Sur’ featured south-Indian actor Vikram singing the song with the Schmidt Memorial as the backdrop.

Old residents of Besant Nagar and the hawkers at Elliot’s Beach recollect how the Schmidt Memorial used to be decked up and given a makeover by the film production crew during every shoot. It would then be forgotten and treated as a rag until the next film crew pitched its tent on Elliot’s Beach.

In March, 2007 the Elliot’s Beach beautification plan was prepared by MEASI for the Chennai Corporation. The plan included setting up landscaped lawns, an amphitheatre, children’s play area, toilets, fountains, and a walkway leading to the sea. But the plan appallingly failed to address the modification or renovation of the Schmidt Memorial. However, the plan was dropped after residents mooted out the idea and protested its violation of the Coastal Regulatory Zone (CRZ) notification which did not permit development within a 200-metre zone of the high tide line.

In January 2009, the Governor’s bungalow at Elliot’s Beach-- a stone’s throw away from the Schmidt Memorial-- was renovated at an estimated cost of 23 lakh. Located within 30 metres of the sea, the bungalow clearly violated the CRZ notification; still the government went ahead with the project. Even in this case the Schmidt Memorial remained a helpless onlooker, rooted to its unstable foundation, just as it did when it witnessed the drunken youth get lapped up by the sea.

Drowning off Elliot’s Beach has been accidental, suicidal or sometimes homicidal in nature. According to city police records, 24 persons killed themselves in the sea off the Marina and Elliot's beaches in 2010 while 61 others died of accidental drowning. Police say that there has been a four-fold increase in the number of drowning deaths since 2009 when there were only 20 cases reported.

For the past 80 odd years, the Kaj Schmidt Memorial has been a poignant reminder of the dangers that the sea poses, but still the governments over the years have not moved a finger either to beef up security along the beach or to give the crumbling edifice a face-lift.

Everyone seems to have washed their hands off the Schmidt Memorial. Hope civil society and the government will join hands to salvage it before it is washed away forever from our minds by a Tsunami.

- Vishal Matthew

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