The Rane Story as an e book

September 1, 2014

It was in 2009 that Mr L Lakshman of the Rane Group asked me to come over to his office. When I called on him he had a surprise for me – he wanted me to write the history of the Rane Group. I was at that time known chiefly for my writing on music and musicians. But it was so exciting a prospect that I said yes immediately. It took me two years to write it chiefly because I was already committed to finishing Four Score and More, the History of the Music Academy, Madras.

As the research progressed, I warmed up to the subject and found the writing of it to be an interesting activity. I particularly loved interviewing the senior employees and also poring over the minute books of the past. During the course of the research I unearthed several long forgotten stories.

I have always believed in sending off each chapter as it gets ready for approval. And I was amazed at the speed with which Mr Lakshman responded. We would meet once a week and he would be ready with the previous week’s chapter – printed out, and with his remarks neatly added. He was frank and forthright in his reminiscences, as were several others, in particular Mr A Hydari who is now no longer with us. I was apprehensive about putting in frank admissions of business downtunrns and difficult times but here again Mr Lakshman was of the view that everything HAD to be documented.

The manuscript was approved in 2010 but the date of release was fixed for December 11, 2011, to coincide with Rane Madras completing 75 years as a listed company. It turned out to be my second corporate biography for while it was awaiting print, another book pipped it to the post – Championing Enterprise, 175 years of the Madras Chamber of Commerce and Industry. That was another hugely enjoyable experience. But to me, the Rane book will always be special for it gave my writing a new direction. At the book release event, I was given a pen and I have treasured it. Rather sentimentally, I have signed all subsequent book contracts only with that pen!

I was delighted to know recently that Rane have put up the book as a free download on their web site. For those who are interested, here is the link:

The northern origins of a southern temple

August 30, 2014
The Kamakala Kameswarar Temple, Triplicane

The Kamakala Kameswarar Temple, Triplicane

Have you heard of Raja Hanumantha Lala Lane in Triplicane? If not, you would not have heard of the Kamakala Kameswarar Temple either. Historically, it is relatively recent, dating perhaps to the 1850s. What is startling is that a family belonging to the Kayasth community, which had its origins in present day Uttar Pradesh, built it.

The Nizams of Hyderabad had a tradition of employing Hindu Kayasths in the administration. The Nawabs of Arcot followed the same practice. Among the confidential munshis or secretaries of Nawab Mohammad Ali Wallajah (1749-1795) was Makhan Lal Khirat. When the ruler built the Big Mosque in Triplicane, it was this trusted aide who composed the chronogram for it, which is enshrined above the mihrab — the niche that indicates the direction of the Holy Kaaba. It is perhaps the only instance in the world, of a Hindu’s work adorning a mosque — a true illustration of the city’s secular character.

Makhan Lal was given the honorific of Rai Raja by the Nawab. A branch of the family, titled the Junior Line, was stationed in Hyderabad, where it managed the properties of the Arcot family in that city. The Senior Line, which remained in Madras, was headed after Makhan Lal by his son Rai Raja Tekam Chand Bahadur. The Junior Line was contrary to its name; it was the more powerful one, given its proximity to the Nizams of Hyderabad. By the 1850s, the branches were headed by cousins — both having the same name of Ishwar Das. The Madras one, Tekam Chand’s son, was born on 13 June, 1826. He was given the titles of Rai Raja and Dayavant Bahadur, while his cousin in Hyderabad was styled Rajwant Bahadur.

Both sides of the family came to grief in 1855, when the British terminated the rule of the Nawabs. The Hyderabad cousin fared better for he was taken into the service of the Nizam, styling himself thereafter as Ishwar Das Walajahi. The Madras Ishwar Das did not fare badly either. That he was clearly not wanting in wealth is evident from the British Government thanking him in 1890 for his public services and recognising the titles conferred on him by the Nawabs.

Rai Raja Ishwar Das Lala Dayavant Bahadur as he liked to be referred to lived off Pycrofts Road (now Bharati Salai) where a street is named after him. A parallel street is Raja Hanumantha Lala Lane, taking its name from a kinsman. It was in this street that Ishwar Das built a temple for Kamakala Kameswarar, installing a white Shiva Linga in it. Following his death in the late 1890s, his son Lakshmi Chand took over the management.

In 1924, Lakshmi Chand filed for insolvency and the temple’s administration came under the control of the Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments Board of the Government in 1926.

With that its ‘localisation’ began, including the legend that it is ‘at least 800 years old’! It bears no trace of its Kayasth origins.

This article appeared in The Hindu dated August 30, 2014, under the Hidden Histories Column

A couple of TV interviews for Madras Week

August 27, 2014

Sun TV

Puthu Yugam

Vanishing Water

August 26, 2014

There can be no denying that the Muttukadu Estuary is one of the most scenic spots near our city. But all that may not be for long, given the rampant construction activity going on in its vicinity. But what is worse is the unchecked extraction of groundwater by all the establishments in the area – chiefly IT companies, hotels and housing complexes. This is drying up one of the chief aquifers of the city and it does not bode well for a metro that is perennially water-starved.

It is not as though we lack the laws. Since the 1980s, construction had been banned in this area, chiefly to protect the groundwater, which could be drawn by the city in times of need. This ban was, however, lifted in the last decade, mainly to cater to the demand of the IT sector. The considered opinion in the 1990s was that with rainwater harvesting schemes in place within Chennai, it might no longer need the water from Muttukadu. That has, however, proved to be a false assumption, for successively weak monsoons and the lack of proper implementation of rainwater harvesting have ensured that the city is once again searching for fresh sources of the precious liquid.

As is usual when such bans are lifted, the stakeholders involved were all consulted. The qualifying remarks of Metrowater were a classic instance of bureaucratese: “Any major developments in the proposed tourism corridor should take into account the unique hydrological ecosystem of the area.” With that mild caution in place, everything was set for rapid ‘development’ of the estuary and its surroundings, with the present result. Groundwater extraction, however, is not the only issue. Disposal of sewage is a bigger problem. Many of the establishments here are draining their effluents into the estuary. It may not be long before the water body begins to resemble the Cooum. Experts are of the view that the groundwater in the area has already been irreversibly contaminated.

The Chennai Metropolitan Development Authority and the Corporation of Chennai are being blamed for the present situation. A majority of the structures – be they hotels, offices, residences or amusement parks – in the area have been built in violation of construction codes and CRZ regulations. The two regulatory bodies have chosen to turn a blind eye, despite being armed with some of the strictest laws in the land. As we have said in some of our earlier articles connected with building violations, the lethargy of our civic body when it comes to enforcing its rules is amazing. We have already seen the kind of havoc this has caused within the city in places like T’Nagar. The same situation appears to be developing in the outskirts also.

With so many buildings coming up, the demand for water has skyrocketed in the area. This has resulted in more and more borewells being installed, each with increasing depth to tap the water that is fast receding. Many of the housing complexes have more than one borewell and some of these are drying up within one or two years of drilling – an indication of how fast we are using up the water. These complexes have in turn begun depending on water tankers, which in turn are bringing in water from wells dug further away. What is clear is that this is a vicious cycle that we would do well to get out of.

The key to that rests with the CMDA and the Corporation. They do know about the illegal buildings here to begin with. They need to crack the whip on these and get them out of the way. That would be good enough as a beginning. We would then need to introduce strict norms on the wells that can be dug and the quota of water that can be consumed by each establishment. Let’s face it, we are a water-scarce city. The sooner we wake up to that, the better.

How slow can restoration be?

August 25, 2014

Three fires – one major and two minor – two roof collapses, horrendous neglect and a restoration plan that is taking even longer to begin than the original construction – this is the state of Chepauk Palace today. Historians and conservationists may tout it as the first example of Indo-Saracenic architecture, but our Government doesn’t appear to appreciate that. How else can you explain the sad track record of the ‘restoration’ of the heritage precinct?

It is now two-and-a-half years since the first major fire broke out. That happened on Pongal Day in 2012. The Khalsa Mahal was gutted in the incident. A few months prior to that, we in Madras Musings had written about the way Chepauk Palace was being maintained – old files, rotting furniture, frayed electrical wiring, rubbish dumps everywhere, and a family of squatters in the front portico who were cooking meals. We had even then mentioned that a disaster was waiting to happen. Not that our observations made any difference to those in charge of the place. So, sure enough there was a fire accident. What followed was a hasty announcement by a Minister that the building would be razed to the ground and a new structure built instead. This was later retracted, following protests by historians and heritage activists. A committee of three, with not one conservationist among them, then studied the damage and recommended that what was needed was restoration. While this may have come as a relief, what has happened since then makes us wonder about the Government’s sincerity in its expressed commitment to take up that task. While we have heard that an architect has been appointed for it, there has been no action since. The gutted portion remains open to the sky and is weakening by the day.

The story of the other wing of the palace – Humayun Mahal – is no better. A year ago we wrote about how this section was in an equally precarious condition. One of the floors had collapsed and Government departments and officers continued to function all around the crater that it had left behind! Old papers and junk abounded, as did shoddy electric wiring. Since then, we have had two fires, both minor, but the second one caused a partial floor collapse, perhaps because the structure was anyway damaged thanks to the earlier fall. The second and more recent fire was attributed to old wood and wires being stored in the building. Is this how heritage structures are to be looked after?

With this, we have now effectively damaged both wings of the Chepauk Palace, with only its central tower, built a hundred years after the original construction, standing intact. The restoration project that is on the anvil does not cover Humayun Mahal and is related only to Khalsa Mahal. The former, therefore, is at present facing a question mark as to its future.

The Humayun Mahal complex is not alone in this. The National Art Gallery (formerly the Victoria Memorial Hall) is yet to see any activity, two years after restoration was announced and six months after funds were released for it. The dome here is said to be in a precarious state and architects agree that restoring it would be a tricky exercise if it were to collapse.

But our bureaucracy, with its classic sloth, does not appear to have a sense of urgency. Opaque tendering processes, outmoded specifications that have nothing to do with heritage conservation, and an appallingly slow way of functioning are the principles on which these projects are being handled. So what if a heritage building or two (or three or five) vanishes in the interim?

Visible remainders of bygone times

August 23, 2014

A seat of musical creativity

August 22, 2014

Lost Landmarks of Chennai – Victory House

August 20, 2014
Victory House

Victory House

Today it is a nondescript structure that houses the showroom of V.G. Panneerdas & Co, the company that retails white goods and introduced hire purchase. But in its time, Victory House, Mount Road, was a landmark address. Interestingly, the building’s beginnings go back to another merchandiser of consumer products. In the 1890s, Whiteaway, Laidlaw’s, ‘Furnishers and General Drapers’, were as much into textile retailing and tailoring as they were into selling a whole range of household requirements. The firm had branches throughout British India as well as in the capitals of many of the other British colonies in the East. As to who designed the structure is not clear, but it did bear features of the work of William Pogson who specialised in buildings for retail establishments in the city. High Court documents of the 1980s state that the building was more than 100 years old at that time, thereby giving an idea about its date of construction.

Founded by Thomas Whiteaway and (later Sir) Robert Laidlaw, the firm’s best years were till the Great War. It was also known as ‘Right away and paid for’ because of its no credit policy. By the 1940s, with independence in the air, the firm was closing its Indian operations though it continued in the Far East till the 1960s. The Madras premises were sold to the Swadesamitran – the leading Tamil daily of the time. The paper was begun in 1882 as a weekly by G. Subramania Iyer, who had six years earlier co-founded The Hindu. After leaving The Hindu he was to focus on the Swadesamitran, making it a daily in 1899. After him, A. Rangaswami Iyengar of The Hindu was to also serve as editor of the Swadesamitran. It was during his time that Subramania Bharati joined the paper for a second and short tenure, ending with his death in 1921. In 1928, C.R. Srinivasan took over as editor and proprietor of the paper and it was under him that the paper scaled great heights in circulation.

Srinivasan purchased the Whiteaway and Laidlaw property after World War II and named it Victory House. Some great names in Tamil writing were to work in the building for the paper. Following Srinivasan’s death in 1962 and the change in the tastes of the reading public, the paper declined. In 1977, the paper was sold to the Silver Jubilee of Independence Trust controlled by the Congress Party. It lingered on till 1985 when it stopped publication. It then changed hands as a paper and there were sporadic attempts to revive it. During the 1980s, a fire broke out in the building, destroying much of the newspaper archive and nearly all the photo negatives – a 100-year history was lost in one evening.

Victory House was rented out to various commercial establishments from the 1970s. The ground floor, all 7000 sq ft of it, was occupied by VGP who moved in in 1971. In the early 1980s, the then owners decided that the building needed to be demolished and rebuilt, the existing structure showing signs of weakness. All tenants barring VGP vacated and litigation followed which ended in 1987 with the High Court of Madras ordering the tenant to vacate. What followed next was VGP purchasing the entire property and constructing a modern showroom-cum-office space in place of old Victory House.

You may want to read about other lost/vanishing/surviving landmarks

Gemini Studios

Old Woodlands Hotel

The Oceanic Hotel

My Ladyes Garden

Connemara Hotel

The Airlines Hotel

Everest Hotel

Modern Cafe


The Eastern and Western Castlets

The Madras Bulwark


August 18, 2014

There comes a day in the life of The Man from Madras Musings when he realises that he has nothing to wear. This, by the way, is every other day, for MMM has just one weakness – he likes his clothes, in which aspect he markedly differs from the Chief, who chugs along maintaining that it is comfort that counts and not style. Not that the Chief does not turn out in the best of Savile Row when he wants to. It was only the other day that MMM saw the Chief at a Consulate reception all suited and booted and being the life and soul of the party.

But to get back to the sad tale of MMM’s apparel – and how sad it is. Knowing MMM’s propensity to lament about the lack of suitable wear, his good lady periodically hauls him upto the various malls that dot the city.

There, under her eagle eye, MMM tries out various shirts and trousers, only to have her reject most of them. After having worn everyone down during the course of a longish afternoon, MMM and good lady depart, having made some purchases.

But nothing in Chennai can proceed smoothly and one of these is the size of these clothes. They are no longer what they used to be. Those who know MMM personally will agree that he is built on what are known as generous proportions (known in Delhi as healdhee type). He is broad where he ought not to be, and that means clothes that allow for certain roominess, especially in leg wear. That is, however, sadly no longer the case, for some madness has gripped all the designer labels in the city which are now churning out only slim fits. These begin with a waist size approaching zero and then go on to narrow legs. Imagine MMM’s plight when he has to try and struggle into them. He made bold to ask as to what had happened to the older and broader fits and was given a contemptuous glance by the sales help at one of the outfitters. The good lady shushed MMM firmly by asking him to change with the times. MMM would love to, but his figure no longer can change.

What surprises MMM is that the slim fit has hit the racks just when Chennai is going through one of the most obese phases in its existence. All around him MMM sees men with paunches hanging out, waists ballooning from trousers, and necks disappearing behind bulging jowls. Just by looking at them you can guess that our city would have been a second home to Julius Ceasar, for he, as you remember, wanted to have men around him that were fat. The same applies to the women of Chennai as well, but of that MMM will not speak, for he, does not bandy about with women unnecessarily.

And, so, given this tendency to put on weight, no doubt due to widespread availability of junk food and increasingly sedentary lifestyles, how are fellow Chennaiites coping with these drain pipe trousers and slim fit shirts? Very well, apparently, for even as MMM stood and watched, several outsized men grabbed several of the trousers and shirts and wheezed their way to the payment counter. MMM wonders as to how they can fit in. He assumes that they buy two of each and then gets them stitched into one.

Awesome Art Deco

August 15, 2014


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