The Scots who built Madras

September 19, 2014

Lost Landmarks of Chennai – Corporation Zoo

September 18, 2014
Darwin Gate, Corporation Zoo

Darwin Gate, Corporation Zoo

Today it may have shifted to a sprawling, verdant and much deserved campus in Vandalur and may be called the Arignar Anna Zoological Park but, for at least three generations, the Madras Zoo was behind the Ripon Building, occupying one end of the 116-acre People’s Park.

The Zoo, of course, is older than that; it is, in fact, the oldest zoo in the country. It was begun thanks to Edward Green Balfour, Director of the Government Museum, Madras, who in 1854 persuaded the Nawab of Arcot to hand over his menagerie to the Museum. The Zoo was founded officially a year later in the Museum premises. Its specimens expanded to 300 in number within a year. In 1863, the Zoo was shifted to People’s Park, where it was to remain for almost 125 years. Together with the Lily Pond, My Ladye’s Garden, Moore Market and VP Hall, it helped to make Park Town a tourist attraction.

Not that it lacked some gory history as well. In 1942, following the fears of bombardment of Madras, the city was evacuated. All the dangerous animals of the zoo were shot dead. The harmless ones were taken to Erode and brought back to the city in 1944. Another gruesome record was that for years the stray dogs of Madras were rounded up by the Corporation, killed, and the meat used to be given to the carnivores in the zoo! This was given up only in the 1970s following protests by animal lovers when the sterilisation rather than the culling of strays was adopted.

Located as it was in just 11 acres of land, the zoo began to get congested even in the 1940s. Around the time of Independence, Governor Sir Archibald Nye offered around 100 acres of the Guindy Raj Bhavan Estate for the zoo. While this eventually developed as the Guindy Park, the zoo stayed put. Nye’s successor, Krishnakumarsinhji Bhavsinhji, the Maharajah of Bhavnagar, was an animal lover and it was thanks to him that the zoo got several specimens, including lions, tigers and macaws. The centenary of the zoo was celebrated with éclat in 1955 with a special souvenir and a new entrance in art deco style – the Darwin Gate, which is seen in today’s picture.

Right through the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s, the zoo was a favourite cinema setting. Perhaps its best representation was in the otherwise poor film Kakkum Karangal (1965) where the entire song ‘Alli thandu kaal eduttu’ was set in the zoo. A decade earlier, the American film director Ellis R. Dungan did a whole photo feature of the zoo for the Corporation.

In 1976, with increasing traffic noise, and the demand for People’s Park land for other services, the zoo had to shift. The Forest Department generously gave 1265 acres of land in the Vandalur Reserve Forest. Work began in 1979 and was completed in 1985 when, on July 24, the then Chief Minister M. G. Ramachandran declared the zoo open in its new location and named it after his mentor C.N. Annadurai.

With a further 230 acres land being added to it subsequently, the zoo is one of the largest in Southeast Asia and is a great attraction in the city.
You may want to read about other lost/vanishing/surviving landmarks

Victory House

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

AR Sundaram, a blithe spirit

September 17, 2014

To those who knew A.R Sundaram or Sunda as she was referred to among her close circle, her spirit never ceased to amaze. Except for the last six months of her long life of ninety-one years, she was sprightly, full of life and above all immersed in Carnatic music. Only a cricket match could draw her attention away from music.

I first got to meet ‘Sunda Mami’ as I referred to her, thanks to my friends Ravi and Sridhar of Tiruvannamalai. The two of them were disciples of T.Mukta and therefore knew Sunda very well. They were surprised that I had never heard of her and once took me along to meet her at her residence in Kotturpuram. There, she sang Sakhi Prana in the true Brinda-Mukta style and we became firm friends.

Sunda was in many ways a true representative of old Mylapore. Her father was A.K.Ramachandra Iyer, the redoubtable grandson of the first Indian judge of the High Court of Madras – Sir T.Muthuswami Iyer.

AKR was the man who set up Madras Auto Service, now with the TVS Group. He also began Midland Theatre and introduced Coca Cola to Madras. For several years he organised the music concerts and ‘bhajanais’ at the Kapaliswarar Temple festival and it was in that capacity that he brought Papanasam Sivan to Madras in 1921.

Sunda’s mother Lakshmi was the daughter of the legal luminary T.R. Venkatarama Sastry. It was always with some pride that she would relate how her wedding procession lasted almost a whole night, going around the Mylapore tank with the best of the Nagaswaram greats – Rajarathnam Pillai, Veerusami Pillai, the Sembanar Brothers and the Tiruvizhimizhalai Brothers performing for it in relays.

Her musical training began with T.Brinda, from whom she learnt for almost 10 years. Then for some reason, her father abruptly switched her to T.R. Balu, GNB’s student.

Singing for Bala
But Sunda’s original love was the Veena Dhanammal style and so she later began learning music from Jayammal, Brinda’s aunt and the mother of T.Balasaraswati. She had the honour of singing for Bala’s dance performances as well. Brinda, who never quite forgave AKR for the change in tutelage, did acknowledge several years later that Sunda sang exactly the way she had taught her.

Sunda performed solo for All India Radio and also sang at the Music Academy’s morning sessions in tandem with aunt Rukmini Rajagopalan. She was a regular at the Academy’s annual music festival from the 1930s till almost a couple of years ago. But marriage and family meant that music was a passion and nothing more.

When Dr. Malathi Rangaswami and I wrote the history of the Music Academy, Sunda was of immense help with anecdotes and accounts of past music seasons. It was with considerable amusement that we discovered in the Academy archives a minute that recorded her becoming a member. “This is the name of a lady and not a man,” was the terse note of a secretary. When told of it, Sunda chuckled heartily but could never explain why her father had named her Sundaram.

The annual festival at the Kapaleeswarar Temple was a must do on her calendar.

Till a couple of years back she would think nothing of braving the crowds to witness the Arupathu Moovar procession, something that would daunt those far younger than her. I asked her how she managed and her reply was characteristic – she made friends with a vegetable vendor who allowed her to sit on his cart and watch the procession go by!

Every once in a while, till their passing, Sunda would call on M.S.Subbulakshmi, D.K.Pattammal and T.Mukta. She was particularly close to Mukta and the two would often launch into impromptu song sessions.

One of the last was in the presence of the author Indira Menon, when holding hands with a bedridden Mukta, Sunda sang along.

On one occasion, I took S.Rajam, on his request, to meet Sunda. It was a delight to watch the two reminisce about life in old Mylapore.

As she aged, Sunda’s life remained filled with music. Her memory was an asset and she remembered every word of every song she had learnt. She was quite happy to impart what she knew to whoever cared to learn. It was enough for her that what she learnt was being passed on.

As life took away friends, health and the ability to go up to the Mylapore temple, Sunda accepted the changes gracefully.

But her will to live was enormous, as was her love for music. These are what kept her going till the very end.

Her passing marks the end of a time when music was a way of life.

This article appeared in The Hindu under the Friday Review section on September 12, 2014

Is Madras Week colonial?

September 15, 2014

Over 150 events spread across several locations and organisations of the city have just come to an end. All of these were to commemorate the 375th birthday of our city. The events witnessed full houses and were held with the enthusiastic support of the hospitality industry and the media. If this was not a sure shot success, then what was it? Certainly it was NOT what a Tourism De­partment official apparently dismissed as a celebration of the ‘colonial’ in a display of a mind­set out of tune with the times.

Consider the facts – much of what went into celebrating ­Madras Week this year concerned the here and now. There were discussions on business leadership, security of the peninsula, civic conservancy and the economy. There were views expressed on the challenges that the city faces in its journey to becoming a world-class metropolis. There were presentations on the lives of several noble residents of the city who went on to make powerful contributions to the world. The current generation, to which the British Raj is something that is only in text books, came out in full strength to participate. Are these expressions of a ­‘colonial hangover’? What we did was celebrate our city, warts and all.

The same official apparently also said that his department is only mandated to celebrate the ancient Dravidian age, the Sangam era, and the glories of the Pallava, Chola, Pandya and Chera kingdoms. If that is so, why was this opportunity not taken to highlight the relics of that glorious past, of which there are several in the city itself? Why were special trips not organised to the Pallava cave at Pallavaram, perhaps the first instance of a temple being hewn out of a rock in India? Could not events focussing on the grand temples that dot the city’s coastline have been planned? Could the Museum not have been asked to showcase its Bronze Gallery and its magni­ficient collections of ins­crip­tions? By merely ­dismissing ­Madras Week as a Brown Sahib event, the Department of Tourism has passed up a golden opportunity. It could have participated, attracted tourists and ensured that everyone recog­nised that Chennai could be a destination by itself and not a mere gateway to other locations in South India. In fact, all those wishing celebrations of the Dravidian and anything else, why don’t they organise similar celebrations on a voluntary ­basis?

Approaching the matter from another angle, can we deny that the city itself is a colonial creation? The seat of the Government is still in what was the first British possession in the whole of India. Several institutions that our metro swears by, such as the Corporation, the Legislature, the University, the General Hospital and the transport services, to name a few, are all colonial creations. Should we not be abandoning them all and reverting to ancient practices if the pre-British period is all that deserves to be commemorated? Why not shift the capital itself to some ancient town and when setting it up ensure that no vestige of overseas elements is reflected in it? Let’s face it, Madras has been the capital for 67 years AFTER ­independence as well. There is enough and more to celebrate from that period also.

Madras Week, as we said, is a celebration of our city. It is where we live, earn our money, educate our children and plan our future. It deserves to be ­rejoiced in and its achievements need to be highlighted to the world. At an age when the smallest of matters are tweeted and broadcast across the globe, why cannot Chennai with its vast record of achievements not stand up and speak of its glories? Even if it does not have an official stamp, as some celebrations in the past, have had, that the people have spoken loud and clear for the celebrations is all that matters. After all, another great Chennai success, the ­December Music Season, has survived and grown over 87 years without official ­support. May Madras Week ­follow suit.

Plain tales on Old Madras

September 14, 2014

Madras Week also saw several sidekicks of the Chief making it big on the small screen. The actor, the writer/entrepreneur (as he calls himself), and the photo­grapher were all there, rather in the manner of the butcher, the baker and the candlestick maker. One of these program­mes also had a former ­Member of the Tamil Nadu Legislative Assembly holding forth on the history of the city. The man, who rejoices in the name of the powerful God who wielded the plough, had apparently represented Park Town at one time and, so, considers himself quite an authority. And so he gave all viewers a lesson in ­history.

It was then that The Man from Madras Musings realised that the Chief has all along been hoodwinking us with his version of the history of ­Madras. The former MLA claimed that the area we know of as Town was in reality two parts – George Town and Black Town. The for­mer, he claimed, was a white ­enclave where apar­­theid was strictly follow­ed. The ‘dirty natives’, he said, were sent to the periphery and there they eked out a precarious living in areas such as Roya­puram, Wall Tax Road and Park Town. All this was said with a breezy insouciance that only a politician can bring to a subject that he knows nothing about. If MMM had been on the spot he could have asked the man as to how was it then that most of the streets of George Town were named ­after Indian dubashes.

The former MLA then moved on to wax eloquent on the Cooum which, he said, is one of the longest rivers in the country, becoming Buc­king­­ham Canal when in the city! If this be the level of knowledge of our lawmakers, is it any wonder that the Town and the river are in such bad shape?!

At yet another event, an ­officer from the country’s ­oldest civic body chose to make his speech in song. The burden of the song by a Nati­o­nal Poet was whe­ther, ­after making a beautiful lute, it could be cast into the mud to destroy it. MMM could not help wondering if the song ought not to be adopted by the Corporation as its ­anthem, for it appeared to be doing to the city exactly what the poet had written about the stringed ­instrument.

And that brings MMM to another event. A heritage walk in the vicinity of the ­Sacred Tank of Lilies was about to begin. One of the Chief’s acolytes was just clearing his throat prior to leading the tour when a clear-voiced participant ask­ed if the roads to be tra­versed were ‘mucky’. MMM wondered if any ­tho­rough­fare in the city was anything else but that.

The King of College Road

September 13, 2014

Weak after Madras Week

September 9, 2014

It is done, Chief! Exactly as you had predicted it would be a celebration worthy of 375 years. Old Mother Madrasnever had it so good before. Cakes, books, talks, walks, film screenings, exhibitions, quizzes, rides, sails, TV features, news reports, tweets, fb posts, blogs, photo sessions… you name it, we had it. And The Man from Madras Musings was happy to see you, Chief, flitting from spot to spot, so to speak, always being greeted by someone who wanted to be photographed with you.

MMM confined himself to a few select walks, talks and other events, and it is of the quirkier side of these that he takes pen in hand to write about. And he has strange tales to tell you, Chief, that will make whatever is left of your knotted and combined locks part and stand on end like quills on a fretful porpentine, as the Bard put it so wonderfully. MMM well remembers his column a couple of years ago when he wrote on the freeloaders who descended on the events in droves. He had ­mentioned about their eating habits, their table manners and their tendency to generally ­behave like camels – stacking up in their vast interiors enough reserves of food to last till the next Madras Week. That, if you recollect, Chief, got the old magazine into trouble. Several of the freeloaders wrote back saying that it was the organisers’ bounden duty to feed them as compensation for their having to listen to the speeches in full. And so MMM will not speak of that lot ­beyond mentioning that their numbers have dwindled. Perhaps it is on doctor’s advice. But MMM misses some of them, particularly the granny who used to come with three generations of her family. He did notice her on Day One when the hotel served just ­coffee and tea in a marked manner. She stayed off since then, perhaps assuming that in this depressed economic ­scenario other hotels may ­offer just the odd biscuit and glass of water. Though a few venues really gave just that, others more than made up for it and so I hope this Old Woman Who Lived In A Shoe (she had so many children she did not know what to do) will be with us in the Madras Weeks to come. But others were there in full strength.

The sleeveless wonder is, of course, a regular now. He laughs uproariously for no particular reason and, of course, surreptitiously records every one of the events, though for what earthly purpose MMM does not know. May be he plans a parallel event in the underworld. Then there is he of bouncer-build who feeds on everything that is on offer including, in MMM’s view, the paper plates and the polystyrene cups. At one event, MMM, not having much else to do, counted the man consuming twenty savou­ries, fifteen cups of sweets, twelve plates of fritters and six cups of coffee. The man slept soundly during the panel discussion that followed (after six cups of coffee!!). The next day saw another panel discussion on food when, during question time, up bounced the bouncer and spoke of how he had seen cockroa­ches and stones in his food in restaurants and had had to complain about them. MMM wondered if it was ­because they were not well done and so he could not eat them.

Yet another event was at a bookshop-cum-boutique-cum-restaurant. One of the honour­ed guests chose to filch a book from the display and walk away. He was fortunately ­apprehended after the event and the book retrieved from him. Crime is raising its ugly head during Madras Week, Chief, and if that is not a sure sign of success, then MMM does not know what is.

The Mystery of Mathala Narayanan

September 8, 2014

There are three thoroughfares in Mylapore that connect North Mada Street and Kutchery Road that runs parallel to it. The first is narrow Kutchery Lane and the second is Chengazhuneer Pillayar Koil Street, which has an eponymous temple to the elephant-headed God at its intersection with Kutchery Road. The third is Mathala Narayanan Street, whose name has always been a mystery to me.

One of the conjectures is that it commemorates a drummer in the service of the Kapaliswarar Temple. The fact that there are shops here that specialise in musical instruments is often cited in support of this theory. But I am yet to come across any documentation that has a mention of a legendary drummer called Narayanan who lived in Mylapore. It is also significant that those who were in the service of the temple, such as the celebrated dancer Mylapore Gowri, lived in Kutchery Lane. And so, could Mathala Narayanan be a corruption of some other name?

One strong contender is Mandala Nayak, who was a General in the Golconda Army. Known to the French as Motelnaif and Mondelnaigue, he appears in British records as Madala or Muddala Naigue, which could have over time metamorphosed into Mathala Narayanan.

Mandala Nayak, along with Baba Sahib and Trimbak Bassora Raja (Trimourboursouraja to the French) formed a triumvirate that led a force estimated at 6,000 foot soldiers and 2,000 horses to liberate San Thome in 1672 from the French. Mandala Nayak was in particular the prime mover and in an unbelievably short time, through forced marches, brought the army close to the walls of San Thome fort. He was to however meet his match in the French General de la Haye, who strengthened the fortifications and occupied the Kapaliswarar Temple as an outpost.

A long siege followed, eagerly watched by the British from their tiny and rather precariously located Fort St George. Governor Sir William Langhorne noted in his despatches that Mandala Nayak’s men were deserting him for want of pay, this despite the fact that the General had pawned all his jewels to ensure that their salaries were given on time.

The action hotted up in September 1672 when pitched battles were fought around the Kapaliswarar Temple and a smaller shrine behind Chitra Kulam. In February 1673, during a sortie to gain control of the Kapaliswarar Temple, Mandala Nayak was killed. His troops lost heart and retreated to Poonamallee from where they negotiated for their General’s body. The French acquiesced and he was cremated with due honours. In 1674, a second siege took place during which the Dutch joined hands with the Golconda forces and drove the French away. Could the victors have named the street after their late lamented General who had been killed in the vicinity?

The years that followed saw San Thome passing from the Golconda Sultanate to the Moguls, the Arcot Nawabs and finally to the British. Could Mandala Nayak have become Muddala Nayakan and later Mathala Narayanan in those years?

This article appeared in The Hindu dated September 6, 2014 under the Hidden Histories column.

Will it be Madras Season next?

September 3, 2014

And so, the 375th birthday of Madras that is Chennai has come and gone. What remains is a wonderful memory, a happy recollection of a great week gone by, when several sections of society celebrated the birthday with unprecedented enthusiasion. Truly, Chennai has notched up another first – the only city in the country to celebrate its birthday each year and commemorate its 375th in a most befitting manner.

The team of coordinators is no longer small. This year, we saw the coming of age of the Madras Week celebrations – there were scores of volunteers from every part of the city. Yes, even North Chennai that ­usually remains aloof organised an event or two. More importantly, each and every event was well attended, thereby ­encouraging the organisers and presenters even more. The number of heritage walks in the city and events of a similar nature was a mind-boggling 38, all of them with full participation.

There were three factors that made a key difference to this year’s celebration. The first was the participation of the youth. For the first time, ­Madras Week was not something that attracted only the middle-aged and above. It had gennext in full force, organising, conducting and participating in events exclusively meant for them. It was a spontaneous expression of love for the city. The young also took Madras Week into the world of social media – there were Facebook posts, tweets, blogs and instagram/flickr ­updates that kept the internet world buzzing. Madras Week clearly is becoming younger each year and that is a very healthy sign. The presence of the young also ensured that IT companies sat up and took ­notice.

The second was the way the electronic media took an interest in the celebrations. This has never happened in past years. True, the English media did ­report on it in the past, but the Tamil TV channels had largely dismissed the event as elitist and being celebrated by a ­minority of people. This year that was not the case. It was in fact the Tamil channels that took the lead. On August 22nd, most of them had flashing messages on the ticker tape indicating that it was ­Madras Day. They also had ­special program­mes. The radio channels too participated with great gusto. A couple of them had events for the whole day, with one of them presenting programmes by children.

They say that the best way to a man’s heart is through his stomach. Perhaps the route to a city’s affection is also the same. For the first time, we had restaurant chains and hotels putting up special food events on a mega scale. At a much smaller but no less significant level were the neighbourhood food walks, creating a new niche among tours around the city. Perhaps it is time that the retail trade too looks at Madras Week on lines of the Dubai Shopping Festival. We hope that this will happen next year so that the celebrations scale yet another level.

This was also the first year that Madras Week went international. The beginning was made in Malaysia thanks to the Indian High Commissioner there, T.S. Tirumurthy.

A photo exhibition was organised and this was very well received. With this we may soon find Madras Week being celebrated in other countries as well. After all, there is no dearth of people from this city among the Indian diaspora.

As this story goes to press, there is no sign of the celebrations winding down. There are exhibitions, talks, walks, quizzes and marathons still to be held, the last event happening sometime in mid-September. Whoever branded it Madras Day will now have to probably consider calling it the Madras Season.

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:


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