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


An app for Madras Week

August 14, 2014

As the number of events being held for celebrating the founding of our city keeps increasing, we at Madras Musings realise that it becomes difficult for many of you to keep abreast. There may be many events that you may want to be a part of or you may simply want to know of events that are taking place in your neighbourhood. We are therefore launching a mobile app. Developed by Broadgate Technical Services Pvt Ltd, the app has been sponsored by Sundaram Finance Limited, who have been one of the staunch supporters of all activities connected with heritage in this city.

Titled Madras Week, it is a free app. So go ahead and remain up to date on Madras Week events with this app.

For Android

For Mac products

Build as you please

August 13, 2014

The recent collapse of a multi-storeyed building under construction made headline news. While most of the media focussed on the terrible tragedy that took several lives, very few bothered to comment on the reasons for such a disaster having taken place. It has everything to do with an administration that has stopped being proactive. The construction industry, and much else in our city, is in a self-governance mode: Those who wish to abide by rules can choose to do so, the rest need not, until they commit an error of judgement and are exposed.

The building in question was not an illegal one. The promoters had sanction for building two blocks of eleven floors each. Such structures need to have soil certification to be done for ensuring load bearing capacity before work begins. This is usually obtained from a certified soil mechanics engineer and the document is one of the prerequisites for obtaining approval from the CMDA for going ahead with the construction. Since the developers under question had obtained CMDA sanction, it goes without saying that they had soil mechanics certification as well. Yet, the building collapsed. It is now rumoured that the structure fell because it was built on the bed of a lake without proper reinforcements. How could that be if the soil had been found suitable?

A high profile enquiry has been launched and heads in official circles might well roll. But it is unlikely that anyone will bring up the root cause for all this trouble – neither the Chennai Metropolitan Development Authority (CMDA), which gives approval, nor the Corporation, which monitors construction, can enforce any discipline. Both have long given up on this task. Thus we have a situation where every plan looks perfect on paper, but when executed the construction deviates considerably from what was approved. There is nobody to check these variances while the construction is in progress. True, builders are supposed to obtain a completion certificate once the structure is ready for occupation. That appears to be the easiest document to get. This is proved by the number of illegal constructions and extra unapproved floors in the city – all with electricity and water connections, which cannot be obtained without completion certificates.

Fire safety is yet another issue. Most public buildings and several private residential apartments appear to have no preventive mechanisms of any kind. Multiple exits, assembly points, basic fire-fighting equipment, and ease of access for firemen and hydrants are all absent. Yet, such buildings are allowed to be constructed. The lack of fire safety is highlighted only when a major disaster strikes. Here again, the approving authorities are to blame. Apart from the Fire Department, the Corporation, which monitors buildings under construction, rarely notices if set offs are provided for as mandated by the rules. These are not just for making a building look pretty – they are needed for easy accessibility of all parts of a structure in the event of a conflagration. Unfortunately, these are overlooked completely, which is why we have so many buildings constructed in close proximity to each other and often usurping public land as well.

All this does not show the administration in good light. That apart, if this apathy is allowed to continue we are going to see several more such incidents in the near future. More evidence of an international city in the making?

Watching heritage burn

August 12, 2014

There was a time when Shimla held the record for the maximum number of heritage buildings burnt down. The excuse given there was that the structures were largely of timber and so this was bound to happen. Now it would appear that Chennai is giving the erstwhile summer capital some tough competition. The fire in the State Bank of India (SBI) building on Rajaji Salai (First Line Beach) is the latest in a series that stretches back to the 1980s. Most of them have had only one reason – poor maintenance, something that could have easily been avoided.

The fire at the State Bank building was quickly put out – but not before a part of a floor caved in. It is understood that experts from the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) have been called in to assess the damage. What is heartening is that the Bank has not announced any decision to demolish, and is most likely to restore, the structure. The SBI has had a fairly good track record of conserving its built heritage and it is expected that it will take up work on the Rajaji Salai property in the same spirit. That said, we must caution that the restoration will not be an easy task given the building’s location and its undoubtedly intricate architectural elements and interiors. It is to be hoped that the SBI will NOT follow the example of the Department of Posts, Government of India, when the latter restored the neighbouring General Post Office. That was largely a wasted effort the way it has panned out. The building is back to a bad state and the only satisfaction that can be got out of it is that the structure is still standing.

The fire at the SBI building was waiting to happen given the way the structure was maintained – unwanted furniture dumped at all corners, water seeping through at most places, an enormous number of files stored disorderly and above all, arbitrary electric wiring and use of false ceilings and partitions. The last named had been put up as and when the necessity arose, without any proper planning. Thus, what was essentially a single storied banking hall became a two-storied structure with the intervening floor being put up for accommodating more office space. This is the floor that has now collapsed. Those in charge of the restoration will need to debate on whether the floor has to necessarily be put back or whether the old hall can be splendidly restored with the space in it being put to better use.

The SBI fire is symbolic of a larger malaise – the shocking lack of upkeep of public buildings and spaces in our city. That cleanliness and safety standards have never been Chennai’s virtues is only very well known, but it is of late that these have reached epidemic proportions. It is the heritage buildings that have suffered the most. Consider this – Spencer’s, Moore Market, the GPO, Gandhi Illam, the Mint, Khalsa Mahal and now the SBI have ALL had fires attributed to short circuits. That must certainly have made someone somewhere sit up and take notice by now. But we are to be sadly disappointed in such expectations – there are plenty more heritage buildings crammed with paper, old furniture and bad wiring that are awaiting a fate similar to that of the worthies listed above*. It is a sad blot on a city that is aiming to be international in its standards.

For a matter of record, the SBI building in question was built in 1895 by T. Namberumal Chetty, the master contractor of that period, to the design of Henry Irwin. It was the head office of the Bank of Madras which, through its amalgamation with the other Presidency banks in 1921, formed the Imperial Bank of India, which in 1955 became the State Bank of India. The Bank of Madras incidentally, can trace its origins to the first bank of the country – the Government Bank, ­Madras, set up in the 17th Century in Fort St George. Apart from being a splendid piece of architecture, it is all this history that the bank building represents. Hopefully, the SBI will be conscious of this in its restoration exercise.

*Editor’s Note: Even before this story could go to press, another heritage building has been made a shell – a salvageable one, though – by a fire in it. Humayun Mahal joins Khalsa Mahal, its core having burnt down for all the same reasons listed above.

A War Memorial to Love

August 8, 2014


We’ve got mail!

August 7, 2014

The Chief has this thing about the postman’s knock. He writes about it frequently. The Man from Madras Musings is not so enamoured of the game and less so ever since the Chief, in a moment of weakness, installed email and got MMM to administer the daily quota of fan communication that comes to our beloved publication – Chennai Chirpings, oops sorry Chief – Madras Musings.

Each morning, MMM’s hand shakes visibly as he logs on to mail account to see what has come in. Now you may wonder why, and in order to elucidate, MMM gives you a sample. Last week there came in an email that had ‘accusatory’ written all over it. The correspondent began by saying that she was most unhappy with Madras Musings’ delivery. She had, she said, paid for an annual subscription and was not receiving the publication. Of course, this is a common enough complaint upon which MMM has ceased to dwell, chiefly because the postal department (not of Madras Musings which, many people assume, separately exists, but that of the Government of India) is very sensitive to criticism.

But to get back to the email. Upon giving it a cursory read, MMM was about to shoot off the customary apology (‘We know how you feel but there is very little we can do, etc’) when a line caught his attention. Four digit figures were mentioned as subscription and it said that Madras Musings had had the temerity to charge the correspondent the same figure twice but had not delivered even once. It was then that MMM sat up and took notice. Was the Chief in some secret extortion racket, he wondered. What was all this talk of four-figure numbers about which we at MM have no knowledge?

The mail also had another cryptic mention about the weight of each consignment, which puzzled MMM further. After all, we at MM are known for writing on weighty matters but then, surely, nobody could accuse our eight-sheeter tabloid of being heavy in matters of avoirdupois. And then the matter was cleared up. The writer had problems with a well-known monthly that from its name would suggest that the reader who reads it could assimilate his food better. The publication in question was known at one time for sections such as Humour in Uniform, Laughter is the Best Medicine, and It Pays to Enrich Your Word Power. It took a while for MMM to then prepare a reply that requested the writer to please send the missive elsewhere. There has been no response since. Perhaps the reader is digesting MMM’s email before tossing a broadside at the other publication.

If this is one variety, we also have another kind. There is a group of railway users in southern Tamil Nadu who appear to think that their protests and criticisms of their chosen mode of transport should appear each fortnight in Madras Musings. And when it does not, their reaction is bitter. There is a college way down in the State and its Public Relations Department thinks that all the doings of its founder, beyond routine ablutions, must find space in MM. Towards this end they are prepared to fling gold at MMM but he has proven immovable. They have not yet given up hope. It takes all kinds to keep Madras Musings moving.

Lost Landmarks of Chennai – Gemini Studios

August 6, 2014
Gemini Studios entrance

Gemini Studios entrance

Now it is nothing but a cluster of multi-storeyed buildings and a five-star hotel, but till the late 1960s this was the place that embodied cinema. Gemini Studios or, to give the place its propername, Movieland-Gemini Studios, was the best known among the several film studios of Madras.

The story of the property, at the intersection of Mount Road and Nungambakkam High Road, goes back many years. A heavily wooded piece of land, it had in its centre a classical mansion which, according to legend, was once the house of Edward, the second Lord Clive, c.1800. It was in the possession of a J. Sherman in the 1820s. In the 1830s it became the residence of the Rev. F. Spring, Chaplain of St George’s Cathedral, Madras, a man who, it would appear, spent more time at the Agri Horticultural Society close by than in the church. In his time, the property came to be known as Spring’s Garden and the name continued to be used for a century and more, even as the property changed hands – the Rajah of Pithapuram and Sir C Sankaran Nair owning it at various times. In 1903, the property hosted a session of the Congress party, a pandal to house 6000 people being put up in the gardens.

In 1937, the property was purchased by film director K. Subrahmanyam who established a studio there for his Motion Picture Producers Combine (MPPC). It was here that some of his famous films, Thyaga Bhoomi (1938) included, were shot. On December 21, 1940, the studio was burned to the ground necessitating a distress sale of the land. It was bid for and bought by S.S. Vasan of Ananda Vikatan.

Renamed Gemini Studios in 1941, the property embarked on the most exciting phase of its existence. Several hits, including Chandralekha (1948), were made here, making Vasan a movie moghul. The studio was a cosmopolitan place with people from all over the country and even some foreigners working for The Boss as Vasan was always referred to. It was also a ‘must visit’ spot in the city for any VIP who happened to be passing.

The golden era of Gemini was undoubtedly the 1940s and the early 1950s. Thereafter, it did produce some hits but the purple patch of the earlier decade was never matched. Decline set in in the 1960s. The unionised staff, a new political regime and the star as opposed to the studio system meant the good times were coming to an end though Vasan’s grit and determination ensured success to a large degree. When the bugles blow, there will be a show was the motto embossed under the logo of the famed Gemini twins at the entrance and so the show had to be kept going. The Boss died in 1969 after a painful bout with cancer and with him much of the Gemini magic too went. His family decided to focus on his publishing activities and preferred to sell Gemini to developers. The bugles had blown, and the show was over. But old memories die hard – the flyover nearby is still Gemini to most people.

You may want to read about some other landmarks:

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

A Madras Week moment

August 5, 2014

Ah! MMM, such a pleasure talking to you,” said the voice over the phone and The Man from Madras Musings froze in his tracks. A sixth sense warned him that an impossible idea for Madras Week was in the offing. Sure enough, MMM was correct. The person at the other end of the wire, it seemed, found the poster culture of our city most annoying. Each day of this individual’s life, it seems, was blighted by the posters. Coming out of home and office, the first thing that greeted the person’s eyes was a variety of posters. Those that were pasted on the pillars of the Metro rail’s work-in-progress, in particular, offended the most. MMM heard the whole complaint out in silence, wondering from the accusatory tone if the person on the other side thought MMM was responsible for the pasting of these offending pieces of paper.

And then came the punch line. “As part of Madras Week celebrations,” said the voice, with the air of one bestowing a royal favour or issuing a command, “Why don’t you, MMM, do something about it?” Having counted till ten, MMM then asked if the party on the other side had anything specific to suggest. “Why, it’s quite easy. You know so many people in Chennai. Why don’t you first fix a meeting with the Managing Director of Metro rail and explain the matter to him? He should also be convinced to take action. As a follow-up, you could meet the Mayor and the Commissioner of the Corporation. Then, if nothing happens, there is always the …”

At this moment, the voice paused to take a breath and MMM got a word or two in. He explained that Madras Week operates on a simple principle. Put in elementary Chennai-speak, it amounts to “That that person, that that idea, that that execution.” He then went on to make it simpler by saying that, contrary to general opinion, Madras Week is not run by a vast industrial conglomerate that has thousands of minions at its beck and call. Secondly, the organisers have no clout with the Government and, in MMM’s private view, not mentioning their names is the best way to curry any favour with the powers-that-be. Lastly, Madras Week is all about voluntary effort. And so if the voice did not like the posters, the voice needed to do something about it. The caller did not sound very convinced, but rang off.

A couple of days later, MMM was pleasantly surprised to see that the Corporation has resolved that it would remove posters from public places and fine those pasting them. Of course, this is not saying much, given that our city’s civic body has in the past resolved to have clean public toilets, ensure pavement space, maintain smooth roads, tackle the hawker menace, repair street lights, and clear garbage. Anyway, it is the thought that counts and MMM is glad to note that the heart of the civic body is in the right place. But leaving all that aside, MMM wonders if the resolution to remove posters has anything to do with the voice that called MMM. If so, this must be a powerful voice, a voice that, like Mars, can threaten and command. MMM wishes he had made a note of the number.


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