Archive for the ‘Chennai (Madras) History’ Category
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
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
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
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.
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We know of a West Mambalam. Where is its eastern counterpart? And what is Lake View Road doing there with no waterbody in sight barring the occasional puddle? The answers to both lie in what was once known as the Mambalam Town Planning Scheme Eastern Section or as we know of it today – T(heyagaroya) Nagar.
Marmalon, Marmalong and Mamelon are some of the names by which this ancient village was known to the British. In the 1640s when Madras was in its infancy, this was a village known for its painters and printers — those who did Kalamkari work and block printing on cloth. The village however, did not come under British rule till 1750 or thereabouts. It was to remain outside the municipal limits of Madras till the 1950s.
Mambalam was separated from Mount Road by the vast Long Tank, an enormous water body. Early in the 20 century, around 70 acres of the lake was acquired by the Corporation of Madras. This in 1924, was filled in and together with further land acquired in Puliyur Village and the eastern half of Mambalam altogether totalling 540 acres was made over for developing T Nagar. In the 1930s, the South Indian Railway company laid its track separating T Nagar from what was left of the village, which being to the west, became in effect West Mambalam, a name that still continues to be in use. This old area was a contrast to neighbouring T Nagar. Thus the latter had underground drains, parks and broad roads, all absent in Mambalam. The profile of the residents also reflected this – T Nagar had the upper and upper middle classes while Mambalam the lower middle classes.
Running diagonally off the railway track on the West Mambalam side is Lake View Road. It once commanded a fine view of the Long Tank and after its demise, of the Mambalam Tank which was the leftover bit remaining unfilled. This smaller water body regularly flooded the neighbourhood during the rains, its surplus water not having the Long Tank to drain into. Consequently, the entire surrounding area was covered in slush at all times. By the 1950s, with Mambalam drains connecting to it, the tank had become a cesspool, a perfect breeding ground for the mosquitoes for which Mambalam became famous. This was around the time that veteran author Ashokamitran moved in as a tenant to this locality. He writes in his book Oru Parvaiyil Chennai Nagaram (Chennai City at a glance) that everyone in the area suffered from elephantiasis with either a swollen arm or a leg, thanks to the mosquitoes.
By the 1960s, the tank was being filled in by dumping garbage. It slowly made way for houses and today there is not a trace of it. After all, building over lakes and then lamenting over water scarcity is a continuing Chennai tradition. The road name survived as did the mosquitoes that were honoured with a league cricket team – The Mambalam Mosquitoes!
This article appeared in The Hindu dated August 2, 2014 under the Hidden Histories column