Archive for the ‘Chennai (Madras) History’ Category

How Madras grew – part 1

October 29, 2014

This is an article that I wrote for Frontline during Madras Week this year. It was titled Growing in Fits and Starts

Current Chennai Map

Current Chennai Map

Chennai that was Madras now extends from Minjur to Sholinganallur, an urban agglomeration of 1,177 sq km. Of this, the area under the city’s corporation is 426 sq km, which it has divided into 200 wards or divisions, grouped under three zones. The civic body controlled around 176 sq km as late as 2011 when the biggest leap was made – the addition of 42 small local bodies including nine municipalities, eight town panchayats and 25 village panchayats into city limits. This increase is the last in a series of sporadic jumps that our city has made, in its growth over 375 years.

Though Chennai traces its origins from Fort St George in 1639, several pockets of what comprises the city today have a far older heritage. The region as a whole is considered a classic ground of early Paleolithic culture of South India, Pallavaram in being particularly rich in finds. Traces of Iron Age culture have been found in Egmore and the Red Hills. From the Sangam period onwards we have continuous references to villages in the area – Mylapore/Tiruvallikeni, Tiruvottriyur, Mangadu, Poonamallee, Kunrattur, Madhavaram, Nungambakkam, Tambaram and others featuring regularly in inscriptions.

However, it cannot be denied that in August 1639, what was recognised as Madras or Chennapatnam (but lets not get into that controversy) was just Fort St George – originally 100 sq yards in area, with a factory or warehouse in the middle. By 1640, around 300 weavers families were settled just outside this ‘fort’, giving rise to Black Town, which is however not to be confused with the present day Town which was then a couple of hamlets further north. By 1674, there were 118 houses within Fort St George, and 75 outside of it, in old Black Town.

The British were not content with just their Fort and Town. There were continuous representations to the powers that be, and there were several of them then, for the granting on rent one village or the other in the neighbourhood. The ancient settlement of Tiruvallikeni was the first, being leased to the East India Company in 1672. During the tenure of Elihu Yale as Governor (1687-1692), Egmore, Purasawalkam and Tondiarpet were taken on annual lease from Zulfikar Khan, the representative of the Moghul Emperor, Aurangzeb.

The first reliable map of Madras was drawn between 1707 and 1710, on the orders of Governor Thomas Pitt, whose fortune made here would later ensure that two of his descendants became Prime Ministers of England. Pitt’s map shows several recognisable features – the fort had acquired a new Governor’s House, the core of which is today’s Legislative Assembly and Secretariat. The church of St Mary’s built in 1678 is visible. More importantly, it shows that old Black Town had spread to where the High Court now stands. The two hamlets further north are clearly marked Muthial Peta and Peddanaigue Pete. The Island is another feature. This was created by making a cut in the North River, a stream that is now part of the Buckingham Canal. Work on it began in 1696 and when completed, it encompassed the Company’s Garden and a second house for the Governor. Pitt it is said enjoyed the great outdoors and so acquired another house, this one in the distant village of Guindy, thereby marking the first steps towards the present day Raj Bhawan there.

While the map was being drawn. the English had added to their portfolio by renting Tiruvottriyur, Nungambakkam, Vyasarpadi, Kathivakkam and Sathangadu. All the rented villages were by 1720 made over to the English by way of a grant. An important development in 1717 was the settling of weavers in an exclusive area demarcated for them – Chinna Tari Petta or Chintadripet. Nestling in the arms of the Cooum, it was selected because of the presence of several trees, carefully tended by Dubash Sunkurama who is commemorated in a street name here after the land was forcibly taken away from him. The first planned colony of the city, Chintadripet is of a fishbone pattern – a straight spine that cuts across the peninsula with streets branching away from it. All the streets slope down to the river thereby ensuring natural drainage. Unlike Black Town and the other villages in the area, segregation based on caste was strictly forbidden in Chintadripet, a first step towards a cosmopolitan life. Two years after Chintadripet was founded, Governor Joseph Collet set up another weaver’s village near Tiruvottriyur. It was named Colletspettah after him and is today known as Kaladipettai. A grant in 1742 added Vepery, Periamet, Pudupakkam, Ennore and Sadayankuppam to the Company territories.

To be continued

On international smuggling itinerary…

October 25, 2014
The entrance arch of The Oceanic hotel

The entrance arch of The Oceanic hotel

To most residents of Chennai it is an empty piece of real estate, the art deco ‘O’ shaped entrance being the sole survivor. It was a top-notch hotel that once boasted of the city’s first discotheque. To actor Dilip Kumar it was home in Madras, probably because former flame Madhubala stayed at The Connemara. To the Indian cricket team, this was their place of stay when test matches were played here. To me, ever since actor Mohan Raman set me off on the story, The Oceanic will always be the place where a dreaded smuggling duo spent one night.

On December 31, 1965, B.P.C. Comyn and S.T. Lamb, both British nationals, landed at Meenambakkam airport, via an Air Ceylon flight. They spent one night at The Oceanic, before leaving for Bombay, where they stayed at the West End Hotel. There they were arrested on suspicion by police officers D.H. Crawford and R.S. Kulkarni. Their fingerprints were taken and found to be those of wanted international smugglers Daniel Hailey Walcott of the USA and Jean Claude Donze of France.

The two had come back to India in order to retrieve a consignment of gold that they had dumped off Bombay. Both were not new to Indian Courts or jails. In 1962, Walcott flew into India in a DC4 craft. Caught smuggling ammunition, he was arrested, tried and sentenced, being lodged in Tihar. Released conditionally, he would periodically attend to his impounded aircraft at Delhi’s Safdarjung airport. One afternoon, he simply took off in it. Having circled over Tihar and dropped cigarettes and chocolates as gifts for the inmates, he flew off to Pakistan. He had been wanted ever since. Donze had a cleaner track record; he had served his sentence for smuggling off Rameswaram and left the country.

The duo’s 1965 entry into India having been through Madras, they were brought here in the custody of V.R. Lakshminarayanan, later to become DGP, Tamil Nadu. Tried for entering the country on false passports, they were sentenced to rigorous imprisonment for five years. The appeal in the High Court of Madras had V.P. Raman as the Special Public Prosecutor. The sentences were confirmed, which the duo accepted meekly, Walcott even congratulating Raman and asking if he would appear for him in the Supreme Court!

Lodged in the Madras jail opposite the Central Station, they were one day found on the roof of the prison, planning their escape! R.S. Kulkarni was summoned to take them to Bombay where after the discovery of hacksaws and files in their cells, they were transferred to Tihar. These attempts increased the sentences. Released ten years later, Walcott came to Kulkarni’s office in Bombay, complimented him on his fairness and left.

He settled in Los Angeles where he was shot dead in a drug smuggling feud in 2001. Donze vanished from his home in France in 2007 and was later confirmed as having been killed in 2009. The Oceanic was demolished in 2005 or so.

This article appeared in The Hindu dated October 25, 2014, under the Hidden Histories column.

More details on The Oceanic are available here.

The Gurudwara on GN Chetty Road

October 21, 2014
The T Nagar Gurudwara

The T Nagar Gurudwara

Lt. Col. G.S. Gill was among the first of the prominent Punjabis who settled in the city and made important contributions to it. Born on September 16, 1893, Gurdial Singh Gill was from Faridkot, Punjab. Sent to England to study law in 1912, he opted for medicine and moved to Edinburgh University from where he graduated in 1919, throwing in, for good measure, a few months’ service in the Indian Field Ambulance Training Corps during the World War I.

Dr. Gill and his Scottish wife Rena Lister Gill set up his practice and home in Bolton near Manchester for a while and raised a family of four sons. In 1923, they came to India where he joined the Indian Medical Service (IMS) and became Lt. Col. G.S. Gill, IMS. With the IMS being abolished in 1930, he moved to prison service and became Inspector General of Prisons, Madras, which meant all gaols in the Presidency were under him. Most Madras-based Congress leaders arrested during the Quit India movement became his wards and there developed a close affinity between them and the warm-hearted Sikh.

Post-Independence, Gill opted to stay on in Madras. He and other prominent Punjabis settled here at that time were to make important contributions to the city. The Punjab Association had been founded in 1937. The body was to be tested to the hilt in 1947 when it invited, with the backing of former premier C. Rajagopalachari, who had become good friends with Gill while in gaol, scores of Partition refugees to settle in Madras, most having no idea about the city to which they were making their way.

Lt Col. Gill would invariably meet them at the station. A ‘sharanagat rahat punarvas’ (refugee rehabilitation) committee was set up and with money obtained from donations it helped them put down roots. The enterprising newcomers soon became successful entrepreneurs and professionals.

Lt. Col. Gill was a close confidante of Maharani Vidyawati Devi Sahib of Vizianagaram, a princess from Keonthal near Shimla, who had married into a princely Andhra family and had, like him, been transplanted to the South. Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan had been an early protégé of hers. In her, Gill found a powerful patron and supporter. In 1949, when the Punjabis in Madras felt the need for a gurudwara, Gill led the committee that founded the Sri Guru Nanak Sat Sangh Sabha in T’Nagar. It was the Maharani who helped in making the dream a reality, donating generously for the building. Work began in 1952, with Gill personally supervising the construction. Lt. Col. Gill died in May 1982. A block in Guru Nanak College and Gill Nagar, a busy colony of the city, commemorate him. One of his sons was the celebrated Lt. Gen. I.S. Gill, PVSM, MC, whose life was documented in Born to Dare by S. Muthiah.

Kill Nagar! Scary!

Kill Nagar! Scary!

The gurudwara seen above has been completely renovated, modernised and expanded in the last decade, but has retained its traditional character and stands a landmark off GNC Road, T’ Nagar.

You may want to read about other landmarks of the city, past and present:

Kalaivanar Arangam

The Corporation Zoo

Victory House

Gemini Studios

Old Woodlands Hotel

The Oceanic Hotel

My Ladyes Garden

Connemara Hotel

The Airlines Hotel

Everest Hotel

Modern Cafe

Dasaprakash

The Eastern and Western Castlets

The Madras Bulwark

RK Narayan’s first school

October 17, 2014

ELM Fabricius School, Purasawalkam

ELM Fabricius School, Purasawalkam


Last fortnight saw many articles on R.K. Narayan, the man who put Indian writing in English on the world map. Almost all of them lamented the fact that No 1, Vellala Street, Purasawalkam, the house where he spent his childhood, is no longer standing. What flourishes, however, is the first school that R.K. Narayan went to. Located at the intersection of Purasawalkam High Road and Gangadeeswarar Koil Street is the ELM Fabricius School. Established in 1849, it was initially a tiny parish school located within the compound of the Lutheran Church on Tana Street. It soon developed and became known as the Lutheran Mission Middle School. In 1893 it was renamed the E(vangelical) L(utheran) M(ission) Fabricius School, after the German missionary of the 18th century who did such good work in Tamil Christian hymnody and the translation of the Bible into Tamil. In 1894, the school moved from the church into its present premises. The structure remains more or less what it was, with the exteriors now having been plastered over while retaining the original contours.

Narayan, however, did not take to it. In his My Days where he refers to it as the Lutheran Mission School, he reminisces as to how as a child he trailed behind his uncle on Puraswalkam High Road. “When we passed an orange-coloured school building with a green gate, my uncle promised that I would in due course find myself there. I did not welcome the idea. It was a gaunt-looking building with a crucifix on its roof. I hated it at first sight.” Narayan joined the school in 1912, weeping with fear on the first day. He was never to warm up to the institution. He disliked the masters who flourished their canes as “a medium of self-expression like a conductor’s baton”. That he was bad at clay modelling, handwork and writing on the slate did not endear him to his teachers.

This institution was clearly the inspiration for some episodes in Swami and Friends. Both the schools that Swami attends — the Albert Mission and The Board, closely resemble the ELM Fabricius. At the Albert Mission, Narayan has Swami do something he never dared to do in real life — stand up and question the Scripture master when he spoke derogatorily of Hindu gods. Similarly, like Narayan, Swami gets into trouble at the Board School for skipping drill class. And unlike Narayan who patiently suffered the Headmaster’s cane on his palm for this, Swami snatches it and throws it out of the window.

Narayan studied till middle school at the ELM Fabricius and then briefly joined in succession the CRC (now the MCtM) and the Madras Christian College schools before moving on to Mysore. Late in life he would occasionally visit Purasawalkam, trying to spot old landmarks. In his Foreword to the special edition of Swami and Friends to commemorate his 90th year, he was to note that the school stood firm, just as he “knew it as a reluctant schoolboy.”

This article appeared in The Hindu dated October 18, 2014, under the <a href="http://www.thehindu.com/features/friday-review/history-and-culture/stories-of-a-reluctant-schoolboy/article6510831.ece“>Hidden Histories column.

A little bit of Lutyens

October 11, 2014

It is the centenary of the First World War. When it ended in 1919, several memorials were put up for those who sacrificed their lives. Chennai has a few, of which the war memorial near the beach is the best known.

Among the private commemorations is a marble tablet let into a wall of the guest chambers at the Madras Club. It has travelled with the club as it moved from Club House Road to Mount Road and finally to the Boat Club area when it merged the Adyar Club into itself. In terms of artistic value, this memorial does not amount to much — an elegant vertical slab with a curved base, featuring an engraved cross below a list of club members who fell in the war. What is significant, however, is that it was designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens, the architect of much of New Delhi, including the former Viceroy’s House, now the Rashtrapati Bhavan. Given that he was very busy with his bigger projects, Lutyens was to drag his feet on this war memorial, completing the design in 1922 after which it was executed by J. Fenn & Co in 1924.

Lutyens was no stranger to Madras, having come here to study its architecture before embarking on his Delhi work. He detested the Indo-Saracenic style prevailing here, describing the towers and domes as the “Raj’s own particular form of vulgarity”. Left to himself, he would have preferred to design New Delhi in a classical style, but in the end he had to compromise, given the pressures that were brought to bear on him — everyone from Queen Mary to Viceroy Lord Hardinge to the former Consulting Architect of Madras, R.F. Chisholm felt that the Indo-Saracenic style was the form associated most closely with the Empire and so New Delhi had to be built that way, with Lutyens bringing his own elegant stamp to it.

In his Cochin Saga, Sir Robert Bristow remembers seeing Lutyens at the Madras Club, then at Club House Road, “eating oysters cooked as only the Madras Club could in those days. He held his fork in his left hand and made rapid sketches on a sheet of foolscap with his right.” Lutyens’ stay here may have been brief but not that of his wife. Lady Emily and he were not a happy couple when together, finding compatibility only towards the end of their lives. She, however, knew his worth as a brilliant architect, and thanks to her aristocratic lineage, her father being a former Viceroy of India, did much to further his career. An ardent Theosophist, she practically lived in Madras while Sir Edwin worked in Delhi. She later identified herself completely with the philosopher J. Krishnamurti. A warm friendship sprang up between the two, with Krishnamurti declaring that he found a mother’s love in Lady Emily. The Lutyens’ daughter Mary became a close confidante of Krishnamurti and among her various books is a much-acclaimed three-volume biography of the philosopher.

This article appeared in The Hindu dated October 11, 2014, under the Hidden Histories column

A tradition of political martyrdom

October 4, 2014

Last week saw plenty of turmoil in our state and that has brought in its wake a number of suicides — all by way of expressing shock at what has befallen a leader. The latest tally is 16, adding to a long list of martyrs who gave up lives for political causes, a tradition that is unique to Tamil Nadu.

In her fascinating book, Passions of The Tongue, Language Devotion in Tamil India, 1891-1970, Sumathi Ramaswamy has it that the first instances of such deaths were seen during the Anti-Hindi agitation of 1937-38. Rajaji, on becoming Prime Minister of Madras in 1937, made a policy announcement about introducing Hindi as a language in secondary schools in the Presidency. This was to see strong protests. Stalin Jagadeesan announced his intention to fast unto death for the sake of Tamil. He became a role model for protestors with C.N. Annadurai announcing that if Jagadeesan were to die, he was prepared to take his place and die for the cause. In the event, Jagadeesan did not die and called off his fast after ten weeks, amidst rumours that he had been taking refreshments on the sly.

A far more serious matter was the death of two men in police custody, following their arrests for participating in the agitation. These were Thalamuthu Nadar and Natarajan. Interestingly, both were illiterate but were filled with an abiding love for Tamil. Arrested at separate places, they had both refused to accept certain conditions for their release and died while in prison. While the Government gave out routine medical reasons for their death, for the Anti-Hindi agitators, they were martyrs to the cause. An emotional Anna declared that their deeds ought to be inscribed in gold. The headquarters of the Chennai Metropolitan Development Authority in Egmore is named after them.

Self-immolation as a form of protest began when M. Bhaktavatsalam was Chief Minister of Madras State in the 1960s and it appeared that Hindi would be imposed in school curricula. Trichy Chinnasami set himself on fire for the sake of Tamil on January 25, 1965. This was followed by at least five other men — Aranganathan, Sarangapani, Veerappan, Muthu and Sivalingam, doing the same. Four more people consumed poison. There are two Trichy Chinnasami Streets in Chennai, one in Perambur and the other in Korukkupet. Aranganathan is remembered in a subway in Saidapet. Sivalingam, Veerappan and Sarangapani are commemorated with street names in the Perambur/Agaram areas. Also remembered by way of a street name in Vadapalani is Sankaralinganar, the Gandhian who in 1956 fasted to death demanding that Madras State be renamed Tamil Nadu. That change in nomenclature had to wait till 1968.Since then, fasting has become symbolic, largely practised by the upper echelons of society and lasting for a few hours! Self-immolation and other forms of suicide however continue to happen as and when a beloved leader falls ill, dies or undergoes some privation. The ethics of such acts continue to be debated.

This article appeared under the Hidden Histories Column of The Hindu dated October 4, 2014

Lost Landmarks of Chennai – Kalaivanar Arangam

October 3, 2014
Kalaivanar Arangam

Kalaivanar Arangam

The Madras Legislative Council set up in the 1860s continuously expanded thereafter till the 1920s. It had its meetings in the Council Chamber in Fort St. George. When the Legislative Assembly came into existence following the institution of dyarchy, it met first in 1937 at Senate House and between 1938 and 1939 at Banqueting (Rajaji) Hall. By the 1940s, a full-fledged Assembly Hall had been built inside Fort St George and so the Assembly moved into the Fort.

Independence posed a new problem – the composite Madras State, which comprised what later became Andhra, had 375 Assembly constituencies and, so, that many legislators as well. The Assembly Hall in the Fort could not accommodate so many. A new Legislature building was, therefore, constructed in Government Estate, just behind Rajaji Hall and Government House. Completed at a cost of Rs. 10 lakh, it was inaugurated on May 2, 1952 by Governor Sri Prakasa.

The division of States on the basis of linguistic regions saw the creation of Andhra Pradesh in 1953 and the number of legislators in Madras State fell to 205. This could be safely accommodated in the Assembly Hall inside the Fort and so the legislature shifted back. The newly built Legislature building was re-developed as The Children’s Theatre where children’s films and documentaries were shown at subsidised rates. It was, however, never popular. The auditorium received a fresh lease of life when it was refurbished as a 1000-seat theatre and relaunched as Kalaivanar Arangam, named after N.S. Krishnan.

The theatre survived till 2008 when, as part of the magnificent obsession to build a new Assembly-cum-Secretariat in Government Estate, the heritage buildings in the premises were all brought down one by one. Rajaji Hall was the sole survivor. Kalaivanar Arangam too became a casualty. That it was all to no use is now clear, what with the Assembly having shifted once again into the Fort and the new building becoming a multi-speciality referral hospital.

Meanwhile, work has begun on building a new theatre on the spot where Kalaivanar Arangam once stood.

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

The Corporation Zoo

Victory House

Gemini Studios

Old Woodlands Hotel

The Oceanic Hotel

My Ladyes Garden

Connemara Hotel

The Airlines Hotel

Everest Hotel

Modern Cafe

Dasaprakash

The Eastern and Western Castlets

The Madras Bulwark

Avadhanam Paupiah – A diabolical dubash

September 27, 2014

http://www.thehindu.com/features/metroplus/society/a-diabolical-dubash/article6449281.ece

The Scots who built Madras

September 19, 2014

http://www.thehindu.com/features/metroplus/the-scots-who-built-madras/article6426709.ece

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

Dasaprakash

The Eastern and Western Castlets

The Madras Bulwark


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