Archive for the ‘Chennai (Madras) History’ Category

Lost Landmarks of Chennai – Modern Cafe

April 14, 2014
Modern Cafe, Esplanade

Modern Cafe, Esplanade

Featured here is the Modern Café,which was one of a chain of restaurants begun by K. Seetharama Rao, before he founded the Dasaprakash Hotel on Poonamallee High Road. Modern Café, Mysore (by appointment to HH The Maharajah) was the first. Modern Café, Madras, came next, by the early 1930s. Then followed Modern Hindu Hotel, with two outlets, one each in Mysore and Ootacamund.

The Madras one featured here was on Esplanade Road (now NSC Bose Road). It made its name catering to the lawyers of the High Court. In its heyday, the Modern Café ran a hotel at Hari Nivas, Thambu Chetty Street, and also two other restaurants called Modern Café, one in Egmore and the other at Basin Bridge. Seetharama Rao, whose motto was service, also began the first organised canteen on the Marina, next to the swimming pool, thanks to the encouragement of O. Pulla Reddy, Commissioner of the Corporation of Madras, in the 1940s.

You may want to read about these lost landmarks as well:


The Eastern and Western Castlets

The Madras Bulwark

Lost Landmarks of Chennai – Dasaprakash

April 10, 2014
Dasaprakash Hotel on Poonamallee High Road

Dasaprakash Hotel on Poonamallee High Road

The chief has been drooling over a Madras Guide of the 1950s which has photos of some famed commercial establishments of the city. The quality of print is terrible but still the photos evoke a memory. I have been given the enjoyable task of writing the notes for each.

The first of these is Dasaprakash Hotel. A wonderful art deco building, it was part of a chain built up by Kuttethoor Seetharama Rao who gave up a lowly Government job in 1921 to join his brothers in running a restaurant in Mysore. He later established others in Madras and Ootacamund, and the chain moved to North India in the 1970s and, thereafter, to the USA.

The Poonamallee High Road flagship hotel was inaugurated in 1954, as was its twin kalyana mandapam, Dharmaprakash. The hotel was known for its good Udipi fare, ice creams and comfortable rooms. In its time, its restaurants had seen visitors ranging from Pt. Jawaharlal Nehru to J.K. Galbraith.

Differences in the family and the five-star culture saw the closure of Dasaprakash in the 1990s. The building was demolished in 2010 to make way for highrise after the property changed hands.

Threat to Pulicat lake’s buffer zone

April 8, 2014

If a country had a magnificent lake that dates back to the Holocene period, rich in bio­diversity and history, what would it do? Protect it? Promote it? Neither, if the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MOEF), Government of India, is to be believed. In a startling move, the MOEF has proposed that the buffer zone around Pulicat Lake be reduced from ten to two kilometres! This unexpected blow has environmentalists up in arms.

The move comes following a decision by the Ministry of Shipping, Government of India, to develop Durgarayapatnam (Armagon of Francis Day fame) as a port and shipbuilding centre spread over 5000 acres. The proposed development, notified in September 2013, is expected to take over at least 5 km of protected area in the vicinity of Pulicat. It centres on Tuppili­palem (in Andhra) which happens to be just around 4 km from Pulicat Lake itself.

There are several questions about the sustainability of this port, but the Ministry has decided to go ahead nevertheless. It is to allow for this that the MOEF has, on January 3, 2014, proposed a restricted Eco Sensitive Zone (ESZ) around Pulicat. This overrides the Andhra Pradesh Government Forest Department proposal for a ten-km ESZ around the Lake. That was mooted in 2007, following a Supreme Court order in 2004, asking for ‘shock absorbers’ around ecologically sensitive areas. That it has not yet been notified and remains on paper is yet another matter.

The Lake is of vital importance not only to the Tamil Nadu-Andhra region around it but also to international birdlife.

Firstly, around fifty villages, most of whose occupants rely on traditional methods of fishing, depend on it for their livelihood. The building of a port, however world-class it may promise to be, will immediately mean the end of a way of life. It must be pointed out that most of the fisherfolk here practise what is known as the padu system of fishing. Known for its ecologically sensitive way of harvesting fish, it is already facing a decline thanks to the setting up of the Ennore Thermal Power Station, which discharges effluents at elevated temperatures into the Lake.

Secondly, the Lake is a bird sanctuary that has international significance, located as it is on the Eastern Flyway of the Central Asian Flyway, a crucial migratory route. Birds while migrating across the globe, therefore, visit it and some of them are highly endangered species. Tampering with their habitats can spell disaster to some birdlife across the world. It is feared that the proposed port will impact not only the flight pattern of the birds but also the aquatic life in the Lake, which forms an important link in the food chain needed for the birds to survive.

Thirdly, the Lake itself depends on three openings to the sea, the northernmost of which is at Durgarayapatnam. It is the view of conservationists that the port will result in the sealing off of that outlet following construction activities. This particular mouth is of immense importance, for it is from here that the seawater enters the lake, the openings in Tamil Nadu serving as exits. If this is to be shut off, the lake will be starved of fresh water supply. The impounded water will evaporate in summer, resulting in hypersalinity, which will kill the aquatic life.

Lastly, India is a signatory to the Ramsar Agreement that aims to protect water bodies. This is “an intergovernmental treaty that embodies the commitments of its member countries to maintain the ecological character of their Wetlands of International Importance and to plan for the wise use, or sustainable use, of all of the wetlands in their territories,” to quote from its website. To what purpose such agreements if they are not to be implemented at ground level?

Recording of my talk on V Krishnaswami Aiyar

April 1, 2014

The talk is up in full on Youtube at this link:

You can also read accounts of his life at:

Parts 1 and 2

100 years of a statue

The Man who saved The Marina

A talk on V Krishnaswami Aiyar

March 26, 2014
V Krishnaswami Aiyer's statue outside Senate House

V Krishnaswami Aiyer’s statue outside Senate House

This great personality has featured often on this blog. This being his 150th year of birth, his family members are commemorating the same with a get-together at the Sanskrit College Mylapore on 29th March, Saturday at 4.30 pm.

I have been asked to give a talk on his life. All are welcome.

In you case you are not free, you can read about his life at

V Krishnaswami Aiyar, parts 1 & 2

A 100 years of a statue

The man who saved the Marina

Fondly remembering Lafond

March 25, 2014

Lafond was an Anglo-Indian of the 1860s. He was also probably the first among non-Europeans to rise high in the Madras police force. He became Deputy Commissioner. His track record is of a kind that today’s politicians would have loved. In 1860, he, under the instructions of his boss Boulderson, stood aside to watch the Wesleyan Mission being ransacked by ‘majority’ community members. The latter were protesting the conversion of Vijayaranga, who in turn claimed he was changing over voluntarily.

The Government of Madras was not amused and strictures were passed against Lafond. Vijayaranga converted in any case and became a lay priest or something of that kind. But, and here is where the mystery is, Lafond is remembered in a street just behind the Zion Church in Chintadripet. Only his spelling as can be seen, is causing a lot of confusion, or should we say conpusion?


Whoever painted that sign knew enough French to realise that D is often silent when appearing at the en of a wor. And we have no ‘F’ in Tamil (oh Puck!). The B instead of P is probably a #bathma or #kogul.

Then came the realisation that Lafond was not French. But we still have no F and so…


But why is he remembered at all?

On the evolution of wedding gifts

March 19, 2014

The Man from Madras Musings is breathing easy, now that the wedding season is over. His good lady, also known as She Who Must Be Obeyed has now gone on to other things to expend her surplus energy leaving MMM alone and free from the care of attending weddings. But the spate of marriages had MMM musing on the way wedding gifts have changed over the years.

MMM is aware of a dim past when diamond necklaces, silverware and other such gifts were de rigueur but he was born in a more prosaic age. Among MMM’s earliest memories is of a doctor aunt getting married. A patient of hers gifted her with a ghastly steel cup (or was it a set MMM forgets). The aunt having put it away, rather absentmindedly gifted it back to the same patient when the patient got married. A couple of years later, the cup (or was it a set), came right back, when a second aunt got married. That aunt migrated to another city where no doubt the cup (or the set) was launched once again onto the gift circuit where it probably still orbits.

Mind you, a steel cup (or set) though hideous, is still better than the plastic ones that began doing the rounds a decade later. The era of the plastics was generally the worst for gifts and has mercifully got over. There are days when the mood is despondent and MMM can recall those cream coloured melamine cups with printed floral designs that were the most favoured gifts, at least from the giver’s point of view. If you got plenty of those, there were other excrescences as well. Who could forget the milk cookers – those aluminium creations in which water circulated and boiled in a chamber that surrounded the one in which the milk was poured? The water boiled first and the cooker whistled to warn you that the milk was next in line. It all worked well for the first month or so after which the whistle got choked with whatever whistles get choked with. The consequence was that the milk boiled over, the water having evaporated by then. But you did not have to worry, for you had at least half-a-dozen milk cookers on standby – all from your wedding and if you had not gifted them to others by then that is. If you were married in the 1970s or 1980s, milk cookers were the standard gifts, closely followed by electric irons. A close third was the ice bucket, perhaps because our city has hot weather throughout the year.

Far worse than the milk cookers, were the glowing lamps. MMM is fairly certain that the younger generation among his faithful readers will not know about these. They were hideous, comprising two metal florets, which held a coloured, transparent plastic cylinder between them. This cylinder contained water within. All simple and innocent you may imagine. The lamp was however a nasty bag of tricks that revealed itself only when connected to electric power. The water inside began to glow and what was worse, revealed several tapeworm like floaters that shone and darted about hither and thither. This was bad enough but some others had music in them as well. The only good thing was that the whole ensemble lasted a week or ten days at most at the end of which the water drained out. A rather cynical uncle told MMM that the lamp was popular as a wedding gift as it symbolised marital bliss and only lasted that long. But that, as MMM hastens to add, was his, the uncle’s and not MMM’s view.

One excrescence that is still going strong is the statuette of white metal. Nothing can be uglier than this, no matter what shape it takes – a Venus, the elephant-headed God or a horse.
And then, there were some thrifty souls who got away with the simple expedient of sending a greetings telegram. These used to be ceremoniously read out as well. More on them later…

If you liked this you may want to read about cash gifts as well.

This is also worth a read – Still more wedding gifts

Better times for Chepauk Palace?

March 18, 2014

At long last, work is to begin on the restoration of Khalsa Mahal, one of the two wings of historic Chepauk Palace. This is a little more than two years after it was gutted in a fire. The tardy beginning notwithstanding, it is a matter for cheer that the authorities have considered restoration as an alternative to demolition – something that they are more familiar with.

One wing of Khalsa Mahal

One wing of Khalsa Mahal

Khalsa Mahal was burnt down in January 2012 following a short circuit. The building was asking for it, as had been repeatedly pointed out in this publication. Shoddy maintenance, adhoc electric wiring, seepage of water due to arbitrary construction of toilets and the dumping of old files and wooden furniture, all of them contri­buted to a deadly combination that did its work thoroughly when the fire accident happened. The building has remained a mouldering ruin ever since, awaiting official action.

But there are some positive elements to the story. Barring a hasty announcement by a Minister in the immediate aftermath of the fire that the building would be demolished, the administration made it quite clear that it was interested in saving the structure. A committee of three experts was asked to study the possibility and, though this body did not have a single conservation architect in its composition, the final recommendation was for restoration, even if the terms for it were vague at best. This by itself was a marked departure from earlier incidents of fire in historic buildings – Moore Market, Spencer’s and Gandhi Illam being three examples – where restoration was not even considered, despite pleas.

What was even more encouraging was that the Government in June 2012 decided that it wanted to make the restoration of Khalsa Mahal a model exercise, which would be the blueprint for such restorations in future. It was then said that the restoration, as and when it happened, would not be on the basis of the stifling PWD norms, where the rates and terms of contract were always based on new construction. It is not clear if that same generosity of spirit has survived and if the proposed restoration is on those lines. It has, however, now been announced that the work is to begin in the next few weeks. The task is being entrusted to a Mysore-based ­conservation architect, who has ­earlier worked on the restoration of the Madras Club and Ripon Building.

There are bound to be great difficulties and challenges ahead. The work is going to be labour intensive and whether it will be possible to complete it within the specified one-year period is doubtful. It also makes you wonder at the ways of the bureaucracy – two years to ­decide on restoration and then just a year to complete it! The contract has strict terms to use the existing materials as far as possible. How feasible this will be, given that most of it has ­survived as debris exposed to the elements for the past two years, is open to question. And it is to be hoped that restoration will be faithful to the spirit of such an exercise and not like what was done at the Madras GPO after a fire ravaged its ­central hall. That was a sham restoration where the only cause for joy was that the ­structure was allowed to ­survive.

What is sad, however, is that there is no move to restore the other wing – Humayun Mahal – which is in a precarious condition after a roof collapse. Why does the Government not take up this also and give us a splendidly restored Chepauk Palace, a precinct that we can be ­justifiably proud of?

For further details on Chepauk Palace, read the links below:

Chepauk Palace history

Its sad state prior to the fire

The fire that ravaged Chepauk Palace

The dithering on the restoration of Chepauk Palace

A Heritage Walk in Chintadripet

March 15, 2014
Dhanakoti House, Lafond Street

Dhanakoti House, Lafond Street

Let us tour the first planned colony within the bounds of Madras – Chinna Tari Pettah or Chintadripet. The walk will look at the histories of the great dubashes who built this settlement, secure between the arms of the Cooum. Today it is a horribly congested locality, but a walk around the area throws up hidden gems – forgotten schools, thriving markets, some beautiful homes and historic temples. It is also interesting to see how a village was planned, with Agraharams, Bazaars and places of worship.

Adipureeswarar Temple, Chintadripet

Adipureeswarar Temple, Chintadripet

The walk will be held on Sunday, 23rd March and will last from 6.00 to 8.30 am, ending with the usual breakfast. Those interested can register by email at

The sorry state of Fort St George

March 5, 2014
Last house on Snob's alley, Fort St George. The ASI is said to be restoring it.

Last house on Snob’s alley, Fort St George. The ASI is said to be restoring it.

We as a publication have always maintained that Fort St George needs to be the administrative headquarters of our State. It, after all, symbolises the beginning of modern history for the whole country and has been the seat of administration of Southern India and, later, our State for 374 years. What is, however, forgotten is that the Fort is also a historic precinct that draws visitors from the city, the State and the world over. Their interests are not considered at all by the administrative juggernaut. In the process, the Fort is increasingly becoming a disappointment.

Take the very process of entry. The north and south sea gates are closed to the general public who need to access the Fort from a side entrance that has to be searched for and located. Names have to be entered in mouldy registers. Visitors then need to be frisked, the women in a makeshift shelter that only the hardiest of sightseers would like to enter. Once inside, there are no maps, brochures or routes. The average tourist simply wanders around, the Church of St Mary and the Fort Museum being the only two fixed landmarks.

Where a person can wander around is also highly dependent on official whims. Thus, on a normal day, walking down St Thomas’ Street (also known as Snob’s Alley) is allowed, but on certain days this can be blocked off without reason. More consistent is the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) which, seated in Clive Building (really Admiralty House), has a placard at the reception table, which categorically forbids visitors beyond that point. As for its own excellent initiative, ‘Clive’s Corner’, which served as an information centre on one of the Fort’s most colourful occupants, this is kept locked all the time.

When it comes to upkeep, it cannot be denied that the areas under the control of the State Government are the worst off. Haphazard parking of vehicles, litter from juice and tea shops and, above all, the continued and seemingly endless renovation of Namakkal Kavignar Maligai, the ten storey tower, add to the chaos. Posters on the walls contribute still further to the poor image that the Fort presents. What is the point in putting up signs that warn everyone against littering, when this practice is routinely carried on with impunity by the occupants themselves?

The ASI has put up its standard blue boards at various places declaring that the building alongside is a historic monument and that those caught defacing or damaging it will be fined or punished. But what about the monuments that have already collapsed or are very near to that? What is the purpose in putting up these signs next to Wellesley House, for instance, part of which fell in the 1980s and has remained rubble ever since? There are some other buildings that the ASI is supposed to be forever restoring. One of these, the last house on Snob’s Alley, is in the picture above. It is anybody’s guess as to what restoration is going on.

As for any information on any of the buildings, just forget it. Barring St Mary’s and the Fort Museum, buildings that have their histories inscribed on marble, none of the other structures has any detail. You are expected to walk around and form your own theories as to what each one stood for. As for the ravelins that form the Wallajah and St George’s Gates, the space beneath them has been made over for debris. The gates are at least kept clean as they provide access to the Fort Station. But the North Gate perhaps is the worst off, completely littered, with the road leading to it doubling up as a bazaar where vendors sell flowers and other things.

If this is the way we present one of the best known monuments of our city, what price the other historic structures?

If you found this interesting, you may also want to read this


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