Archive for the ‘Chennai (Madras) History’ Category
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.
You may want to read about some other landmarks:
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
Completely cut off from public view and located at the end of a curving drive is a sylvan property that is now on its last legs. It is reliably learnt that the space has changed hands and developers will soon swing into action.
One of the prominent landowners of Madras Presidency was Shanmukha Rajeswara or Naganatha Setupathi, Rajah of Ramnad, and among his many properties was Woodlands, Royapettah, a stone’s throw from the erstwhile Madras Club property that became Express Estate and is now a mall. Set in the midst of 16½ acres. Woodlands was the city residence of the Rajah before he moved to Cenotaph Road. Woodlands was purchased by Muni Venkatappa, a building contractor, in 1937, for a hotel business. Not finding the going easy, he offered it on rent in 1938 to K. Krishna Rao (1898-1990).
Krishna Rao had worked as a dishwasher, waiter and flour-grinder before he got his big break, when he was asked to manage a restaurant on Acharappan Street in George Town. Having made a success of it, he struck out on his own and set up Madras’s first Udipi hotel, ‘The Udipi Sri Krishna Vilas’ on Mount Road in 1926/27.
He leased the Royapettah property and established the eponymous Woodlands Hotel here, the first of what is now an immensely popular worldwide chain. The hotel had 45 rooms at a rent of Rs. 5 a day. Krishna Rao would himself solicit guests by waiting at Central Station! The Music Academy’s annual conference in 1938 was held here under the leadership of Ariyakkudi Ramanuja Iyengar, which proved a strong advertisement for the hotel. It became the place where the glamorous stars of the 1940s – M.K. Thyagaraja Bhagavatar, N.C. Vasanthakokilam and others-stayed. The War years brought difficulties, including the crashing of a light plane in the garden! In 1947, Rajaji hosted a tea party on the lawns here to celebrate India’s independence.
In 1952, Krishna Rao moved Woodlands Hotel to Edward Elliot’s (Dr. Radhakrishnan) Road, where it became the New Woodlands Hotel, to distinguish it from the old at Royapettah, which continued as a hotel. Despite the outstanding success of the former, the latter remained popular as a venue and, in 1959, it was from here that Rajaji launched his Swatantra Party. The place was also a favourite location for photo and film shoots.
In 1966, Woodlands, and especially room number 32, shot briefly into notoriety. 750 bars of gold were discovered under the mattress following a tip off. The consignment had been brought by car from Bombay and was hidden here by a guest who, having locked the room, went off to the Dasaprakash Hotel to stay. Investigations led to the arrest and trial of Kotumal Bhirumal Pihlajani and several others. In its time, it was a sensational instance of gold smuggling.
Till the mid-1970s, Woodlands continued to remain one of the well-known hotels of the city. It then went into a decline. The property itself now houses a hotel and a theatre under different managements and both share its name. The hotel building, with a portico that was probably added later, is of the typical Madras roof type. It has some fascinating and beautifully maintained period furniture and fittings. A few plaster statues adorn the vast gardens. Apart from the cheap lodgings it provided, the hotel was till recently known for its lunches, which were of the traditional South Indian variety.
Other Lost/Losing/Surviving Landmarks of Chennai
A golden wedding anniversary had passed silently by and nobody noticed. I allude to that of Rukmini and Rajagopalan, which took place, as I see from the invitation card, on April 29, 1963. I am assuming that the couple had a happy married life and were still around to celebrate the 50 anniversary of tying the knot.
What is all this you ask. And what is so unusual about a Tambrahm wedding that happened 51 years ago? Well, in the first place, it took place in Washington, a rather unusual location for those times. And secondly, considering that it took place in an era when media was in its infancy and the Internet was something that the army used, thousands of Tamils followed the build up to the actual event with bated breath all across the world.
Those belonging to that era would have caught my drift. Those who came in later will need explanatory notes and here they are – it was in 1963 that the well-known Tamil writer, humourist and editor of the magazine Dinamani Kadir, Sa Viswanathan (Saavi) embarked on his entirely fictitious account of a Tambrahm wedding in Washington, courtesy the wealthy Mrs. Rockefeller.
The plot in brief is like this – the well-to-do Hopes family based out of New York is extremely close to the Murthy family, whose head works for the UNESCO. From Vasantha, the Murthy daughter, Loretta, the Hopes child, hears about the wonders of India. When Vasantha gets married in Thanjavur, the Hopes come down and participate in a full-length wedding.
Back in the US, the Hopes brief Mrs Rockefeller about the wondrous Tambrahm wedding and she is keen to see one; not by herself but in the company of all her family and friends. She therefore, using the good offices of Murthy, selects a South Indian couple who are to be married in Madras, to come over the US. They are of course accompanied by their respective clans, an assortment of cooks, priests, musicians (Ariyakkudi, Lalgudi and Palghat Mani Iyer) and nagaswaram artistes, countless other service providers and above all, a battalion of Mamis who are brought in to make appalams.
What follows is a grand wedding at R Street, Washington DC. Wielding a facile pen, Saavi created a hilarious account of how a Brahmin wedding is organised, contrasting it with the wonderment of the Americans. As you read it, you also get the feeling that Saavi was laughing at us. The story when serialised, was accompanied by the sketches of veteran Gopulu, making for a big hit. Alliance Publishers later released it as a book, which is still in print.
Washingtonil Tirumanam became a successful play, staged by every sabha in the city. Making his theatrical debut in it was Poornam Viswanathan. The highlight was the audience participating in the traditional procession accompanying the bridegroom, conducted every evening around the venue.
51 years later, Washingtonil Tirumanam remains evergreen – a testimony to Saavi, and our weddings that keep getting bigger.
This article appeared in The Hindu dated July 19, 2014, under the Hidden Histories column
Zion Church in Chintadripet is probably the only shrine in our city that owes its existence to the Americans. It was established by the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions (ABCFM), the first Christian missionary organisation from the USA, set up in 1810.
In 1820, Dr Myron Winslow moved from the USA to Ceylon and began the work of the ABCFM there. In 1836, he came to Madras to establish what would later become known as the Zion Church. He also did pioneering work in creating a Tamil-English lexicon, which he completed by 1856 or so and for which the Harvard University awarded him an honorary doctorate. One of Dr Winslow’s daughters was married to John Welsh Dulles who came from a Presbyterian family of Philadelphia. In 1849, Dulles, ordained as a minister, set sail for Madras, along with his wife. Arriving here, he began spreading the gospel among the natives, the Zion Church being his base. Ill-health forced his return to the USA in 1853 and there he was to write a book based on his stay in our city – Life In India, Or Madras, Neilgherries and Calcutta. Published in 1855 by the American Sunday-School Union of Philadelphia, it is a fascinating work. Accompanied by black and white sketches, it has detailed descriptions of Mount Road, Chintadripet, Town, Mahabalipuram, St Thomas Mount and other localities of the city and is available as a free download from the Internet. By the 1860s, the ABCFM began focusing on Madurai, where it established the American College. The Zion Church was handed over to the Christian Missionary Society. Today it falls under the Church of South India.
Back in America, John W. Dulles continued his work till 1887. His son Allen Macy Dulles carried on the Presbyterian tradition but not so grandsons John Foster and Allen Welsh Dulles, taking as they did after their mother’s family that was into politics and public office. The elder brother served as Secretary of State during Eisenhower’s tenure as President. Cancer cut short his career in 1959. During his tenure in office, his younger brother headed the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) of the United States. Between them, the brothers advocated a strong stance against communism, which dictated much of Cold War policy including interventions in Iran and Guatemala.
The Kennedy administration however did not take kindly to Allen Welsh Dulles. Following the Bay of Pigs fiasco in 1961, President John F Kennedy (JFK) forced him to resign, a day after he had awarded him the National Security Medal! More irony was to follow in 1963, when following JFK’s assassination President Lyndon B. Johnson inducted Allen Dulles into the Warren Commission that investigated the murder. Dulles’ appointment, given that Kennedy did not like him, came in for criticism and much of the botched up nature of the eventual report of the Warren Commission was indirectly attributed to Dulles.
Standing at the Zion Church, who would think of its link to the CIA?
This article appeared in The Hindu dated July 12, 2014, under the Hidden Histories column.
Strategically located on Mount Road, the Cosmopolitan Club is one of the landmarks of the city. Founded in 1873, it was meant to be a place where Indians and the English could meet on an equal footing unlike the earlier clubs, such as the Madras Club and the Madras Cricket Club, that were only for the whites. The Club was initially at Moore’s Gardens, Nungambakkam, and moved to its present location in 1882.
Set in a compound filled with trees, the club building is two-storeyed and is a traditional brick and lime structure. The portico spreads into a verandah that goes all around the building. The best feature of the place is the lobby that is accessed from the verandah. Lined with the best timber of the times, it ends in fluted Corinthian columns that frame a wooden staircase. The first landing has an alcove that hosts a bust of Sir C.V. Kumaraswami Sastry, Justice of the High Court of Madras. The first floor is noteworthy for its wooden-floored hall, a card room and a grand library.
W.S. Krishnaswami Nayudu, Justice of the High Court of Madras in the 1950s, has in his memoirs given us some details of the early days of the Club. Formed on July 27, 1873, the first meeting was presided over by H.S. Cunningham, Advocate-General of the High Court of Madras. He became the first Vice- President, when its President was Justice Holloway. The first Secretary was Captain Tyrell. The Club began with 40 members.
The present property is said to have been the site of Simpson’s, coach-builders, or of Thomas Waller’s stables. It was bought by the Club through the good offices of Haji Muhammad Abdul Sahib for Rs.17,000. The purchase was funded through the issue of debentures to members.
Though it was meant to be a mixed club, the European element left by 1890. It had always been the convention of the Club to have a retired Judge or Government official as its President. This was first broken in 1882 itself when Mir Humayun Jah Bahadur, a grandson of Tippu Sultan, became President. In later years, other notables, such as Raja Sir Savalai Ramaswami Mudaliar and Sir Pitty Theagaroya Chetty, have also been Presidents. The convention of Judges or Officers becoming Presidents has been given up in recent times.
The Club played an important role in the formation of the Justice Party, its founder, Dr. T.M. Nair being noticed by the social elite of the city only after he became a member. It is, therefore, in a way the birthplace of the Dravidian politics of today. During the early years, it was also home to the Egmore lobby of lawyers of the High Court, as opposed to the Mylapore lobby. The Club’s platinum jubilee in 1954 was a grand affair, with Justice A.S.P. Ayyar presiding and W.S. Krishnaswami Nayudu preparing the souvenir on behalf of a committee.
It is one of the most popular clubs of the city, known for its South Indian cuisine and its facilities.