It rained cats and dogs on the night of the 27th as well and so I was quite sure when I got up at 4.00 am that Mint Street would be at its galeej and galabai best. I was not far wrong. We assembled outside the High Court at 6.15 am and were off by 6.30 am, with three vans, each manned by a volunteer – self in one, Karthik Bhatt in the second and Srijagannathan of Shubh Yathras, our tireless organiser of vans for the tours in the third. We began with the Mint and Crown Cinema. Mohan Raman who was with us in the walk (and more on him later), was able to add information on Raghupathy Prakash and his pioneering work in cinema (all three of his theatres – Crown, Gaiety and Globe (Roxy) are now demolished).
Our next stop was the house of Ramalinga Swamigal on Veerasami Street. The upper floor of this residence, where the saint lived is now care of caretakers who were not available and so we just saw the place from outside. Interestingly, there appears to be rather strong rivalry between two groups both of which claim the Swamigal to be their own. The rival gang hopes to make up for lack of control over the house by displaying a photo of his and demanding that we pay obeisance there too. Wonder what the Arutperum Jyothi would have had to say. Entry and exit to Veerasami Street is via Barracks Street which is a teeming slum. I was nearly assaulted by a challenged individual from here and so the photographer who was with us suggested an alternative route out. An added bonus was that we could see Murugan Cinema, at one time Kinema Central and the Prince Theatre. It was when it was Kinema that it hosted the first Tamil talkie – Kalidas on 31st October 1931. So off we went and here again, thanks to Mohan, we had some interesting nuggets. I was so reminded of my friend Stephen Hughes and hoped that he, Mohan and I could one day come back to this place for some more feast of reason and flow of soul.
From Murugan in it was back to the vans to the Sumai Thangi Ramar temple, with its exquisite Tanjore painting of Rama, perhaps the original object of worship before the stone idol was consecrated. This was where ‘Tiger’ Varadachariar cut his musical teeth, thanks to Bhajans organised by the Tachur Singaracharlu Brothers. From there it was on to the Thondai Mandala Thuluva Vellalar School, established in 1864. From there we boarded the vans to go the Hindu Theological School, founded by Sivasankara Pandyaji in 1888. We were welcomed in, given coffee and biscuits and yours truly was ‘shawled’ by the Principal in front of Pandyaji’s bust. To me it was thrilling to recite the story of how C Saraswathi Bai had her Harikatha debut here in 1909, giving male chauvinism a well-deserved kick in the butt. Of course, with young Bhatt, we managed to tell the story of the other stalwart Principals such as Kurichi Rangaswami Iyengar (who first implemented the noon meal scheme here, which in turn inspired Kamaraj and later MGR) and Kulapathi Balakrishna Joshi. We saw the Saraswathi idol that Pandyaji worshipped and the first payroll and attendance registers of the school.
Our next stop was the new Jain Mandir, commemorating the presence of the Jain community in this area for centuries. From here our troubles began for Mint Street is a one way from this spot and Narayana Mudali Street which was our exit was blocked by a bullock cart. One van managed to make it down the wrong way on Govindappa Naicken Street and reach our next stop at the Ekamreswara Swami temple. The second managed to negotiate the bullock cart thanks to the photographer who being a local could cajole the animal and its owner. The third van, as it followed the first down Govindappa Naicken Street, was caught in the act by the police. It was Mohan’s presence that saved the day! Film stars are immune to mundane traffic violations. Ironically he was not even in that van. Just the mention of his name sufficed.
At the Ekamreswara Swami temple, we walked around the surrounding agraharam, recounting the contributions of the Gujaratis to Madras – the Tawkers, the Goocooladoss Jumnadoss family, the Lodds, the Kushaldoss family, the Mehtas and the Joshis. Then we saw Mani Sunker Davey and Sons, selling textiles for over a 100 years at Luckmudoss Street. We moved on to the Kandasami Temple at Rasappa Chetty Street, built by the Beri Chettys and sanctified in song by Ramalinga Swamigal. Our last stop was the Chennapuri Annadana Samajam, which has fed the poor, the maimed and the orphans since 1890, thanks to the vision of Moogallur Cunniah Chetty.
Tired and hungry we went to Saravana Bhavan on NSC Bose Road. This incidentally, according to Karthik Bhatt was the showroom of Surajmall’s, the jewellers. Rather appropriate don’t you think?