Mylapore’s Dolls’ House

March 30, 2015
The Bommai Chattiram endowed by Vyasarpadi Vinayaka Mudaliar

The Bommai Chattiram endowed by Vyasarpadi Vinayaka Mudaliar

With the ongoing Mylapore temple festival, my mind refuses to think of any other subject. And so, at the risk of being monotonous, I am writing once more about the same area. This story is about an otherwise innocuous rest house or choultry, located on South Mada Street that comes to life once each year, during the 10 days of the annual festival at the temple.

Earlier known as the ‘Chittira Chattiram’, now it is called the ‘Bommai Chattram’ or the Dolls’ House. There is a good reason for the names, for during the temple festival, the building hosts a display of clay dolls, paintings and leather puppets. Most of these are over 150 years old and were collected by Vyasarpadi Vinayaka Mudaliar (1803-1869), the builder of the edifice.

The man’s taste is evident in the construction of the chattram, though his descendants have since then been doing their best to detract from it. Two broad stone platforms supporting granite pillars flank the heavily carved door, which leads to the central hall that has the proper exhibition. It would appear that in later years, in order to save the entrance area from vagrants, an arched enclosure was built. This has recently been let out to shops that have fitted steel shutters. Another not so aesthetic addition is a first floor that is in no way in keeping with the architecture of the rest of the building.

The inauguration of the chattram in 1851 was a gala event. The great Tamil scholar Meenakshi Sundaram Pillai happened to be visiting the city. He composed 100 verses on the building and its founder, which came to be collectively known as Chittira Chattira Pugazhchi. Pillai’s most illustrious disciple U Ve Swaminatha Iyer, quotes a sample verse: apparently the remaining three streets around the tank felt jealous of the South Mada Street for its good fortune. Pillai was gifted 100 gold sovereigns for his work and the poem was published as a book in 1856.

Vinayaka Mudaliar decreed that the building would be run as a wedding hall on all days of the year barring the temple festival period. It was to be administered by a Trust that had to feed Brahmins at the chattram on the 12th day of the waxing phase of the moon. And whenever Kapali came out in procession, camphor would be lit and waved before Him at the chattram entrance. To support the maintenance of the place, a shop on NSC Bose Road and a grove in Nungambakkam were gifted to it. The Trustees would be Mudaliar’s male descendants and those of his brother.

It is said that Mudaliar began the tradition of the dolls’ display and it has continued unbroken ever since. In the recent past there has been an unfortunate tendency to touch up the dolls and the paintings with modern materials. This has done much to mar the beauty of the exhibits. But we must be thankful that the tradition has continued.

This article was published in The Hindu under the Hidden Histories column on March 28, 2015.

You may want to read these other articles on Mylapore:

The Men who Built the Mylapore Temple

Keeping the peace at Kapali’s Festival

Mylapore Kapali Ther 2014

Can the Mylapore Temple Festival be better run?

When Mylapore comes alive…

The Mylapore Temple Festival in 1910

Mylapore in 1910

Rishabha Vahanam at the Mylapore Temple

A nun in Mylapore

Music and dance at the Mylapore temple

The Mystery of Mathala Narayanan

Mylai Velli Vidai/Rishabha Vahanam

Adhikara Nandi at the Kapaliswarar Temple

Bhikshatana procession at Mylapore

Singaravelar Procession

The Ballad of Arupathu Moovar

A 150 year old Thanneer Pandal

Some of Kapali’s Vahanams

Adhikara Nandi Sevai at Kapali temple

The quaint ritual of Vana Bhojanam

Papanasam Sivan

Kapali Karpagam Kalyanam!

Articles on other temples of Chennai:

Patnam Temples

The Kalyana Varadarajaswami Temple, Colletspet

The Chintadri Pillary Temple

The Velleeswarar Temple, Mylapore

The God who gives vision

Karthikai Deepam at Velleeswarar Temple, Mylapore

Car Festival at Coronation Pagoda, Mylapore

Music at the Madhava Perumal Temple, Mylapore

Triplicane Parthasarathy Swami Temple

The Kamakala Kameswarar Temple, Triplicane

The Mallikarjuna Swami Temple, Linghi Chetty Street

Ekamreswara Swami Temple, Mint Street

Kacchaleeswara Swami Temple, Armenian Street

The Angala Parameswari Temple, Mundagakanni Amman Koil Street

The Agastyeswara Swami Temple, Nungambakkam

The multiple hues of Royapettah

March 25, 2015

Have you been to the Royapettah hospital of late? Before you take offence, let The Man from Madras Musings assure all of you that he does not wish you ill. All he means is that he wonders if you have recently passed by that historic edifice. In case you have, you may know what MMM is writing about.

Till a couple of years ago, this noble pile, by which MMM means the old building, was painted a sickly pink. It was then painted yellow for a while and then one day reverted to the old pink. Then there came a day last year when it became red, more or less the same shade as Central Station. And mind you, it did not look bad at all, particularly after the borders and the ornamental brick arches were painted white to give it a nice contrast. The compound wall, however, remained a prominent eyesore. It always had posters on it and some were of such a lascivious nature that many a motorist would pause to gaze rapturously at them, only to be collided with at the rear by someone who did not pause to stand and stare.

Such accidents were more or less commonplace here and the locals had perfected a routine. The police would continue resting near a tree unless it was a particularly disruptive incident. In all other cases, those from nearby shops would direct traffic, the soda-vendor would give the injured a cooling drink and, after the usual colourful exchange of words of endearment between the collider and the collided, everyone would go his respective way.

For years the hospital and the local councillor put up appeals on the wall requesting that it be spared of posters. They grew plants below it to prevent easy access but that only added to the problem for the bushes provided a convenient place for committing nuisance, this despite a pay and use toilet being a stone’s throw away. And then someone in the hospital decided to take matters in hand. The wall was scraped and given a rough finish to prevent posters being pasted. The bushes were removed and the wall was painted white. It looked lovely till the hospital no doubt discovered that it had a stock of green paint. For some reason they decided that the compound wall was the best place for it. And so bilious green clashes with the red and white. MMM shuts his eyes each time he drives by. Hopefully he will not be collided with.

You may also want to read the following stories on Royapettah:

Running about in Royapettah

A brief profile of Royapettah

Old Woodlands Hotel

Memorial to a multifaceted man

Dr KN Kesari, a profile

The Kesari High School

The men who built the Mylapore Temple – part 2

March 24, 2015

Continued from Part 1

The Gopuram and Singaravelar shrine, seen from the western wall where the Bhadrakali shrine once stood

The Gopuram and Singaravelar shrine, seen from the western wall where the Bhadrakali shrine once stood

It is Mukund who describes in detail as to the exact contributions of later dharmakarta-s. She writes that the descendants of Muthiappa Mudali handed over the management of the temple to Ponnambala Vadyar and Kanakasabai Pandaram. Considering that a street that is just next to the temple commemorates the former, we can surmise that the temple had acquired its present boundaries within a generation after Muthiappa Mudali. The next major change happens in 1749 when, with the restitution of Madras to the British, San Thomé-Mylapore also becomes part of East India Company territory. Whereupon the head conicopoly of the Export Warehouse and later dubash of Governor Saunders, Kumarappa Mudali, became the dharmakarta.

The temple was by then in a ‘ruinous condition’. Kumarappa, who has a street named after him in Mylapore and another in the Seven Wells area of George Town, found the temple lands encroached upon by people of ‘foreign religions’. The four Mada streets had become mere lanes. The temple was barely functioning, with daily worship being suspended owing to want of funds. Using his high office to good effect, Kumarappa bought off the encroachers and reclaimed the lands. He rebuilt the temple walls and tank, had the four main streets broadened and planted coconut trees on their periphery. He had the processional icons made, fashioned carriages and mounts, commissioned temple jewellery and recruited temple servants and dancing girls, for whom he had houses built.

The Kapali ther - commissioned by Pammal Subbaraya Mudali?

The Kapali ther – commissioned by Pammal Subbaraya Mudali?

After Kumarappa, his brother Nattu Subbaraya, who also has a street named after him in Mylapore, took over as trustee and he, in turn, was succeeded by Kasi Mudali. During the latter’s tenure, there was evidently an extensive reconstruction of the temple, for Waghorne, quoting from Mackenzie, states that the ‘Cabalasewara pagoda’ was built by ‘Bagavintorayer, Causy Mood and Coomy Valappa Mood’. The Causy Mood was evidently Kasi Mudali. By 1800, Kasi Mudali’s son Masilamani Mudali had succeeded to the trusteeship. But the Tuluva Vellalars were not happy with his management and petitioned the Board of Revenue (BOR) for his removal. A Native Committee appointed by the BOR went into great detail in its investigation and discovered that Kasi Mudali had nominated five people to succeed him. Three were considered to be suitable by the Committee and these were Pammal Subbaraya Mudali, Kovur Vaidyanatha Mudali, merchant of the East India Company, and Coonra Vellaiyappa Mudali (this being Mackenzie’s Coomy Valappa Mood). Vaidyanatha Mudali was also trustee of the Chintadripet Adipuriswara temple and has a street named after him in that area.

The drab and unimpressive Navagraha shrine in the Kapali temple. Did it replace a shrine to the Sun God?

The drab and unimpressive Navagraha shrine in the Kapali temple. Did it replace a shrine to the Sun God?

It would appear that Coonra Vellaiyappa Mudali’s line became extinct after him, for the Kovur and Pammal families handled temple affairs for a time. Pammal Subbaraya Mudali is recorded to have conducted the temple festivals splendidly for over ten years, spending about 20 or 30,000 pagodas in constructing the temple chariot and gifting gold and silver vessels. In 1810, his passing created a vacancy. The Tuluva Vellalars petitioned the Collector of Madras, F.W. Ellis (he of Tirukkural fame) to entrust the post of dharmakarta to Ayya Mudali, commemorated in a street in Chintadripet. Within five years, however, the community deemed Ayya Mudali to be old and infirm and requested that Kovur Sundara Mudali, the last Chief Merchant of the East India Company, be given the responsibility instead. The Company refused and Ayya Mudali remained in charge despite his ‘old age and infirmities’, whatever they were. This was despite Sundara Mudali having sponsored the annual festival in 1821 at a cost of 200 pagodas and constructed ‘useful buildings’ within the temple. Kovur Sundara Mudali, incidentally, is remembered chiefly for bringing the composer Tyagaraja to Madras in 1837. His palatial house on Bunder Street still survives in a decrepit state. A long street in Mylapore commemorates him and it has, over time morphed into Sundareswarar Swamy Street!

The non-controversial Pammal line appears to have served the longest, lasting well over a century. Pammal Vijayaranga Mudaliar, who was in the Education Department of the Government, served as trustee till his passing in 1895 after which his elder son, Pammal Ayyasamy Mudaliar, held the post till 1905 when he resigned on his being appointed a District Munsiff. The trusteeship passed to Vijayaranga Mudaliar’s younger son Pammal Sambanda Mudaliar, the playwright. He remained trustee till his appointment as a judge of the Small Causes Court in 1924. According to him, it was during his time that the eastern gopuram was built, thanks to a businessman of Triplicane whose name was subsequently forgotten and whom Sambanda Mudaliar refers to only as Gopuram Chettiar! It was also Sambanda Mudaliar who got the tank steps laid out. The seed money of Rs. 5000 came from the bequest of a sanyasi who had collected money for this purpose. But the total estimate came to Rs 1 lakh. When local residents baulked at the expense, Sambanda Mudaliar hit upon the idea of inscribing donors’ names on the steps. This caught public fancy and money came in. The names of the donors can still be faintly made out.

The temple management was taken over by the Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments Board following its creation in the 1920s and the concept of hereditary trusteeship ceased thereafter.

Concluded

You may want to read these other stories on the Mylapore temple:

Keeping the peace at Kapali’s Festival

Mylapore Kapali Ther 2014

Can the Mylapore Temple Festival be better run?

When Mylapore comes alive…

The Mylapore Temple Festival in 1910

Mylapore in 1910

Rishabha Vahanam at the Mylapore Temple

A nun in Mylapore

Music and dance at the Mylapore temple

The Mystery of Mathala Narayanan

Mylai Velli Vidai/Rishabha Vahanam

Adhikara Nandi at the Kapaliswarar Temple

Bhikshatana procession at Mylapore

Singaravelar Procession

The Ballad of Arupathu Moovar

A 150 year old Thanneer Pandal

Some of Kapali’s Vahanams

Adhikara Nandi Sevai at Kapali temple

The quaint ritual of Vana Bhojanam

Papanasam Sivan

Kapali Karpagam Kalyanam!

The men who built the Mylapore temple – part 1

March 23, 2015

The annual festival at the Mylapore Kapaleeswarar Temple will start a week from now. The deities will be brought out on various processional mounts twice a day for ten days. Some events are, of course, more important than others – these being the Adhikara Nandi sevai (Day Three), the Vrshabha Vahanam (Day Five), the car festival (Day Seven), the Arupathumoovar (Day Eight) and the Kalyanam (Day Ten). The devout will throng the four mada streets on all days; their numbers rising to unmanageable levels on the eighth day in particular.

Kapali on the silver vrShabha vAhanam, 5th day procession

Kapali on the silver vrShabha vAhanam, 5th day procession

Even as Kapali goes around the four mada streets accompanied by the other deities, those that watch the procession are probably doing what has been a practice for several centuries. There is no denying that the Kapali temple is an ancient one, having featured in the works of the Nayanmars of the 7th Century and after them in other literary creations. Sambandar, in his Poompavai Pathikam, lists a festival for each month of the year and most of these are observed even now. And yet, there are unsolved mysteries about the shrine. Did it really stand on the seashore at one time? Why are there no inscriptions from the times of the Cholas in the present temple? Did the Portuguese destroy the temple or was it because of war or did the sea rise up and swallow it? There are no certain answers, but almost everyone is agreed on the fact that the temple was relocated to where it stands now and was rebuilt there ‘around three hundred years ago’. As to who built the shrine has also been a matter of debate.

The main gopuram and the Amman vimanam (foreground), Kapali temple

The main gopuram and the Amman vimanam (foreground), Kapali temple

A couple of publications by current day scholars throw some additional light on the present temple and its sub-shrines. The first of these is The Diaspora of the Gods, Modern Hindu Temples in an Urban-Middle Class World by Joanne Punzo Waghorne (OUP 2004). The second is The View from Below, Indigenous Society, Temples and the Early Colonial State in Tamil Nadu, 1700-1835, by Kanakalatha Mukund (Orient Longman 2005). A study of these helps to locate the period of reconstruction of the Kapali temple with greater precision. More importantly, it identifies the men who were responsible for the work. Read in conjunction with the playwright Pammal Sambanda Mudaliar’s autobiography, Yen Suyacharitai (1963) we get a more or less complete picture. This article is based on what is written in these accounts.

The Sundareswara shrine, Kapali Temple

The Sundareswara shrine, Kapali Temple

Waghorne in her book dwells at length on the details of the temple as given in Colin Mackenzie’s manuscripts. He had arrived in Madras in 1783 and after 13 years’ military service, began devoting his time to Indology, balancing the demands of his hobby with those of his professional career which culminated in his becoming the first Surveyor General of India. By the time of his death in 1821, he had collected a huge number of manuscripts, besides maps and books. Among these is an account of the Kapali temple with a sketch of the shrine, with the various parts marked and ascribed to the men who built each of them. Waghorne surmises that this particular manuscript may have been done between 1796 and 1800.

The Sundareswarar shrine, Kapali Temple

The Jagadiswara shrine, Kapali Temple


The sketch gives credit for much of the temple to Mootooapa Mood, who from Mukund’s work can be identified as Nattu Muthiappa Mudali, a prominent member of the Tuluva Vellalar community. Mukund, who bases her writing on extensive research at the Tamil Nadu Archives, has Muthiappa Mudali as the ‘original dharmakarta of the temple’ in the early 18th Century. This tallies with Waghorne’s information from the Mackenzie manuscript, which recognises that Muthiappa Mudali renovated the shrine to the Goddess, which was ‘ an old church’ (presumably used here as a synonym for a temple). He constructed shrines for Jagadiswarar and Sundareswarar, both of which still exist on the eastern side of the temple complex. He also built the small gopuram that is on the western wall of the temple. Waghorne states that the present contours of the temple owe their construction to Muthiappa Mudali, but points out that two sub shrines built by him – one to the Sun God on the eastern side and another to Bhadrakali on the western side facing the present day Singaravelar shrine have since vanished. She also has it that the multi-tiered eastern gopuram was built by him but, when read in conjunction with Sambanda Mudaliar’s account, that is debatable.

To be continued…
You may want to read these other stories on the Kapaliswarar Temple:

Keeping the peace at Kapali’s Festival

Mylapore Kapali Ther 2014

Can the Mylapore Temple Festival be better run?

When Mylapore comes alive…

The Mylapore Temple Festival in 1910

Mylapore in 1910

Rishabha Vahanam at the Mylapore Temple

A nun in Mylapore

Music and dance at the Mylapore temple

The Mystery of Mathala Narayanan

Mylai Velli Vidai/Rishabha Vahanam

Adhikara Nandi at the Kapaliswarar Temple

Bhikshatana procession at Mylapore

Singaravelar Procession

The Ballad of Arupathu Moovar

A 150 year old Thanneer Pandal

Some of Kapali’s Vahanams

Adhikara Nandi Sevai at Kapali temple

The quaint ritual of Vana Bhojanam

Papanasam Sivan

Kapali Karpagam Kalyanam!

Articles on other temples of Chennai:

Patnam Temples

The Kalyana Varadarajaswami Temple, Colletspet

The Chintadri Pillary Temple

The Velleeswarar Temple, Mylapore

The God who gives vision

Karthikai Deepam at Velleeswarar Temple, Mylapore

Car Festival at Coronation Pagoda, Mylapore

Music at the Madhava Perumal Temple, Mylapore

Triplicane Parthasarathy Swami Temple

The Kamakala Kameswarar Temple, Triplicane

The Mallikarjuna Swami Temple, Linghi Chetty Street

Ekamreswara Swami Temple, Mint Street

Kacchaleeswara Swami Temple, Armenian Street

The Angala Parameswari Temple, Mundagakanni Amman Koil Street

The Agastyeswara Swami Temple, Nungambakkam

Keeping peace at Kapali’s festival

March 21, 2015
Kapali's charriot rounds the RK Mutt Road corner

Kapali’s charriot rounds the RK Mutt Road corner

The Kapaleeswarar Temple’s annual festival begins next week. A pageant that lasts for 10 days, it is a must for anyone who loves the colour and spectacle of India. That it is an age-old practice is evident from Sambandar’s 7th Century Poompavai Pathigam. Its character has, of course, changed over the years.

Kanakalatha Mukund’s The View From Below gives us details of some of the headaches faced by the East India Company with respect to the festival. Differences between the left and right-hand castes, vertical divisions in society that have completely vanished now, caused problems in the 18th Century. The agent provocateur was the practice of erecting decorative arches and floral canopies all along the processional route, something that is done even now. Strict codes existed for these, with those of the left-hand using five colours and those of the right-hand being in white. Trouble erupted when the right-hand used the five colours of the left in its decorations. The left-hand appealed to the East India Company, which immediately decreed that all decorations had to be in Company colours — red and white!

In 1789, riots were witnessed once again, with the right-hand caste being the principal offender. Probably bored with the monotony of the red and white and the continuing peace, they resumed putting up canopies and decorations using the colours of the left-hand caste. The left-hands promptly dismantled these structures. The right-hands retaliated at once, bringing in armed men to beat up the suspects and destroy their houses. Edward J. Hollond, then Justice of the Peace and later (a notoriously corrupt) Governor of Madras, ordered that all castes were to use only the Company colours. And what’s more, the canopies had to fly the flag of St. George above them. Both parties accepted this and Kapaleeswarar came out in procession, with St. George keeping the peace for Him.

Ten years later, there was trouble once again, this time thanks to the appointment of hereditary trustees being challenged. While this was sub judice, the Company conducted the festival, with funds being loaned by the Collector of Madras. By 1805, the hereditary rights of the Pammal family as trustees were confirmed. The illustrious playwright Pammal Sambanda Mudaliar held the post between 1900 and 1924. During his tenure, a commissioner of the Corporation objected to the procession wending its way down Brodies (now R.K. Mutt) Road as it delayed his reaching the Adyar (now Madras) Club. Mudaliar held firm and it was the official who had to take another route. On yet another occasion, a Governor of Madras, who viewed the proceedings from a convenient verandah had a request — could the deity be made to turn around in front of the building so that he could see the decorations in full? Mudaliar respectfully refused, stating that it was for humans to go around the deity and not the other way round. The Governor and the first lady cheerfully complied.

This article appeared in The Hindu dated March 21, 2015 under the Hidden Histories column

You may want to read these other stories on the Kapaliswarar Temple:

Mylapore Kapali Ther 2014

Can the Mylapore Temple Festival be better run?

When Mylapore comes alive…

The Mylapore Temple Festival in 1910

Mylapore in 1910

Rishabha Vahanam at the Mylapore Temple

A nun in Mylapore

Music and dance at the Mylapore temple

The Mystery of Mathala Narayanan

Mylai Velli Vidai/Rishabha Vahanam

Adhikara Nandi at the Kapaliswarar Temple

Bhikshatana procession at Mylapore

Singaravelar Procession

The Ballad of Arupathu Moovar

A 150 year old Thanneer Pandal

Some of Kapali’s Vahanams

Adhikara Nandi Sevai at Kapali temple

The quaint ritual of Vana Bhojanam

Papanasam Sivan

Kapali Karpagam Kalyanam!

Articles on other temples of Chennai:

Patnam Temples

The Kalyana Varadarajaswami Temple, Colletspet

The Chintadri Pillary Temple

The Velleeswarar Temple, Mylapore

The God who gives vision

Karthikai Deepam at Velleeswarar Temple, Mylapore

Car Festival at Coronation Pagoda, Mylapore

Music at the Madhava Perumal Temple, Mylapore

Triplicane Parthasarathy Swami Temple

The Kamakala Kameswarar Temple, Triplicane

The Mallikarjuna Swami Temple, Linghi Chetty Street

Ekamreswara Swami Temple, Mint Street

Kacchaleeswara Swami Temple, Armenian Street

The Angala Parameswari Temple, Mundagakanni Amman Koil Street

The Agastyeswara Swami Temple, Nungambakkam

The Raja Annamalai Mandram – a Chennai landmark

March 19, 2015
Raja Annamalai Mandram

Raja Annamalai Mandram

One of the best known landmarks of North Chennai, this building is synonymous with the promotion of Tamil as a musical language. Strange though it may seem, that was not the view of the scholars and practitioners of Carnatic music till the 1930s. That was largely a circumstance of history, for much of Madras Presidency had, after the Cholas, been ruled by Telugu-speaking Vijayanagar rulers and Nayaks and, after them, the musical heartland of Tanjore came under the control of the Marathas.

When a group of thinkers, writers and musicians tried to set this imbalance right in the 1930s, they met with stiff opposition, especially from the Music Academy and the Indian Fine Arts Society (IFAS), the two established sabhas. However, the Tamil lobby had the support of stalwarts such as T.K. Chidambaranatha Mudaliar, Kalki R. Krishnamurthy and the singer M.S. Subbulakshmi. Most importantly, the movement was bankrolled by Rajah Sir Annamalai Chettiar.

The Tamil Isai Sangam came into existence in 1943 as the vehicle for this cause, the name being given by Rajaji. From its first year, it began hosting a concert season in December, challenging the monopoly of the Academy and the IFAS. The songs performed had to be only in Tamil. A suitable venue proved to be a problem and, for the first few years, it held its programmes in the Parish Hall of St Mary’s Cathedral on Armenian Street. It later conducted programmes at the Museum Theatre.

In 1948, 23 grounds of land at the eastern end of the Esplanade were taken on lease for fifty years from the Corporation of Madras. Work began in 1949, by which time the Rajah had died. The design was by L.M. Chitale and the auditorium was the first of its kind in the city. Closely supervised by the Rajah’s sons, Rajah Sir M.A. Muthiah Chettiar and M.A. Chidambaram, whose offices were located next door to the site, the auditorium rose quickly. The architect in an article also gave much credit for several elements in the design to Sir R.K. Shanmukham Chetty, the first Finance Minister of independent India, who had become President of the Tamil Isai Sangam after the Rajah’s passing.

The Raja Annamalai Mandram, a two storeyed building with constructed space of 20,000 square feet on the ground floor was ready in time for the music season of 1952. It was declared open by Rajaji on October 31st that year. It is a lavishly constructed structure with generous use of fine timber and perhaps one of the first buildings in the city to use mosaic instead of the more traditional granite. It is noteworthy for its combination of art deco with the traditional Chettinad style of architecture, the latter predominating in the woodwork in particular.

The auditorium was designed keeping acoustics in mind and soon became a favourite of performing artistes. The first floor hosts the Sangam’s music college and also a gallery of instruments. The entrance has a statue to the founder unveiled in 1964 by Jayachamaraja Wodeyar, the Maharajah of Mysore, who was the next year to become the Governor of Madras.

Some major modifications were undertaken in 1968, to coincide with the silver jubilee of the Sangam. These were undertaken by S.L. Chitale, son of the man who had designed the original edifice. These changes, largely in the interior, were done to keep out the ambient noise, which had increased sharply in a decade. The seats, 866 in number, were padded and arranged in a circular fashion with enough space between the aisles for the patrons to file in and out. The seats were also fixed on a gradient, thereby enabling those at the rear to get an unimpeded view of the stage. More importantly, the hall was enclosed with sound absorbing material that was aesthetically hidden behind teak panelling. The Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, provided advice on acoustics and this ensured that the hall still is a delight to attend music programmes in.

The whole building is maintained very well, though it must be said that the seats in the auditorium are now ageing rapidly. The Mandram, whose lease was extended for a further 50 years, today serves as a popular venue for events in North Madras. But it is at its best in December when it hosts its annual festival and confers the title of Isai Perarignar on a senior musician/scholar.

You may want to read about the following landmarks as well:

The National Insurance Building

The General Hospital

The Egmore Women and Children’s Hospital

The Guindy Races

The Victoria Technical Institute

The Moore Market

The AASI Building

The Egmore Railway Station

The Old Meenambakkam Terminal

The Gurudwara on GN Chetty Road

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

Government House, Government Estate

Much ado over nothing

March 17, 2015

The telephone rang and The Man from Madras Musings answered it. A most diffident voice piped up, wanting to know if it was Sar speaking at the other end. MMM was not so sure as to which Sar was wanted. In these days of H1N1, the last thing anyone wants is an outbreak of SARS. But the voice at the other end then asked if it had the pleasure of speaking to MMM Sar. To this MMM agreed, whereupon the conversation proceeded rather on the lines of a Minister speaking to Queen Victoria – entirely in the third person. A sample is given below:

Voice (V): Good morning Sar. Will Sar be in his office this morning Sar?

MMM (M): Yes, but can I know why you are asking this?

V: Our Sar wants to invite Sar to be a part of a committee Sar. When can I call on Sar, Sar?

It transpired that a Sar in Government circles had read something that MMM wrote about and, rather than take offence, had decided to draft MMM into a committee that could hopefully set some wrongs right. MMM was flattered and immediately accepted. But that was not all. The voice at the other end had been instructed by the Sar to meet MMM in person and hand over an invitation and it would not rest until it had fulfilled its mission. It was in vain that MMM tried to explain that in this time and age a personal invitation was most unnecessary and an email ought to do the needful. The voice was shocked. It clearly belonged to an era when messages from panjandrums were brought in ornate scrolls on elephant back, accompanied by the tom-toming of drums and a retinue of dancing girls. A personal visit it had to be, said the voice and, so, MMM finally gave in. It was agreed that the voice, together with the body that embodied it, would visit MMM the next day and hand over the invitation in person. MMM half-wondered if he ought to put together a reception committee.

The next day, however, produced nobody. The voice was conspicuous by its absence. A day later, just as MMM was beginning to forget about it, there was a call from a newspaper reporter, who sounded all excited. Was it true, he asked, that MMM had been nominated to a committee? To this MMM replied that he was not so sure but the reporter was not willing to believe that. He wanted to know who else was on the committee and what ideas MMM would bring to the table. To all of this MMM replied, when he got a word in edgeways, that it was early days yet and there was no official communication of any kind. The reporter rang off, deeply incensed that MMM had not offered a bite of any sort.

The next day, the voice was back, with double the dose of diffidence. It begged Sar’s pardon but what could it do Sar when its Sar had assigned it a different task the previous day. MMM wondered as to what prevented the voice from making a call to that effect, but that clearly was not in the rule book, written no doubt in 1875. The voice then wanted to know if Sar was in Sar’s office for the voice was a short distance away and could it therefore drop off the invitation. To this MMM agreed and after a considerable lapse of time, the voice and its owner appeared in person. The missive was handed over to MMM with much bowing and scraping. It requested MMM, along with a couple of others, to come to a Government office for a meeting on a certain date.

The appointed date duly arrived only to have the voice calling once again. The meeting, it said, was off, because the top Sar, whose idea the whole thing was, had been called away for some greater good. The new date, it said, would soon be informed to Sar and so could Sar keep himself free. In other words, MMM was in suspended animation or adjourned sine die. Such are the ways of Government.

Long before TASMAC…

March 14, 2015
Beerkaran Street

Beerkaran Street

This week’s story is thanks to two people — heritage enthusiast Sreemathy Mohan and actor/film-historian Mohan Raman, both of whom sent me the image you see. Does Chennai have a street commemorating a beer drinker or brewer, they wondered.

I could find nothing beyond the fact that this thoroughfare, which links Cathedral Road to Teynampet, was known as Beerkarancheri till the 1960s, when the suffix ‘-cheri’ was deemed a pejorative and replaced by road. As to the name I can only hazard a guess — it may have been Pir Khan Cheri, probably named after an Arcot nobleman. Pirkhankaranai is an area near Tambaram and the two may commemorate the same person.

But all that brought to mind some interesting tales regarding the consumption of alcoholic refreshment in old Madras. The early Europeans here indulged chiefly in arrack but over time the place came to be known for its excellent cellar and the range offered at the Company’s table was bewildering: “Mountain Wine, Rhenish, Syder, Galesia, Florence, Hock, Canary, Palm, Brandy, Clarett, Ale, Beer and Shyrash wine” runs a list dating to 1717. It was, however, the Portuguese Madeira of which the British simply could not have enough. This was transported in casks or barrels, which were known as pipes (pronounced peeps) in Portuguese. Over a period of time, the word made its way into local Tamil and any barrel became a ‘peepa’, which in turn came to connote a person with a beer belly!

Arrack, however, never lost its popularity and while in 1713, the Fort consumed “eighty two gallons and three quarters, and six Leaguers of Batavia Arrack,” the honours in 1717, went to Goa arrack of which 410 gallons were drunk. When Augustus Burton came to Madras in 1718, the chief items of his luggage were, “two cases of Brandy, three chests and one cask of beer, five hogsheads, one chest and one small hamper of wine and two chests of ale”.

Such indulgence often led to rash behaviour and death and the advice of seniors was that “the securest way for preserving health after an intemperate draught of any strong liquor, is to keep close after it under some convenient covering, and to digest it by keeping warm and sleeping out the fermentation.” We can still see faithful followers of this sage practice on some footpaths.

The Directors in England were so shocked on coming to know the quantities that were being imbibed that they prohibited the purchase of European liquor, barring for the Governor’s table that received an allowance of two pipes of Madeira a month. But they had not contended with local trade. The firm of Hayward and Rider immediately came into existence for supplying liquor. In later years, the Portuguese appear to have done well out of running taverns and at least two — D’Silva and Lynn Pereira — have streets still commemorating them in Mylapore and San Thome. Our TASMAC clearly comes from a proud pedigree. Cheers!

You may also want to read – Murder in a Madras Tavern

This article appeared in The Hindu dated March 14, 2015 under the Hidden Histories column

To many, heritage is a mere facade

March 12, 2015

We have had occasions to write about this in the past and we still feel it is a matter of greater relevance even now. There appears to be a mistaken notion among those who matter – Government officials, those in real estate and some architects – that heritage preservation is all about retaining the façade of a building while the rest can be changed in any fashion. This, if allowed to continue, will create a set of pastiche fronts and that will be all that we can claim as our heritage. It would be best if this trend were corrected at the earliest.

D'Angeli's/Bosottos - now being demolished from the rear

D’Angeli’s/Bosottos – now being demolished from the rear

Take the case of the Bosotto’s building on Mount Road. A landmark of the city, it has had a history of more than a century, beginning life as D’Angelis hotel, once one of the best hotels in the city, and continuing to remain a hotel under various owners till the 1970s, when it became viewed as a prime piece of real estate. It has been listed as a heritage building worthy of preservation by the High Court of Madras. And yet, as the photograph above will testify, work on the demolition of its interiors has begun. This is indeed a pity, for, apart from fire damage, most of this building was structurally intact and could have been put to creative alternative use.

According to the judgement delivered by the High Court of Madras on April 29, 2010 on Writ Petition No 25306 of 2006 which, incidentally, is the only protection that heritage buildings have in our city, “No development or redevelopment or engineering operation or additions, alterations, repairs, renovations including the painting of buildings, replacement of special features or demolition of the whole or any part thereof or plastering of said listed/heritage buildings or listed/heritage precincts shall be carried out except with the prior written permission of the Member Secretary, Chennai Metropolitan Development Authority. The Member Secretary, Chennai Metropolitan Development Authority shall act in consultation with the Heritage Conservation Committee to be appointed by Government (hereinafter called ‘the said Heritage Conservation Committee’).

Such being the Court’s order, it is to be assumed that in the present instance, approval has been sought from the Heritage Conservation Committee (HCC) and the CMDA before demolition work was begun. It is, however, in the interpretation of this judgement that there is necessity for greater clarity, for several parties have begun to assume that all that it protects is the facade of a heritage building. This is because, the court has relied on a listing of heritage buildings put together by the Justice E Padmanabhan Committee in connection with another case which related to outdoor hoardings. That committee’s report was mainly concerned with facades as it focussed on preventing heritage structures from being hidden by large outdoor hoardings. However, when judgement was delivered in connection with WP 25306, the list was taken as one on heritage buildings as a whole and did not deal with simply protecting the facades.

The fact remains, however, that there is at present scope for a wrong interpretation of the judgement by vested interests to suit their ends. This has been taken advantage of in several instances such as P Orr & Sons and the Saidapet Teachers’ Training College buildings where Metro Rail has bulldozed structures. It would be best if the Indian National Trust for Arts and Cultural Heritage (INTACH) represents the matter in court once again and seeks a clarification in this regard. When it comes to heritage structures, mere restoration of facades will not do. It is vital that CMDA, the HCC and the owners of properties adhere to the High Court’s orders in the full spirit of the law.

What is achieved by changing names of roads?

March 11, 2015

There was recently a report in the city newspapers which probably went unnoticed. Halls Road, it was announced, has been renamed Tamizh Vazhi Salai. A new signboard to that effect would soon be put up, the report went on. It is not clear from the report as to who or which body had taken this decision or whether it was final. If it is, then it is high time the authorities realised that such acts are nothing but empty gestures that are unlikely to cut ice with the general public. On the other hand, they are likely to cause a lot of irritation among the residents of the re-named thoroughfare and its users.

The rules are quite clear about change of names for roads and streets. These need resolutions to be passed by the relevant civic body. However, the decision needs to be ratified by the State Legislature before the change can actually take effect. There is no clarity on whether in the present case the Corporation and the Assembly have assented to the change.

This is not the first instance of re-naming. The earliest spree was in the late 1960s when a change in regime saw several streets getting new names. But that was a different era. A new party had won power largely on the basis of a language issue and such an act was very much in keeping with the prevailing public mood. But now the average citizen has moved on. Only the political parties of the State do not appear to have woken up to the fact. This became evident in 2010 when the then Corporation Council announced that all streets in the city that commemorated British personalities would be re-named after Tamil scholars. What followed was a spirited protest from the residents. They pointed out that in the event of a re-naming, they had to go through the pain of informing several statutory and other corporate bodies, with whom they had dealings, about the new name.

On its part, Madras Musings approached the matter from another angle. We published a list of all such streets and brought to the fore the reasons for their old names. We also argued that at least those among the British whose work had benefited our city ought to be remembered, while the others could go. Whatever be the reason, the proposal to change names was dropped.

The present exercise appears to be a more insidious one. A bulk renaming would attract public attention and large protests. On the other hand, taking up one road at a time would pass by unnoticed. At least that appears to have been the thinking behind the present change.

While we are all for commemorating and honouring the language of our State, we cannot help wonder as to why this name has been given to Hall’s Road. It is not as though any Tamil scholar has lived on that stretch. And if at all the name had to be given, why was it not bestowed on a thoroughfare in the newer parts of the city? Is the mother tongue honoured only if an existing street name is changed? Also, given our love for abbreviations, does Tamizh Vazhi Salai not run the risk of being branded TV Salai? We have plenty of similar instances – RK Salai, TTK Road, T’Nagar, JJ Nagar and KK Nagar, etc.

And lastly, what does a name change achieve? Does it solve parking issues, potholes, overflowing drains, illegal occupation of footpaths and encroachments – all common issues our thoroughfares suffer from? Would our civic body not be better off focussing on such matters and not on non-priority issues such as change of names?

You may also want to read :

Some more history behind street names in Chennai

Street names to stay!

The etymology of some Chennai areas


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