John, Jani Janardhan…
This was the first thought that came to my mind as I crossed this road which connects Peters Road in Royapettah to Bharati Salai (Pycrofts Road) in Tiruvallikeni. Had they decided to name a street partly after the 1984 Hindi film in which our very own superstar Rajinikanth played a triple role? Not so, said the voice of sanity, for I had heard photographer and documentary film maker S Anwar speak of this thoroughfare. He had informed me, it was where several tawaifs — the Muslim courtesans, lived.
Now for the name — it is not Jani John Khan but Jaan-e-Jahan Khan. Ironically, considering that it is the Corporation that has made such a goof up, the thoroughfare commemorates one of the respected 19th century Honorary Municipal Commissioners of our city. He was the descendant of an aristocratic Muslim family that claimed close ties with the Nawabs of Arcot, his father Khan-e-Alam Khan being a powerful grandee at court. Jaan-e-Jahan Khan was secretary to Prince Azim Jah and played an important role in the 1857/8 correspondences between his master and the British Government that finally ended in the former being given the honorary title of Prince of Arcot and a permanent pension.
Both Khan-e-Alam Khan and Jaan-e-Jahan Khan were scholars who respected other faiths. When the American Unitarian Association planned to set up a mission in Madras, its first preachers, the Rev. William Roberts and Rev. CT Brooks were welcomed by the Khans. They read Unitarian literature, satisfied themselves as to the noble intentions of the mission and sent its American headquarters a letter assuring it of all help. This missive, dated April 10, 1854 bears the address Royapettah, thereby indicating that the Khan residence was in that area. An 1877 Madras Corporation listing of printing presses in the city gives the name of this thoroughfare as Janay Jahan Khan’s Road — the apostrophe indicating without doubt that he lived in this street and that it was named after him when he (presumably) died in 1875 or so. He was an Honorary Municipal Commissioner of the Corporation of Madras between 1865 and 1875.
Such was the man whose name is now mangled beyond recognition!
This article appeared in The Hindu under the Hidden Histories column on May 16, 2015