I always like it when Ramanujar Moulana comes to visit me, scattering sweetness and light. He is part of a group that calls itself the Cycling Yogis. They pedal all around the countryside and take in a lot of heritage in the process.
Last year, to commemorate Madras Week, the Cycling Yogis brought out a book that was die-cut to look like a bicycle. Within were details of heritage spots all around the River Cooum. This year, they have done even better, with a booklet on the cycling history of Madras, from 1877 to 1977. Information in it has largely been sourced from the Internet. The value, however, lies in the fact that it is all now in one publication. Why 1877? That was when Major Charles Bowen bought a Michaux bicycle, a first for the city.
Leafing through the book, I mused on how much of Chennai industry began with two-wheelers. Addison’s was the first to import cycles, in the 1890s. Simpsons — it had tested its indigenous car on Mount Road in 1902 and later made a name for itself in building custom-made car and bus bodies on imported chassis — also had the Minerva range of motorcycles on its portfolio. Union Motors, founded by K. Gopalakrishna, began life as agents for the AJ Stevens range of motorcycles. And, when it was seen that hand-operated bicycle pumps made by Dunlop was good business, a sister unit — U(nion) C(ompany) A(ccessories) L(imited) was begun. Even Kollywood owes its origins to the cycle — Nataraja Mudaliar, who made Keechaka Vadhamin 1918, funded it through money from his cycle distribution business — Watson & Co.
Post-Independence, the Murugappa Group made it big through its cycle manufacturing facility at Ambattur, in collaboration with Tube Investments of the U.K. For some reason, Broadway (now Prakasam Salai) became the place where cycle dealers congregated. A few old-timers such as BM Davey & Co still survive. No longer in existence is the pioneer — the English Cycle Importing Co. dating to 1900.
By the 1930s, it was owned by KR Sundaram Iyer, who also ran neighbouring Royal Cycles. The Easun Group that he and his nephew Easwara Iyer founded would later begin Royal Enfield, famed for its Bullet range of motorcycles. One sad aspect from the book is how cycles are no longer an integral aspect of city planning. The RBI subway was designed to include cycle tracks, there were parking facilities at various places in the city, and above all, a ferry service on the Adyar to take students and cycles bound for the IIT!
The book has a list of many VIPs who cycled in Madras. I, however, did not find my favourite story, which concerns Lalitha of the Travancore Sisters fame. On finding no car available at the end of a long day’s shoot at Gemini Studios, she simply borrowed a bicycle and rode to her house on Edward Elliot’s (Radhakrishnan) Road. That would be unthinkable today, for stars or lesser mortals.
This article appeared in The Hindu dated August 13, 2016 under the Hidden Histories column