Leaving the aristocratic and (en)titled neighbourhood of Kilpauk we move to what was very much a working-class suburb – Perambur. I don’t believe that the name came about because of it being a bamboo grove or that this was where Rama saw his two sons and expressed his love for them (Per Anbu) or that he fought them and they showered him with arrows (Per Ambu), etc. We have to accept the name as it is. For most people, Perambur begins and ends with the Integral Coach Factory but there is a lot more to the area.
Now where do I begin? Firstly, the bounds. For some reason, the postal authorities seem to have finally got some contiguous areas numbered in sequence. Chennai 9 was the fort, then 10 was Kilpauk and now we have 11 as Perambur, just north of Kilpauk. Chennai 12 is nearby too – it is Pattalam or Perambur Barracks. They then lose it again when it comes to 13 but let us not jump ahead. Perambur is bound by Kilpauk, Purasaiwalkam and Ayanavaram to the south, Villivakkam to the west, Kodungaiyur to the north and Vyasarpadi, Pattalam and Pulianthope to the east. This is an area I know very well, for business interests once took me practically every day to Vyasarpadi and Sembiam. There are three POs in Perambur – Perambur, Perambur North and Sembiam.
The earliest mention I can find of Perambur dates to the 1640s and that too only from a reading of HD Love. In p82, Vol 1, he notes it was a village to the west of Madras. It was given along with four other villages in 1742 to the East India Company, when the new Nawab, Mohammad Sayid ascended the throne. Thereafter it slowly became a part of the city. Modern Perambur history really begins with the Railway Workshops. They were started here by the Madras Railway Company and a lot of streets here and in Ayanavaram commemorate the men who laid the railways – Stephenson, Heaton, Trevithick, Fisher and GM Porteous whose name has now changed to Portuguese. Somerset Playne, in his Southern India writes that the railway workshops here came up between 1858 and 1860, much of the planning being done by A Pilkington and CE Phipps, both remembered even today with road names. By the time Playne wrote his book, which was just before WWI, the Perambur Railway Workshop already spanned 66 acres and employed 5,500 people. A significant population was Anglo-Indian, which community came to define Perambur. Their presence led to the establishment of a chapel in 1873 which by 1940 grew into Our Lady of Lourdes church, its basilica-like design being by the famed architect JR Davis of the firm of Prynne Abbot and Davis.
The Workshops would in time grow into the Loco Works, the Carriage Works and eventually the Integral Coach Factory. A forgotten contribution to making Chennai a healthcare capital is that of the Railway Hospital, for long one of the training grounds from where private facilities such as Apollo poached highly skilled doctors. It was in this hospital that the first open heart surgery in India was performed. It remains a centre for excellence, operating a facility of 550 beds and spread over 15 acres. Everything about this railway township is huge for that matter. But what is sadly missing are those heritage railway bungalows. They have mostly vanished to make way for flats. What is nice is the railway museum, which is a must see.
The presence of the railway workshops led to much of the neighbouring areas such as Vyasarpady, Pulianthope and Pattalam becoming industrial centres. But by far the biggest and most impressive of the lot is the Amalgamations Estate in Sembiam. Spread over god-knows-how-many acres, it stands testimony to the vision of S Anantharamakrishnan, who even in 1949, when no cars were made in India, had come up with the first automotive component company of the country – India Pistons Limited. Thereafter, he went on to acquire many companies and transform them, and he founded many more. The biggest of them all is TAFE Limited. The Huzur Gardens Estate, Sembiam, which houses many Amalgamations companies, is an environmentalist’s delight – extensive tree cover, waterbodies, and plenty of bird life. Known in the 1970s for its chronic labour trouble, the estate is today buzzing with activity.
In the early 1990s, Gandhi Park, Perambur was a vast patch of green but that is now truncated owing to the huge grade separator that has come up on it. The Mahatma is commemorated by way of statue here and also by a colony named after him. There is one to Kasturba as well. Unity House, not far from here was the HQ of the Railway Mazdoor Union and Gandhi laid its foundation stone in 1927. By its side is the old Perambur Railway station – many a time I have got off here when arriving into the city early in the morning by train. I would be home by the time the train would reach Central. Opposite this is Paper Mills Road, commemorating a time when paper for the army was made here. The Dharmamurthi Rao Bahadur Calavala Cunnan Chetty School is an important presence on this stretch. Not far from here is Don Bosco, another school of the area. Housed in a lovely Indo-Saracenic building is the Dar Ul Uloom Jamalia Arabic College, founded in 1898 by Jamal Mohideen Rowther, who began a leather business that his son Haji Jamal Mohammed took to great heights. It is said that the building housing the college was once Haji Jamal Mohammed’s residence.
Perambur Market is a chaotic place but full of colour. There is a tiny chapel here and even tinier but exquisite temple to Venugopalaswami. Also here is a temple to Lakshmi Amman, which has grown in fame in the last two decades.
Approaching Perambur from Ayanavaram meant driving through an underpass, which could get horribly clogged throughout the year and flooded during monsoon. It was always an adventure. By its side was a piece of colonial masonry that I never understood the function of. It has since been demolished. Opposite this was the lovely bungalow of Dr KN Karunakaran, a leading physician. It has now made way for a two-wheeler showroom. He was also for long the President of the Perambur Sangeetha Sabha (PSS) – not one of your snooty Mylapore/T Nagar organisations but very important to make a name in, in the 1950s and 1960s. Its livewire was its Secretary S Sethuraman. He it was that brought Karaikudi Sambasiva Iyer to Madras. Iyer became President of the PSS and remained so till 1954 when he moved to Kalakshetra. The PSS still functions, still on a shoestring budget, and showcases young talent.
For those cinematically inclined, Perambur has its Brinda Theatre.
Overall, Perambur is a place that not many from the southern parts of Chennai would care to visit, but to me it is fascinating and throbbing with life.
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