It was a coincidence par equal. Just nine days before the Mahatma was assassinated, Madras city grew beyond the Adyar River as Gandhi Gram (later, Gandhi Nagar). The subsequent week when the horrid news struck the city, there would be resolutions in the Governing Council to name the entire city as Gandhi pattinam (But as the grief wore off, the proposal lay in dust).
Post the war, four lakh people (including refugees) had just moved into Madras. The Government argued that housing conditions were not yet panic-inspiring. ‘Migration is a voluntary matter and we have no plans to curb it,’ the housing minister declared. But the worry was perceptible.
It was the dream of Daniel Thomas, Local Administration Minister in the Omandur Ramaswamy Reddiar cabinet (1947-49), to help develop a big middle-class housing colony in the city.
The Adyar River had been forded by the Elphinstone Bridge more than a hundred years earlier. But, habitation refused to move south. That was, perhaps, because the immediate land parcels beyond the bridge were held by the Theosophical Society (250 acres) and the Catholic Church (150 acres). Ironically, Madras was willing to close its freshwater lake in the middle of town to form T Nagar rather than cross Adyar River.
What was called the Bishop’s Garden on the south bank of Adyar was actually Elphinstone Park, a riverside Bungalow surrounded by a verdant forest of about 158 acres. It was bought in 1885 by the church to fit in the Irish missionary (patrician Brothers) school already being run in the Black town. The school was famous for a musical band which greatly helped the students in getting commissioned into the military bands of regiments scattered all over India and Burma. Even the famous Governor’s Band consisted mainly of St. Patrick’s boys. During World War II, the institution like many others was shifted to Coimbatore. It was then that the church perhaps realised how big a property it had, with a little use.
A total of 131 acres of land bounded by the Theosophical Society, Adyar River and the Buckingham Canal was bought from the Archbishop of Madras by the Madras Co-operative House Construction Society. The price paid was Rs 16 lakhs which the church urgently needed to build the Catholic Centre on Armenian Street.
(L) Pictures of old Gandhi Nagar and (R) The inauguration poster of Gandhi Nagar
Gandhi Nagar was one of the first planned layouts of Madras, with 332 housing plots, underground drainage and broad roads along with schools, playgrounds, temples and even a club. Ecologically it was a superb piece of land. A river on the north, a canal with boating up to Mahabalipuram on the west and the forests of Theosophical Society and Guindy all around.
The society haggled with suppliers to get the most competitive prices quoting economies of scale. They arranged for teak to be delivered to the site at Rs 6 a cubic foot and bricks at Rs.19 per thousand. Most of the raw materials were sent by boat down the Buckingham Canal and unloaded on a special quay.
The planners were actually a little nervous about the customer response. To smoothen the customer’s intent to buy a loan of up to Rs 40, 000 per house at 5.5 percent interest, repayable in 20 years, was sanctioned. House-owners got a four-bedroom house in a 30 cents plot for less than Rs 60,000 with all services provided.
Residents began to settle down in the locality around 1949. Its privacy made it a sought-after locality. IAS officers and VIPs like MKT Bagavathar, MGR and Kalki moved in to the spacious blocks in Gandhi Nagar. The last two novels of Kalki — Ponniyin Selvan (with plenty of inputs on a river) and Alai Osai , that got him the Sahitya Academy award, were written in Gandhi Nagar. In Alai Osai, (1953) Kalki mentions his location as Gandhi Nagar in the foreword. In Ponniyin Selvan , he describes a river bed as a fountain of creativity.
The rush for applications was so great that Thomas decided to develop another colony nearby. And the society identified 130 acres adjacent to Gandhi Nagar and plans for Kasturba Nagar got under way. And the city took giant leaps in expanding dwellings, all the way up to Mahabalipuram.
— The writer is a historian and an author