Alwarpet, courted by Kollywood

It has existed in East India Company records from the 1700s itself, but Alwarpet remains one of the smallest localities in Chennai, comprising just a dozen roads sandwiched between the awfully congested Teynampet and Mylapore. But with its garden houses and tree-lined avenues, the locality was popular with the rich and famous, especially film stars. In fact, it was the first filmed area in Madras and a film of it was shown in the first magic lantern show in 1896. Alwarpet’s expansive history makes it an important part of Madras' heritage.
Alwarpet, courted by Kollywood


Even when it was ruling the land, the East India Company’s circle of influence was limited and areas around that were still technically ruled by the Arcot royals. The Sadr Gardens, a colonial bungalow on Kasthuri Rangan Road, was the chief court of appeal under the Nawab administration. Delivering justice by Hindu and Islamic laws, the courts had priests and mullahs at hand to administer the oath of truth to the witnesses. The convicts who lost their appeals were hanged from a tree in Alwarpet corner, and the tree was supposed to be haunted even half a century later. After the Company centralised the law, Basheer Ahmed Sayeed judge, a politician and educationist who served as a member of the Madras Legislative Council and was a founder-member of the South Indian Education Trust (SIET), took over the house as his residence. The heritage building was recently converted into an apartment.


When Viswanathan Anand won the world championship held in Moscow, President Vladimir Putin invited him to the presidential palace. During the meeting, when Anand said he learnt chess at a Russia-sponsored chess club in Madras, Putin reportedly said, “We brought this upon ourselves!” The Alwarpet-based Tal Chess Club, which started in the Russian library of the Soviet Union Cultural Centre, fuelled Madras to be the chess powerhouse of the world. Started by India’s first International Master Manuel Aaron and funded by the Soviets, the chess club created awareness and supported youngsters with training and opportunities to play against great players. Sadly, when the Soviet Union broke up, the cash-strapped Russian consulate could no longer support the club and it closed down. But the spark had been lit and champion after champion from Chennai dominate the chessboard across the world.


The Narrow Corner, a novel by Somerset Maugham, had an Indian character. The author did not hide the fact that it was named after a real person he admired by giving the character the real name of the person. CP Ramaswamy Iyer was known both for his far-reaching reforms as the Diwan of Travancore and the controversies he triggered. At one point, he was one of the two joint secretaries of Congress. The other was Jawaharlal Nehru, and the two hated each other. CP lived in a huge corner property on Eldams Road in Alwarpet, ‘The Baobab’, which was named after a tree native to the isle of Madagascar. It was CP who edited New India during Annie Besant’s incarceration in Ooty for anti-British writing. At that time, sedition was punishable with confiscation of the building from which the seditious material was propagated. A shrewd man, CP would hang the board of the newspaper on a tree in his garden and edit the paper seated in its shade.


Thanks to the breeze from the Mambalam lake that rendered the weather pleasant, Alwarpet housed many a royal. Two families, Pithapuram and Mirzapur, had houses in the area. The Pithapuram Raja has roads named after him, while the marble house used to be a ‘delivery of child’ house of the Mirzapur royal family. Maharaja Suryarau Road and Maharani Chinnamma Road are shortened now to Surya and Chinnama roads but are lucky not to be renamed. Though a zamindari, Pithapuram entered into marriage alliances with large kingdoms like Baroda, Cooch Behar and Sidli in Assam. The Raja of Pithapuram, a big patron of the Telugu language, sponsored the design of the first Telugu typewriter and an English-Telugu dictionary. When Maharani Chinnamma died in a fire accident while she was doing her prayers after her saree caught on fire from a lighted lamp, the Pithapuram family vacated the area. The marble house of Mirzapur became the Jaya Studio. It was later renamed Sobanachala Studio and finally Venus Studio.


Sir John De Monte, a Portuguese businessman, bought acres of land along the Adyar river beside Cathedral Road and Luz. After his son died early and his wife suffered from mental illness, De Monte willed his properties to the Archdiocese of Madras-Mylapore, with specific instructions to render services to the needy. The Will was also probated by the Supreme Court of Judicature at Madras on September 28, 1827, with a codicil that it can never be sold. However, Archbishop Mathias, an Italian priest, didn’t think so and used the best of lawyers to break the sanctity of the codicil and parcelled off this land. The Adyar side areas today include the Boat Club, the poshest locality in the city, and Greenways Road, where the power centres reside. The church still owns an area on the periphery of this high-end area. But all that is left of John De Monte are stories of Demonte Colony being haunted.


A little-remembered activity of filmmaker AK Chettiar, who made the monumental documentary on Mahatma Gandhi, was publishing Kumari Malar magazine which came out for 40 years from 1943-1983. As magazine publishing was restricted during Quit India Movement, Kumari Malar came out as a book every month. It was different from the contemporary periodicals and did not have fiction. Chettiar was a veteran travel writer, and all of his travelogues were published from his small one-room office in Mowbray’s Road (now TTK Road). The magazine did not compete with the leading publications of the time, Kalki and Ananda Vikadan. This periodical, priced at a modest 50 paise, came out with the same cover page layout for all volumes, with only the background colours changing for each volume. It was not sold in bookshops but sent only to those who subscribed. However, as only 500 copies were printed, new subscribers were accepted only when some existing subscribers opted out. Rajaji, Bharathidasan, and KA Nilakanda Sastri were amongst the host of high-profile writers who wrote for Kumari Malar.


Though his residence was at T Nagar, Kannadasan, the prolific Tamil poet, novelist and writer of philosophical interpretations of Hinduism, spent most of his time in Alwarpet. Much of the work in the later part of his career could be traced to a hotel room in Alwarpet. He stayed here for a couple of decades in what was a thickly wooded property which had an art deco hotel aptly named Kavitha. He was nominated as the poet laureate of Tamil Nadu while working on his poetry here. An atheist-turned-believer, he would pen his book Arthamulla Indhu Madham (the meaningful Hinduism), perhaps the best-selling interpretation of Hinduism here. He received his Sahitya Akademi prize, too, for a work done while here – Cheraman Kaadhali, a fictional account of the Chera dynasty.


After playing in the open space of the Maharashtra Nivas and Mangadu House on Mowbray Road, a group of men went ahead to form a cricket club in Alwarpet in the 1940s and entered the city league in 1949. It lost its first match but the team went on to win the next 10 matches. Alwarpet CC had landed in Madras cricket with a bang though it was only the 5th division. They climbed divisions one by one and became one of the most successful clubs. It was even said during that time that the shortest route to play for the State or the country was through Alwarpet CC. It always welcomed players from outside the State who were transferred to Madras. Even their local composition was cosmopolitan, with a few Sikh players being prominent faces in the team. Alwarpet CC players went on to become Test and Ranji players, umpires, administrators, commentators and cricket writers. Among them, K Srikanth went on to lead the country team. At Alwarpet CC, cricket was not just a sport, it was a religion. When a player’s marriage fell on the day of a league match, he was told, “No excuses. The marriage is early, so tie the mangalsutra and come here.”


When Ambujammal, the daughter of the Advocate General of Madras, was all of 15 years, a visitor and his wife came home. The other invitees came bedecked in their best jewels to impress the dignitaries. But the couple were simple; the man though foreign educated was in native clothes while his wife whom the women had expected to be imposing because of her upbringing and social status wore a cotton saree and iron bangles. That was Ambujammal’s first glimpse of the Gandhis, who would change her life. She donated her jewels, went to jail for non-cooperation and after freedom was won and Gandhi was gone, she instituted the Srinivasa Gandhi Nilayam in Alwarpet to take care of the destitute persons. There, the children got milk, the sick got medicines, and the needy got trained in tailoring skills. And to remind us where it all started, the Nilayam still has a Tulasi Madam in its front, where the sacred Ocimum plant grows on the flowers and ashes from the Mahatmas funeral pyre.


Baroda was a 21-gun salute state, ruled by a king who was the richest man in India. He was also a horse owner whose equines competed in the most prestigious races, including Guindy. Once Pratap Singh spotted a beautiful girl on the racecourse and was smitten by her. He found out that she was Seetha Devi, the princess of Pithapuram who lived in Alwarpet. But there was one hurdle in the romance: she was married with children. However, that did not stop the Romeo king from wooing her. Overcoming a series of legal hurdles, the couple got married. The love-struck Gaekwad had broken the stringent bigamy laws of Baroda and his prime minister quit in protest, and even the British were not amused. But the princess from Alwarpet, now the queen of Baroda, Seetha Devi soon became a socialite and fashion icon, hobnobbing with the royalty of Europe. The jewels she flaunted included the 128.80-carat ‘Star of the South’ diamond.


In the first decade of talkies, studios were spread all over Madras. They were installed in palatial bungalows which gave them the audio privacy that talkies required. The studios of Vel Pictures were started in Dunmore House in Alwarpet in 1934. The studio was opened by the then-acting Governor Mohammed Usman. Three years down the line, Ellis Roderick Dungan, an alumnus of the University of Southern California, was enlisted to direct a social film on the evils of liquor. The story was written by magazine mogul SS Vasan who, enthused with the success of this film, moved to movies which changed Tamil tinsel town forever. In the film, there is a corrupt police officer named Rangiah Naidu, who is the villain’s sidekick. The role was played by a 20-year-old actor who faced the camera for the first time. He almost lost the role because the role required him to cycle but he was not adept at it. From there, the youngster rose to become the biggest matinee star, MG Ramachandran and then became the Chief Minister of the State.

Violet Nicolson, whose penname was Laurence Hop

Violet Nicolson, whose penname was Laurence Hope, one of the most prominent romantic poets of the Edwardian era, lived and died in Alwarpet Dunmore House – which incidentally is famous for its bad luck. To be socially acceptable, her collections of poetry — The Garden of Kama and Stars of the Desert, and Indian Love — were marketed as translations, their contents ‘arranged in verse by Laurence Hope’. After marrying Malcolm, a colonel twice her age, daring Violet once even went to the Afghan border disguised as a Pathan boy. After the couple relocated to Madras, Malcolm introduced her to many native rituals, and they were often shunned by the British community in Madras due to their local habits. Malcolm died during a prostate procedure, and Violet killed herself by consuming a corrosive poison. Thomas Hardy penned her obituary. Her final poem was definitely about their shattered love.

Small joy was I to thee; before we met

Sorrow had left thee all too sad to save.

Useless my love – as vain as this regret

That pours my hopeless life across thy grave.


Over the years, film stars thronged Alwarpet for its privacy but one of the earliest was KB Sundarambal, perhaps the most well-known Tamil stage artist of the early part of the 1900s. Her characteristic tone and high-pitch singing (many used to say KBS could be heard a mile away without a mike) made her one of the highest-paid gramophone recording artists. Born in the small town of Kaumudi on the banks of Cauvery, Sundarambal used to sing on running trains for money. For her early film Nandanar, KBS received a fee of Rs 1 lakh, the highest any actor had received for a talkie then. It was a time when even heroes worked on monthly salaries in the studios. Her film Avvaiyar, produced by SS Vasan, was a great success. KBS was a nationalist who was active during the freedom struggle, singing at meetings organised by Congress leaders. As early as 1931, she recorded an elegy on Motilal Nehru’s death. Much later, she would do the same for Kasturba and the Mahatma.

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