Those were the days: Memoirs on Madras, its glorious past & legacy

When closely observed, there have been historical events in every nook and corner of the city.
Illustration by Saai
Illustration by Saai

CHENNAI: History in Madras, we are often led to believe, happened in Mylapore, Mount Road or the Black Town. But that’s far from the truth. When closely observed, there have been historical events in every nook and corner of the city.

This Madras Day, we look at people, events and buildings in many locations which have contributed to the history of the city.

ADYAR

The Theosophical Society, founded by a Ukrainian lady and an American civil war veteran moved from New York to Adyar, bringing with it a great international diaspora.

The theosophists were perhaps the second global influence on Madras after the East India Company. Society increased debate and interactions and thus encouraged and influenced many historic events ranging from home rule, and Montessori education to even the evolution of the Bharatanatyam.

EGMORE

Railway townships had a substantial Anglo-Indian population. The girls of these vibrant communities were the first in their gender to step out of stereotyped domicile roles and enter jobs, sports and beauty pageants.

In 1968, an Anglo-Indian girl based out of Egmore, Jennifer Maureen Storey was crowned Miss Madras and was the runner-up at the Miss India fete. Inspired by her mother, Jennifer’s daughter would climb greater heights becoming the Miss Universe — Lara Dutta.

KILPAUK

Impressed with Delhi Hardinge Medical College for Women, the Madras government decided to establish the Kilpauk Medical College (KMC) as an exclusive medical college for women. However, the girls went on strike insisting that the college be made co-educational. The girls marched up to Fort St George and finally got the right to study with the boys.

PERAMBUR

India’s oldest surviving trade union, Madras Labour Union was started in 1918 in Perambur. Theosophist Wadia presided over a labour meeting instead of Annie Besant who was invited and was not available.

He chaired a meeting of 10,000 workers of the Buckingham and Carnatic mills, where he announced the formation of the union and took over as its first president.

FORESHORE ESTATE

The quibble island is now connected by a bridge to Foreshore Estate. Right over this bridge, the battle of Adyar took place.

A small French army of 300 soldiers, led by a Swiss general Paradis, faced a 10,000-strong Arcot army. The latter was led by its prince, seated on a majestic elephant.

Undaunted by the size of the enemy, the French sepoys waded through the Adyar river in a formation while discharging their muskets. Panic gripped the Arcot army and they turned and ran. The age of trained and well-organised armies had begun in India.

ALWARPET

Those were the days when film studios were all over the city and not concentrated in Kodambakkam.

Off Eldams road in Alwarpet was Vels Studio. A Coimbatore-based producer rented it to film his Sathi Leelavathi. The American-born director Ellis Dungan used a story by SS Vasan, who was tempted after this to become a movie mogul.

Dungan introduced a drama actor, Ramachandran, who had to play a corrupt police officer called Rangaiah.

Ramachandran would struggle as a supporting actor for another 12 years before being launched as a hero and attaining demigod status as MGR.

AVADI

Singapore had fallen to the Japanese and the British needed a backup base. In a highly secret operation, the largest military base of the British Empire was in set up in Avadi. It covered 20 square miles and was entirely self-dependent in terms of water and electricity.

One lakh tonnes of supplies and 11 million litres of fuel were safely stored there as well. 10,000 civilians and army personnel were employed in an ordnance depot and transit hospitals for those injured in the war.

While RAF planes landed on its three runways, seaplanes landed in nearby Red Hills lake.

ANNA NAGAR

It took 15,000 workers to create the nascent Anna Nagar industrial Expo in 1968. This was organised by the AIMO to showcase Indian industrial development post-independence. The first demonstration of television was at this fair in 1968.

The 135-foot-tall phallic tower was named after Dr Visvesvaraya and was the undeniable hit of the fair.

It was second in height only to the LIC building and was designed by Yahya C Merchant, a Bombay-based architect who was also designing the Jinnah mausoleum in Karachi at that time.

CHINTADRIPET

In 1887, a medical college dropout, Krupabai Satthianadhan, just crossing 20 years of age, wrote her first novel in English (serialised in the Madras Christian College Magazine) called Saguna.

The autobiographical novel was perhaps one of the earlier Indian prose by a woman and certainly the first one in English.

The novel Saguna shattered the glass ceiling that held back Indian women in literature and the decades that followed had much feminine presence in English literature from the sub-continent.

GANDHI NAGAR

Author and journalist Kalki Krishnamurthy had settled down in the newly formed Gandhi Nagar.

Inspired by the Adyar river next to his home, he penned a novel whose story was intertwined with another river Ponni (Kaveri).

The magnum opus Ponniyin Selvan, which set the standards for Tamil literature ever since, is soon to be released as a film. In many places in the novel when Kalki describes the Ponni river (Kaveri), the portrayal is more apt for the Adyar.

Illustration by Saai
Ponniyin Selvan trail: A road trip to Chola’s lands at ₹11K

TRIPLICANE

In 1912, C Natesan, a medical practitioner, founded The Madras Dravidian Association and a hostel, the Dravidian Home, at Triplicane in July 1916 to tackle the lack of hostels for the non-Brahmin students which hindered their urban education.

In addition, the home had a literary society for the benefit of non-Brahmin students. This hostel is the genesis of the Justice Party and later the Dravidian movement.

PALLAVARAM

On the parade ground in Pallavaram, Bruce Foote, working with the Geological Survey of India, during his morning walk, accidentally stumbled on a smooth fist-sized stone.

Excited Foote identified it as a caveman’s axe made of quartzite. Soon other experts concurred that it was a Paleolithic tool used by the Homo erectus who preceded Homo sapiens.

This lucky find pushed the history of Madras regions behind by 1.5 million years.

MYLAPORE

Ramanarayana Venkataramana Sarma, who lived in Mylapore, was the hero of the first colour film shot in India (rather than laboratory coloured) Shahenshah made by GP Sippy.

His screen name was, of course, Ranjan and he was a renowned villain of Tamil cinema, and a generation of Tamil children was forced to eat their breakfasts with the threat that Shashankan (a role he played in Chandralekha) would come for them.

TIRUVANMIYUR

One of India’s handful of temples devoted to the Adivasi poet Valmiki, whose literary creation is perhaps the most popular of the Indian books ever, is in Tiruvanmiyur (whose name could also have derived from him). The temple is in the median of the ECR right at the spot it starts.

THYAGARAYA NAGAR

Was once a huge lake on which even the boat club used to conduct annual boating regattas. Gandhi stayed in T Nagar on his last visit to Madras, a year before India became free.

When Gandhi visited the Hindi Prachar Sabha silver jubilee function here, he even stopped a corporation bus and rode it to the next stop.

PARK TOWN

On public objections, the zoo had moved from Egmore museum to a spacious spot in Park Town. But during World War 2, the zoo was the target of the express order of the corporation which feared a Japanese bomb could release all the wild animals.

In just one day, the Malabar police shot the entire carnivorous section of the age-old Madras zoo with the grass eaters moving to Erode.

FORT ST GEORGE

St Mary’s Church is the oldest British building standing now in Madras. When the French bombarded the fort, it was the only structure left unscathed.

That was perhaps due to its thickened bomb-proof shelter with its architect being the head gunner of the British army Dixon.

POONAMALLEE

Chieftain Ayyappa Nayak resided at Poonamallee and ruled the area under the Chandragiri kingdom. It was then that Francis Day of the British East India company was seeking to obtain a grant for land on the Coromandel coast on which the company could build a factory and commence trading activities.

Ayyappa Nayak agreed and recommended the deal to his king at Chandragiri. Poonamalee was where the deed to transfer a sandy strip north of the then unnamed Cooum to the British who moved en masse from Masulipatnam.

The city’s growth was parallel to that of the British fortunes. A company became an empire starting from that signature at Poonamalee.

KUNRATHUR

A temple edict on a wall of Kandazheeswarar temple, Kundrathur mentions Mughal emperor Aurangzeb as Alamgir.

An inscription which records the renovation of the mandapam and the temple gopuram mentions that it happened during the rule of Mughal emperor Aurangzeb.

This shatters the predominant opinion that Mughals never came close to Tamil Nadu. In fact, several villages of Madras have been leased to the British only by Mughal emperors.

PAMMAL

Sambanda Mudaliar, a lawyer-turned-dramatist, lived in Pammal. He is attributed to have gotten respectability for stage actors which turned into hero worship later and a valuable asset for electoral politics.

He encouraged graduates to act and prepared scripts for family audiences. Mudaliar also successfully took to the audience Shakespeare’s plays in Tamil. Jwalita Ramanan was Romeo & Juliet in his version.

MANDAVELI

A palace of the Vizianagaram royalty on Norton road was supposedly haunted by a king who committed suicide there.

This palace was rented by AV Meiyappan Chettiar who used to turn his fortunes after a series of flops. In a banner called Pragathi Pictures, he made unforgettable comedies like Sabapathy and En Manaivi. The success here would encourage him to form the AVM banner in a couple of years.

THOUSAND LIGHTS

A Corporation School at Thousand Lights provided a mid-day meal in 1920 to 165 students.

An initiative of the Justice Party-run corporation and its founder Theagaraya Chetty, this was the first instance in India where a government-funded food scheme was connected to education.

Feeding students in Tamil Nadu schools is often touted by social scientists as the first step to making Madras rate high on social markers.

TIRUVOTTIYUR

One of the Carnatic musical trinity Muthuswami Dhikshithar lived for some time in Tiruvottiyur and his brother Baluswami played an Austrian violin for the first time with Carnatic notes.

This started a musical tradition so inherent now to Carnatic kutcheries where the violin becomes an essential accompaniment for Carnatic music.

VEPERY

On November 8, 1944, notorious blackmailer and extortionist CN Lakshmikanthan was stabbed while riding in a rickshaw in General Collins Road, Madras.

He received wounds and died in the General Hospital the next day. Eight persons were charged with being parties to a conspiracy to murder.

Two of them, the superstar of Tamil cinema MK Thyagaraja Bagavathar and the king of cine comedy NS Krishnan, then at their peaks, had their entire careers disrupted after having to spend jail terms.

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