Sunday, February 1, 2015

Miss me?

Over at the CDP Blogs site, we are celebrating Theme Day today with pictures of what the blogger would miss most about his/her city. The thought of leaving Chennai is too far-fetched for me, and I find it impossible to go further on that road and think about what I would miss about Chennai.

If there has to be something, it would have to be a combination led by this. Early morning on the balcony, with The Hindu and a cup of tea. No, not the filter coffee that everyone thinks all Chennaiites thrive on, and not any other newspaper, for sure. You could argue that The Hindu can be subscribed to anywhere and chai is also available across the world. But nothing can beat the early morning crispness of Chennai; add the chai and The Hindu, and that's an experience utterly unreplicable.

What would the other bloggers miss about their cities? Head over here to find out!

Sunday, January 18, 2015


A few weeks ago at Pallikaranai, I was fooled into thinking that the Forest Department had erected an observation tower, only to find out that it was just a water tank. But this one did not have any such surprises. What looked like rest-stop, with this thatch roof and a bench, was just that. It is the only one on the banks of the Pallikaranai marsh. It must have been the Foresters who had this put up. 

I just hope that there will be a few more such. And that they do not turn it into a lakeside eating joint or something!

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Single man stage

If he were alive today, he would have turned 98. It has been 30 years since he died. And yet, he continues to be an inspiring icon for many in the state of Tamil Nadu. There is at least one TV channel which plays songs from his movies 24/7 and breaks up that monotony with a full movie or three.

MGR. Possibly the only politician who won an election, not only for himself, but for his party, by campaigning from a hospital bed half-the-world away!

Friday, January 16, 2015


The last weekend of the Mylapore Festival for this year. The square in front of the Kapaleeshwarar Temple was quite packed with people waiting to listen to the nadaswaram performance. This was only a small part of the over 50 thousand people who passed through the Mylapore Festival. 

Are you planning to be there next year?

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Hotel house

Today marks the 47th anniversary of the passing away of one of Chennai's culinary 'Gods'. He has been away from this city for longer than he was here, but in the couple of decades that he ran his business in Madras, he established a presence - and a reputation - that has transcended generations and international borders. That 'God' was Kuthethur Seetharama Rao, who began his foray into the food business by setting up Modern Café at Mysore. The success of his first venture emboldened him to strike out to Madras, and the second Modern Café was set up on the Esplanade. Business there was good as well, no doubt helped by the masala dosa that Seetharama Rao has been credited with popularising.

He believed that it was possible to strike a balance between the choultry that the ordinary Indian traveller was expected to put up with and the plush western hotels favoured by the not-so-ordinary folk. From that belief was born Hotel Dasaprakash, which was an iconic landmark of the city. In 1940, Seetharama Rao built a house for himself just a little way away from the hotel, naming it Dasaprasad. Seetharama Rao extended his culinary empire across Mysore, Madras and Ooty. His descendants have taken the brand overseas: the first Dasaprakash in the USA opened at Cerritos, Los Angeles in 1989. The overseas presence is all that remains - Modern Café and Dasaprakash are no more here in India. The Chennai hotel has made way for a residential complex and the hotel in Ooty is now Villa Park.

That house continues to be the seat of Seetharama Rao's family. The building is still Art Deco and the gateposts continue to proclaim this as the residence of the proprietor of Modern Café. The only thing I am wondering about is the spelling of his name: maybe it was too long to fit on the sign, so it has been modified to read "K. Sitarama Rao"!

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Institution built

Towards the end of the nineteenth century, engineering had started growing as a professional discipline. India's industrialization needed engineers and by the 1910s, they had also recognized the need to form a professional association. Under the leadership of Sir Thomas Holland, the Director of the Geological Survey of India, the Institution of Engineers (India) was established in 1920, and registered in Madras. In 1935, the IEI was granted a royal charter by King George V.

The headquarters of the Institution of Engineers (India) has been moved to Kolkata. The office of the IEI in Chennai works out of this uniquely designed building on Swami Sivananda Salai. It must have been built during a time when membership of the IEI had a certain cachet. These days, with the advent of private engineering colleges in Tamil Nadu, the importance of the IEI appears to have lessened - and the campus here is quite deserted!

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Artists and subject

One of the attractions at the Mylapore Festival was the chance to get your portrait sketched. That's normal. There were a few artists who would also make a caricature. All of them had enough patrons; there was a queue waiting to have their portraits - or caricatures - drawn. And then, in the midst of all those artists, was a circle of artists who were doing something that seemed quite odd. All of them were focussed on sketching just one person - what is it that they were doing? Or, who was he?

Monday, January 12, 2015

Patriotic bookplace

In 1904, Krishnaswami Aiyer and Sundara Iyer decided to honour the social reformer Mahadeo Govind Ranade, who had died in 1901. The manner they chose was to establish the Ranade Institute to conduct research on law, economics and politics. Such an institute needed a proper library and therefore it became the first part of the proposed institute to be set up. The foundation stone was laid by Gopal Krishna Gokhale in July 1904 and the library came up in quick time.

Within a couple of decades, the library needed more space. The land it was occupying, which was on Brodie's Castle Road (now R.K.Mutt Road) had been gifted to it by Raghunatha Rao. The South Indian National Association, which had been formed to manage the Ranade Institute, decided to sell the property and the proceeds funded the acquisition of these premises on Luz Church Road. In 1928, the Library moved to this location. 

With the Institute itself not showing any signs of coming up, the SINA decided to expand the Library. A lecture hall was added in 1955 and it was named after V.S. Srinivasa Sastri, who had served as a vice-president of the SINA for a while. Since then, the Hall and the Library have been in continuous use. The books here are truly a treasure trove for anyone wanting to research the early twentieth century. The annual membership of the Ranade Library at Mylapore is just Rs.100. It must have been less than a hundredth of this amount when the library started functioning!

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Help the people

This building in Purasawalkam houses the office of a Benefit Fund. Its name is so long that I am not going to write it out here. It is a fund that has been operating out of Purasawalkam since the late nineteenth century - and this building, to mark the centenary of the fund, is itself thirty-three years old!

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Welcome stay

For me, this hotel is one enduring mystery. It has a tremendous locational advantage. The businesses or offices nearby are not shy of announcing that they are "near Hotel Swagath". Even the Provident Fund Commissioner has to locate his office by stating that it is "Opposite Swagat Hotel". 

And yet, there does not seem to be much to talk about this hotel. Reviews on travel sites are so-so; there appears to be no restaurant in the hotel. The best thing being said about it is that it is a great place to conduct weddings - right, you are welcome too!

Friday, January 9, 2015

Road to gate

James Lawder came to India as an Assistant Surgeon with the Madras Medical Service in July 1822. By then, he had been in service for a while and had seen action in the Peninsular War. He had also completed a stint in the USA; but it was in Madras that he spent the majority of his career. In 1835, Lawder was made a full surgeon. His most significant contribution seems to have been his views on the treatment of leprosy and the management of patients afflicted with the disease.

For some reason, James Lawder was sure that leprosy was a hereditary disease and that it was contagious. For this reason, he pitched strongly for expanding the Madras Leper Hospital and making a few changes in the facility. In 1839, the government of Madras made a grant of Rs.2,000/- to the MLH and Lawder used the funds to build high - over 3m - walls around the MLH, but also between the eleven wards of the MLH. He also favoured restraining the patients, so as to not have them spread the disease. With such facilities, the MLH seems to have been more of a prison than a hospital.

James Lawder married in Madras, and had a family here. Being a senior medical officer, he would have bought himself a garden house in Purasaiwalkam, accessed from the Poonamallee High Road. In those days, houses were few and road names non-existent. The path to Lawder's Gate became a road in itself. Even though the house and its memories have long gone - Lawder went back to England and died there in 1860 - the place still remembers the surgeon in the name of a street!

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Business centre

Like many other businesses of the time, this one also started out as a family enterprise. Rather, as a one-boy business. Still in his teens, Ezhumalai decided that he had picked up enough in his six-year stint as a helper in one of Rattan Bazaar's workshops to go solo. In hindsight, it was probably a wise move for him to set up his workshop at Royapettah, quite a distance from Rattan Bazaar. As its name implies, this was the go-to place for cane furniture; opening a workshop there might have turned the full blast of competition on Ezhumalai. By basing himself in Royapettah, he cut the distance between the traditional furniture market and his customers,who were mostly based in south Madras.

When Ezhumalai launched his furniture business in 1937, the air must have been full of patriotic fervour. "Jayabharatham" resonated with the spirit of the times. It was probably that zeal which led him to train young men and women the art of re-wiring the cane strands onto the furniture frames. Some of them became competition, but the majority became his employees. Ezhumalai realized that if he had to expand his business, he would have to look beyond the city of Madras. His workforce could handle the volumes, and sales were driven through printed catalogues which were distributed free across the Presidency. Until his death in the late 1970s, Ezhumalai was actively involved in the business.

These days, when one thinks about buying furniture in Chennai, the place to head to is Royapettah. That change, from Rattan Bazaar to Royapettah, was brought about by this one man. And his successors have sustained that change. In 1989, a decade after Ezhumalai's passing away, his son Rajendran changed the proprietor-run business into a corporate entity. Now known as JFA Pvt Ltd, it has spun off a few brands and also niche products. The third generation is also into the business, which now has its presence in several parts of the city - but this building, on Royapettah High Road, is close to where it all began!

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Fancy a ride?

One of the attractions on the Marina is the horse ride. No, not the ones on a carousel, but real life horses. Of course one cannot expect pedigreed horses to be walked around on the beach sands, looking for excited kids or young gents wanting to show off. But the horses look healthy and when the grooms trot across to a seeming prospect, the horses seem to share the excitement and trot along without a fuss. I wasn't in the market for horse rides on the beach, but a couple of the grooms came full tilt at me. The first mumbled a price; I kept moving away, uninterested. The second offered to beat the price down. I barely registered what he said, but for some reason it upset the first groom. Hot words followed. 

Within a couple of seconds, the horses had caught on to the mood of aggression. They began neighing and squealing, circling each other, getting back to back, and kicking each other with their hind legs. The grooms had a tough time keeping them down - for about 15 seconds, it seemed that the horses would break loose and a shod hoof would split some flesh and bone. Luckily, the grooms managed to regain control - and maybe the horses also sensed that the argument was not a life-and-death issue anyway.

They came back again, docile as you please. The first groom again mumbled a price to me; it sounded like "50 rupees final price saar". But no, after that display, I was even less inclined to get on to any of the beach horses!

Tuesday, January 6, 2015


A few years ago, this space was a reasonably wooded forest, which had some wildlife running around it. Within this nine-acre patch of land in Nandanam, a small herd of chital, a brood of mongooses, a few snakes, a couple of monkeys and a wide variety of birds lived together, mostly in harmony, wondering why some of their fellow creatures were cooped up inside buildings. 

Those buildings - which were difficult to spot from the air because of the tree cover - housed the facilities of the Tamil Nadu Agricultural University's Poultry Research Station (PRS). The PRS was set up in 1941, to supply poultry breeders with 'superior germplasm'. Over the years, the PRS introduced a variety of lines; apart from the ubiquitous chickens, they had the Japanese quails, turkeys, guinea fowls and geese. Over the decades, the variants introduced from the PRS appended 'Nandanam' to their names - hence Nandanam chicken or Nandanam quail. 

In 2011, it was decided that the land being occupied by the PRS could be put to better use for the citizens of Chennai. The PRS was shifted to Madhavaram, where the University has extensive space and the site at Nandanam was handed over to the Chennai Metro for constructing their administrative and maintenance facilities. The first thing the Chennai Metro did was to clear the land of almost all the vegetation; a few trees remain around the periphery, but in the centre, both trees and buildings were razed. This picture is from a year ago, when the clearing was going on in full swing; if one were to see this space for the first time now, it would be difficult to believe that deer and koels once frolicked here!

Monday, January 5, 2015


On Vellala Street in Purasaiwalkam, there are a few buildings which appear to have been residences at some time. Most of them appear to be of the 1930s vintage, giving us an idea of what the street must have looked like in those days. At least one of them has been given over to a temple, while one other houses a shop.  

This one seemed particularly lonely. Maybe it was the fresh colours of its neighbour that made the exposed brickwork even more vulnerable. In a few years, this would have come crumbling down; and there would be one less building to show us what street would have looked like in the 1930s!

Sunday, January 4, 2015

City view

A few days ago, we had a view of the city looking north from the top of the lighthouse; this one takes it a few hundred metres higher - if you look closely, you can see the red-and-white band of the lighthouse at the bottom of the photo. 

The broad stretch of the beach looks glorious from up above. It is possibly less sandy than it should be; but let us hope it remains at least the way it is right now!

Saturday, January 3, 2015

Thirsty birds

At this apartment complex, the residents have decided it is too cold to use the pool. That is good news for these Blue Rock Pigeons (Columba livia). Nobody is going to disturb them as they line up to drink water from here!

Friday, January 2, 2015

Music and move-ie store

In the middle of the music season in Chennai, it is time to think about a store that brought 'another kind of music' to Madras. It was in 1975 that Harish Samtani decided to set up his shop near the Wallajah Road intersection on Mount Road. The choice of location was possibly influenced by the fact that it was right in the Ritchie Street area; an area that was already known for being the go-to place for the latest in electronic goods. It made sense for a store selling exotic music to open up there.

In the beginning, there were the vinyls, of course. Over the years, Stereovision has kept in sync with changing tastes and technologies. It has ranged beyond music and has become pretty much the leading brand in Chennai for hi-tech audio and video equipment. Along the way, Harish has married his first love of auto-racing into the business of Stereovision - and that you can see in the ads for GoPro dominating the storefront - and its website!

Thursday, January 1, 2015

A new year

Happy New Year, everyone! The first full year of this blog has just gone by: 365 posts in 2014! After having had a decent start in 2008, 'daily photo' spluttered along until living up to its name with a post for every day last year. Sure hope that it will continue in the new year. 

The first post was also on a New Year's day. But that was in April and it featured this gopuram's opposite number, the western gopuram of the Kapaleeswarar temple. Have come a long way around to this side!

Am skipping the 'Theme Day' this month. But if you would like to take a look at some mind blowing pictures from City Daily Photo blogs around the world, head over here!

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

A thought was born

That block of flats along the western border of the Kapaleeshwarar temple tank occupies the space where, in the late 19th century, Diwan Bahadur Raghunatha Rao's house, Krishna Vilasam, had stood. Sometime in Aug-Sep of 1884, seventeen prominent men of south India had met at this house and resolved that a "national movement for political ends" be formed. One of the members present was Alan Octavian Hume, a member of the Theosophical Society. Hume followed up on this resolution at the annual convention of the Theosophical Society in December 1884 and his suggestion of all-India organization to present the cause of Indians found acceptance with Annie Besant, Womesh Chandra Bannerjee and Surendranath Bannerjee. 

December 28-30 of the following year saw the first session of the Indian National Congress, in Bombay. With just 72 delegates, it didn't seem to be big deal. But Hume had covered extensive ground. He had travelled to England and had the proposal of forming the INC cleared by Lord Ripon, then Viceroy of India, and other influential persons. Without those efforts, the organization might have remained one more of the many which had petered out after the initial enthusiasm. 

The first resolution of the INC was moved by G Subrahmania Aiyar, who was then the editor of The Hindu, a delegate from Madras. In the years to follow, other delegates from Madras continued to play important roles in the Congress. In the 1960s, however, the Congress lost ground in Tamil Nadu and has been struggling to regain it here since. This year, the party has slipped across the country; its annual session this year a couple of days ago was a low-key affair.  An idea that was sparked at a Mylapore meeting charted the course of this country for over a century - and will hopefully regain its lustre in the years ahead!

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Charity house

At the northwestern corner of Ekambareswarar Agraharam stands this building, smaller than any of its neighbours. Continuing the contrast, it also appears to be the only building on the street that remains in its original form. In a locality where space is at a premium, with all buildings along a line sharing common walls, it is quite surprising that a building remains stagnant across generations.

And this one has seen a few generations. Constructed in 1932, it was never meant to be a regular residence. Or commercial space. Called 'Govardhana Bhavan', it was built by the Gocooladoss Jumnadoss Charities as a kind of multi-purpose facility. The Charities was established by one of the early Gujarati settlers in Madras, Gocooladoss Jumnadoss (different spellings of his name exist, with fewer 'o's and a 'k' as well). 

Govardhana Bhavan opens up as you get inside. It has rooms for travellers to stay in, a large kitchen, multiple dining spaces and separate quarters for ladies. It must have functioned as a choultry or guest house earlier; I was told that it is used to conduct weddings and get togethers also, these days!

Monday, December 29, 2014

Music everywhere

It is the music season in Chennai. If you thought it meant only concerts in halls, think again. Performances can be seen outside the hall as well. Here is a group gathered outside the Kapaleeshwarar temple, singing paasurams

You may be able to see such a group at other times of the year, but that would be a lone swallow. It is during that month of Margazhi that several such groups go around the temple, singing devotional songs - and that's what makes the music season here!

Sunday, December 28, 2014

Weekend book

Reading the review of the book a couple of weeks ago, I knew that I had to have "A Madras Misama" as soon as possible. Not having an India publisher, or distributor, the book had to come in from lands beyond the seas, but thanks to the wonders of Amazon, it got to me on Christmas Day, within a couple of weeks of the order having been placed.

Over the weekend, therefore, I got myself acquainted with Superintendent Chris Le Fanu. It has everything you look for in a mystery - murders, drugs, sex, movies, money - and the setting, of Madras in the 1920s, is incidental. However, that setting has been brought to life; the author, Brian Stoddart, has spent a lot of time in this city and therefore gets it right when it comes to the atmosphere of those times. 

I'm not going to tell you whodunit. But I can tell you it was racing good read on a murky Madras afternoon!

Saturday, December 27, 2014

In the name of the son

In 1749, the British laid siege to the fort of Devakottai and succeeded in taking it over. That was a battle in which a young Shropshire lad, Robert Clive, caught the attention of Major Stringer Lawrence, who was heading the East India Company's troops in Madras. It could possibly have been a quirk of fate that had Clive playing a lead role there; it is tempting to think that, had a note of dissent against the campaign been accepted, there would have been no Tanjore campaign. Without it, that mad soldier Clive may have been hard-pressed to find another theatre for his success and history may well have been different. 

But that note by Foss Westcott was not accepted; despite that, he was still considered a reliable enough civil servant for him to be appointed as one of the two - or was it three - Commissaries to speak for the Company in the treaty for the evacuation of Fort St George (effectively the city of Madras) by the French. He negotiated terms with Dupleix and took over the fort from the French. Foss Westcott remained in the service for only a short while thereafter, going back to England in 1756. 

Foss left behind him his first wife, Ann Pye, who he had married in 1743, and a teenage son, George Westcott. George followed his father into the civil service, joining as a writer. He, however, stayed on in the service for long, going on to become a senior member of the Board of Revenue in Madras. During his tenure in the service, he acquired property at Royapettah and in the manner of the times, the road leading up to his house came to be known as Westcott's Road. The house is long gone, but the road continues to retain the name, even if some liberty has been taken with its spelling!

Friday, December 26, 2014

Leading lady

So there is at least one place where the lady still reigns supreme. Any guesses as to where this statue of Queen Victoria can be seen?

Thursday, December 25, 2014

Merry Christmas

That's the spire of the Egmore Wesley Church - in 2015, it will celebrate its 110th anniversary. The stylized six-pointed star on its steeple could refer to any of several symbols associated with such stars. For today, however, we shall think of it as the Star of Bethlehem, shall we?

Merry Christmas, everyone!

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

No more shows

There was a news report about Pilot theatre in Royapettah planning to shut down. It certainly had a lot of people groan about how standalone, single screen cinemas have become scarce and unviable, and about the romance of going for a movie in the old days. 

Pilot was certainly one of those old-world theatres. It was opened sometime in the 1950s and was going strong through the next few decades, screening English films for most of its life. Sometime in the early 2000s, though, the theatre lost its charm as a go-to place for watching movies and it was reduced to screening dubbed versions of slash-and-gore Hollywood movies which even Hollywood had forgotten about. 

Despite its recent setbacks, Pilot claims a couple of firsts to its credit. It was apparently the first widescreen in the city, and a novelty when it was inaugurated. The other was something called a 'thread-screen'; what that is, I have no idea. But those innovations were a long time ago and while there was some nostalgia, there was really little surprise about Pilot having had to shut down. But surprisingly, it seems to have got itself a new coat of paint on its facade - is there some kind of a revival in the works?

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Merchant prince

As you walk down Bunder street, you get to see this building, with the fresh coat of paint on its ground floor contrasting with the grey of the first floor. Maybe they have completed painting the entire building in the couple of months since this picture was taken. That would be a pity; the fluting of the straight columns and the arches would be lost, methinks, in the bright colour. The painter has also highlighted the name of the building's first occupant. Adam Hajee Mohomed Sait came to Madras in the first decade of the 20th century, moving here from Cochin on the west coast. Cochin of course was not his 'native place'; he was at best he was second generation there, for he was part of a clan that continues to be known as the Cutchi (or Kutchi) Memons, originally from the Kutch region of Gujarat. 

Mohomed Sait surely moved to Madras to strike out for himself; he started off dealing in tobacco and other commodities and over time his company, Adam Hajee Mohomed Sait & Sons became agents for Kerala Soap Institute, Lipton, Nestle, Parry's confectionery and Britannia biscuits. With business doing well, he bought himself some property in the heart of the city's business district - George Town - and went from strength to strength. Though Cutchi Memons had been in Madras for close to a century by the time of Mohomed Sait's arrival (by some accounts, the first Cutchi Memons had arrived in 1815 and by 1880, the Corporation of Madras had even allocated a separate area for Cutchi Memon cemetery), he was the first of his clan to be accorded the title of "Khan Bahadur" by the British. He also went on to serve as President of the South Indian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, Sheriff of Madras and also as the Reserve Bank's Director for the Madras Province. 

Although none of his successors seem to have carried on his tradition of public service, the business continues to be run by his family; they have probably moved their residences out of George Town, but the business is headquartered in Bunder Street, in Mohomed Buildings, which was first opened in 1924!

Monday, December 22, 2014

Intersect guardian

A statue of C.N. Annadurai, the first non-Congress Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu, stands at the intersection of Avvai Shanmugham Salai (Lloyds Road) and Royapettah High Road. I am not sure if there is any particular significance of having his statue here, apart from the fact that the political party named after him (of which he was never a member) is headquartered nearby!

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Hidden hotel

A guidebook published in 1987 contains a "Where to Stay" list for Madras, in which 'Hotel Admiralty' is listed in the 3rd place. One could assume that Hotel Admiralty was therefore functioning in 1987, but somehow the previous entry ("Hotel Holiday Inn Aya Gate") does not inspire much confidence in the veracity of this listing. It is however true that Madras had an "Admiralty Hotel" at one point in time. It was not always a hotel, though. In 1892, a naval officer acquired a garden house along Santhome High Road and named it Admiralty House, presumably after his line of work. Most likely his family did not want to stay on in Madras after his time, and the property was sold in 1914 to the Maharaja of Vizianagaram. During the Maharaja's time, it was known as the Vizianagaram Palace. It was in this palace that the Maharaja fell off a balcony and was fatally injured. After his death, the Palace acquired a reputation of being haunted and a place of ill-fortune.

With nobody from the family interested in living in the buildings, they were let out to AV Meiyappa Chettiar who took it on an interminably long lease at a rent of Rs.250/- per month. AVM - yes, it was he of the studio fame - had no intention of living there, either. The palace became the setting for a few of AVM's big hits: Sabapathy, Bhoo Kailas and Sri Valli. But somehow, AVM did not use the palace for any other movies. His successor as tenant to the property was a gentleman named Palliagraharam Kandaswami Pillai who announced that he would make a movie at the palace. Titled "A1" (not to be confused with "Ai", it was to be directed by Ellis R. Dungan, but it never saw the light of day. 

With that, film shoots at the Vizianagaram Palace came to a stop. It was then that the owners decided to convert it into a hotel. Recalling the property's earlier name, the Admiraly Hotel was opened here, The sign on its wall along Norton Road was originally unhindered by all those electrical equipment; and, it has remained unaltered over the years and looking quite new, even if it is hidden these days. But don't go looking for the hotel - it has long ceased to function and the buildings on the property are now used as office space!