Monday, August 31, 2009

Men's building

I did say earlier that the YMCA building has a story to tell for itself, after my first attempt was hijacked by the 'founder' of the YMCA in India, David McConaughy. In the early days of its life, the Madras YMCA operated from the premises of the Church of England's Temperance Institute. Within five years, the YMCA was ambitious - and maybe wealthy - enough to think of an exclusive building for itself. Though the foundation stone for this building was laid in 1895, it took five years to be completed. When done, it was inaugurated by Governor Arthur Havelock, who had taken pains to provide constant, detailed inputs to the Government Architect, G.S.T. Harris who was in charge of designing this building.

Maybe those design inputs were a cause of the delay in completing this building, but the larger reason seems to have been a lack of funds. The YMCA then got in touch with John Nelson Wanamaker, a Philadelphia businessman and former Postmaster General of the USA (1889 - 1893), who in 1857 had become the first paid Secretary of the YMCA in the USA. It is said that John Wanamaker gave $40,000 for constructing this building; a biography of his, while it does not mention the amount, credits him as having "... erected YMCA buildings in Madras, India; Seoul, Korea; Kyoto, Japan; Peking, China; Calcutta, India..." and also having an interest in the Allahabad (India) Christian College. Be that as it may, the money helped Namberumal Chetty get on with completing this building.

The intricate detailing with red sandstone - from the quarries of Tada - ensure this building stands out from its neighbours on NSC Bose Road. One wishes that the YMCA ensures those letters (can you see them on the central balcony of the top floor?) also stand out as distinctly!

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Fighters at the circle

This statue of kalaripayattu chekavars was installed at the Gemini Circle earlier this year, replacing the rather inconsequential piece which was loitering at this space. This statue is one of the six which were installed around the same time, each representing a cultural facet. While the other statues depict dances and staged performances, this is the only one showing off martial skills. Does the placing of this statue make any statement about the jostling for space around the Gemini Circle?

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Old cloth

Somehow, these two stores seem to have been there for ever. Not that I can remember the first time I saw them, but it was ages ago when I was advised that if I wanted any uniform material - for the NCC, or the scouts or suchlike things - General Swadeshis was the place to go. It was one of the many stores which named themselves in a fit of nationalistic fervour - to advertise the "buy local" alternative of those times, I guess. And the shop next to it, named (probably) after the revolutionary poet of the Madras region, Subramania Bharathi, adds to the overall feeling of patriotism on this stretch.

Haven't felt it deeply enough to go shopping there, so far!

Friday, August 28, 2009

Across the water

Standing at the Besant Nagar end of the 'broken bridge' and looking across into the city, it is not a happy sight, really. What should have been undeveloped land around the Adayar Creek area is threatening to become another highrise heaven. The views around - the Bay of Bengal, the Adayar Creek, the lush green of the Theosophical Society lands - are absolutely amazing, so these apartments (on the left) and the office space (I guess, on the right) will command premium prices for sure.

And those are not the only buildings coming up. Can only hope that by the time all the building gets done, there is still something of a natural view left!

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Watch out

Of the major cities in India, Kolkata has an enviable crime rate (that's the number of crimes registered under the Indian Penal Code per thousand population) of 82.5, which makes it the lowest among major cities in India. Chennai's record on this is not as enviable; in 2007, the latest year for which data are available on the NCRB website, Chennai's crime rate was 256.9, far higher than even New Delhi or Mumbai. That it is much better than Bangalore (475.6) or Hyderabad (314.3) is scant consolation to a city which prides itself on its police force, one of the oldest in the country.

Of course there are always many reasons touted; Mumbai, New Delhi and even Kolkata have urban populations that are more than double that of Chennai, the Chennai police is more scrupulous about registering cases and the clincher being that the Chennai police has a better record of solving crimes than their counterparts elsewhere. Of the last, I have not been able to find data, though. Like any large city anywhere in the world, Chennai has a part of its populace leading a life of crime and like in any other large city, they find a good chunk of their victims among newcomers to the city. Overawed by getting to the city, their trust is easily obtained or attention easily diverted, which allows the petty criminal to run his trade rather smoothly.

Surely those newcomers would be better off if they could recognize such practitioners from these photographs - but this board at Chennai Central seems to be better hidden than a newcomer's valuables!

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Extreme cycling

As on many other streets of George Town, walking up Mint Street is an art; put in a couple of conditions - one, that you will not pause in your steps and two, you will not come into bodily contact with anyone - and the walk can easily be turned into an urban challenge that cannot be easily overcome. Though it widens at certain points, Mint Street is predominantly narrow, the kind of narrowness caused by lack of pavements, vendors sitting on the sides and haphazard parking. People on two wheels - or on feet - will probably travel one-and-a-half times the distance they intend to travel, having to constantly veer off to avoid the traffic and fellow pedestrians.

But here was a set of travellers intent on taking the shortest path to their destination; the little fellow must have been just 6 or 7 years old and he was putting all his might into pedalling, trying to stay ahead of the truck. The truck, in turn was looking for an opening to get ahead of the tricycles and did not seem to be paying attention to the kids - thankfully, one of them jumped off the cycle, bringing the whole set to a halt before anything more damaging could happen!

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Public place

Madras celebrated Queen Victoria's golden jubilee in 1887 by raising two public buildings. Sadly, neither of them is in popular use today, but the Victoria Public Hall, in the photograph, is at least accessible and is used by a set of people belonging to the South Indian Athletic Association. Designed for use by the public at large, it has seen a fair number of gatherings, both public and private, under its roof. With a combined seating capacity of almost 1500, split across two levels, Victoria Public Hall was used for balls, stage performances and public meetings; all one had to do to hire the Hall was to persuade the board of trustees managing its affairs that the purpose was related to "moral, social and intellectual welfare" or was "rational recreation".

The building still looks grand from the outside, but the core is rotten. The stairs leading up to the first floor threaten imminent collapse, while the ones going up the tower have already carried out that threat. Designed by Robert Fellowes Chisholm - who had also designed other grand buildings like those of the College of Arts and Crafts, the Senate House of the University of Madras and the Chennai Central Railway Station - and built by Namberumal Chetty, the masonry of the building looks sturdy enough to spring back to life. If you take a look through the open windows, you can see the coloured glass panes above the inner doors, giving you a hint of how wondrous it must have been in its heyday.

Maybe those days might yet come back, with the Corporation of Chennai having taken over this property from the board of trustees. Though they have brought down the perimeter wall - and the old sign saying "Victoria Town Hall", I hope they will restore this building in such a way as to open it up again for public performances!

This is my 500th post about Chennai (Madras) on this blog!

Monday, August 24, 2009

Time on the Mint

Ah, so I've found another of those old clock towers around Chennai. Like the one at Royapettah, this one is also maintained by P.Orr & Sons. This one is at Mint, where Mint Street, Vijayaraghavulu Road, Basin Bridge Road and Old Jail Road meet.

Just as the minute hand of this clock moved to 12, the siren at the PWD workshop nearby went off, signalling the end of a shift. Not that it matters much, but yet, it was nice to know that the PWD clock is synchronous with this!

Sunday, August 23, 2009


Saw this bus pulling out of the parking lot at the Chennai Central yesterday; amazing mix of colours, but they play out very well in the photograph!

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Happy birthday, Chennai!

On this date 370 years ago, the founders of Chennai could not have foreseen what they were setting up on a sandy shore when they received the trading firman from Darmala Venkatadri. Their original settlement has grown many times over and has played a part in several historic events, even if those parts were often backstage rather than out there in front. But that's Chennai for you, not prone to racuous celebration, but enabling achievement of what's good for the world.

Alright, I'm exaggerating, so I won't debate the point. Once in a while, though, I can't help thinking that the city's birthday could do with a little more celebration. There is a concert on the beach going on even as a write this, but I'd like to see a day when the people celebrate, something like in the photo. One day, Madras Day may see a similar celebration, but until then, I'll have to be content with this photo from the Chennai Sangamam!

Friday, August 21, 2009

Male preserve

In over a century of its presence in the city, the Madras YMCA has established only 8 branches. Considering that two of the branches are the "Boys' Town" near the Fort St George and at Kottivakkam (which also houses the YMCA Working Women's Hostel), one assumes that the Young Men have been rather selective about where they would like to be present, even if they have been rather open minded about providing facilities for women.

Though the movement started in England, it is surprising that the request for an expert to help set up a YMCA in Madras was passed on to a certain David McConaughy in the USA. In response to that call, McConaughy arrived at Madras in January 1890 and within a month, the Madras YMCA was in operation. Though he was close to 70 when he arrived in Madras, he was not content with that one achievement. McConaughy set about organising the National Council of YMCAs of India and within a year, he had accomplished that, too. The National Council of YMCAs of India was formed in Madras on February 21, 1891. That was quite some speed, but you must remember that David McConaughy, for all his advancing years, was no doddering old man. He was a supporter of Abraham Lincoln, and had passed on vital information about Confederate troop movements to the Unionists, thereby playing a crucial role in the defeat of General Robert E. Lee in the Battle of Gettysburg. After the war, he not only organised the Gettysburg chapter of the YMCA, but also bought up land on Cemetery Hill, which was later to become the National Cemetery, at the dedication of which President Lincoln delivered his famous Gettysburg Address. In all likelihood, David McConaughy returned to his native Pennsylvania in early 1891; Madras does not appear to have held any fascination for him.

That tale has diverted attention from the building in the photograph, the headquarters of the Madras YMCA, overseeing the 8 branches int the city. Not included in the list of the branches of the Madras YMCA is the College of Physical Education, which was initially in this building, but went on to its own space at Nandanam. That is another story and will have to keep for another day!

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Fork in the road

From the pedestrian overbridge near the Fort railway station, it is a wonderful view out to the south and the east. To the left, heading south-ish. is Muthuswamy Road, on which the present-day 'zero point' of Chennai is placed. That road will take you to Mount Road, or if you would like to get a bit of the sea breeze, all the way down to the War Memorial and then on to the Marina.

If you choose to go west, you get on to the General Hospital Road and the chance to pass by the Chennai Central - so if the fancy chooses you, you can exchange road for rail and reach a whole lot of places. If you ignore the Central's charms, you will head down Poonamallee High Road, eventually reaching Bengaluru.

Me, I'd just like to stand up here and watch the city!

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Bridge to nowhere?

Although many people refer to this as the Elphinstone Bridge, there is no reason to believe this is indeed the one built in 1840 and named after Lord John Elphinstone, the then Governor of Madras. By all accounts, Elphinstone Bridge was broad enough to carry vehicular traffic and, despite one of its pillars being washed away by a flood in the Adayar river. Despite that handicap, Elphinstone Bridge continued to be the link between the San Thome and the Adyar sides of the river, until it was replaced by the Thiru Vi Ka Bridge in 1973. Given such references, we are now faced with a problem of what to call this pathway, which seems to have provided a bridge for pedestrians - most likely fisherfolk - coming from Foreshore Estate to Besant Nagar.

Solving that issue very simply, most people refer to this as the 'Besant Nagar Broken Bridge'. Broken it is, as you can see about 2/3rds of the way through this short video clip. Whole portions of it have fallen away, and there is no bridge on the Foreshore Estate side now. From Besant Nagar, this path juts out almost to the middle of the river, after which there is only a standalone piece a couple of spans long.

Given that there cannot be any hope of traffic on this stretch, it challenges the imagination to come up with a good reason why the Public Works Department (PWD) has recently seen it fit to paint the sides with the black-and-white pattern of a regular pavement; stranger still is their meticulous tarring and marking of a median on this 'road'!

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Timed entrance

I don't think I'll ever take a better timed picture than this one. A couple of weeks ago, we noticed these three green bee-eaters (Merops orientalis) sitting together and moving their heads in unison, following the flight patterns of the little insects which make up a large part of their diet. For some reason, I was determined to take a picture, though I knew that my dinky camera did not have the zoom needed to get any kind of recognizable picture.

I managed to get the lens of my camera to fit in through the eyepiece of my binoculars; and then it was a struggle to hold up the binoculars with one hand, keep the birds in the field and focus the camera for a decent picture. Took a few, but either my shaking hands or the camera's lack of focus ruined all those pictures. One last chance and when I clicked, I saw that it was a much sharper picture than the ones I had taken until then. It was only later I realized that M. orientalis number 4 had also tried to get into the picture - and succeeded rather well!

Monday, August 17, 2009

Urban decay

Well, how else can you describe what befell this eye-catching building, which once housed consulting rooms for dentists, among other things? It was - is - a very intriguing building, right from the nature of its construction, to its first name, going all the way to its current status. It was designed by a certain J.H.Stephens, who was (had been?) employed by the Madras Public Works Department. Mr. Stephens let is creative powers run amok in a way that would have had his superiors at the Madras PWD raise their collective eyebrows; the design he came up with was a challenge to describe. Every possible shape with ten sides or less appears to have been used in the two wings of the building, which join at a large hall on the northern side; a hall flanked by the two towers in the photo. It was not just shapes, but also styles, with Ottoman, Mughal and Hindu mixing with European classical in a way that was quite attention grabbing.

Maybe attention is what W.E.Smith & Co., whose building it was, wanted. W.E.Smith had come to Madras in 1868 looking to set up a pharma business. Finding competition too intense, he took his business to the Nilgiris, where he was a roaring success, so that by the time he came back to Madras, W.E.Smith & Co., was reputed to be south India's best pharmacists. W.E.Smith & Co., apart from having a grand showroom for their products, also built consulting rooms for doctors and dentists on the Mount Road side, while the rooms on the General Patter's Road side were living quarters for the firm's European assistants. Apart from these mixed uses, the building also had a factory for bottling aerated water, a cafe and a beer bar. I can only imagine that Mr.Smith wanted to give this building a name which was not as common as his own; there does not seem to be any other reason why, when it was inaugurated in 1897, this was called the 'Kardyl Building'.

Over the years, the Kardyl Building changed a few hands; from Smith to Spencer's, who then sold it to Bharat Insurance. Though the Life Insurance Corporation (LIC) took over that company in 1956, the name Bharat Insurance Building stuck on. After using the premises for a few years, the LIC thought the space could be put to better use, but the Madras High Court, in August 2006, restrained the LIC from 'demolition or change in character' of the building. Since then, it has remained unoccupied and unlooked-after. Last year, the then Union Finance Minister apparently said he would either use or misuse his powers to save the building; if he did, the results are not evident yet!

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Town temple

Beri Thimappa, who, as the dubash of Day and Cogan, was instrumental in negotiating the grant of land that would grow into Madras, appears to have been a far-sighted man. He recognized that if the 'natives' had to be persuaded into moving close to the new 'factory' at Medraspatnam, they had to have facilities for their spiritual needs; acting on this, he appears to have had a temple built in fairly quick order. While the exact date of its building is unknown, it appears that both Nagabattan (who was gunpowder-maker to Francis Day) and Thimappa made contributions generous enough to be recorded, the former in 1646 and the latter in 1648. It is possible that what started out as a small shrine to Chennakeshwara Perumal was expanded, thanks to these (and other, smaller,) contributions, to cover an area of over 8000 square yards, enclosing sanctums for both Perumal and Mahadeva, thereby catering to both the Vaishnavas and the Shaivites who were doing business with the British East India Company by then.

As the years rolled by, the area occupied by the temple contracted and in 1757, it was just under 24,000 square feet. The British, with their plans for an esplanade, found the temple to be a hindrance (it was in the place where the Madras High Court stands today) and therefore pulled it down. There must have been some outcry when the 'Town Temple' (also called 'Patnam Perumal' Temple) was demolished, for the East India Company very soon offered to help reconstruct the temple and gave a piece of land equal to the area occupied by the Town Temple, a little further away (at what is today Devaraja Mudali Street). The reconstruction took the shape of not one, but two distinct temples - the Chenna Kesavaperumal and the Chenna Malleswarar. The money provided by the Company - 1173 pagodas (about Rs.4,400) - was hardly enough for such grand plans, so Manali Muthukrishna Mudaliar, then dubash to Governor Pigot, opened a subscription list, to which he contributed 5202 pagodas. The total subscription of 15,562 pagodas was gathered and the temples were consecrated in 1766.

Both temples continue to be in active use and the entrance to the Chenna Kesavaperumal temple is shown in the photo. Without the gopurams that are a feature of almost every temple here, it is possible to overlook this as being just a gathering hall of some sort. If you do so, however, you will miss the 'first temple of Madras' - one that also contributes in some way to the city's name today!

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Home by the sea

It is not really a pleasant walk northwards from Besant Nagar Beach. Just where the 'popular' stretch of the beach ends is Olcott Kuppam, a fishing village which is normally un-noticed by all those visiting the beach. A few people keep walking, hoping to see some of the birds which stay inside the thick, almost jungle-like grounds of the Theosophical Society (TS). Those grounds come almost all the way down to the beach; the stone wall marking the boundary has in places been overrun by the vegetation from within.

There are birds around, alright. Drongos, lapwings, a few bee-eaters, a juvenile brahminy kite trying out its wings - and then, all on a sudden, the treeline is broken by a building. The first sighting makes it appear more spooky than it really is. Now, look at how secluded it is within the TS campus itself, in this aerial view (yes, that's the one the '+' is on). It will take nerves of some kind of steel to stay alone in this house, especially on a new-moon night - but the grand view and the sound of the waves will surely make it worthwhile!

Friday, August 14, 2009

Hush hush?

Much before the concept of 'competitive clusters' was born, Chennai had its own little manifestation of the idea. Though my first visit - and almost every visit since - to Agurchand Mansion was to chug down a bottle of flavoured milk from the Aavin outlet which used to be on the ground floor, it was always the signboard of Globe Detective Agency that would catch my eye. It was one of the first businesses that I could direct people to, if they had only asked me.

There was a time when Globe was the only detective agency in the city (or at least the only one which publicly declared its presence and its services); over the years, competing firms dropped their secrecy and put up their signboards. Somehow it seemed that there were more such signboards in Agurchand Mansion than in any other building. There must have been some advantage in nestling up with competition (easier to listen at the door when you see a prospective client walk in?), because even today, the building hast at least three firms advertising their presence - that's almost one-fifth of firms in Chennai which have the word 'Detective' in their name.

The others are scattered around the city. But who knows - they'll have their eyes and ears everywhere!

Something more about Agurchand Mansion can wait for another day; just had to get the hush-hush connection off my chest!

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Waiting for the bus

Coming out of the Chennai Central railway station, a newcomer to the city is likely to be overwhelmed. The crowds, the traffic, the general hustle and bustle of a great city would make the newbie's head spin. If he has been properly advised though, all he would have to do to get some peace and quiet is to cross the road and get into the compound of the Ramasamy Mudeliar Choultry.

True, it is slightly difficult to spot the narrow gate of the Choultry. But once inside, the rush, the sounds, and even the smell of the city disappears. The passage opens to a large-ish courtyard; two or three lush trees give a sense of greenery which would have been unimaginable merely moments ago. From somewhere behind, the smell of woodsmoke chases away the stench of the city, forcing it to go out of the gate and back into Poonamallee High Road.

The bonus is, this is the place where TTDC's Hop-on Hop-off bus to Mamallapuram starts off from; what better way to begin that tour than by relaxing in the thick of the maddening crowd!

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Trust indicator

According to an old saying, one should never trust "clean mechanics, happy undertakers, or skinny chefs". Thom Petty, a native of the USA who has now made Chennai his home, swears by the last bit. Putting his mouth where the money is, he introduced Chennai to the 'authentic American dining experience', as his website says.

Given the variety of 'dining experiences' in the USA, it would be hard to replicate it authentically in Chennai. But Sparky's certainly overwhelms you with its decor and the wide range of knick-knacks, almost every single piece of which is authentically US; the portions, too, are nearly large enough to qualify for US citizenship. It is definitely a place that a visiting American will remember for sure - a wee bit of America in the heart of Chennai.

Given his website url, Thom seems to have wider ambitions, though. There may soon be a day when Sparky's Diners are spread out all over India!

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Grecian imagery

If you think this building is too pretentious, with its imitation of the Athenian temple of Theseus, pause for a moment and reflect upon what it represents. You will then realize that the imagery reflects the Grecian tragedy that was played out before the Pachaiyappa's Hall was built. It honours the "greatest contributor to charity the Madras Presidency has ever known": Pachaiyappa Mudaliar, born of poor parents in 1754 and orphaned soon after, came to Madras in his teens, as a protege of dubash 'Powney' Narayana Pillai. The boy was a genius of some kind - by the time he turned 21, he was recognized as one of the richest men in Madras, though he was himself frugal and simple, by all accounts. It is said that he had a premonition of his death and being childless, he drew up a will - one of the first Indians to do so, just weeks before he died in 1794.

Though Pachaiyappa Mudaliar's will left his wealth to "the sacred service of Siva and Vishnu and to certain charities at various temples and places of pilgrimage, to the erection of religious edifies, to bounties to the poor, to seminaries of Sanskrit learning and to other objects of general benevolence”, the executors of his will pillaged his fortune to such an extent that the then Advocate General of the Madras Presidency, Sir Herbert Crompton, was forced to litigate against them; though the Supreme Court of Madras directed enforcement of the will's provisions, it was easier said than done. Sir Herbert's successor, George Norton finally salvaged about 800,000 rupees, of which 450,000 rupees were earmarked for establishing various educational institutions around the Presidency. The Board of Trustees who were to manage this first started a primary school; finding the school expanding beyond their expectations, they decided to build a hall to house the "Pachaiyappa's Central Institution" as the school was then called. The foundation stone was laid by George Norton on October 2, 1846 and the building was inaugurated on March 20, 1850.

For over 150 years, this hall has overseen the growth of the Pachaiyappa's Trust, an body that today runs several educational institutions in the state. Considering the vast spread of the Trust's influence, it is sad that Pachaiyappa's Hall has been denied the grandeur due to its history!

Monday, August 10, 2009

Multicoloured Gods

The last week of Aadi (Jul 15 - Aug 14), and all kinds of rituals are observed at street corner temples, trying to help people get their penances done before the month is over. I can only guess that the combination here is of Parvati and her two sons; no other mix-match seems to work that well!

Sunday, August 9, 2009

The lady who might have been President

Maybe that's not a very 'Presidential' image in the photograph, but that's what the lady is best remembered for. Like many others, Rukmini Devi was transplanted to Madras when she was a two-year old, her father having been deeply influenced by the Theosophical Society's ideals. Thanks to that influence, Rukmini Devi was spared the experience of being married off even before reaching her teens, as was common practice in early 20th century India. Not that it mattered for too long; she shocked the conservative society of Madras by marrying Dr. George Arundale, twenty six years older than her, when she was just sixteen.

Her childhood years at the Theosophical Society left her with a lifelong love of nature and art; despite not being trained in dance as a child, something in her made the legendary ballerina, Anna Pavlova, suggest that she take up dance; after seven years of training, she gave her first public performance at the Theosophical Society's Diamond Jubilee in 1935. From then, there was no looking back; Kalakshetra, an institution dedicated to resuscitating artistic traditions of India, was established in 1936 (and has since grown to be recognized as an Institution of National Importance, in 1993).

Though she is best known for her dance performances - and her constant re-interpretation of the Bharatanatyam form - she was also an educationist, bringing in Dr. Maria Montessori to help set up the Besant Theosophical School (and setting up other schools later) and a champion of animal rights. She has been credited as being the motive force behind the legislation against animal abuse and the setting up of the Animal Welfare Board of India. That was only to be expected, for when she became a member of the Rajya Sabha in 1952, she reportedly said, "I should like to be the chosen representative of the tiger, the lion, the dog and the deer, the helpless and the voiceless". Maybe that's why when Morarji Desai sounded her out as a candidate for the President of India in 1977, she was lukewarm to the idea. Had she been more enthusiastic, the then Prime Minister might have pressed her case more strongly. But then, she may not have been able to spend as much time with the Kalakshetra Foundation as she did, almost until she passed away on February 23, 1986, just 6 days short of her 82 birthday. She will always be remembered as a unique individual, who bequeathed a unique institution to the city of Madras!

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Umbrella brand

Quick, name any umbrella brand that you can remember! If you are a true Madrasi, you would have answered that with "மான் மார்க் குடைகள்!!" (maan mark kudaigal - stag mark umbrellas). For years, the 'Stag' brand has been synonymous with umbrellas - in fact, it is a brand name which has been so highly localized that I was shocked to find it is not a Madras-based brand, after all!

Starting off in 1860 with a single shop in Bazaar Gate Street, Fort, Bombay, selling umbrellas imported from England, Ebrahim Currim found business to be so good that he very soon moved to larger premises near the Juma Masjid. His sons Rahimbhai, Ramjanally and Goolamally followed him into the business and in 1902, Ebrahim Currim & Sons set up the National Umbrella Factory. Soon thereafter, the company established branches in Madras and in Calicut (now Kozhikode) during the first half of the 20th century. Over the years, they have moved beyond their standard grandfather-black umbrella to many colours, shapes and designs, and to a variety of uses, too. Today, their factory has a capacity of 3,000 umbrellas per day, though the average production run is more like 250 units a day.

Even though I cannot argue that 'Stag' mark umbrellas belong to Chennai - and I'm still getting used to that fact - I can try and put up a vigourous defence that it was 'Maan mark kudaigal' (in both Tamizh and Malayalam) which created the umbrella brand for Ebrahim Currim & Sons!

Friday, August 7, 2009


This building is somewhat of an oddity in Chennai's landscape. Where most of its predecessors and even contemporaries favoured the Indo-Saracenic style - and the red-brick exteriors which somehow seem synonymous with that style - the architect of this building, N.Grayson, opted for an adaptation of the Dravidian style. It is possible that Grayson, being a 'company architect', working for the Madras & Southern Mahratta Railway, was not influenced by the 'city architects' and chose to stick closer to his employer's requirements, rather than trying to blend with the city's other grand buildings. Samynada Pillai, the contractor, went with that design, but it took nine years and over Rs.30 lakhs before the building was inaugurated on December 11, 1922.

Today, this building houses the headquarters of the Southern Railways - the first railway zone to be formed on the Indian Railways, it was created by fusing together three large railway systems. The Madras & Southern Mahratta Railway, the Mysore State Railway and the South Indian Railway were the biggies operating railway lines in the south. With their integration, Madras became the headquarters of the Southern Railways and chose this building as its abode.

The central bay is flanked by two rectangular wings, both of which are arranged around a lush courtyard. Though built as office space, the building has large windows: long ago, those windows allowed the sea breeze to waft through, reaching the courtyard from the front and then going out through the wing opposite. I am not sure if modern airconditioning has shut all those windows down, making the building much less airy than it used to be!

Thursday, August 6, 2009

A level above

It is not often that shoppers at Pondy Bazaar would look at anything above street level in this building. One of the oldest structures in this market, it has an eclectic array of stores on the ground floor, offering you anything from undergarments to 'gold covering ornaments', with a couple of 'fancy stores' thrown in.

It appears that the first floor houses a few offices, but for the most part, it seems to have living quarters - for those working in the shops below? And do the different colours indicate different owners or something? The square gable at the top, crowned with peacocks, shows Lakshmi, the Goddess of wealth being greeted by elephants; if I'm right, this was a common feature of buildings from the 1920s and 1930s.

With much choice at the street level, it is the rare shopper who'd look up to a shop-less floor; but the next time you pass this way, take a peek. You may just get transported away to a time when shopping at Pondy Bazaar was less crowded and more relaxed - hard to imagine though it might be!

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Bursting bubbles

Haven't yet seen a child who can resist the temptation of trying to catch soap bubbles as someone else blows them out. This boy certainly can't, but he's also trying to keep an eye on his parents, who've decided they aren't going to buy him that bubble-blowing set today!

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Cramped temple

If you think temples in Chennai are all about huge 'tanks', towering entrances or open spaces, you will have to think again when you see this one. As NSC Bose Road meanders westward, it narrows down until it is almost a path, rather than a road. There, you will find the Sri Radhakrishna Mandir, a temple that you would pass by without a second look; a temple that you would be hard pressed to find, even if you were looking for it.

Or I should say, "especially if you were looking for it". In a kind of nod to the gopurams normally found in south Indian temples, there are a few 'hood ornaments' right on the top of the building. The door too, tries to pass off as a traditional temple door. The overall effect is one that leaves you bewildered and wondering if this is actually a place of worship or just a board over a door, sandwiched between bustling businesses!

Monday, August 3, 2009

Dues paid, partly

What you see in the photograph is not just any old wall, but The Old Wall. The British realized that Madras was very vulnerable to attacks from the west - a realization strengthened on account of repeated attacks by Hyder Ali and Tipu Sultan. Work on building protective walls around the city's northern and western boundaries was begun in 1764, but speeded up only after the Mysore mauraders' attacks in 1767 and 1769. The western wall was intended to run (probably) north from the Island Grounds before curving around to become the northern wall, ending where the Royapuram flyover starts today (where Clive Battery was, much earlier).

With their experience against de Lally's French troops in 1758, the British wanted a clear field - an Esplanade - to ensure a field of fire that would make any invading force stop to think. Besides that, they also wanted a 50-foot wide passage just inside the wall, to make sure that in the event of an attack runners could carry messages all around; and armaments could be moved without any hindrance. Of course, no structures could be built on the wall, apart from the bastions themselves. This grand wall was to be part-funded by a tax on the good citizens of Madras; but those good citizens refused to part with their pagodas in a hurry and the wall was never completed. The road just inside this part of the wall was named after the poorly-implemented tax proposal. Even after it has been renamed, people continue to refer to VOC Road as Wall Tax Road!

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Delivery mode

Stuck behind this mini delivery van on the road, unable to get ahead of it. And when I look up, I see this plane belonging to a courier company coming in to land at the Chennai airport.

Too many deliveries that morning!

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Fading light

இது ஒரு பொன் மாலை பொழுது
வானமகள் நானுகிறாள், வேறு உடை சூடுகிறாள்
('tis is a golden eventide. The sky is shy; she's changing her attire)
Song from the Tamizh movie 'Nizhalgal' (Shadows); Vairamuthu's debut lyrics; here it is, in full
"The curfew tolls the knell of parting day
The lowing herd winds slowly o'er the lea
The ploughman homeward plods his weary way
And leaves the world to darkness, and to me."
Thomas Gray, "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard"
Two pieces of poetry that immediately come to mind when I see a glorious sunset; and because I do not have any decent 'night' pictures, I have (once again) stretched the theme for today's Theme Day to suit my purpose.
Nothing more to be said - just enjoy the sunset over a city that, being on the east coast, doesn't pay too much attention to them!

To see 'hundreds' of interpretations of today's Theme Day, click here to go to the City Daily Photo portal - it is always night-time somewhere in the world!