Friday, December 16, 2016

Famous merchant

The whole concept of Madras, as you may know, came into being due to the supposed availability of fabrics in the hinterland, which a 'factory' in Madras could exploit. Having started off on this flawed premise, it was necessary to ensure that the city did supply cloth of various kinds. Therefore, it does not seem surprising at all that a Gujarati comes to Madras to set up a business styled as "Benares, Kollegal, Madura Cloth & Musk Merchants". Mani Sunker Davay set up this business in 18... and brought his son into it later. Today, it is run by his descendants, possibly in the same location that the founder conducted his business. For that reason alone, it deserves to be famous.

The kind of cloth that they trade in includes garments designed for ceremonial occasions - veshtis, angavastrams and the like. Benares is of course famous for its silks; Kollegal is well known for its gold-laced cloth, besides its silk weaving. The Gazetteer of South India, sometime in the 1880s, notes that "...some of the silk cloths made here cost as much as Rs.300 each, or even more, according to the gold and silver embroidery...". Madura - with its famous art of making lacework in gold and silver, for the borders of turbans and other cloths. That Mani Sunker traded in such cloth shows off the nature of his clientele. Even today, he is the preferred supplier to famous singers - Sanjay Subrahmanyan being one who swears by Mani Sunker Davay for all his concert wardrobes.

But the most intriguing feature of this board, for me, is its break with 'tradition'. There are many who still refer to this city as 'Madras', refusing to acknowledge its 1996 renaming to Chennai. They all forget the fact that even before 1996, it was very common, if not the standard practice, to use 'Madras' in English versions and 'Chennai' in Tamizh. However, this signboard not only shows the word "Madras" in Tamizh, but has spelt it using a script that was replaced sometime in the 1970s!

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