Saturday, January 7, 2023

The shop that never moved

For at least 45 years, the address 4-6/181, Kutchery Road had only one occupant, one so famous that no one needed the address to find it. It was the fixed point on the Kutchery Road compass, the only true north that one needed to navigate that road.

The Dabba Chetty Shop started its business with a slightly different spelling, as you can make out from the photo. It was spelt 'Dubba', then, and it didn't start off with the country (herbal) medicines that it later became synonymous with. Krishnaswamy Chetty tried his hand at selling hardware and assorted equipment, when he set up the shop in 1885. But he seems to have very quickly pivoted to purveying herbal medicines, including concoctions made of his own research. It is not very clear if the existence of such an outlet spurred Chetty's Iyer namesake to start his Ayurveda dispensary a little further along Kutchery Road, or if it was the dispensary that helped Chetty's shop gain prominence. In any event, from about 1905 onwards, this was the go-to place for 'delivery lehiyam' (post-natal medicines) and Deepavali lehiyams (to offset the heaviness of over-indulging in festival sweets). Krishnaswamy Chetty used to store the various powders and other ingredients in tin boxes, neatly stacked over each other; that led to the store's colloquial name, which in a stroke of genius, was adopted as its brand.

Krishnaswamy Chetty, Rajamannar Chetty and then Kanniah Chetty; the shop passed from grandfather to grandson, and then, in the 1970s to Kanniah's son Koonala Badrinath, who runs the shop with his wife Shobana. He had no intention of moving from here; in fact, in the many years since this picture was taken (2016), he had put up an awning over the signboard and modernised the space a bit for customers to be able to walk in. But two weeks ago, on Christmas eve, a notice was pasted on the shutter, saying the shop has moved to No. 9, North Mada Street. Just a little distance away, of course, but there is no saying if it would be able to move back. That is entirely in the way the Chennai Metro comes up on Kutchery Road!

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