Tuesday, March 20, 2012


Chennai is a city that comprises many migrant communities who have contributed a lot to its development. This article takes a look at a few of them and their impact on the city’s landscape.

A community that is specifically excluded from the ambit of the article is the Telugu community. Chennai was originally a city where they were considered the native population, and hence they cannot be categorised as migrants. Their contribution to the city in various fields is immense and merits a separate article by itself.

The Gujaratis were one of the earliest migrants to the Madras Presidency (that extended upto present day Ganjam in Orissa). Mention of Gujarati business families in Tanjore can be found even as early as the mid 1600s. The Gujaratis were into a variety of trades, principal amongst them being traditional trades such as jewellery (mainly diamond trade), cloth, indigenous banking and later on, cycles, hardware and other general merchandise. Amongst the many prominent Gujarati families were the Tawkers(diamond merchants), the Lodd family (variety of businesses), the Gocooladoss Jumnadoss family (many businesses, mainly cloth) and the Khusaldoss family. Brahmasri R.Sivasankara Pandya and Kulapati Balakrishna Joshi were two famous educationists from the community. Besides running successful businesses, the families were also involved in a lot of charitable and social causes, vestiges of which can be seen even today. For example, the Gocooladoss Jumnadoss family is involved in running many educational institutions such as the M.O.P Vaishnav College, the Kola Perumal Chetty Vaishnav school etc. Functioning even today on Mint Street is the Hindu Theological High School, set up in 1889 by Brahmasri R.Sivasankara Pandya, a school that has been visited by luminaries such as Mahatma Gandhi and Swami Vivekananda. The Madras Pinjrapole on Konnur High Road, an old age home for cattle that functions even today was set up by a group of Gujaratis in the early 1900s. Some of the later day Gujarati businesses, setup in the early 1900s that function successfully even today are Currimbhoys, Poppat Jamals, Joonus Sait and Sons and the business house of Kotharis. The Cutchi Memons and the Saurashtrians are also originally migrants from Gujarat. Haji Sir Ismail Sait, a prominent Cutchi Memon, was the first individual to start retailing of petrol in Madras.

The Jain community, one of the later migrants to the city (migrating from both Gujarat and Rajasthan), has a huge presence today. Mostly into general trades like the stainless steel business, this community is also involved in running various educational institutions like the A.M.Jain, D.B.Jain and the M.N.M Jain colleges, besides many other schools. The Marwari community is another of the later migrants to the city, having moved to various places from Rajasthan around 150 years ago to provide ration supplies to the military. The Rajasthan Youth Association, currently in its 50th year of service, runs a very popular and successful book bank scheme whereby books are lent to college students irrespective of their community background.

The Parsi community presence in the city goes back to more than 200 years, with the earliest Parsis settling down in 1795. The Parsis were into various occupations. They were dealers of motor cars and cycles, perfumes and dyes, Government and Railway officials, managers of banks and shops. Some even established soda water and ice factories. Amongst the famous Parsis were Cowasjee Eduljee Panday, the first Indian member of the Madras Port Trust and first Parsi to be appointed Sheriff of Madras, Mary Clubwala Jadhav, the first woman Sheriff of Madras and the founder of the Madras School of Social Work, and Jehanbux T.Tarapore, the famous building contractor. The Fire Temple of the Parsis, Jal Phiroj Clubwala Dar-e-Meher, completed its centenary in 2010.
It was around the time of Partition that many Punjabi and Sindhi families migrated to the city. Many spare parts shops on General Patters Road are run by them. Another trade in which they have made a mark is that of sports goods. One such famous name that exists even today is Pioneer Sports on Mount Road.

Lt.Col.Gurdial Singh Gill was one of Chennai’s most prominent Punjabis. He served as the Inspector General of Prisons and it was he who used to meet the refugees flocking to Madras at the railway station, welcoming them and making sure that they were clothed, fed and given accommodation. An area in Chennai, Gill Nagar, bears his name today. P.N.Dhawan, another prominent Punjabi, was the driving force behind the setting up of the Punjab Association, which manages institutions such as the Anna Adarsh College for Women, the Gill Adarsh Matriculation School and the Adarsh Vidhyalaya. The Punjabis are also an important part of the Arya Samaj in Chennai, with many of them being associated with the DAV group of schools, set up by the Arya Samaj. Yet another famous Punjabi family that called Madras its home was that of A.G.Ram Singh. Migrating from Amritsar in 1904, Ram Singh represented Tamil Nadu with distinction in cricket. His sons followed suit, with a couple of them, A.G.Milkha Singh and A.G.Kripal Singh even playing for India.

This article, the first of a two part series was published in the latest issue of Namma Chennai, a fortnightly bilingual dedicated to Chennai.

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