Sunday, November 25, 2012


This is the song book cover of Nallathambi, a 1949 classic starring N.S.Krishnan, T.A.Madhuram, S.V.Sahasranamam, P.Bhanumathi and others. Directed by the legendary duo of Krishnan Panju,the story and dialogues were by C.N.Annadurai.

The focus of this post is the "Kindanar Charitram", a wonderful exposition on untouchability conceived and performed brilliantly by N.S.Krishnan. It speaks of the journey of a boy to Madras from his village for his higher studies and his experiences here.

The entire piece, which includes a delightful exhibition of the "Madras Bhashai" can be watched here.



This article is about the contiguous areas of Perambur and Choolai, where the industrialisation of the city began and to which North Madras owes its development to a great extent.

Choolai is synonymous with the Buckingham and Carnatic Mills, popularly known as the B&C Mills. The Buckingham Mill Co. was floated in 1876 and went on stream as a spinning unit in 1878 with 300 employees. With the demand for textiles increasing, more weaving capacity was added in 1893. The Carnatic Mills was floated in 1881 and went on stream as a spinning and weaving unit in 1884. Together, they made khaki drill and soon khaki became synonymous with the Company’s name. The mills also had the distinction of running the largest khaki dyeing plant in the world. The companies were amalgamated in 1920 with Binny’s managing the group and its entire workforce of about 14000 workers. The company fell in troubled times by the 1970s, which were compounded by the heavy floods of 1986. It was however kept running under pressure from the government, before being finally closed in 1996. A few bungalows built for the executives of the company still survive.

The oldest mill however built in South India was the Madras United Spinning and Weaving Company Mills or the Choolai Mills as they were popularly known, setup by the famous Bombay financier Seth Mooljee Jetha. Fully Indian owned and managed, the mills manufactured coarse varieties of cloth, being permitted to manufacture only that. A major strike in 1939 and the collapse of a tall chimney after heavy rain around the same time led to the closure of the mills. They were then bought by Sarder Inderjit & Sons of Delhi, who then sold it to M/s Edward Textiles, a Marwari firm based in Mumbai. They thus came to be known as the Edward Mills. The mills however could not be restarted as the government seized the mills in lieu of huge tax arrears by the company and sold the machinery. Today, the Food Corporation of India godowns stand in the place where the mills stood.

It was thanks to the B&C Mills that India’s first organised Labour Union was formed. In 1918, the Madras Labour Union was formed comprising mainly of the workers of the company. At the forefront of the movement were G.Selvapathi Chettiar, T.V.Kalyanasundaram Mudaliar and B.P.Wadia, the famous labour activist. The building in which the labour union was started still stands in a dilapidated state on Strahans road. Selvapathi Chettiar and B.P.Wadia are commemorated in the area by parks named after them.

Sidhalu road is an important thoroughfare in the area. This road commemorates G. Sidloo Chetty, a prominent and affluent businessman who dealt in indigo under the name Sidloo Chetty and Co. He was one of the founding members of the Madras Chamber of Commerce in 1836. His son, Gazulu Lakshminarasu Chetty was an early Madras activist and was involved in a number of public causes. He was the founder of the Madras Native Association, a body to take up the grievances of the public with the Government and also was the first Indian to own an English newspaper.

The railway connections of Perambur go back to 1856, when the Carriage and Wagon workshops of the Madras and South Mahratta Railway were set up, dealing with BG coaches, wagons and steam locomotives. The locomotive maintenance work was transferred to the Perambur Loco Works which was set up in 1932. Stephenson was responsible for the establishment of the Loco Works and a road named after him exists even today in the area. The Integral Coach Factory (ICF) was established in 1953 with Swiss collaboration. Production started in 1955 and the first indigenous coach was rolled out in 1956. Today, it is the main supplier of coaches to the Indian Railways. The Perambur Railway Museum was founded in 2002 on the premises of ICF and has a rich collection of steam engines and coaches showcasing the heritage of the railways.

Avadhanam Paupiah road in Choolai is named after the colourful dubash, Avadhanam Paupiah. A Brahmin from Nellore, Paupiah began his career as a Sea Customs clerk and was entrusted with the collection of the customs duties. He made optimum use of his employment and amassed a lot of wealth, not always being straight in his dealings. He was greatly aided by the fact that he was a very close confidant of the Holland brothers, Jon and Edward (Jon being Governor of Madras and Edward being the Third Member of the Governor in Council). But his luck ran out with the removal of the Holland brothers from their posts on charges of misappropriation and financial impropriety and he was imprisoned for three years and imposed a fine of 2000 pounds for his misdemeanours by a commission that was constituted to investigate into his activities. He was also charged with forgery in the case of forged bonds of the Nawab of Carnatic. A character in a novel titled “The Soldier’s Daughter” by Sir Walter Scott was modelled on Avadhanam Paupiah.

Amongst the famous education institutions in Perambur are the Jamalia Arabic College and the Railway Mixed Higher Secondary School. The Jamalia Arabic College was started in 1900 by Jamal Mohideen Rowther as a Madrasa and was developed by his son Jamal Mohammad into a college affiliated to the Madras University. This is the only institution in India teaching Arabic and Islamic sciences in Arabic. The Railway Mixed Higher Secondary School was formed in 1891 exclusively for railway employees and had European, Anglo Indian and Indian students.

This article was published in the latest issue of Namma Chennai, the bilingual monthly dedicated to the city.


“An Account of the Trade in India” (1711) is a wonderful travelogue containing accounts of the journey undertaken by Charles Lockyer across various coastal settlements in India and elsewhere. Lockyer first arrived in Madras in 1702 on board the “Colchester” and worked as an Assistant to the Accountant for eighteen months. He then resigned his service to pursue a life of active voyaging. His account of Fort St.George, which forms the first chapter of his travel experiences, is one of the early descriptions of the settlement and makes for interesting reading.

Fort St.George, Lockyer notes, was a port of greatest consequence to the East India Company for its strength, wealth and the returns made in Calicoes and Muslin. He describes The Citadel or the Inner Fort as lying N.N.E and S.S.W in the middle of the English Town, with four large bastions making the corners on which with the curtains were fifty six guns and a mortar. The two gates, Western or the Main Guard gate and the Eastern gate were manned by thirty soldiers and six soldiers and a corporal respectively. The keys were every night delivered to the Governor or in his absence, the Chief in Council. The Black City called “Madrass” and sometimes by the Moors as “Chinnepatam” joined the Fort Northwards.

The streets were straight and wide, paved with brick on either side, but the middle was deep sand for carts to pass through. Where there were no houses, causeways with trees on either side were found and this made it pleasant for those who otherwise would have had to walk in the sun. Out of the five gates of the Fort viz., Sea, St.Thomas, Water, Choultry and Middle gate, the St.Thomas and Choultry gates were opened for passengers at any time of the night “if unsuspected” but the other three were closed at 6 PM. The other public buildings mentioned in the Fort are the Town Hall, St.Marys Church, College, New House and Hospital.

Lockyer then gives an account of the early judicial system in force. According to the City Charter by which the Corporation came into existence in 1688, the Mayor and the Aldermen exercised the ultimate authority. A court of six Aldermen was held twice a week in the Town Hall, which decided the quarrels, small debts and other business. When the Europeans were not satisfied with the Mayor’s justice, they appealed to a higher court. Here, a judge appointed by the Company presided on the report of a jury and gave a final decree. When a man died in debt, his goods were seized by the Court of Admiralty and auctioned off after notice of the same was given by a Bill at the Sea Gate. The proceeds were divided amongst the creditors. The effects of the Debtors who ran away were dealt with in the same manner. Besides these, five justices of the Choultry from the Council or chief Citizens presided over controversies concerning Indians. These sessions were held twice a week.

The customs duty on goods imported and exported formed a major portion of the revenue. The Sea Gate customs was 5% on all goods brought by sea. The fee for goods valued at not more than 20 pagodas was three fanams while it was six fanams for goods valued between 20 and 1000 pagodas. For goods valued more than that, the fee was twelve fanams. The fees collected were divided amongst the Custom Master, the Head Searcher and the Receiver. A duty drawback of 10% in respect of goods such as wine, beer, looking glasses and flint ware was also provided to owners who produced their invoices and paid customs duty for the quantity mentioned therein without examination. The Land Customs rate was 2.5% on all goods brought in from the Country. They suffered 2.5% duty again at the time of export from the Sea Gate. Goods which paid the full duty of 5% in this process were exempt from paying duty at other English ports in India under a certificate from the Custom Master. The hire charges for the masulah boats used to transport the goods from the Madras roads to inland was six fanams or eighteen pence a trip.

The Company earned a rent of 1100 pagodas per annum from letting out of the village of Egmore, 120 pagodas per annum on letting out of the Old Gardens and 250 pagodas per annum from Quit Rent. Other profitable sources of income for the Company were the Tobacco, Beetle and the Arrack farms. The Tobacco and Beetle farm were let out on lease for 8000 pagodas per annum while the income from the licence of the Arrack farm was 3600 pagodas per annum.

The Governor was paid a salary of 200 pounds per annum with a gratuity provision of 100 pounds. The Chief amongst the six councillors was paid 100 pounds per annum, the third of the place 70 pounds, the fourth 50 pounds per annum and the rest, designated as Senior Merchants were paid 40 pounds per annum. Other servants included two junior merchants at 30 pounds each per annum, five Factors at 15 pounds each per annum and 10 writers at 5 pounds each per annum. There was also one judge who was paid 100 pounds annum and the Attorney General who was paid 50 pagodas per annum.

Lockyer describes the St.Marys Church as a “large pile of arched building, adorned with curious carved work, a stately altar, Organs, a white copper candlestick, very large windows etc.”, which “rendered it inferior to the Churches of London in nothing but bells”. The Church stock included Orphans money, which was money bequeathed by wealthy dying parents to their children, making the Church as the guardians. The Church let out this money as advance and earned about 7% per annum which was then distributed to the beneficiaries in proportion to their estates. The Church undertook prayers twice a day, with the Sunday worship being most seriously observed. Between 8 AM and 9 AM, the Bell was rung, announcing that the hour of prayer was drawing near, hearing which the entire Company of soldiers assembled at the Church door. The Church also ran a free school, where children could learn to read and write.

The College, which was the old hospital, was the residence of “seven or eight hopeful gentlemen”. Amongst them, the Governor made the one with the greatest experience and merit as the Overseer, whose duty it was to regulate all disturbances. The building was two storeys high with a paved court, two large verandas and about sixteen small rooms. The New House was the soldiers lodgings and according to Lockyer, the “scene of many a drunken frolick”. It fronted the Main Guard and had a strong Battery on the other side. One Company at a time slept in it, of which one Corporal and two soldiers walked the streets every hour in the night to suppress disorders and apprehend “any who cannot give a satisfactory account of themselves”.

The Hospital, which joined the New House by the Water Gate to the Northward, was a long building with a paved court before it. At one end of the court was the plaster room and at the other, the apothecary’s shop. The Governor’s lodgings took up one third of the inner fort. The building was three storeys high, with the accountants and secretary’s offices being one storey up. The Consultation room was a storey

The inhabitants, Lockyer notes, “enjoy as perfect health as they could do in England”, with only the heat in summer being the greatest inconvenience. The Governor during the hot winds retired to the Company’s new garden for refreshment, which was a delightful place with its “costly gates, bowling green, spacious walks and teal pond”.

The Governor, Lockyer notes, seldom went abroad with less than “three or fourscore Peons armed, besides his English guards to attend on him”. Two Union flags were also carried and the entire retinue was accompanied by Country music enough to frighten a stranger into belief!! Two Dubashes also accompanied to fan him and drive away the flies which were the greatest nuisance.

Most of the gun powder in use in the garrison was made at the Island. The powder however did not have the force of the ones manufactured in England. The reason for this according to Lockyer was not as much the quality of the ingredients available as the lack of skilled people to carry out the job. The Company, Lockyer notes, did not have “a single English carpenter, smith, joiner or other artificer in the city who knew half his trade” and had to depend on the natives of the Black Town.

The arrival of a European ship brought about lots of people thronging about the Sea Gate, some laying wagers, others waiting for masters and others just there to satisfy their curiosity. The goods were seldom cleared the first day, which was sufficient only to secure the ship, send the Company’s packets ashore and get refreshments for the men. The goods that were the best received were lead, wine and beer in casks and bottles, ale, cheese, cloth hats etc.

Sunday, November 11, 2012


The People's Park, thrown open to the public in 1859 was the brain child of Sir Charles Trevelyan, who was the Governor of Madras between 1858/59 and 1860. The park was 116 acres in size and its splendid garden space, with ornamental palms and ponds, well laid-out walks and flower beds, created in its entirety the largest green lung in the city. It had 11 ponds, 5 ½ miles of road and walkways, a bandstand, a public path and two tennis courts. The Madras zoo, founded in 1855 in the Museum premises moved to the People's Park in 1863 and remained there for more than century, before shifting to Vandalur in 1985. Other landmarks that later came up on the grounds of the People's Park were the Victoria Public Hall in 1887, the Moore Market in 1898 and the South Indian Athletic Association in 1902.

The Park held its first Fair in December 1878.It was managed by a committee of Municipal Commissioners and commenced on 30th December 1878. The Administration Report of the Madras Municipality for 1878 states that the Park was decorated with flags and arches ornamented with transparencies were erected at the entrances. Several booths were erected for shows and performances of various kinds and for the sale of refreshments and fancy articles. Bands from various parts of the Presidency participated in the fair, making it a gala affair. On the evening of 1st January 1879, an estimated audience of 20,000 people turned up to watch a fine display of fireworks sponsored by Cunniah Chetty. The success of the event meant that the Fair became an annual affair, being held in the last week of December and first week of January every year.

The year 1887 marked the Golden Jubilee of the reign of Queen Victoria. A series of celebrations were planned across the country to commemorate the occasion. Madras Presidency was no different and plans were afoot to celebrate the occasion in a grand manner. Keeping in view the significance of the year and the wishes of the donor who funded its construction, the Town Hall for Madras, which was inaugurated later that year, was named Victoria Public Hall. It was therefore only natural that leading up to the celebrations, the 1886 Fair of the People's Park was dedicated to Queen Victoria and was to be celebrated on a large scale, extending to six days. But what transpired instead was a nightmare.

The fair, which commenced in the last week of December 1886, took place in the band stand enclosure of the park which was filled with booths made of wood and cadjan roofs. There were four entrances to the enclosure and entrance regulated by admission fees. On New Year's Eve, there were around 6000 people inside the band stand. In attendance were the Commander In Chief, Lady Arbuthnot and the Prince of Travancore besides other dignitaries. At around 6 PM, a booth on one side of the enclosure caught fire and simultaneously, a booth directly opposite was also up in flames. Needless to say, panic set in and the people rushed to the four entrances, where they were met by the crowd coming in, caught unawares by the fire. Two entrances were completely jammed and there was a stampede. The fire darted from point to point and soon the casualties began to mount. An estimate early next morning was to reveal a figure of around 250 dead bodies. Around fifteen of them whose clothes were engulfed by the fire plunged into the tank close by and drowned. The fire engines kept in readiness were pressed into action in less than half an hour from the outbreak of the fire, but water was scarce, even for the purpose of alleviating the thirst of the injured.

The public jumped into action to rescue as many people as possible and succeeded in saving many lives. They were aided in the rescue operation by the police, soldiers and the many European visitors. The bodies were sorted quickly and those who had life left were carried to the General Hospital across the road where the apothecaries, C.Trustwin, Hellein, Judge, Guruswami, Kenny, Pope and Harris aided by a large body of medical students worked through the night to alleviate the sufferings of the victims. The cotton mattresses in the hospital were ripped open to supply dressing for the wounds and the chemists across the city sent in all the oil they had in store, which was promptly converted by the gallon into carron oil. Many doctors of the city rushed to the General Hospital to help in the operations. The large crowd that had gathered at the hospital also chipped in with their mite. In all, it was a tremendous show of humanity and public spirit that helped deal with the crisis.

Messages of condolence and grief were received from the Queen and the Viceroy. An appeal was put up by Rajah Sir Savalai Ramaswamy Mudaliar, who was then the Sherriff of Madras to collect funds and form a committee to provide assistance to the affected. There were some like Dr.William Muller, the Principal of the Madras Christian College who was present on the scene, that the fire seemed to be the handiwork of miscreants.

The New Year thus opened on a sombre note, with affected families grieving the the loss of their loved ones. The bodies of those burnt beyond recognition were buried at midday after a formal inquiry by Mr.Norton, the coroner. The only evidence taken was that of a police inspector, Abdul Salam, who was present at the scene of the fire. The jury returned a verdict of death by suffocation and burning and suggested that the coroner send the government a list of people who had volunteered their services in the rescue work. At the St.George’s Cathedral, the Archbishop delivered a solemn sermon where he referred to the fire and its results as an example of the uncertainty of life. Mendelssohn’s funeral march was played at the end of the service as the entire city mourned its dead.

The Commander In Chief, who was in the enclosure when the fire broke out, visited the scene of fire in the morning. Later in the day, the Governor of Madras, Sir Robert Fowler and several members of the Council also visited the fire. They also visited those being treated at the General Hospital and offered their sympathy.

The Prince of Travancore had a narrow escape, as he was carried away by his Jamedar on his shoulders and pushed out of the booth. The Jamedar in the process was thrown to the ground as his sword hilt was caught in the scaffolding near the gateway. He suffered burns on his head and face and was amongst those who were admitted to the General Hospital.

A thorough investigation was undertaken by the police to ascertain the origin of the fire. They concluded that it was a pure accident and that no handiwork of miscreants could be detected. The fire had lasted for less than 15 minutes but by which time twenty six booths were burnt. Most of the casualties were the result of sheer panic. It was also found that most of the grass plot in the enclosure had been untouched and the ornamental flowers and shrubs had not even singed, which meant that a lot of room was available for the people to avoid the fire as it darted from point to point, and that a bit of control would have saved a lot of lives. The total casualty was reported to be 402 dead.

The resilience of the city was on full display as the celebrations of the Golden Jubilee were held on a grand scale in February, just a month after the great disaster. The incident also did not seem to have deterred the orgnaisers from continuing to hold the Fair, as it was an event that was continued to be held right up to the 1970s.