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Photo: Nathan G./Mint
Photo: Nathan G./Mint

Chennai’s colonial-era landmarks

The port city has drawn traders from far and wide to set up shop. Here are six pre-Independence establishments that are still thriving

On 22 August 1639, three square miles of land on the Coromandel Coast, where Fort St. George is located today, was handed over to the British East India Company by the local Nayaka rulers. It was from that shard of earth—flanked by ocean and dusted with blond sand—that Madras originated.

Now called Chennai, the city celebrated its 376th birthday on Saturday. Here are the profiles of some of the city’s most iconic institutions.

Victoria Technical Institute

Photo: SaiSen/Mint
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Photo: SaiSen/Mint

The sepulchral atmosphere at the Victoria Technical Institute (VTI) is deepened by a marble statue of the puritanical monarch in full court dress—crown, cloak and sceptre—glaring beadily at you. The pretty young lady on the phone, however, doesn’t seem to be bothered. She has lined up a selection of baby dresses and is discussing the specifics with someone at the other end of the line, possibly a friend or relative who has recently had a baby girl. “I’m sure it will fit her," she says, “She is still very small."

This is perhaps one of the few places where you get frocks of this sort in the city: light-as-air smocked cotton in pastel shades with little flowers embroidered all over it. Other remnants of a time gone by can be found here: lace-edged doilies, plump tea cosies, wicker baskets, household linen with cut-work embroidery, multicoloured knitted napkin holders.

“Most of the embroidery is done by women’s self-help groups in South India," says C. Israel, CEO-IC (chief operating officer, in charge) of VTI. “We support them by giving them this platform to showcase their work."

VTI, which was established as a public charitable trust in 1887 to commemorate the golden jubilee of Queen Victoria, was registered as a society in 1889.

“A few citizens of the Madras Presidency came together to start an organization to help the craftspeople of this country," says Israel. “They wanted to preserve Indian handicrafts this way."

VTI’s importance and reach grew as the society’s councillors began persuading craftspeople to route their products through the institute. Scholarships were offered to artisans and more art colleges were established in the Madras Presidency. In 1909, VTI got its first permanent exhibition centre: the Victoria Public Hall on Pantheon Road, Egmore.

When World War II erupted in Europe, British troops chose to occupy the Victoria Public Hall and the institute was moved to a rented store on Mount Road. In 1956, a new flagship showroom was opened in the same area.

The institute, which is spread across three floors and employs around 42 people, has craftspeople from all across the country supplying goods. Finely moulded statues of various Hindu gods in bronze, stone and rosewood can be found on the ground floor and in the adjoining gallery; the brightly coloured enamel work of Rajasthan and equally brilliant wares of Channapatna are balanced by the more subdued Bidriware and Dhokra art, while exquisitely carved and painted wooden furniture takes up an entire floor.

“There are over a hundred different sorts of handicrafts here," says Israel. “And we constantly meet new craftsmen and invite them to display the best of their workmanship here."

The Old Curiosity Shop

There is something decidedly Dickens-esque about the red-brick building on Mount Road that houses the Kashmir Art Palace. Step inside and you will understand why it is also called ‘The Old Curiosity Shop’. A line from the inimitable author’s novel, by the same name, flashes unbidden across the mind as you step inside, “the place... was one of those receptacles for old and curious things which seem to crouch in odd corners of this town and to hide their musty treasures from the public eye".

Mohammed Lateef, whose father started the store in the mid-1940s, says, “The struggle for Independence was at its peak back then and there was a lot of turmoil in the north of India. My father (Ghulam Mohammed) came down to Madras for a visit and liked the relative peace and simplicity of the people here."

Mohammed Lateef. Photo: SaiSen/Mint
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Mohammed Lateef. Photo: SaiSen/Mint

So, Ghulam went back to Kashmir, sold his existing business and used the money to set up the shop on Mount Road. “Back then, people didn’t understand the concept of antiques," says Lateef. “This used to simply be a gift shop for the English officers who needed to pick up things to take back to their homeland."

It was his clientele who named the shop, laughs Lateef, turning on a cassette player. Don McLean’s Vincent wafts through the store. With a satisfied expression, Lateef leans back and says, “My style has always been vintage and I don’t sell anything I don’t like. I suppose this store reminded (clients) of the original Old Curiosity Shop."

Currently, he says, his shop has a mix of both old and new things, “A lot of my clients are in the IT sector—they like to spend money on their house. And I like educating them," says Lateef, who claims that Jawaharlal Nehru, former chief minister M.G. Ramachandran and actor Sivaji Ganesan visited the store during their lifetime.

“I can make you go back in history," he promises, picking up a large lump of quartz that gleams gently in the dim light. Holding it up, he remarks, “This is at least million years old."

There are other things in the store, perhaps not so primeval, but rare and unique nevertheless: finely embroidered, ancient pashmina garments, sepia-hued letters written by Indian statesmen, black-and-white photographs and the cameras that took them, gramophones, radios, typewriters, telescopes, compasses, sundials, five-decade old comics, century-old etchings and sketches, toys, vinyl records, coins, stamps, vintage jewellery, old movie posters, books produced by the Gutenberg press.

“After the British left India, this changed from a gift store to an antique one," he says, “I talked to my clientele, understood their hobbies and started sourcing things for collectors all over the world. Some of the things I have here once belonged to royalty."

Gem and Company

It is a small, unpretentious store on NSC Bose Road opposite the Madras high court. Clunky old buses trundle past, shoving pedestrians off the road and raising whorls of dust that find their way into the store, coating furniture and clients with a fine layer of dirt.

Behind the glass shutters of the wooden shelves, however, the pens are safe enough: the little-girl fountain pens with Disney princesses and fairies emblazoned on them, the slender metal cylinders that glint in the sun, the hand-crafted ebonite canisters of swirly brown and streaky black, the packets of cheap and convenient ball pens, the multicoloured gel pens.

“I have a passion for pens and love them," says M. Pratap Kumar, owner of Gem and Co., which exclusively sells pens. “That is why I do what I do."

M. Prabhat Kumar. Photo: SaiSen/Mint
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M. Prabhat Kumar. Photo: SaiSen/Mint

It began a little less than a century ago, in the late 1920s, when Kumar’s grandfather N.C. Cunnan and his friend Venkatrangam began Gem and Co. Back then, all pens had to be imported from England, he says, adding that today, besides the regular brands such as Parker, Reynolds, Cello, Waterman, Sheaffer and Cross, he also sells the shop’s own brand of pens, Gama. “We sell our pens all over India and abroad," he says.

Though he stocks a variety of pens, Kumar admits that he has a penchant for the good old fountain pen. “I always advise children who come here to use fountain pens. They are cheap, long-lasting, eco-friendly, don’t stress either the paper or your fingers and give you a much more legible and neat script," he says, admitting that he is thrilled that schools in the city today are now insisting on their students using fountain pens.

In addition to selling pens, he also focuses on pen servicing, “The fountain pen is a very technical instrument; our exclusive service station for old pens can help you revive even your grandfather’s pen."

From a shelf below, he takes a slender, velvet-padded box and opens it to reveal an amber-coloured pen. The cap is shattered and the nib cracked, but he picks it up almost reverentially and remarks, “This is an antique pen—once I am done with it, it will write better than any new one."

Higginbothams

The air-conditioning isn’t working and shimmery, gossamer cobwebs hang like decidedly unlovely birthday streamers off long-stemmed grubby white fans. But the stained glass through which sunlight filters in leaving behind tiny pinpricks of bright light on the smooth black and white Italian tiles is beautiful, as is the sweeping wooden staircase that leads to the gallery above.

The pendulum of the tall grandfather clock must have oscillated for nearly 170 years, but time continues to sit lightly on Higginbothams, the oldest surviving bookstore in India. Unlike most other popular bookstores in Chennai, which have diversified their offerings over the past decade or so (in a few cases, books are no longer even stocked there), Higginbothams is unabashedly what it claims to be—a bookstore in the truest sense of the word.

Photo: Nathan G./Mint
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Photo: Nathan G./Mint

M. Hemalatha, a senior customer relations manager who has been with the company for more than 33 years, says, “We are a conservative place and our environment may not be fancy. But when it comes to books, we have all that you require here. We have books across all subjects—technical and academic, bestsellers, classics, non-fiction, regional language publications..."

Labelled shelves of books cover the nearly 12,000 sq. ft store, while notice boards mounted on the wooden railings that bind the mezzanine floor celebrate the power of the written word. “Finishing a good book is like leaving a good friend," declares one notice, attributing the comment to American publisher and author William Feather. Joseph Addison’s observation that “Reading is to the mind what exercise is to the body," is printed on another. Then there is Pulitzer Prize-winning historian and writer Barbara Tuchman’s simple but lucid comment, a personal favourite—“Books are the carriers of civilization."

Started by Abel Joshua Higginbotham, a former librarian, in 1844, the bookstore has grown into one of the key attractions of the city. It was frequented by the who’s who of the day, from publisher John Murray to Madras governor Charles Trevelyan and British prime minister Clement Atlee; it became the official book supplier of most government-owned or managed institutions of the time, including the Connemara Public Library.

In 1891, Abel’s son C.H. Higginbotham took over and began expanding the business—building the large high-ceilinged white building where the store is now located, taking it to other large cities in South India and also establishing capsule versions of the store at most railway stations.

“In addition to our larger stores in South India, we also have stores in college campuses, railway stations and the Chennai airport," says Hemalatha.

In 1925, the store was bought by John Oakshott Robinson and merged with his existing printing unit, Associated Press, to form Associated Publishers.

Black-and-white portraits of the various stakeholders in the business smile enigmatically at you as you enter the store. Between the two portraits of founder Abel Joshua Higginbotham and his son C.H. Higginbotham is one of the late S. Anantharamakrishnan, founder of the Amalgamations Group.

“The bookshop was taken over by the Amalgamations Group in 1945," explains Hemalatha, adding that it has been with the group ever since.

Despite it being a weekday morning, there are a few children crouched on the floor, examining the bottom shelf of the children’s section. “Reading is increasing among young people in spite of multimedia influences," says Hemalatha. “Earlier, we were afraid that physical stores would go as the online market was able to give discounts we could not match. However, people who truly love reading still enjoy browsing in a bookstore for the touch and feel of books. And because we are a serious bookstore, they continue to come here."

Poppat Jamal and Sons

The last year of the 19th century saw a terrible famine spread across Western and Central India. Poppat Jamal, whose family had a wool-exporting business in Gujarat, decided to escape it by leaving home. After a brief stint in Rangoon and then Bombay, he decided to explore the south of India and landed up in Madras.

“My grandfather came here and found a job working with Ibrahim Peer Mohammed and Company, a crockery company in Broadway," says Mahmud N. Jamal, who has taken care of the business since the early 1970s.

Mahmud Jamal. Photo: SaiSen/Mint
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Mahmud Jamal. Photo: SaiSen/Mint

In 1901, Poppat Jamal’s employer decided to sell the business, “He asked my grandfather what he thought the stock in the store was worth," says Mahmud. “My grandfather said Rs50,000, which was a fortune in those days."

Though he didn’t have that sort of money, Poppat Jamal agreed to take it over. “The former owner told my grandfather to pay him back after selling the goods. There was a lot of trust in those days," adds Mahmud.

The large blue-and-white cup and saucer at the entrance of the store may proclaim the name of the business in its current avatar, Poppal Jamal and Sons. But it was not always named so, reveals Mahmud.

“My grandfather started the business with his brother, so it was initially called Poppat Jamal and Brothers," he says. “When his brother passed away in the 1920s, the name changed to Poppal Jamal and Sons."

Prior to Independence, the wares were imported from the UK and Japan, he adds. However, as better Indian brands came into the market, they started sourcing more products locally.

From bright melamine dinner sets to Cristal d’Arques glasses, neatly packaged lunch boxes, ceramic cups, airtight storage boxes, electronic gadgets and finely carved silverware, the range is extensive and attractive.

“We stock both local and international brands; we also have Taz, our in-house brand," says Mahmud, adding that baking equipment is currently hugely popular. “We have a cross-section of buyers and our price range extends from Rs10 to Rs40,000."

The store has changed locations (in 1958, it moved from Broadway to Mount Road) and the business has expanded (the company now has four stores in the city, as well as stores in Coimbatore and Vijayawada) but what the brand stands for remains essentially the same: PQR—Price, Quality, Range.

Mathsya

They say that when the Battle of Kurukshetra was fought, the king of Udupi refused to take sides, opting instead to cook and serve food to the soldiers gathered on the battleground. As with most stories from the epics, divine intervention came into play: the king would meet Lord Krishna every day to determine how many soldiers would survive the battle that day, thereby deciding the quantity he had to cook.

Little wonder indeed that the little town of Udupi in South Kanara, Karnataka, produces some of the finest vegetarian food in the country. Once upon a time, Madras was filled with hotels serving Udupi cuisine; unfortunately with the changing times, many of the old Udupi hotels were forced to shut down.

Mathsya, located at the corner of Halls Road in Egmore, has managed to hold its own since the turn of the last century. Ram Bhat, a partner of the popular restaurant, says, “To understand Mathsya, you have to understand Udupi philosophy. At the Udupi Sri Krishna Temple, food is served as prasadam to all."

His grandfather Ramanna Bhat, who set up the restaurant in the early 1900s, was affiliated to that temple and set up the restaurant when he moved to Madras. “Back then, it was called Madras Café," he says. “When my uncle Shama took over, he called it the Udupi Sri Krishna Bhavan."

The name changed again after Independence, it was then called Udupi Home, he says, adding that “During the Indo-China War in 1962, there were constant power cuts, the trains came in late and people were stranded without food. So, the government gave Udupi Home permission to serve food post-midnight."

And that holds good even today. The bells that decorate the hand-crafted wooden door of the restaurant jingle into the wee hours of the morning, while a wooden statue of Mathsya (the piscine avatar of god Vishnu) in the centre of the room welcomes all who enter—middle-aged homemakers, runny-nosed children, mustachioed businessmen and mini-skirted party-goers—equally graciously.

“In the late 1970s, we changed the entire set-up and gave it a more modern look and menu," says Bhat. “While the rasam vadai, Raja Raja Cholan dosai, onion rava dosai, Manglore bondas and filter coffee continue to be all-time favourites, we also have things like cheese toast, bread-peas masala, aloo parotta and pav bhaaji," he says, adding that “we are the first restaurant to introduce authentic Punjabi and north Indian cuisine to the south".

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