The Shorthand School in Mylapore is one of a kind. Anusha Parthasarathy traces its 101-year journey

Driving down Kutchery Road on a weekday could give anyone a serious case of road rage, forget any thought of exploring ancient Mylapore. But between the traffic pouring out of the intersecting lanes on Mada Street and right beside the white Jain temple is a Mylaporean home where a 101-year-old business still flourishes under the watchful eyes of three generations.

The Shorthand School, a modest two-room training institute started in 1909 by P. Srikantaiyar, stands out with its high-ceiling, long-stemmed fans, narrow spiral staircase and ageing yellow-green paint. Padmanabhan Balasubramanian took over the institute in 1969 after his grandfather and father.

“When the typewriter came to India, there was a sudden demand for typists, but not many knew how to go about it properly. Though there was a typewriting school near Chintadripet at that time, my grandfather, with the Pitman Shorthand book, started a school at the MLA complex. Later, when we constructed this house in 1933, it was moved here,” recalls Padmanabhan.

Skills-set

Though the school was temporarily closed during World War I, it reopened in 1917. Since the Shorthand School was the only one in Mylapore and neighbouring areas that taught typing and shorthand, and the second of its kind in the city back then, business began to flourish, especially in the 1930s and 1940s. By the time Srikantaiyar's son Balasubramanian took over, the school had become a full-fledged technical training institute, teaching accountancy and commerce for a brief period.

“We were the only school over here in those days, and as the trend grew, many people, mostly Anglo Indians who became typists and clerks, came to learn typing and shorthand. There are now 12 typing institutes in Mylapore alone,” says Padmanabhan.

Though Padmanabhan doesn't teach shorthand, he has hired a tutor to carry on the traditional subjects that the institute has been teaching. “We wanted to keep it within the family but since none of us picked up shorthand from our father, we hired a tutor. Shorthand is still in demand, especially among those who aspire to be legal consultants or work in an advocate's office,” he says.

“We've never advertised. All our students are either children of old students or those who come by word-of-mouth.”

Despite the changing times, typing is popular among young software professionals, he adds. “When our students are employed and their colleagues watch them type fast, they want to do so too.”

The second of four brothers, Padmanabhan is the only one who continues in the family business. “My brothers are also certified trainers, but found their own path. However, we remain a joint family,” he says.

The institute teaches about 75 students every day, on an average, and sends up to 40 students from each skill for exams every year. “The school was started with the intention of imparting useful vocational skills. The number of those opting for it may have come down along the years, but interested people will always be around. This is probably why typewriting and shorthand won't die out,” says Padmanabhan.

Write move

In 1909, P. Srikantaiyar, Padmanabhan's grandfather, (sitting, third from left), began the Shorthand School to impart vocational skills to people. By 1933, it had shifted to its current premises, and also started teaching typewriting. Though their students were predominantly Anglo-Indian, the period after Independence saw an influx of locals.

Time line

When the Shorthand School began in 1909, it was only the second typewriting/shorthand institute in the city.

The school was temporarily closed during the First World War and reopened in 1917.

The institute still charges only Rs.160 per month for a course.

Changing typeface

The quaint old home with its ageing paint looks quiet from the outside. Climb the narrow spiral staircase and the place is suddenly abuzz with the clang of a dozen typewriters. The shorthand school has a constant stream of students practising shorthand or typewriting.

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