Sivakumar on a tree-lined city, the charm of its beach, star-spotting and the forgotten art of banner painting.
It was on June 9, 1958, that I came to Madras to join the College of Arts and Crafts. The 12th floor of the LIC building was being constructed — the old light house on the High court complex used to be the tallest building then. The day after I arrived, it was the 100th day celebrations of ‘Vanjikottai Valiban', and Wellingdon theatre was all decked up like a fort for the occasion.
Trams were done away with a couple of years before I came here, but the steel tracks snaked across the city, giving you an idea about the route — Central, Mount Road, The Hindu, Devi theatre, Royapettah, Mandaveli…
Coming as I did from a village with no water, electricity, school or toilets, it was a giant leap to Madras. Central station used to be so crowded, there was no place to stand. And, huge, tortoise-shaped, black Chevrolet taxis plied from there. Travelling by it and seeing a city lined by trees, I felt I was in heaven. And, what sights — the statues of George the V and Thomas Munro, stately old homes, the Murphy building, the Bata showroom, and then, our destination — New Woodlands.
For a rural teen used to sundal made of native pulses and grams and seempaal (colostrum of cow), Woodlands was a treasure trove of delights — we would order stuff every hour … fruit salad, peach melba and falooda.
Passing by the homes of film stars was a wonderful pastime. Sivaji Ganesan, akin to God for us, used to live on Shanmuga Mudhali Theru in Royapettah. I even got a chance to meet him soon after I landed here. And, Habibullah Road was where Savithri used to live. Her house, spread across 12 grounds, was the first with a swimming pool. S.V. Ranga Rao also lived on that road. That was our ‘Maya Bazaar'! Whenever friends from home came, we would pedal away and show them all these houses; they felt they had seen the stars themselves.
Following the advice of Sivaji Ganesan, I joined Mohan Arts as an apprentice. It was 1958, and ‘The Ten Commandments' was releasing in Odeon. What banners they came up with! K. Madhavan can rightly be called the inventor of banners. He was the one who, in 1948, came up with a 60-ft banner of Rajakumari's face for ‘Chandralekha', in Bombay. Similarly, when ‘Kalyana Parisu' released in Casino, R. Natarajan, K.V. Raghavan, Vedachalam and Sundaramurthy came up with 100 ft by 30 ft banners of the important scenes. For apprentices such as me, it was a treat watching them work.
When it came to topography, Madras had a wonderful green cover — from Central to Aminjikarai, the roads had a canopy of green. And, near the Besant Nagar arch, there would be about 500 acres of sand, dotted with small, thatched huts for foreigners to change after they sun bathed.
When Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh, visited the city, Sivaji Ganesan arranged for a welcome arch mounted on the General Patters Road-Mount Road junction. His mother Rajamani Ammal, in fact, garlanded the Prince.
Madras' greatest advantage is the beach. It is like a mother's lap. A great stress-buster. During the weekend, the underprivileged would head there. The Buhari restaurant on the beach had a juke box. What a thrill we got listening to songs on it!
The city was not very expensive to live in. I managed on a budget of Rs. 85. A masal dosai cost 15 paise, idlis and vadai six paise each. Geeta Café, in fact, had a monthly ticket book — Rs. 28 for two meals a day.
Shortly before I joined the College of Arts and Crafts, I set out on foot one day, sketching the Ripon building, beach, iron bridge, labour statue, Annie Besant statue, the Adyar banyan tree…
Those were also the heady days of political meetings and fiery speeches of change — the flip side? They would offer food for thought, but we would return on an empty stomach.
A group of us boys would travel from Pudupet where we lived, past Greams Road and Thousand Lights to go to Rajakumari Theatre in Pondy Bazaar, where we watched films such as ‘Horror of Dracula' and ‘House of Wax'. Greams Road would resemble a bhoot bungalow. And, considering what movies we watched, we would get really scared during our ride back, and look for company.
Those were also the days when trust ruled. A Fokker aircraft flew from Madras to my hometown Coimbatore. Its policy? “Fly now, pay later”. The fare? A mere Rs. 75.
Among the saddest days in my life was when I passed by Thayappa Mudhali Street near Broadway. It was a contrast to the rest of the city — tiny huts with small entrances, with old tyres and torn saris spread across the roof. It was a wretched life the people there led.
Sivakumar: Born in 1941, this artist-actor-orator and writer was born Palanisamy. He has acted in more than 200 films from 1965 to 2005, and also did television. He has won many awards, including from the State Government for best actor. Now, he is working on a book where he presents the distilled wisdom of the Mahabharatha. His dream project is to condense the Kural for the present generation.