A forgotten name-change

With all these articles recalling the centenary of the Delhi Durbar and the announcement that was made there that thenceforth Delhi would be the capital of India and not Calcutta, completely overlooked has been the fact that George V was remembered in Madras too in 1911. That was the year Black Town became George Town.

This Black Town, however, was the second. The first was the Indian town that developed just north of Fort St. George, on what is the High Court-Law College campus. The use Comte de Lally's troops made of the buildings in this settlement during his siege of the Fort in 1758-59 led the English, once they had blunted the French threat, to demolish this first Indian settlement they had been responsible for developing and create an esplanade and, beyond it, in the villages of Muthialpet and Peddanaickenpet, a new, planned Black Town, a gridiron pattern consciously followed.

When George, Prince of Wales, visited Madras in 1905 and proved a popular figure at every venue where he was feted in the growing city, it was much debated what kind of a permanent memorial to him should be created in Madras. Little came of the debate till he became King George V in 1910. A competition was organised in Madras for Carnatic singers to compose classical eulogies in honour of the occasion and it was Sriram V. singing a couple of them during his talk ten days ago in the ‘Namma Chennai' series organised by the Park Sheraton and MetroPlus that reminded me of the centenary of the way New Black Town became renamed. The visit of George V, King Emperor of India, for the Delhi Durbar was occasion enough for Madras to remember him by naming New Black Town after him.

Near the southwest corner of George Town he was further remembered in 1914 with a statue presented to the city by one of its leading Gujarati merchant-princes, Chatoorbhoojadoss Govindoss of the Kushaldoss family (Miscellany, March 6, 2006). The statue by Joseph McLure, to whom the king gave a couple of sittings in Britain, cost Rs. 45,000, quite a sum for the times.


The first cinema theatre

Another centenary this year is one which really should have been celebrated by all connected with Kollywood, given the close kinship Tamil Nadu has with the film industry. This one celebrates the opening of the first cinema theatre in the South, the ‘Bioscope' on Popham's Broadway. It was started by a Mrs. Klug who regularly screened a number of short silent films at each show. Despite crowds that had gathered to watch “animated photographs” at venues like the Victoria Public Hall, Museum Theatre and tents on the Esplanade from 1896, Mrs. Klug's theatre with its permanent seating in a well-conceived hall was something different, but it just did not take off. In fact, it closed within a few months. But it certainly had demonstrated the possibilities of the medium.

It was to be 1913, by when the silent film had developed to a smoother running display, that Madras got its next cinema theatre, the ‘Electric', owned by Warwick Major and Reginald Eyre. It was “a large corrugated iron shell with a brick façade” in what is now the Mount Road Post Office campus. The shell developed into a more ornate building that still survives but was acquired by the Post and Telegraphs Department in 1915, bringing to an end its brief cinema history. In recent years, the façade of the building and a part of its interior have been restored and serve, since 1998, as the city's Philatelic Bureau, where exhibitions are a regular feature.

Kitty corner from it to the east was what was home of Misquith & Co (the forerunner of Musee Musicals,) and in 1907 a man called Cohen opened on its first floor a hall for entertainment called the ‘Lyric'. In a challenge to the ‘Electric', he started screening silent films there in 1913. A fire in 1914 put paid to Cohen's hopes of being a successful challenger. The fire also led to the building being sold to J.F. Madan of Calcutta who at the time ran the largest cinema theatre chain in India. In 1915 he opened the ‘Elphinstone' (almost Madan's brand) Theatre there — the first with a balcony in South India — and with it the cinema theatre was to become a major feature of life in Madras.

But before the ‘Elphinstone' opened, Madras got its first Indian-owned theatre, the ‘Gaiety' – which survived till just a couple of years ago — kitty corner to the west of the ‘Electric'. Film pioneer Raghupathy Venkaiah who built it opened two more theatres in the next three years, the ‘Crown' (1916) and the ‘Globe' that became the ‘Roxy' (1917). Both buildings were also pulled down only recently. From these beginnings — and with sound — cinema theatres in Madras began to increase. But even during those boom years closer to their beginnings, few remembered Mrs. Klug's ‘Bioscope'.


An Armenian representation

The Armenian Ambassador to India, H.E. Ara Hakobyan, was in Madras last week to inaugurate the Consulate office of Armenia in the city. The first Honorary Consul of Armenia in Madras is Shivkumar Eashwaran, a businessman. The inauguration was an occasion to remember the Armenian presence in Madras as far back as the 1660s, a fact attested to by the finding of a tombstone with the date 1663 near Little Mount. The name engraved on it was ‘Khoja David Margar'.

The Armenian presence in Madras began to increase from 1688 when the East India Company, finding the Armenians “sober, frugal and wise”, gave them the same trading rights as English freemen. These privileges were granted after negotiations between Coja Panous, Calendar of Isphahan, and the Company in London. The agreement was dated June 22, 1688 and was in due course communicated to the principal Armenian merchant in Madras, ‘Gregorio Paroan', and his fellows. By these terms, they could not only trade on the same terms as the English but also had all the rights of British subjects in Madras, including the right to own land in Fort St. George, White Town.

It was also promised to them that as soon as there were 40 Armenian merchants in Madras, ground would be granted to them to build a permanent church. This was done in 1712 and for the next seven years the church received £50 a year from the Company to maintain a priest, under terms of the grant.

The first known house of an Armenian in Fort St. George is what is called Admiralty House today. It was built by Coja Nazar Jacob Jan who arrived in Madras in 1702. On his death in 1740, it passed into the hands of Coja Sultan David to whom it had been bequeathed. On Coja David's death the house, by then known as ‘The Great House on Choultry Street', was inherited by his son, Aga Shawmier Sultan (Suthanoomian). This house was taken over by the Company post-1757 and served in town, as Governor's residence, Governor's entertainment space and the venue of sessions of the Admiralty Court. Robert Clive too lived in this building after his marriage.

Aga Nazar Jan was the first of the great Armenian merchants of Madras and was followed by the legendary Coja Petrus Uscan — who has warranted much space in this column in the past — Aga Shawmier Sultan, and Aga Samuel Moorat. When Samuel Moorat died in 1816, his son Edward Moorat ran through his huge patrimony in enjoying a life of luxury. With his death, the Armenian presence in Madras began to fade.

One Armenian of this era who left a different kind of mark was the Rev. Harathun Shimavonian, who started in Madras in 1794 the first Armenian journal in the world, Azdarar, and published several Armenian classics before he died in 1827.

Madras once had a substantial Armenian presence, but the Armenians followed the seat of power (they had started in Agra) and were a few thousand in number in Calcutta during the heyday of the Raj. Their numbers warranted starting a school there and Armenian College still exists, struggling on with an intake of orphans from Armenia. Perhaps it's time to establish a branch of that institution in Madras. It was a thought that struck me at the reception when I met one of the few IT entrepreneurs in Armenia. Why doesn't he partner someone in Madras and establish an IT training centre for young Armenians in an Armenian College, Madras branch?


MetroplusJune 28, 2012