Survivors of Time Janane Venkatraman steps into a store filled with the trinkets of a time gone by

Hiding in plain sight on Mount Road is a red brick building that is covered up to stave off the blistering heat. An old-fashioned bell jingles as the door opens into well-lit interiors filled from floor to ceiling with antiquities and curious artefacts. At one corner, a Victorian mirror reflects a name that has kindled the curiosity of many in the city since 1946: The Old Curiosity Shop.

Ghulam Mohammad was on a tour of South India when he found he liked the peace and quiet of Madras. “My grandfather’s ability to converse fluently with the British stationed here helped him build a rapport with them,” says Omar Lateef, who has been managing the store for ten years. “He started a small store, with all the artefacts he had collected while travelling, to cater to their art and craft needs.” The name seems apt, considering the number of artefacts stuffed inside the store.

Omar says, “Back then, most of our clients were British and they always exclaimed how curious some relic or the other was. As time went by, people started calling our shop the Old Curiosity Shop, just like the one in England!”

The store, which shifted to its current premises opposite Spencer’s Plaza in 1950, subsequently came into the hands of Omar’s father Faisal Lateef. The urge to collect curious artefacts seems to run in the family — Faisal, too, travels abroad on collecting sprees. “Initially, the store just sold arts and crafts, but the changing tastes of our clients demanded that we expand our collection to rare items. This prompted my grandfather and my father to include very curious art objects, both old and new in the store,” explains Omar.

But that’s not all. “Collecting objects is just one area of our business,” says Omar. “We also manufacture replicas of antiques. We make objects like jewellery boxes, naval compasses and a lot more. They are a great hit with our customers.” Lined up on the table are tiny compasses and a miniature sundial, looking as if they came out of a pirate ship.

One side of the store is filled with bronze figurines of gods, goddesses and dainty little Lalique dancers, while the other side holds Caliphate-style jugs, vibrant carpets and a curious-looking snake horn that came from a Rolls Royce. There are stacks of elephants in all sizes and colours which Omar says are very popular with foreigners. “Foreigners who come to the store inevitably buy an elephant figurine, if nothing else. It doesn’t matter where they are from,” he grins.

A huge gramophone, marbles the size of tennis balls , original black-and-white photographs of Nehru — the possibilities of finding something strange and rare are limitless in this shop. Omar opens a century-old music box and a loud tinkling emerges. “Most of the time, we are sad to see our favourite goods sold, but what makes us happy is that they are going to good homes and to people who are passionate about them. That is the only criteria for us to sell our artefacts.”

Even though the store is piled with more relics than one can count, not everything is for sale.

“We stock everything we come across so there is nothing in the store that we do not love. Everything we acquire has a story behind it,” says Omar. Yet he refuses to divulge how he acquired a rare sculpture of a five-headed Ganesha, sitting on a shelf alongside a ballet dancer. “Trade secret,” he winks.

As Omar lifts up a cameo brooch, with its clear amber catching the light, a 1000 Mark bank note from 1910 Germany beckons. He explains the history behind its acquisition, and as with everything else in the store, it represents the passion for art that the Lateefs have. It is an old, curious shop indeed!

Some Others

Countless tables, chairs and bedsteads are tightly packed into a dusty lawn. Four bureaus lie in varying states of readiness, and one can even spot, tucked into a corner, an old-fashioned wooden crib. This is Mani’s and Co, the second oldest antique store, and home to all sorts of furniture and antiques.

The manager D.F Nathan, who has been with the store since it started in 1969, says, “The store was started by the late H.T. Subramaniam but it is now owned by his wife Dharmambal and his grandson N Muthukumar. They are partners.”

Like the lawn, the innumerable rooms of the store are packed to the rafters with teakwood sofa sets and delicate teapoys upended over almirahs. Nathan points to an old rocking chair that is wider than it is taller and says, “We have suppliers who collect old furniture and restore them before selling them to us. We also sell replicas of old antiques. That chair, called the grandfather chair, is nearly 90 years old.”

Mani’s and Co used to have regular auctions when they started, but these gradually trickled down and stopped altogether. “The last auction we had was in 1998 or 2000, I can’t exactly recall. It was a conscious decision to stop.”

As he surveys the shop, Nathan talks about an era where one chair used to cost just Rs 12. “One armchair used to cost Rs 24, and a stool just Rs 3. Mind you, this was way back in the early 70’s. A rosewood almirah used to cost Rs 220 but now, the same almirah costs upward of Rs 6500. Times have definitely changed,” he laments.