Less than a kilometre from Chennai’s Central Station, T.R. Thennavan’s horse-and-carriage hire shop – with three horses, two carriages, bridles and harnesses -- easily belongs to another era. Talking loudly, to be heard above the noisy traffic, Thannavan takes me through 136 years of the shop, that has functioned from the same shed, since his great-grandfather’s time.
“My great-grandfather Thoppapillai had a jutka vandi (horse-drawn passenger cart), as those were the days before cars and buses. His son too followed him, but my father opted for a Government job. When I was young, I wasn’t keen on education, and since I liked horses, I took up my grandfather’s business. But 30 years ago, where was the demand for kudhirai vandis? So, I started buying and refurbishing carriages and hiring them out for functions and marriages,” says the 50-year-old.
Thennavan owns 10 carriages, many of which are over a 100 years old. “I bought this one in Bangalore; but do you know where it is originally from? See the wheel,” he says, pointing to a wooden chariot. I crouch by the slender iron spokes, and find ‘London’ embossed on the axis. “I also have a fully covered coach, and a carriage that was made by Simpsons; it’s very grand, shaped like a boat and I’ve trimmed it with velvet,” he says with pride.
In a white shirt and dhoti, his forehead adorned with sandal paste and kumkum, Thennavan tells me that he still has his great-grandfather’s kudhirai vandi. “It’s a smooth ride on that old vandi, almost like travelling in a car. I have built a stable near Red Hills, and his cart and all my other horses are parked there.”
Thennavan has 15 horses, all of them kaatuvadi kudhirais, which are hardy, and can withstand our warm climate. “I am very particular not to make them walk beyond 10 km; if the distance is greater, the horses and the carriage are transported by a lorry.”
Thennavan’s horse carriages are popular not just in Chennai; in fact, they have travelled to the South, and Andhra Pradesh, on work. “Business is good; I have 18 people working for me,” he says. And even though horses are difficult to care for, and their price has shot up (from Rs.15,000 three decades ago to nearly Rs.80,000 now), Thennavan is very fond of them. “Horses recognise their names. This one is Johnny,’ he points to a tall, brown horse, wearing a red and gold sequined gear. “We get the head gear and other decorations from Kanpur.” jaanvasam
Previously, the horses were hired for film shoots, Thennavan says, showing me an old framed photograph of MGR, seated on his grand-father’s horse, in the movie Neerum Neruppum. Sitting cross-legged on a wooden bench, Thennavan says that not everybody realises the value of old chariots. “The Bangalore chariot was left in the rain and sun; the wood has fallen apart; and Ulaganathan – a third generation craftsman – is perhaps the last person alive who can bring it back to its former glory.”
Can I have a word with him, I ask. “He is very talented, but he can’t speak. But I will ask him questions on your behalf.” And I watch fascinated as 70-year-old Ulaganathan mimes the finer details of his craft to Thennavan.
‘I have a carriage made by Simpsons; it’s grand, shaped like a boat.’
(A weekly column on men and women who make Chennai what it is)