Writer-director S. Krishnaswamy on a city where people had time for others, enduring friendships and sighting thousands of birds at the Adyar Library.
I have something in common with Abraham Lincoln. The house in which he was born became a school. And, my house is now the Dominic Savio School, Santhome. My father (filmmaker K. Subramaniam) built the bungalow in 1937, on 36 grounds, with a 10,000-sq.ft. built-up area. I was born a year later.
The house had a huge coconut grove, a banana plantation and an ornamental front garden. Experts maintained the lawns in which 200 to 300 guests were routinely entertained.
Father's celebrity status never kept him away from us. He would drive me to Triplicane for my haircut. He would take us eight children on excursions. In 1953, when I was 15, the mansion was sold. Father's Thyagabhoomi was banned by the British government. He was broke because of his involvement in socio-political affairs. We moved to a rented house in Gandhi Nagar, Adyar.
I went to Children's Garden School. Founder V.N. Sharma knew my father and told him to send me there. Parents did not chase schools then! In two years, I was moved to Besant Theosophical High School. The headmaster, my father's teacher, insisted that I study under him. I travelled from Santhome to Adyar in a school bus that could take only eight passengers.
Most of our afternoons and weekends were spent in the Theosophical Society (TS) gardens nearby. Once, a group of us kids was chatting under the banyan tree. An elderly gentleman sat down with us and spoke affectionately about life and philosophy till late in the afternoon. We were told later that he was the international president of the TS. Those were gentle times, people had time for others, there were surprises in life.
I then shifted to Nagapattinam to be with my ailing great-grandmother, and returned to Mahabharatha Ramayana
Chennai after high school. I was offered admission by three colleges that had Intermediate classes.
My mother, a devotee of Sri Ramakrishna, chose Vivekananda College. For my degree in Physics, I went to Presidency. I was active in the Students' Union, took part in debates.
I then moved to Columbia University for my Masters in Films and TV. By the time I returned, how the city had changed!
Earlier, my eldest sibling, Balakrishnan, in charge of family finances, would give me a rupee a day. After paying for the bus ticket to college and back, I had enough left for a heavy snack at Coimbatore Krishna Iyer's mess or Buhari's. That's how far a rupee went!
A classmate from Nagapattinam visiting the city would sit with our watchman and count with wonder, ‘That's 18 cars in an hour!' That was 1950. Today, I can't find a place to park my car. In the 1940s, we had three-digit telephone numbers. I've seen it grow to eight and, now, 10.
I was in TS in 1964, researching at the Adyar Library. From the balcony of the Leadbetter Chambers, I could see a few thousand birds flying at sunrise and sunset. Today the numbers have dwindled considerably.
I got married to Mona in 1969 and built a 1500-sq.ft. house. Those days, five grounds in Sastri Nagar cost just Rs. 90,000! I borrowed 50 per cent of the amount from LIC and the rest from friends, who asked me why I preferred to live in a forest! The city has given me the gift of enduring friendships.
In the 1960s and 1970s, people in Adyar went to T. Nagar/Mylapore to buy vegetables. ‘English vegetables' such as cauliflower, tomato, carrot, capsicum and knol khol were not available here.
I often travelled to Bangalore on business, and would bring a 10-day supply as checked-in baggage. Adyar has so many vegetable shops now. When we complain of crowding, we forget the convenience.
Brought up on Gandhian values, I believe the means are as important as ends. Forty-five years in the media tells me there's still space in this city to run institutions with high moral and ethical values.
Born on July 29, 1938, this writer-director of documentary films and TV serials who founded Krishnaswamy Associates is a recipient of the Padmashri. He was conferred the Lifetime Achievement Award by the US International Film and Video Festival “for outstanding contribution to non-fiction films”. His four-hour film, “Indus Valley to Indira Gandhi”, was released by Warner Bros in 1976. The Krishnaswamys' latest documentary “A Different Pilgrimage” was screened at the Cannes International Film Festival, this May, and is slated for release in Chennai soon.
When I was around seven, my father took me to a public meeting at the Hindi Prachar Sabha grounds. It was only when we went closer to the dais that I realised Gandhiji would be addressing the gathering!
Keywords: Memories of Madras