The Chronicler of Madras that is Chennai tells stories of people, places and events from yesteryears – and sometimes from today

Even as the Washermenpet Police Station, a heritage building if ever there is one, dating to 1898 as it does, shivers and shakes and threatens to collapse into rubble even as the Metro bores its way through the city paying little heed to heritage, an enterprising reporter of this paper sent me two photographs of historic plaques he spotted embedded in the police station’s wall. One dated the police station, but the other not only came as a total surprise but created an intriguing mystery which has had me searching for an answer. This stone talks of being the first stone marking a boundary of an esplanade dating to 1822. And of an esplanade and its boundary pillars of that date I’d never heard of till now.

The common reference to an esplanade in Madras is of that open space that was created between the Fort and New Black Town (George Town) after the razing of Old Black Town where the High Court campus now is. This was always known as the Madras Esplanade (with a capital E) and its six boundary pillars were along Esplanade Road, which is now N.S.C. Bose Road, starting with the first at the Parry building and going westwards, with a possible seventh at (Popham’s) Broadway. Each of these obelisks, it has been recorded, had, “built into the square base a tablet of black stone inscribed in raised letters Boundary of the Esplanade – 1st January, 1773.”

So what was this second area, near Washermenpet, claiming to be an esplanade? After a bit of a search, I’ve found the answer.

In May 1781, Chief Engineer Maule, reporting on the state of the defences of the New Black Town Wall (where Maadi Poonga now is) reported that “the Safety of the Place is absolutely endangered by the Vicinity of the Washerman’s Village (which was outside the wall)” and wanted permission to clear the entire area “600 Yards from the Foot of the Wall….” Two years later, in April 1783, Chief Engineer Ross reported “The Environs of the Black Town Wall to the Westward (where People’s Park was later developed) are nearly cleared to the extent of six hundred yards… and to the Northward (too), except the (Monegar) Choultry which contains sick charity poor and three others situated near the extremity of the prescribed distance… One of them, the Company’s Washing Choultry, now contains that part of the Body Guard stationed for the protection of the washing town (very possibly where the police station came up).” And then, finally, what is the clincher, a footnote that reads, “In Ravenshaw’s map of 1822, five obelisks are shown on the Esplanade, north of the Black Town Wall, between Royapuram and Monegar Choultry.” Two points that raise a tremulous question or two: One, nowhere else, except in this footnote and on the plaque, is the term ‘esplanade’ to be found. So, was it really an esplanade? And, two, the obelisks, given the date on the plaque and the date of the map, would indicate that they probably were positioned some years after the esplanade was created. Was that the case?

As I keep saying, I learn something new every day about Madras. I also find something new almost as frequently. I hope what this reporter has found will be retained here as heritage markers — even if the Metro perchance causes the collapse of the police station.

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A pioneering journalist

Doing some research on a book about the Nattukottai Chettiars, I recently stumbled across a date that gave significance to some facts about Karumuttu Thiagaraja Chettiar (KMT) of which I had only the vaguest notion. I know he had been a journalist in Ceylon for a while and then, returning to India, while expanding the family business and becoming ‘The Textile King’, he started a Tamil daily, Tamil Nadu. The fact I discovered was this is the centenary year of KMT temporarily leaving the family business in Colombo to become a full-time reporter with The Morning Leader, a leading Colombo daily at the time.

That year, 1914, made Karumuttu Thiagaraja the first Nagarathar to become a full-time journalist with an English language daily. In fact, it might well have made him the first full-time Nagarathar journalist with a daily even in Tamil or possibly even in Tamil magazine journalism. His two-year stint with The Morning Leader was a memorable one, which I will come to in a couple of paragraphs, but the family business in India called — and he moved on to becoming one of South India’s leading business magnates. But An interest in journalism, however, never left KMT and, besides publishing Tamil Nadu, he negotiated for The Mail. Sadly, he failed to acquire it.

A few other Nagarathars followed KMT’s lead into journalism, like Raya Chockalingam and S. Murugappa, of Oozhiyan, in the 1920s, but none into daily journalism until P. Pr. Subramaniam Chettiar founded Virakesari in Colombo in 1930 and ran it till the early 1950s when he sold it. The paper remains Sri Lanka’s leading Tamil daily. The first into an English language daily after Karumuttu Thiagarajan was your columnist who was a stringer in the U.S. for The Times of Ceylon from 1948 and a full-timer from 1951 to 1968. In Madras, Rm. T. Sambandam, who began his career with Tamil Nadu, joined the Indian Express in the mid-1950s and then moved to Dinamani, becoming Editor of it, the first Nagarathar to edit a major daily. And close to the 1960s, Arun Senkuttuvan got into daily English language journalism, working in Singapore, Malaysia, Hong Kong and Bangkok.

Curiously, of the four of us of yesteryear who were associated with English language dailies, three of us were educated in Ceylon and Senguttuvan in Malaysia. Karumuttu Thiagarajan spent several years at that illustrious Colombo college, St. Thomas’, and it reflected in his speaking and writing of the English language. He made his mark in journalism with a series of investigative articles for The Morning Leader on the plight of Indian labour in the Ceylon plantations. A Commission of Inquiry into those conditions published its reports in 1917 and faced a detailed, angry critique from KMT which was published in the South Indian newspapers, The Hindu and New India in particular writing strong editorials condemning the inquiry commission’s report. All this helped ameliorate the working conditions on the estates but Karumuttu Thiagarajan himself moved on to other matters from the 1920s.

Footnote: I met Karumuttu Thiagarajan Chettiar in 1969, shortly after I came to Madras. We met at Vengu’s garage in San Thomé; Vengu was the only person who could maintain KMT’s favourite car and my aging one, both Lanchesters, baby Daimlers with pre-selector gears. That’s where I learnt about his Morning Leader days and discovered another coincidental link. The Morning Leader was founded and edited by Armand de Souza, a Goan. And Armand de Souza’s writings had the Government putting him behind bars for a few days. That no doubt was also a threat the young Chettiar would have faced for his anti-Government writings. The coincidental link was that Armand de Souza’s son, Tori, was my Editor and he was threatened with jail and I with deportation!