Dr. K.N. Kesari, an Ayurvedic physician, had a passion for building houses

Most of my heritage discoveries can be attributed to my getting lost frequently.

Last month, I took a wrong turn and found myself in a cul-de-sac behind what was once Dasaprakash hotel. Just behind the property stood this quintessential Madras bungalow, its two Britannias (female depictions of the British empire) standing on the gateposts alone, being worth my getting lost. Closer inspection of the gateposts revealed the house was called Grihalakshmi, and had been the residence of Dr. K.N. Kesari (1875-1953), renowned Ayurvedic physician.

Born in Inamanvamelloor in Ongole district, of present day Andhra Pradesh, Dr. Kota Nara Kesari came to Madras seeking better prospects. He learnt Ayurvedic medicine under Pandit D Gopalacharyulu who practised at the native hospital run by the Sri Kanyaka Parameswari Devasthanam. In 1900, Dr. Kesari set up his own practice under the name Kesari Kuteeram on Godown Street. His medicines such as lodhra, amrita and arka became household names. An expansion in business led to his shifting the enterprise and his residence to this house in Egmore.

In his delightful memoirs ‘Chinnanati Mutchatlu’ translated by his daughter Vasantha Menon and grandson K Balakesari, the good doctor states that house-building was his passion and that he planned and constructed them beautifully. This is amply borne out at least from the exterior of this house. The name is also significant, for in the first years of the 20th century, Dr. Kesari commissioned the Lodhra Printing Press at Poonamallee High Road from where he began publishing ‘Grihalakshmi’, a Telugu magazine for women. It was known for its intellectual content and for championing women’s rights. ‘Grihalakshmi’ established an annual award for women writers and scholars. It was and is, considered anhonour to win it.

Dr. Kesari also contributed liberally to social organisations espousing women’s uplift such as the Andhra Mahila Sabha of Durgabai Deshmukh and the Seva Sadan of Lady Andal Venkata Subba Rao and the Avvai Home of Dr. Muthulakshmi Reddy and the Hindu Yuvathi Saranalaya of Yamini Poorna Tilakamma. He also personally sheltered several women, all of whom were given education and made self-sufficient.

Following the death of his first wife after a prolonged illness, Dr. Kesari married Madhavi, a specialist in curing the illnesses of women and children. She began practicing along with her husband. In 1937, Kesari Kuteeram shifted to Westcott Road, Royapettah. This became a huge establishment, with a handsome bungalow in the middle, surrounded by workshops where medicines were prepared. During the 1940s, the Music Academy functioned from one of the outhouses.

Today, the building has given way to high-rises but the business in its 112th year, continues from elsewhere. The music connection too lives, for Dr. Kesari’s great-grandson is the singer P Unnikrishnan. The Egmore residence was inherited by Dr. Kesari’s foster son.

Never forgetting the struggles he faced while young, Dr. Kesari helped in founding a school, which spawned the Kesari High Schools in the city. But more on that next week for there is another heritage building to be covered in that context.