The Coast of Coromandel

The news that a proposal for the development of Pulicat as a heritage destination, with a lot of restoration of the historical to be undertaken for this purpose, is welcome. But why look at Pulicat alone on the Coromandel?

Around forty years ago, when I started getting interested in the history of South India from 1500 to 1900 C.E. and when the Tamil Nadu Tourism authorities discovered I had been involved a bit with Ceylon Tourism, we discussed a proposal I made to them. Namely, that there would be no greater attraction to tourists from Western Europe than a ‘Coast of Coromandel Trail’ where many of the countries in this part of the world had left their imprint. Besides the Western relics here, the same destinations offered several dating to the ancient kingdoms of South India, besides wonderful beaches that many a Western tourist sought. We talked and talked and talked over a period of about 20 years, but nothing came of it all. Perhaps the latest interest in restoring what remains of Pulicat’s heritage coupled with the restoration work going on in Danish Tranquebar (Tarangambadi) will lead to a re-look at this proposal and the implementation of it.

The route I had suggested was Fort St. George (British and where modern India began); Pulicat, for many years the capital and then major entrepot of the Dutch in the East; San Thomé, chief Portuguese settlement on India’s east coast; Pondicherry, capital of French India; Tranquebar, chief Danish settlement in Asia; and Nagapattinam (Dutch). To these could be added briefer breaks at Covelong/Kovalam (Dutch); Sadras (Dutch); Cuddalore (British); Porto Novo (Portuguese); and Karaikal (French). Even the Swedes, Belgians and Americans had brief moments of interest on this coast!

Given the interest in history and heritage in Europe and all else this coast has to offer by way of even more ancient history and nature’s bounty, such a heritage trail would be a winner. But for that to happen, a whole heap of restoration of the relics of the past will have to be done as well as considerable infrastructure — not of the five-star kind but stressing comfort, cleanliness and hygiene — would have to be created. Are the tourism authorities up to the challenge?

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The film-maker, not the film

It is possible that not a few remember a Tamil film called Chintamani, released 75 years ago this year. I certainly remember being taken to it as a child, recalling it not so much as an acclaimed film but for the serpentine queues outside the Elphinstone Theatre in Colombo where it ran for well over a year. But I wonder how many today remember who made this most successful of all Tamil films till well after Independence, a film that made M.K. Thyagaraja Bhagavatar a superstar? I certainly learnt about him only 15 years ago after reading a manuscript by film historian Randor Guy.

The forgotten director, Yaragudipati Varada Rao, was a Telugu stage actor who came to Madras in the 1920s and learned the art of film-making with such pioneers as Raghupathy Prakash and A. Narayanan, while acting in their films. Y.V. Rao was to go on to become the first to direct films in Telugu, Kannada, Tamil, Hindi and, preceding them, silent ones. One of the leading film distributors in South India at the time was Royal Talkies of Madurai, Royal chose Y.V. Rao to make Chintamani, based on the Bilwa Mangal story and other films on it, including a silent version also called Chintamani and made in 1931. This was to be Y.V. Rao’s first Tamil film. The film was shot in Calcutta with Thyagaraja Bhagavathar playing the legendary poet besotten with a devadasi played by Kannada singer and stage actress K. Aswathamma. Rao himself played Bilwa Mangal’s friend. But what made the film one of the greatest hits in Tamil film history was the songs written and composed by that legend in the Carnatic music world, Papanasam Sivan. The success of the film enabled the owners (anyone have some names?) of Royal Talkies to build Chintamani Theatre in Madurai.

After Chintamani, Rao’s career, both as a director and an actor, was like a roller-coaster ride. But one later film of his that became the talk of the town was Savithri which was released in 1941. The film itself was not a great hit, but by casting M.S. Subbulakshmi as the male Naradar, Rao sparked controversy which captured the headlines. The songs in the film, especially those sung by M.S., have, however, remained ever popular. This was the third of M.S.’s only four films. After this film, Rao gradually faded from the scene and, according to Randor Guy, “died in obscurity”. But the name Chintamani has lived on.

Footnote: Y.V. Rao’s daughter Lakshmi was an outstanding actress in the 1970s. Her mother Kumari Rukmini was an actress of ability in the 1940s and Kumari Rukmini’s mother, Nungambakkam Janaki, also figured in films of an earlier era. When Lakshmi’s daughter Iswarya entered films, it was a rare occurrence of a fourth generation actress in films.

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What’s in a name?

Where is Mackkis Gardens, asked several who turned up for a meeting at my house the other morning after reading in a daily about a fire in a slum in these ‘gardens’. It’s Mackay’s Gardens, I laughed, off Graeme’s Road. That set off a discussion on ‘ae’ being right and not ‘ea’, just as it is ‘Taylor’s Road’ and not ‘Tailor’s Road’ as the Corporation signboard has it. Such distractions, however, did not put us off the main business, which was to agree that August 19 to 26 would be celebrated as Madras Week this year. But that’s just advance notice; today’s item is on George Mackay who gave his name to a huge property that was later divided by Graeme’s Road.

George Mackay was a twenty-year-old when he arrived in Madras in 1738 and set himself up as a free merchant. A successful business career he traded in for East India Company service in 1766 when he got himself appointed Assaymaster. Not long after, he became a member of the governing council of the settlement. In 1766, he sided with those who deposed Governor Lord Pigot and when that affair was straightened out, he was recalled to England. His brother-in-law, George Stratton, was one of the leaders of the coup and had proclaimed himself Governor for a while.

In 1756, Mackay became Mayor of Madras and, two years later, he landed a plum assignment, Contractor for Supply and Transport to the Army. This enabled him that same year to obtain from the Council on a 99-year lease a 600 yards square piece of ground on the Choultry Plain and build on it c.1760 the first house on the Plain. Mackay’s Gardens, as the property became known and which is now a part of the Thousands Lights area, was leased to him at 30 pagodas down and 30 pagodas at the end of every 30 years and a rent of one pagoda a year. A pagoda, for the record, was about Rs. 3.3 then!

While Mackay had a house in the Fort, the Gardens was his weekend retreat. In 1769, he decided to move out to the Gardens and he explained this decision in a letter to a friend that offers a fascinating insight into the times. In June 1769 he wrote, “…one of my reasons for consenting to let Mrs. Mackay go home with the Boy is to save Money. The expence of living here in the manner I have hitherto done, and cannot well avoid doing in future whilst I have a family, is enormous. I have therefore resolved, after Mrs. Mackay is gone, to live entirely at my Gardens, except when business obliges me to be in Town of a Morning, and of course put an end to all Routs and Entertainments. I have put Limits to her Expences in England beyond which she is on no account whatever to go; and if she cannot contrive to live on her allowance in London, she must retire to some part of the Country that is Cheaper…” Sarah Stratton, whom he married in 1756 to improve his prospects in Madras, appears to have been a person with extravagant tastes — no doubt adding to the pressure on Mackay to be on the take.

On Mackay’s death, the Gardens became his son’s property and he sold it to the Nawab of the Carnatic, one of his father’s ‘benefactors’. By the 1830s it became known as Azeem Bagh — but Mackkis it remains to this day for the locals.

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