Anusha Parthasarathy on some of Chennai’s oldest laundry services.
In a rather old corner of General Patters Road, within the LIC office compound is a laundry service that operates out of a heritage building that boasts of an enviable history. There are tall columns at the front and rich wooden interiors, high ceilings and cemented floors. The Pioneer Laundry has been around since 1918 and the only thing that has changed is a line that needs to be struck off its board — no branches.
C. Santhosh Kumar and his mother C. Subbulakshmi now run the business, which has expanded to Adyar and Anna Nagar as well. “It was started by my grandfather Radhakrishna Chetty,” says Santhosh, as I enter the blue interiors of the shop. “When he passed away, my father C. Vivekananda took over until I joined the business in 1985.”
The building that the business rents has been around since the late 1800s and has changed hands many times, between Garratt (a tailoring firm), the Lodge of Perfect Unanimity (of the Freemasons’) and their District Grand Lodge and Kushaldoss Chaturbhujadoss, who rented it out to two of the city’s oldest businesses; Murray and Co. and The Pioneer Laundry.
“We had many British customers and VIPs who would give us their clothes,” Santhosh explains while his mother adds, “A lot of these important people who stayed at the Connemara hotel would also regularly use our services.” And at that time, their nearby rival was Spencer and Co.
Subbulakshmi has been in the business for 40 years and has seen many generations of customers walk through her doors. “I take care of the Anna Salai branch,” she says, and gestures to the portraits of its founders and successors on the walls.
The shop is clearly compartmentalised according to the different sections. “We have about four grounds of space but I can’t be too sure,” says Subbulakshmi, “We have a showroom space, ironing area and a separate space outside for washing and dry cleaning. A team of seven people work in this office. The surrounding area used to be an open space once and it was much later that the LIC building came up.”
Almost at the end of the traffic-stricken Woods Road, opposite Express Avenue is a shop with gleaming teak wood cupboards stacked with rows of pressed and folded clothes. Started in 1929, Officer’s Laundry continues to do what it set about doing all those years ago.
T.A. Abdullah Basha has been taking care of his father’s business since 1979 and talks of how times have changed in the 83 years that they have been in business. “My father T. Abdul Jabbar was barely 20 years old when we began this business.
It was a small shop on Ellis Road and we functioned there for two or three years before shifting here as Woods Road is a central area. We felt this would be good for the business.”
Officer’s Laundry was probably called that because of the number of British officers who were their customers but Abdullah is not so sure. “I think my father just came up with the name,” he shrugs, “But we’d get a good mix of customers; including English. We’d get large orders of cotton clothes for starching. We no longer get them since we closed our cotton section 25 years ago. We got all our machines from Bombay in those days and my father even imported a few, which we still use.”
There is no documented history of this shop but it has seen the city and its landscape change over the years.
“There was a tram line running through this road,” says Abdullah, “Now you can see that it’s just the mall opposite us.
We have a separate factory in Palavakkam where we do all the laundry. In those days, the work was done manually and we needed about 25 to 30 people to get through our orders. With machines we have just four people doing the same work.
This is also our only shop and we’ve never had branches.”
Dry cleaner’s diary
Doulat Ram Keswani is a veteran dry cleaner and is busy examining white shirts as I meet him at the entrance of Excello in Mylapore. He has been in the business since 1952 and has many a story to tell.
Keswani began his career in the iconic Chellaram’s on Mount Road. “It used to be where Saravana Bhavan is now,” he says, “They had a large dry cleaning unit called Super Drycleaners, which was around for a long time and was rather popular. My uncle used to work there and I joined to work along with him. A lot of our customers were maharajas, doctors and engineers.”
In the 1960s, Keswani moved on to begin a Bombay dry cleaning chain that was trying to set shop in Madras. “I was the first to run Band Box in Chennai in the early 1960s,” he says, “We would get shark skin, rayon and other expensive materials. But nowadays you don’t see them at all. It’s just wool, teri wool, cotton and silks.”
After Band Box and a couple of other concerns, Keswani began Excello in 1975. The shop now has six branches in the city at Royapettah, Alwarpet, Adyar, Mandaveli, Mylapore and T. Nagar.