Asha Sridhar and Anusha Parthasarathy visit two legendary furniture shops in the city — pieces crafted by them adorn several historical institutions in south India and had also made it to the Delhi Durbar of 1911
W earing its age on its sleeves, the past hangs heavy from the high-ceilings of some of Chennai's oldest surviving furniture shops. Walk in and you might find the famed rosewood rolltop desks and teak furniture — not just in weary photographs on the walls.
Walk down Wallajah Road from Mount Road and you will stumble upon a solitary colonial-style building bearing an aging signboard, ‘Curzons'. This landmark furniture shop is now run by B Gautham, a member of the fourth generation and one of the partners in the family business. With an imposing arched doorway, many pillars and the luxury of space that the generously sized rosewood cots, teak tables and a colonial sofa enjoy, what could be a worthy incentive for this historic store to keep pace with time?
The shop was started by Chimato Alavandar Chetty in 1898, and its furniture was known for its superior quality and was strictly for those who could afford it. It also supplied ammunition boxes during the war years; and its furniture as dowry was believed to bring good luck to the bride. “Curzons delivered the best, whatever the requirement was at that time,” says Gautham.
When Alavandar's son C. Seshachalam took over, his association with the father of Indian library science, Dr S. R. Ranganathan, led to the company specialising in library furniture. “Our name is engraved on the library furniture of institutes like Madras University, Dr. Ambedkar Law University, Madras Medical College, Bishop Heber College (Trichy), Madras Institute of Development Studies, and Pachaiyappa's College,” says Gautham. Curzons also made furniture for the Raj Bhavan and for private residences of people like M.S. Subbalakshmi. Many of the government offices in Kurnool, the first capital of Andhra Pradesh, were furnished by Curzons.
Seshachalam, who came to be referred as ‘Curzon Chettiar', was the first to introduce a mechanised process for chopping wood and assembling furniture. He set up the city's first saw mill in 1935 in Guindy, making them the first to manufacture a piece of furniture from start to end. Later, influenced by Swedish furniture, he began to incorporate their light designs and introduced stackable chairs in the forties which became a vogue later.
Though there were few others like Spencers and Batchacharry's that kept the competition going then, Curzons was a giant. So was Wrenn Bennett. Today, almost lost in a crowded corner on General Patters Road, you can see the over 120-year-old Wrenn Bennett, which can no longer afford its rich history. In their heyday, their furniture reached as far and high as the Delhi Durbar of 1911 (held to commemorate the coronation of King George V and when Delhi was declared the new capital of India), the royal palaces of Travancore and Cochin and the camps of the Governor of Madras.
Today most of what remains is octogenarian M Venu's guarded version of Wrenn Bennett's story. He joined the firm in 1945 and has never left. With scant records except for a neglected certificate of registration and a few old advertisements put together by the current store manager Siva Thiyagarajan, there are little recorded memories of its life as part of the bustling Madras Presidency.
Gathered from The Hindu archives, advertisements published and from a nostalgic Venu, this is the known history of Wrenn Bennett. It began as a departmental store southwest of Whiteway, Laidlaw on Mount Road in 1889 and they sold everything except liquor and food. Catering largely to the mofussil crowd and with most of their goods being priced fewer than eight annas, people began to call Wrenn Bennett the eight-anna shop. With outlets in Bengaluru and Ooty, they later became a household name for flush doors and furniture. It was bought over for 200 pounds (Rs 2,652 at the time) in 1938 by the family that runs it now, soon after which they gave up manufacturing furniture to become an auction house in 1959.
My father, grandfather and his uncle have worked at Curzons, and I am the fourth generation to work here. I wanted to join work when I was 8 years old, but was not allowed to work since I was still a boy. So I went to school and I was formally inducted at the age of 18. I am very proud to have been at Curzons and have worked on items like flush doors and sofa-cum-beds which we introduced first. Kuppachari, 60, carpenter