History & Culture

A House for Mr. Rao

A Dewan’s Diary, meant for private circulation, is an interesting book. At its core is a note that Nemali Pattabhirama Rao, former Dewan of Cochin, left behind for his children, complete with financial commitments. After nearly a century, it is a précis of a life, of much value to social historians. It also links him to a historic property on Radhakrishnan Salai, Mylapore.

Pattabhirama Rao, born in present-day Andhra in 1862, graduated from Presidency College in 1882, and after a couple of jobs elsewhere, joined the Revenue Board Office. Having risen through the ranks to become Deputy Commissioner of Settlement, Godavari District, he suddenly found himself catapulted to the post of Dewan of Cochin in 1902, in succession to Sir P. Rajagopalachariar. Five years of hard work followed, which completely impaired his health. He quit in 1907 and moved to Madras.

Where does a former Dewan settle in Madras? In aristocratic Edward Elliots (now Radhakrishnan) Road, Mylapore, of course. And who to build a home for him but that master contractor Thatikonda Namberumal Chetty, who executed so many landmark structures in our city? The house, contracted when Rao was still Dewan, was named Kanaka Bhavan, and stood on the site of the AVM Rajeshwari Kalyana Mandapam. Its construction was to cause considerable financial difficulty to Rao, and change the course of his life. Investments by his wife in Arbuthnot & Co had vanished following the firm’s collapse in 1906. He borrowed money from the Mylapore Permanent Fund and also from Namberumal Chetty, to complete the house.

Repaying the loans after retirement became difficult. It was Namberumal Chetty who found a way out. He was then building the Royapettah Electric Substation (later Tram Shed and now again Electricity Board office) and Rao could be the Supervisor at a commission of three per cent of construction cost. Located as it was just opposite where Kanaka Bhavan stood, Pattabhirama Rao took on the assignment. It would lead to bigger things.

In 1909, G.S.T. Harris, Consulting Architect to the Government of Madras, offered Rao the contract to supply bricks for the construction of Ripon Buildings. Entering into a partnership with Namberumal Chetty, Rao purchased brickfields in what is today Aminjikarai-Choolaimedu. He shifted there and built his residence Sreeram Baugh, roughly where Nelson Manickam Road is today. The contract was fulfilled, but did not reduce Rao’s financial burden. Renting out his homes and brickfields in Madras, he moved to Madanapalle. The Mylapore residence was sold in 1918 to the Zamindars of Devakottai and renamed Devakottai House. It later became the property of A .V. Meyyappa Chettiar who had it remodelled as the wedding hall we know.

Pattabhirama Rao passed away in 1937, worried till the end about his finances. His sons had invested in the automobile business and the Great Depression did not help. His Aminjikarai lands were sold after his passing.

Those interested in the book can contact the family at npr1862@gmail.com. Proceeds from sales go to charity.

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Printable version | Dec 3, 2021 5:10:40 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/features/friday-review/history-and-culture/A-House-for-Mr.-Rao/article16436640.ece

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