‘It was a city of ponds and lakes’

‘Kites danced in the skies; and the Marina offered many attractions. S.Vaidheeswaran on what Madras was like

October 20, 2009 05:46 pm | Updated 05:48 pm IST

OLD WORLD CHARM: View of the Chitrakulam tank in Mylapore. PHOTO: THE HINDU ARCHIVES

OLD WORLD CHARM: View of the Chitrakulam tank in Mylapore. PHOTO: THE HINDU ARCHIVES

Do you know that before Murphy radio invaded homes, people went to the beach to hear AIR’s evening news bulletins on loudspeakers? The Marina had other attractions too. The Corporation Band gave Sunday recitals. Woodlands’ mobile canteen set up tables to serve piping hot vadas and dosas. Once I recognised Namakkal Kavignar enjoying that tiphan and kaapi on the beach. He became the State’s poet laureate, but was a better painter!

I grew up in my thespian uncle S.V.Sahasranamam’s home. This was in Royappettah, where, for the first time, I encountered the Anglo-Indian community, scornful of “Indians”, uppishly following the white man’s lifestyle. How strange to see men in black suits strolling out on Sunday evenings, holding hands with women in gowns!

Living in uncle’s house was to be drowned in drama. I saw the productions of Nawab Rajamanickam Pillai and the NSK Company (founded by N.S.Krishnan) in Walltax Theatre. When Krishnan faced murder charges in prison, my uncle, an actor in the troupe, managed the company until his release. The company hired living quarters for the actors in Georgetown. It was an exciting place — somebody played the harmonium, another recited lines, some cracked jokes, played cards. M.G.Ramachandran was a frequent visitor. Naturally, I began to act, making my debut in “Mohiniteevu” as a spear holder!

I also got familiar with Blacktown, the other side of Georgetown, a settlement of craftsmen and labourers, and the Flower Bazaar, famous for Chinese dentists.

My father had unshakeable faith in their tooth pulling skills.

Old Madras was dotted with lakes, tangled in trees, scrambling out of shrubs and swamps. Walking from High Court to Island Grounds was to squeeze through the undergrowth onto a lonely road. There were very few cars. Bullock carts ambled by. Advocates in black coats rode on kudirai vandis. Some of the city’s main roads saw trams. Though slow and noisy, they were cheaper than buses.

Streets rang with the bilingual blend of the city’s large Telugu populace ( Emi, repu paarkkalama?) I knew little about “Madras manade!” slogans or demands for a separate Andhra State. But, one day, I was swept along the currents of history from the Sanskrit College area towards a house near Vidya Mandir School, where Potti Sriramulu was fasting unto death.

Getting into P.S.High School was not easy. The principal thought little of boys from “cinema-drama families”. Hopefully, he never discovered me playing a student leader in T.Janakiraman’s “Vadyar Vadivelu”, a Seva Stage production, where I led the protest against the dismissal of a noble teacher by the corrupt school chief! In every show, thunderous ovation greeted the line “We’re on strike!” A startling concept then. Strikes and torching were little known.

The old city grew horizontally, not vertically. Kites, green, yellow and red, danced across the blue sky, untrammelled by skyscrapers, cables and television antennae. Hard to believe that Madras was once a city of ponds and streams. I went to Mahabalipuram on the Buckingham canal. Boats loaded with coconut, straw bales and cattle feed were anchored at Thanniturai. Railway tracks in West Mambalam ran beside a lake, later filled and turned into the postal colony. I remember how the van refused to drop playwright Komal Swaminathan home in this colony at night, for fear of getting stuck in the slush.

As Flight Manager in the airport in the then godforsaken Meenambakkam, I saw passengers sent off by family and friends right at the gangway as they boarded the aircraft, garlanding those going abroad, saluted by the policeman stationed there. Some passengers carried vengala koojas (bronze water cans) and tiphan carriers too!

Theatre flourished until tinsel town sucked in the stars. The Kodambakkam railway crossing drew daily stargazers who shouted “Savitri paaruda!” or “ Adho Vadyaar!” at the stars waiting in cars.

In those days, wall posters were the norm for advertising films, and hoardings few. Imagine my shock in encountering a huge hoarding for “Naan Avanillai” outside Gaiety theatre! Passing over hero Muthuraman, it showed a dancing Manmatha (me!), descending in a rain of flowers into Devika’s dream. The film? A complete flop!

S.VAIDHEESWARAN Born in 1935, S. Vaidheeswaran was a stage actor from childhood. A student of museology, M.S.University, Baroda, and retiring as Flight Manager, Indian Airlines, he is best known for his contributions to modern Tamil poetry. His verses have a lucid style and striking imagery of their own, often etching cityscapes, as in “Udaya Nizhal” (Shadow of Dawn), “Nagarachuvargal” (City Walls) and “Viral Meettiya Mazhai”(translated as “Fragrance of Rain”, for Writers Workshop). “Rapids of a Great River”, the Penguin anthology of Tamil poetry, includes his poems. “Kaal Manithan”(Quarter Man) is a collection of his short stories. A self-taught artist with a penchant for landscapes, Vaidheeswaran has exhibited his line drawings and paintings. As a lyricist, he has also composed verses for initial exercises in Carnatic music, audio-recorded by the research institution Brihaddhvani.


In those days, I was an indefatigable walker. One day, a car stopped beside me on the Santhome road. "Thambi, get in," said a familiar voice, belonging to an actor who worked in my uncle’s theatre at times. That is how I found myself at the final preview of "Parasakti" in AVM studios. As I sat sipping coffee with the man, how could I know that never again would he be able to walk on the street without being mobbed. "Parasakti" was released the very next day. And Sivaji Ganesan became a star overnight.

The Kodambakkam railway crossing drew daily stargazers who shouted “Savitri paaruda!” or “ Adho Vadyaar!” at the stars waiting in cars.

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