As a young boy living in Triplicane in the 1930s, I was crazy about both music and cinema. I just had to see the first-day first-show of all the Tamil films that was released at Star Talkies on Triplicane High Road. I'd go whenever I had four annas — enough for the wooden benches in the front or the ‘four anna seats', as they were called. I'd run small errands for my mother to earn that money!
I remember ‘Thyagabhoomi' directed by K. Subrahmanyam was banned by the British within a few days of its release, because it spoke of Independence and the freedom movement. I saw the movie before the ban came into effect, and it awakened the nationalist spirit in me. In my opinion it was one of the movies responsible for kindling patriotic fervour in South Indians.
The small Big Street!
I was a student of the well-known Hindu High School in Triplicane then, and our headmaster was G.V. Narayanaswamy Iyer, father of the legendary G.N. Balasubramaniam. The school was situated on Big Street which was something of a landmark in those days. In spite of its name, the street wasn't very big at all — it was more a narrow lane. Apart from my school, it housed the famous Ganesha temple, and most importantly, when M.S. Subbulakshmi came down from Madurai to act in ‘Seva Sadanam' , she lived in a house at the end of the street! We'd all wait around, hoping to catch a glimpse of her as she went by in an open car. She was such a beautiful lady, all of 22 years.
Music Academy's annual conference and concerts would be held at the Senate House in those days, and I would attend them every year without fail. I was so crazy about those concerts that I would stand and listen, mesmerised by the music, for four hours at a stretch. I couldn't afford to pay Rs. 2 for the front seats, so I'd pay eight annas to stand at the back.
In the 1940s, my family shifted to T. Nagar. At that time, every house had to have a small underground room as a bomb shelter. Whenever the siren sounded, we had to switch off all the lights and run down. It was a horrible time. In 1942, the Japanese bombed the city. Nearly 90 per cent of Madras was evacuated. I went away to Kovilpatti for a short while — I had to finish my SSLC exams there, as everything was closed in Madras. Our only mode of communication with Madras was the Tirunelveli Express that passed by, and every day, we'd go and ask the people on the train the same question — was Madras bombed yesterday? We were all so anxious.
I returned to Madras later that year, and the city was still quite empty. That was a boon for me in one way — it helped me get admission in Loyola College.
My love for music and cinema remained unchanged through all those years. I remember once walking all the way from T. Nagar to Broadway Talkies and back again just so I could watch M.S. Subbulakshmi in ‘Savithri'. And when I took my sisters along to watch films at Gaiety Theatre near Casino, we would hire a hand-pulled rickshaw to take us there, wait and then bring us home — all for one rupee!
In the mid-1940s, I became a member of the Rasika Ranjani Sabha for a monthly subscription of Rs. 2.50. And I'd take the bus to Parrys and walk down to Gokhale Hall to listen to the concerts of G.N. Balasubramaniam, M.S. Subbulakshmi, Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer for the cost of one or two rupees. I was no longer a lad, so I paid for the front seats — no more standing for me!
I completed my studies and left Madras in the 1950s. I never had the opportunity to work in the city after that, and it was a full 31 years before I returned. Coming back in 1992, after retirement, I felt a bit like Rip Van Winkle who'd woken up to find the world around him completely changed. The city I knew was gone, and all I had left were the memories of those lovely days in Madras nalla Madras.
BIO Dr. A. SAILAPATHY Born in 1926 he retired as the Dean of Tirunelveli Medical College. Earlier, he served as professor and head of Department of Medicine at the college, and as an assistant professor of Medicine at the Thanjavur Medical College. He has over 50 publications to his credit in various medical journals.
In the 1940s, dress regulations at medical college were very strict. So I would have to cycle to college every day — in a full suit and tie!