Society

Relic of a bygone era

A trellis 'green corridor' leads up to the bungalow. Photo: A. Muralitharan   | Photo Credit: A_MURALITHARAN

It is an arresting sight on the Race Course Road in Tiruchi. A stately home, complete with gabled roofs and stained glass windows peeks out demurely from behind black granite walls, willing you to stop and take a closer look.

“It’s a unique building just like the man who built it,” says Dr. M.A. Ansar, describing the mini 11-roomed palace and his grandfather M.K. Mohamed Ibrahim Ravuthar in one breath.

Built in 1928, the M.K. Bungalow was actually the main home in a complex of four residences in this quiet nook off the Race Course Road in Khajamalai. It resembles a structure straight out of a Jane Austen novel, especially when you walk through the green corridor (an iron trellis walkway that is still covered with the ‘December Poo’ or Philippine Violet vines planted by the patriarch) to reach the main entrance.

The garden is overgrown, and the annexes that once housed a live-in washerman, stables for horses and cattle, huge bathrooms and an elaborate pantry and storehouse, clearly have seen better days. Even so, when Mrs. Najma Begum, the current resident of the house and one of M.K.M. Ibrahim’s granddaughters, opens the main door, it is possible to see flashes of another, more flamboyant world that once existed here.

“When Thatha was alive, this house used to be called ‘M.K. Maaligai’ (Palace), today I can hear people calling it the ‘Pei (Ghost) Bungalow,’ when they walk past on the other side of the walls,” says Mrs. Najma.

As room leads to room, each with Keeranur floor tiles and wide windows fitted with cooling coloured glass, the other tales about the house are dusted off and narrated too.

Tales of how chandeliers with red glass and gold paintwork imported from Austria used to adorn the halls. Records that were played on a Polyphon, a coin-operated music box which played metal discs measuring 195/8 inches in diameter, for dance parties hosted for British guests. And how a fountain and a ‘chaukhandi’ (gazebo) used to be star attraction of the garden.

The M.K. Maaligai was the entertainment venue not just for M.K.M Ibrahim’s friends and business acquaintances, but also guests of the State from Britain. On average, some 15-20 people would gather for the daily repasts, made with the finest of produce sourced from nearby towns.

As the tour continues, up an imported cast-iron spiral staircase (one of two), to the first floor where the master suite looks out on a large decoratively gabled verandah, it becomes clear that this house was meant to be a personal work of art.

Hands-on leader

“My grandfather used to be known as the ‘Prince of Tiruchi’ for his lavish lifestyle,” says Dr. Ansar, whose late father M.K. Abdul Salam was the eldest son of M.K.M. Ibrahim. “Though he didn’t have much education, he used speak English fluently because of his close association with the British. He was among the invitees to a special assembly to commemorate the coronation of King George VI in May 1937.”

Born in 1885, M.K.M. Ibrahim was the second son of M. Kasiappa Ravuthar, a wealthy businessman and landowner who migrated to Tiruchi from Ettayapuram, Tirunelveli district (see related story on Page 4).

Taking over his father’s kerosene dealership and leather tanneries after his elder brother Yusuf died, Ibrahim diversified the family business rapidly, branching out into petrol supply (he owned 18 petrol stations in his heyday), bus transport, and construction, besides starting a third tannery near Hyderabad.

The family made the Palakkarai area in Tiruchi its base.

The contracting projects that his M.K. Constructions company is associated with are still in use – the Erode Railway Junction, a part of Erskine’s Hospital Madurai (now renamed Government Rajaji Hospital), the Kakinada port (Andhra Pradesh), Chikmaglur Railway Station (Karnataka) and Railway staff quarters in Dindigul, besides a number of highways.

He also built a four-storey building in Chennai, close to the harbour, between Angapannaickan Street and Moore Street, where the leather from his tanneries used to be transported to by coal-fuelled lorries, and then exported to Britain.

Despite not being a part of the Independence movement, Ibrahim commanded a lot of popular support in Tiruchi. He served the city as its Municipality Vice-Chairman from 1925-28 and as Chairman from 1928-31.

He was a close friend of veteran freedom fighter P. Rathinavel Thevar, and co-operated with him on numerous occasions to preserve communal harmony in the city.

Known as a hands-on leader who once paid Municipality workers their salaries from his own funds, he donated the land for Ibrahim Park on West Boulevard Road on the condition that it would be put to public use.

He owned homes similar to M.K. Maaligai in Dindigul, Kodaikanal and Courtallam, which became summertime resorts for the family.

A poignant reminder

“The bungalow was still under construction when there was an epidemic of cholera or typhoid in the inner city areas in the late 1920s,” recalls Dr. Ansar. “Thatha decided to shift the entire family to this place from Palakkarai.”

Despite the love with which he built the residential complex, M.K.M Ibrahim was able to spend only around two to three years there, as he passed away at the age of 55 years on December 2, 1940 due to a heart ailment.

“It is astonishing to see how much this person achieved in a short period of 20-25 years,” says Dr. Ansar, whose father grew up in the complex of four residences along with his siblings. “He was inspired by the things he saw and people he met on his travels, and always tried to recreate the best of it for himself.”

Following the partition of his properties, the M.K. Maaligai was bequeathed to his second son M.K.M. Abdul Hakeem in 1949, whose children still maintain ownership of the heritage building.

After a brief spell as a student's hostel, the M.K. Maaligai is now back to its original role as a family home.

“We clean it out for family functions, and whitewash it sometimes,” says Mrs. Najma Begum, who stays alone on the ground floor of the vast house.

“Even though it needs a lot of effort to maintain, we’d rather not demolish it. This residence is tied to many people’s lives.”

***

Snippets from an eventful life

M.K.M. Ibrahim fell in love with Rukkaiyya Bi when he saw her coming from the Madrassa (Islamic school) while he was working in Palakkarai. She was 9, he was 15. They married two years later, despite initial parental disapproval. They went on to have three sons and two daughters.

Tiruchi observed an unofficial day of mourning when M.K.M. Ibrahim died on December 2, 1940. Shops were closed as the public thronged to catch a sight of the cortege that was taken out from the family home in Palakkarai, through Main Bazaar to Rock Fort, NSB Road, and Main Guard Gate and to the burial ground just a few yards away from where the procession started in Palakkarai.

In the middle of the four homes that he built around the M.K. Maaligai, M.K. Ibrahim had left space for a tennis court that was never completed. The yard has since been sold to a scrap merchant.

His eldest son M.K.M. Abdul Salam showed an aptitude for public office, and was the first Congress Member of Parliament from Tiruchi in 1957.

***

Founding father

It is easy to see where M.K.M. Ibrahim got his penchant for largesse and flamboyance from. His father, M. Kasiappa (a merging of ‘Kasim’ and ‘Appa’), Ravuthar was an businessman who made his fortune in the early 19th century after migrating to Tiruchi from Ettayapuram.

He was the kerosene agent for Tiruchi and Thanjavur districts, and owned residential properties in the city centre called ‘stores’. The ‘Kasiappa Ravuthar Store’ was one such property near the Rock Fort area.

Besides that he had nearly 500 acres of agricultural lands near Samayapuram and Maruthur.

Kasiappa Ravuthar built two tanneries, one for goatskin and another for buffalo skin which used to be sent to Chennai and then exported to England, in the 1880s. Since the British didn’t allow outside sales, the leather used to be auctioned in England, and the money would be sent back to him in India.

As an expression of gratitude for recovering from a severe skin abscess on his back, Kasiappa Ravuthar dedicated a gold ‘kalasam’ to the main stupi (pillar) of the Nagore Dargah weighing 1,000 sovereigns, that stayed intact until it was knocked down by cyclonic winds in 1958.

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Printable version | Apr 19, 2021 12:52:51 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/features/metroplus/society/relic-of-a-bygone-era/article7873117.ece

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