Life & Style

Museum celebrates the functional beauty of vintage technology

Collector/curator L M Lakshmanan with the Edison Audiophone, first produced in 1898 under licence from Thomas Alva Edison, at the Chettinad Vintage Gallery in Pillaiyarpatti. Photo: Nahla Nainar/THE HINDU  

In many ways, L M Lakshmanan is living his boyhood dream. “I got interested in automobiles because of my grandfather, who had a Standard Companion, (a 1955 estate car) with a big boot, and as children, we used to love travelling in it in and around Karaikudi. I used to feel sad that I didn’t have enough money to buy the car myself.”

Decades later, Lakshmanan, who runs a security camera business with clients in Karaikudi and Chennai, owns a museum full of not just vintage cars, but also two-wheelers and three-wheelers. And as an extension of his love for other forms of classic technology, he has added toys, cameras and recording equipment to the collection at his Chettinad Vintage Gallery in Pillaiyarpatti, Tirupattur Taluk.

Situated in the midst of a busy pilgrimage route that covers the historic local Karpaga Vinayagar temple and the nearby Kunnakudi Shanmughanathar temple, Chettinad Vintage Gallery is a time capsule of the passions that once drove the Nagarathar Chettiar community of this culture-rich region of Tamil Nadu.

“The Chettiars were among the first non-resident Indians (NRIs) of our State. They made their name overseas in finance and trade from the 1920s, and brought back beautiful things from wherever they travelled. Many of the old foreign goods in this region can be traced back to that period. I have even seen a 1920 Willys Overland car (made in Canada) in a nearby village,” says Lakshmanan.

Antique land

Chettinad today is a cluster of 60-70 villages mainly in the Sivagangai district, with a small portion in the neighbouring Pudukottai district. It is known for its stately homes furnished with Burma teakwood and other imported material.

“The community was badly hit first by the repatriation from Burma following the Second World War and in the 1960s, and then in India by the ban on the pawnbroking business [among the main Chettiar occupations] during the Emergency. Many families started selling off their possessions to finance their children’s education and shift to bigger cities,” says Lakshmanan.

Ironically, this led to a new line of business, in Chettinad antiques, and as a visit to Karaikudi’s famed flea market will show, nearly everything, from ornately carved cast iron furniture to teakwood doorways and ceramic cupboard handles plucked from the palatial homes in the region, is up for sale.

“I sourced many of the things for my collection, especially the clocks, metal toys and some cars, from the Chettiar family homes in and around Pillaiyarpatti,” says Lakshmanan. “I was amazed to see the novelties that people collected in those days.”

Auto history

A framed driving licence from the 1950s greets visitors at the entrance.

The walls are decorated with road signs and vintage motoring advertisements, and a collection of black-and-white photographs of local residents posing with their automobiles.

Restored cars from different generations at the Chettinad Vintage Gallery in Pillaiyarpatti. Photo: Nahla Nainar/THE HINDU

Restored cars from different generations at the Chettinad Vintage Gallery in Pillaiyarpatti. Photo: Nahla Nainar/THE HINDU   | Photo Credit: Nahla Nainar

“Cars in those days were often passed down from father to son, like property,” says Lakshmanan, adding that his uncle inherited his grandfather’s Champion, and drove it well into the 1990s.

Automobile lovers can take a closer look at several restored models here, ranging from a striking red Austin 10 Tourer 1933 convertible with wooden spoke wheels, bought from a restorer in Jaipur. Next to it is parked a 1951 Moris Minor made in England.

  • Chettinad Vintage Gallery, Kongu Nachiammann Kovil Road, Pillaiyarpatti, Tirupattur Taluk, Sivagangai District
  • ADMISSION: 9 am to 5pm (Tuesday holiday); Adult: ₹100, Children: ₹50
  • CONTACT: 9442042114;

“It took me two years to restore this car,” Lakshmanan says, as he turns on its distinctive pop-up ‘semaphore’ indicator lights. During lockdown, he has been working on the undercarriage of a 1956 baby blue Plymouth, bought from a film producer in Chennai. “I usually buy the car based on my own experience, and then scout for the mechanics who can work on old automobiles,” There are some stockists who specialise in outmoded vehicle spares, who help me out,” says Lakshmanan. There is also a small line-up of scooters and auto rickshaws manufactured in the 1950s.

Hear, hear

On Lakshmanan’s desk is an Edison Phonograph, invented by Thomas Alva Edison in 1898, and considered to be the predecessor of record-players, bought from a collector in North India. The metal seal on the side reads: ‘Licensed by the Edison Bell Consolidated Phonograph Company for use except on the continent of Europe, Canada and USA. Not to be used in connection with an automatic or slot device.’

To show that all the art objects here are in working condition, Lakshmanan pops in a waxy blue cylinder and places the needle on the phonograph. After a few scratches, one hears a male singer belt out an English melody.

Lakshmanan’s tin toys have retained their lustrous paintwork; here too, miniature cars are in the majority. There are transistors and telephones, and some unique office equipment like a 1930s German Brunsviga (Brains of Steel) calculator salvaged from a shop.

As a tribute to Karaikudi’s historical links with Tamil cinema production, the museum also has an enclosure devoted to vintage film cameras. “It is difficult to believe today that there were at least 4,000 camera brands in the market at one time.” For some reason, spy cameras seem to have been popular, as Lakshmanan shows us a vitrine filled with samples. “This is a sub-miniature Petitax camera, only 2cm high and 3cm wide, made in West Germany,” he says.

During the World Wars, many of these were strapped on to pigeons and used as a rudimentary type of wartime ‘drone’ surveillance and aerial photography.

It’s easy to lose track of time (despite all the clocks in the 4,000 square feet hall) in the Chettinad Vintage Gallery, but Lakshmanan is happy to have visitors linger.

“We are so lost in our smartphones these days, that we often forget how we created so much technology.” he says. “My museum is for people, especially children, who want to relive the golden era when machines were not just functional but also beautiful.”

A sub-miniature Petitax spy camera at Chettinad Vintage Gallery in Pillaiyarpatti. Photo: Nahla Nainar/THE HINDU

A sub-miniature Petitax spy camera at Chettinad Vintage Gallery in Pillaiyarpatti. Photo: Nahla Nainar/THE HINDU  

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Printable version | Apr 23, 2021 9:12:30 PM |

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