Thus Spake Cooum Chennai

Cooum: High tide of artistic expression

Higginbotham's, arguably the oldest existing bookstore in India, captured on November 10, 1979.  

You think I’m a smelly eyesore and turn your face away when you pass me. But did you know that our city’s cinemas first came up on my banks? Or, that adaptations of Shakespeare were staged a stone’s throw away from me? Or even that a 19th-century library and bookstore still exist along my path? My association with the city’s culture is immeasurable. And I hope that by reading my tale, some of you will help rescue me.

In 1886, the first English novel by an Indian woman in the south was begun on my banks. Saguna, by Krupabai Satthianadhan, spoke passionately about women’s issues, as did many of her other writings. But my connection with books goes back further — in 1812, the Madras Literary Society was founded as a library for the College of Fort St. George on my banks on College Road. Go take a look — today it houses 80,000 books. Let’s not forget Higginbothams started by Wesleyan missionaries and taken over by Abel Joshua Higginbotham in 1844, arguably the oldest existing bookstore in India. For a bibliophile, there is no greater pleasure than rooting about on its shelves.

What about art, you ask? Heard of the Government College of Fine Arts? It first began as the Madras School of Arts in the 1850s, initially on Broadway and then on Poonamallee High Road. Its first Indian principal, Debi Prasad Roy Chowdhury, sculpted the Triumph of Labour statue and the Mahatma Gandhi statue now on our Marina beach.

Multiplexes may be the rage now, but up until a few decades ago, if you wanted to catch a movie, you would probably walk along me. The first Indian-built theatre in Chennai, Gaiety Theatre, came up on Blackers Road in 1915 and ran for over 80 years. The theatre’s owner, Raghupathi Venkaiah, also built the Roxy and Crown theatres at Purasawalkam and Sowcarpet, and his son, R. Prakash, was one of the earliest film-makers in south India.

Warwick theatre came up around 1913 but ran only for two years or so, out of what is now the post office building. In fact, practically all the early theatres came up on Mount Road. Elphinstone, which came up even before Gaiety, was so famous for Jaffar’s, its ice cream and falooda shop, that patrons of other theatres such as Chitra and Casino would have food from there delivered to them during the intervals. Almost all of these, including Globe and Plaza, have now made way for other complexes.

If you think there was no drama or romance along my banks, think again. In 1891, the Suguna Vilasa Sabha was founded — all its members were men and they had to be college graduates to join — and they staged hundreds of plays at the Victoria Public Hall, some lasted six hours.

Rao Bahadur Pammal Sambanda Mudaliar, one of the original founders who wrote over 90 plays, also translated and adapted several of Shakespeare plays for production — The Merchant of Venice ( Vaanipuratthu Vanikan) , Hamlet ( Amaladityan) and Romeo and Juliet ( Jwalita Ramanan), to name a few. When the hall ran into financial difficulties, plays were staged to rescue it.

Impressed? I hope so!

Did you know?

--> In 1939, Gaiety was also the scene of probably the first lathi-charge in a theatre. Some days after Thyaga Bhoomi was released, the British banned it as they believed it promoted propaganda for the freedom movement. But S.S. Vasan, the film’s distributor, told the Gaiety manager to screen the film for free, in the time it would take the police to get a copy of the ban order. When the police arrived with it, there was such a huge crowd outside that they could barely make their way in to serve the order. And that is when they began to lathi-charge. By then, however, many had seen the film.

--> In 1856, the government of Madras conducted an architectural competition for its proposed college building and university Senate house. Seventeen entries were received from across the country. The winner was Robert Fellowes Chisholm, who is said to have blended indigenous and British building styles, to come up with what is now known as Indo-Saracenic style of architecture. Among his many works in the city are Presidency College, P.Orr and Sons, Victoria Public Hall, Chennai Central Station and the Government College of Fine Arts.

Sources: Actor and film historian Mohan Raman, Venkatesh Ramakrishnan of the Chennai Cooum Group and writer and historian Sriram V.

Madras Week: Thus Spake Cooum

>Celebrating Madras Week

Over years, Chennai’s own river, the banks on which Madras arose, 376 years ago next week, has meandered on, stoic in the face of the assaults on it.

>Madras thrived on her banks

A group of history enthusiasts has brought a fresh perspective to the image of the river.

>The scene of great battles

A city grew on the banks of the Cooum, but did you know that they have been sites of the clash of civilisations?

>For them, Cooum is not synonymous with sewer

The Cooum, as strange as it might sound to some, still remains a lifeline to many villages in Tiruvallur district.

>Cooum snippets

In the first-person account that follows, one R. Premsingh writes, “I wish to draw the attention of the Corporation authorities to the stinking smell emitted by the Cooum river.”

>Cooum: Madras' engine of growth

Nearly everything that was and is notable in the city took root along my banks, from the houses of the powerful to the centres of commerce

>Staving off the sewage threat in Cooum

Chennai Metrowater seems to be trying to actualise the big dream of cleaning Cooum river through small steps.

>What's in a name?

A group of history enthusiasts has brought a fresh perspective to the image of the river.

>When crocodiles swam free in Cooum

If you walked by the Cooum about a 100 years ago, you may just have spotted the Cooum crocodile

>Cooum: High tide of artistic expression

From cinemas and bookstores to theatre performances and architectural marvels, I have witnessed this great city reaching new creative heights over many decades.

>Chennai Corporation to play a key role in Cooum makeover

Following a resolution by the Chennai Corporation Council this summer, the civic body is set to do a study on the restoration of heritage landscape along the Cooum river.

>On Islands Grounds and the Cooum

Do you know that Island Grounds owes its name to the Cooum?


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Printable version | Dec 4, 2021 3:46:01 AM |

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