History & Culture

Looking back with nostalgia: Chennai in the 40s

Indian Wrestlers in Madras for the All India Wrestling Tournament. Photo shows some of the prominant Indian wrestlers who are now in Madras in connection with the All India Wrestling Championship taking place at Roxy Talkie, Madras. The group photo includes Harban Singh (Centre) Ghulam Hussain, Hassam Phaelwan and others at Madras on June 30, 1940.   | Photo Credit: The Hindu Archives

Historian Venkatesh Ramakrishnan is obsessed with Madras of the 1940s. So obsessed that he’s writing an entire book on it: 100 chapters in all.

His last big project was built around the Cooum. Ramakrishnan and a band of volunteers spent three years tracing all the historical events linked to the city’s rivers. “This was to generate some respect for the rivers which had become sewers,” he says, adding why he likes picking a theme when it comes to research. “I always like to study specific threads: you get a lot of historical snippets that way. I worked on rivers for a while, then finally ran out of stories on them. Then, I thought, why not look at a decade.”

Primrose (Mrs. Bower), who won the Bembridges' race, during the Royal Madras Yacht Club regatta on February 19, 1940. (Published in The Hindu on February 20, 1940) Primrose (Mrs. Bower), who won the Bembridges' race, during the Royal Madras Yacht Club regatta on February 19, 1940. (Published in The Hindu on February 20, 1940)

Primrose (Mrs. Bower), who won the Bembridges' race, during the Royal Madras Yacht Club regatta on February 19, 1940. (Published in The Hindu on February 20, 1940) Primrose (Mrs. Bower), who won the Bembridges' race, during the Royal Madras Yacht Club regatta on February 19, 1940. (Published in The Hindu on February 20, 1940)  

As far as decades go, the 40s were certainly packed with drama. “The Congress had just resigned. The last phase of the freedom movement was beginning. The World War (Second) had started and there was a scarcity of everything....” he says. In an attempt to encapsulate it all, one line advertises Ramakrishnan’s recent talk at a Tamil Heritage Trust event titled ‘The Fabulous 40s’: “Powerful politics, juicy scandals, splendid debutants, movie moguls, dancing divas and singing sensations crowd this decade.”

Discussing how he excavates information, Ramakrishnan says “I go mainly into biographies of people who lived in the 1940s... They are full of weird interesting snippets.” His fascination with these stories is palpable, and infectious. The talk begins with the big fires of the decade, then rapidly guides the audience through the big events of every year. “In 1942, when Japan declared war, it suddenly came next door to us. With the threat of an attack by the Japanese, the city became lonely, empty and dangerous with mandatory blackouts. About 5 lakh people moved out. Prices dropped in Madras, and rents went up in Kumbakonam!”

Mahatma Gandhi chatting with C. Rajagopalachariar at the Basin Bridge platform in Madras in 1940, prior to his departure for Wardha by Grand Trunk Express.

Mahatma Gandhi chatting with C. Rajagopalachariar at the Basin Bridge platform in Madras in 1940, prior to his departure for Wardha by Grand Trunk Express.  

He adds with a chuckle, “Every vessel dropping in the house caused a knee-jerk reaction. Every bird in the sky was suspect. People were terrified. One of the first things the Government had to stop was the 4 pm gun that was fired from Fort St George everyday for people to set their clocks.”

It wasn’t all bad for business though. Spencer’s began selling a “blackout kit.” Ramakrishnan points at a slide displaying an advertisement offering hard boards for ₹15 and black paint for ₹2!”

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Printable version | Apr 10, 2021 9:49:56 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/society/history-and-culture/looking-back-with-nostalgia-chennai-in-the-40s/article19449988.ece

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