When the balcony seat cost 8 annas…

The old order When Market Road was awash with activity, with country boats bringing in produce from different places

The old order When Market Road was awash with activity, with country boats bringing in produce from different places  

N. Madhukar Rao, the English teacher that generations remember, talks about the Kochi of his youth, of silent films and WWII soldiers

My father Sanjeeva Rao came to Cochin from Mangalore in 1920. He was an engineer with Cochin State. At that time, Ernakulam was the capital of Cochin State and Edappally and Aluva belonged to Travancore State. Every third man had filariasis then. It was spread through bad water and so pipelines were organised throughout the state. My father was the superintendent and a Parsi by the name Modi was the engineer. Later, when the people of Mattancherry complained of lack of water, it was my father who carried out an engineering feat by taking water to Willingdon Island first and onwards to Mattancherry through underwater pipelines, in the 1920s.

First we had silent movies. Talkies came in the late 1930s. Menaka was the first talkie theatre. It started as a temporary shed and later was converted as a permanent one. Initially there were only Hindi films but every Saturday there would be an English film, which I would go and see with my friends. For four years, from 1940-44, I did not miss a single English film. We saw ‘Gone with The Wind', ‘Marie Antoinette', ‘Romeo and Juliet'. Menaka belonged to a gentleman called Vincent. He had a theatre in Coimbatore too. People from all over Kerala came to see films here. At the closure of the theatre there was a public outcry.

Malayalam drama was very popular in those days but it was itinerant. A man called Kunju Kunju Bhagvathar was the life and soul of drama really. Thikkurissi wrote a drama, ‘Stree' and enacted it. His next play, ‘ Maya was brilliant. On the stage he turned from Dr. Jekyll to Mr. Hyde in a second. There was no one to match his histrionic talent. But the film world dragged him away.

Drama was always accompanied by very fine musicians who sat on either side of the stage.

By now the stage was completely overshadowed by the screen. In the 1940s the ticket rate was an anna for sitting on the floor. A seat on the bench cost 2 annas, a chair 4 and a balcony seat came for 8 annas.

At the end of Layam Road were the garage and the stable of the Royal family. They had the best of foreign cars from Delage, Chervolet, Minerva….

Hand-pulled rickshaw was the main mode of transport. Nobody wore footwear then, except officers and bank staff. The roads were not tarred. Tarred roads came in the late 50s. MG Road was called the 70 ft road. It was built in 1950. Before that there was only marshy land surrounded by huts.

During WW II, the soldiers who first came here were the Americans and the British. They were a friendly lot and mixed with the people. They had rickshaw races. They would make the rickshaw puller sit in the rickshaw while they pulled them. It became difficult to get a rickshaw those days. But the Australian soldiers who came later were not as harmless, I remember.

Mattancherry was the business centre with all the banks and warehouses but Broadway was the shopping centre. Chakola's Silk Centre stocked the best silks and people came there to shop from all over Kerala. Jew Street at Broadway was full of native Jews till 1940. When Golda Meir gave a call to all Jews all over the world to come to Israel, the native Jewish families left for Israel.

The Maharaja and the princes were the finest of people. They had no airs. Once in a way the Maharaja would come in his carriage drawn by eight horses. It was a fabulous sight. The women from the royal family had a separate college in Thripunithura. The Cochin Legislative Assembly was housed in the present Law College Building.

The Cochin Express was introduced in 1932. It ran between Cochin and Madras and it was a 12 hour journey. Initially it was for euroapeans and stopped at only the main junctions. The North and South Stations in Cochin came about towards the end of the 30s.

Cricket was a very popular game. It was played by the princes in Durbar Hall Ground. When the princes came to class, we had to stand up.

As Sir Robert Bristow married an Indian lady he was denied entrance to the Cochin Club, which was a European club. It was then that he started the Lotus club in Ernakulam in 1932. Mrs. Bristow was the president for the first 10 years. It was open to all Indians. I became a member in 1973. It was a sports club initially known for tennis and Bridge.

The vernacular papers then were Deepam, Gomathi, Deenabandhu and Malabar Mail . The only English paper was a weekly, Malabar Herald .


We used to go to the presentChildren's Park, wherethe silent movie wasscreened in a big tent quitelike the circus tent. It wasrun by a person from theChakkalakkal family. Oneman used to give a runningcommentary, line by line, ofthe action on the screen. Ifthe movie stopped owing tosome technical fault, hewould begin shouting, `parayam,parayam.' It wasbrilliant. After sometimehis voice would growhoarse. In 1934 the tentcaught fire and that was theend of movies in ErnakulamPROF. N MADHUKAR RAO , born 1935,taught English Literature for manyyears in Maharajah's College. He retiredas Head of the English Departmentof the college, after adistinguidhed career. He was knownfor his scholarship in Shakespeareanstudies. Interestingly, his home iscalled Stratford Home. He alsotaught at University College, BrennonCollege, and Victoria College. Heis an ardent Bridge enthusiast andhas represented Kerala thrice at theInter State National Bridge Championship.


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