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Stamp of history

The stately Philatelic Bureau building which was once the Warwick Electric theatre. - Pics by K. Pichumani

The stately Philatelic Bureau building which was once the Warwick Electric theatre. - Pics by K. Pichumani  

FREE ON a Saturday afternoon? Walk into the Anna Salai Post Office compound. You can't miss the large philately exhibition banner. Take a look at the exhibits — there are some fascinating items!

But before you leave, cross the portico and climb the few steps to the main door. Admire, if you want to, the stained glass panels on either side that commemorate the stamp exhibition, Indipex '73. But read the plaque on the left wall. You're in for a surprise.

"Built in 1900 by Warwick Major as Electric Theatre. The first ever cinema house in South India. This building was bought by the P&T Department. For many years it housed the Mount Road Post Office."

This squat building with large halls and a sloped roof supported by Glengarnock steel girders today houses the Philately Bureau. The main hall has a Postal and Philatelic Gallery that includes the Penny Black, the first stamp in the world (1848), the first one in Asia (1852), the first stamp in India (had Queen Victoria's face) and the first stamp of free India. You'll also see the old iron telegraph sender, the weighing machine and blow-ups of first-day covers (Kamaraj went for 25p in 1975). But peep low behind the enlarged, mounted stamps and you'll discover century-old, beautifully carved teakwood panels — in excellent shape.

Stamp of history

You enter the 100' x 20' permanent exhibition hall through a side entrance to the left. To the right and behind the gallery are larger halls from where the post office operates its profit-making business, post section. Trucks regurgitate bundles of `raw' business mail that busy contract workers subject to pre-mailing service — folding, inserting, gumming, addressing, sorting, franking and dispatching — all in a smooth operation.

"RMS will take them fast anywhere in Tamil Nadu," said N. Kanagasabapathy, deputy manager, Business Post Centre.

Attached to the exhibition room is the Philately Bureau, where a deposited amount will bring new stamps, first day covers and other philatelic stuff in your post. "If you're a philately buff looking for stamps, this is the best scheme," said P. R. Satyanarayanan, circle philately officer.

Cultural colossus

A hundred years ago, it was still a business — but one that drew in an enchanted populace. Crowds came here to experience magic, the magic of the first moving pictures on screen. They came, saw and left wide-eyed with awe and wonder. They were witnessing the birth of a `cultural colossus.'

Theodore Baskaran, former Post Master General and cinema guru, gives us a ride on his memory to those times. "I first saw this building in 1964. The ticket counter was still there. After it changed hands, Warwick's Electric Theatre had become a postal store." He edges closer, eyes sparkling. "The tall telephone exchange behind had mapped this area as a parking lot. Providentially, the Postal Department separated from the Telephone group around 1976. And I was posted in Chennai. I got the place renovated and put the plaque on the front wall. Historian S. Muthiah gave it a lot of publicity. In 1997, T. T. Vasu inaugurated the cleaned-up building in its new avatar as the Philately Bureau."

The first movie hall

The framed front page of the Madras Mail (hanging in the exhibition hall) announces the first film show. And what did the first moviegoers of Madras see? Dim electric lights that had replaced the magnesium lamps. Blue satin curtains on the tall doorways; a projector cranked by hand in a mini hall; a silent movie; a live pianist playing a special score; and on the cloth screen, a `short' for 20 minutes; animated shots — of a gardener watering plants, a train arriving at a station; jumpy sunlight pictures. Fuzzy, yes, but they actually moved! The audience must have cheered. The palpable excitement spilled over to the ante-rooms that had a bar and a billiards table.

No one knows if it was Warwick who sold it or it was the government that insisted on buying. But the building's significance goes beyond being a place for gawking. "The cinema theatre was the first public place where people of all castes gathered to watch a marvel," said Mr. Baskaran. "It was the first democratic space. A great leveller."

"This Adam of movie theatres was built for a unique purpose. Before this, movies were exhibited in parks and other open spaces. Warwick commercialised the idea. Its design with the monkey top, wooden shutters and a public convenience at the back was followed by other theatres. Some part was demolished in the 1980s. A guest room? A staircase? No one would say. I needed a reason to renovate.

To preserve the beautiful teak carvings, the mouldings and the roof with the Calicut tiles (now zinc sheets). I needed funds. The Philately Bureau was the answer."

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