Back Chennai Hyderabad
Round Tana and around
WHERE MOUNT Road turns southwest and heads for Land's End at Kanniyakumari, C.N. Annadurai, the father of the progressive Dravidian movements, looks down on the city from his high pedestal. Around him is what is still the most spacious junction in Madras, formed by the curve of Mount Road, that's Anna Salai after the statue was raised, meeting Wallajah Road that heads for Chepauk Palace and the Beach. Old-timers still call this junction Round Tana - but why, I've never been able to discover, for a police outpost (tana) has never been there, as far as I can recollect.
I had hoped my note last week would have inspired several old-timers to recall how one of Madras's best known junctions in another age - the others were Parry's and Kelly's - got its name. But the few who responded were as hazy as I about Round Tana's origins.
Looking at two sets of old pictures of the area, I found the area empty in one, with a horse-drawn carriage or two the only traffic. In the other, I found tramlines, many more carriages and, most important of all, a domed building, smack in the middle of the junction, a landmark I remember from the late 1930s. With trams beginning to run in Madras only in 1895, the building - which some say was called `Round Tana' - must have been built sometime before 1895.
A gift to the city by the Maharaja of Vizianagaram, the 40-foot square building with a domed roof is said to have been built as much to provide cover for an ornamental drinking water fountain that is said to have existed here - though of that fountain I've seen no sign in any old photograph and it must have come with the new building - as to offer shelter from the sun for a few who toiled in the area. A pavilion with ornate arches on all four sides providing street-level entrance to it, the Indo-Saracenic building was certainly a landmark that could not be missed in its day. Vizianagaram Raja Sir Ananda Gajapati, it might be remembered here, was generous with his gifts to the city, which included a substantial contribution to the Victoria Public Hall, that still awaits restoration.
The domed pavilion was pulled down soon after Japan entered World War II and Madras felt threatened. Built under it, where pedestrian subways now run, were air raid shelters which, after the War, were converted into public conveniences. Overground, a large roundabout was developed with, at least one who remembers tells me, small black-and-white boulders providing the boundary marking, though I tend to recall a chain-link fence. Whatever the fencing of the roundabout, it was a parking lot that provided space for about 50 or 60 cars. To its west were a couple of smaller such temporary roundabouts that also served as parking lots for fewer cars. I've never enjoyed the experience, but a friend swears that Jafar's famed Peach Melba, or anything else that took your fancy at the soda fountain, would be served to you in your car in the Round Tana parking lot - often making occupation longer than necessary. Today, not only has Round Tana vanished, but so has the parking lot - and the spaciousness has officially become Anna Junction. But just as the road to the Mount remains Mount Road to many, including a younger generation, Round Tana has not lost currency - as yet. And around Round Tana life throbbed from the early hours of the day till late at night, befitting, even though in quieter times, the heart of `new' Madras, just as Parry's was of the `old'.
Curzon's, the century-old furniture-makers who specialise in library furniture, Misquith's, The Hindu in its old offices, then those old department stores, Whiteaway, Laidlaw and Wrenn, Bennett that tried to rival Spencer's but failed, kept the Wallajah Road side of Mount Road busy all today. Curzon's, on this spot from 1898, was founded by Chimate Alavandan Chetty and named after a viceroy.
The present art deco building is of a later period and probably was built when that father of Indian Library Science, S.R. Ranganathan, offered Curzon's advice on how to build quality library furniture and encouraged specialisation. Whiteaway, Laidlaw's, `General Drapers' in the 1890's, one in a chain of stores spread through the subcontinent and in South and Southeast Asia, is now VGP's main showroom and is undergoing further changes as I write. And Wrenn, Bennett's (General goods), where 8 annas could buy many a toy or household item, is no more a major store, though the name survives on General Patter's Road in other business. At Mount Road, it used to be well set back from the road with plenty of parking space. That parking lot is now all built over, a part of it occupied by Madras's first and still `only' night club, `Pals'. Across the road, the buzz was caused by rather different activities. Going back a bit, to near P. Orr's, there's India Silk House, whose Indo-Saracenic building was built by the Anjuman Trust around 1904 to run an industrial training institute. When India Silk House moved into the building in 1947, there simultaneously moved in the Madras link of the once-famed India Coffee House chain. When it closed in the 1960s, Madras lost a `tiffin room' whose coffee - for whose promotion the Coffee Board created the chain - dosais and omelettes, served in immaculate surroundings by tall-turbanned, broad-belted and liveried waiters, made this one of the best and first `fast food' rendezvouses in the city. That as you curved westwards there were the 19th Century pharmacies of Madras was no reflection on India Coffee House, an institution of excellence crying to be restored.
Of the pharmacies, Allbutt's dating to 1881 at the same location, and Letoille's of the same era still survive, but in much lower key. The big ones among them, R. Maclure's, founded in 1894, and E.C. Barnes, the City's leading opticians, are no more. Barnes, it is said, walked into the sea to commit suicide when business failed, while Maclure turned to soda water manufacture, but successful as it was, that fizz was not enough to keep him in business. Midst these business houses was Klein and Weile, photographers, of whom more about anon and, curiously, the Madras Mahajana Sabha.
The Sabha, founded two years before Congress, is one of the country's oldest political institutions and was born of the Theosophical convention of that year. This vocal voice of public opinion functioned during its first few years from a couple of rooms in The Hindu's Ellis-Road-Mount Road office, but later built its own Spartan building across the way, midst the pharmacies and other businesses. After Independence, the political focus of the Sabha diminished, it became more of a cultural body, and then, to keep itself still going, rented out its premises. In 1997 / 98, it pulled down the building and, in keeping with the times, turned developer, a "hotel" now functioning in its development. The Sabha, the last I heard of it, survived in the rundown upstairs of an old building behind the LIC's Mount Road tower block and there nursed a reading room and a library reflecting its past and arranged lectures and discussions. Perhaps I'll now hear of where it is and what its activities are.
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