CHENNAI: Walking down the streets of Namma Chennai, have you ever wondered how the areas would have looked 50 years ago? What did people back then do with their free time? For all such unanswered questions, City Express caught up with Sudha Umashankar, a social worker, who led a heritage walk, as a part of the Madras Day celebrations, along Marshalls Road, Egmore, on Saturday.
Marshalls Road was home to many heritage buildings, a few of them are still around while others have been replaced by new constructions. “The Willingdon was the first recreational club in Madras and many European and Indian women met at the club. Back then, it wasn’t uncommon to see women in their nine-yard sarees playing tennis and other games,” smiled Sudha and we were taken aback. But now, in the place of the club stands the popular Raja Muthiah Kalyana Mandapam.
Having spent her early years on Marshalls Road, Sudha felt it would be the right place for the walk. “This is where I grew up. When I began to prepare for this walk, I realised there is so much more heritage and history to this area than I knew,” she said.
Sudha shared anecdotes about places we visited like the Regional Institute of Opthalmology and Government Eye Hospital, (which was the first eye hospital in India), the Elliots Museum with its priceless exhibits, two heritage buildings, Lady Lawley wards and the St Anthony’s church. The walk ended at St Anthony’s Anglo Indian Higher Secondary School which was built in 1911.
Ask her the relevance of a heritage walk in these times, and she says, “There are many ways history can be taught to people; comics, books, movies… but there’s an appeal to heritage walk; to me, it’s like preparing for a history exam,” she laughs. “Besides, heritage walks are a wonderful way to discover the city. This is one week (Madras Week) that gives us a valid reason to revisit the history and look beyond the surface. It’s very important to know our surroundings and the only way to value it is to know about it!”
Sudha strongly believed that heritage buildings in the city must be put to alternative uses. “It’s sad to see so many of these building being destroyed because of issues like lack of labour and high maintenance costs. They are meant to be cherished not neglected,” she said. She reminisced about the scenes on Marshall’s Road a few years ago and said, “This road was deserted most of the time and there were hardly any houses here. The relative quietness of Madras, with no traffic jams, is what I miss the most. Parrys and Triplicane were the only places that were choked with vehicles, but now it’s chaotic everywhere.”