Wonders of Vannarpettai
A heritage walk introduces us to the hitherto unexplored facets of Washermanpet
CHENNAI : Adeceptively simple blue door and narrow passageway leads passersby into Vavilla Press on Ramanujam Street in Old Washermenpet, filled with shelves of books in the distinct Telugu script. Musty with memories, this formidable press, established by Ramaswamy Sastrulu in 1854, daringly courted India’s first obscenity case, explains Dhanashree V during a walk ‘Hidden Treasures of Washermenpet’.
This obscenity case filed by Kandukuri Veeresalingam singled out Radhika Santwanam, an erotic poetry volume in Telugu penned by author Muddu Palani who belonged to the Devadasi community. The poet, attached to the court of Maratha King Pratap Singh of Thanjavur, weaved details of female desire and jealousy in the story of Radha and Krishna. As the story goes, social reformer Bangalore Nagarathnamma from the Devadasi community, who chanced upon this and even wrote a preface, scathingly exposing Veeresalingam’s hypocrisy as he had edited and promoted erotics written by men.
While copies of the Radhika Santwanam has been lost over the centuries, Vavilla has continued to publish writings from Sangam Tamil grammar texts to Mahabharata and Ramayana. A portal to the yesteryears with an antique clock and typewriter, this building features Indo-Saracenic architecture, Roman arches, and curiously the bricks were pasted together by kadukaai and eggshell paste. Armed with a thread and needle, a man binds together books, a skill gone out of practice.
Tales of history
A peep into the winding lanes of Washermenpet or Vannarapettai reveal threads of tales — a lone silver lamp post, hand-pulled rickshaws, a trio of boys trying their hand at spinning an orange top. Long neglected by the corporation, the bustling neighbourhoods of Washermenpet is the hotbed of the market and glue, leather, and crayon factories. A settlement sprung here due to migration and the abundance of water. “A lot of history is hidden here…The name came from the washer community who lived here. We also had the weaving and tanning community that started living here and flourishing,” explains Dhanashree.
A few minutes from the Sir Theagaraya College metro station, our guide leads us to the Madras Aryan Club, Corporation Library with over 2,000 books, and Bavuta Masjid-e-Mubarak opposite a patch of blooming bougainvillea. Washermenpet was also home to the Bavuta Beedi, a family business founded in 1905 by Shaikh Ismail. “In 1905-10, the beedi company was powerful. The beedi leaves came from Gujarat and Muslim women folded thousands in a day. Beedis in chocolate and vanilla flavour were exported at a high rate in USA. After the tobacco ban, exports to the United States slowly stopped,” says Dhanashree, adding that the company still functions today.
“Today, we see issues happening in Manipur and communal riots, but around 100 years ago, the Bavuta house and Venkatesan Chetty’s stood testament that different religions can co-exist at the same time,” she says. Incidentally, Ismail also filed India’s first nuisance case against his neighbour for the high decibels produced from Chetty’s house during pujas and functions.
Culture, kadhais and kovils
On the narrow Narasier Street the Mariamman Temple has a long line of female priests. A few years ago, Devanaggi Ammal’s daughter contracted chickenpox. “She prayed to Vinayakar but it was not cured. So with a mound of sand, she crafted a Mariamman deity and it was believed to have cured the daughter-in-law,” says Dhanashree. Ever since, this small temple has stood below the family’s house.
Apart from Vavilla Press, the area is also home to unsung heroes, freedom fighters and writers. Among them, Alamelu Mangai Thayarammal went on to become an editor of a Dravidian magazine, and the Member of the Legislative Council and was involved in the Justice Party happenings.
The culture of print, writing and publishing has unwaveringly remained over the decades. At SL Printers, a time capsule with letters, rulers and stamps and ink proves to be a lesson in printing before the computers took over. Time has not stood still at Old Washermenpet but the spirit of bustle and formidable resistance remains.