A trail down Theayagaraya Road

The Geetha Cafe and Restaurant was opened in 1954, a time when eating out was considered a taboo.
A trail down Theayagaraya Road

CHENNAI : If you are passing through Pondy Bazaar during the evenings, you might get frustrated with the traffic congestion. In the mornings, this favourite shopping avenue of Chennaiites is a picture of calm with an avenue of huge trees providing you shade. You can hear the chirping of parakeets that nestle in the branches, see them flying from one tree to another, find people going for a walk on the pavements, and people sitting under the Banyan trees and Peepal trees to read the morning newspaper in silence.

This road of Theayagaraya Nagar, as we find it today, was laid a hundred years ago, during 1920s. During the morning hours of May 19, a group of 15 enthusiasts gathered on this road for the ‘Storywalk Through T Nagar’ conducted by Vikram Sridhar, a performance-based storyteller, and theatre practitioner, to explore the history and evolution of the place. “The essence of a storywalk is to walk slowly with a free mind. We all have shared memories when it is about places and in a storywalk, we exchange the history of a place with our memory connected to it,” said Vikram.

He started the walk by showing the explorants the Theayagaraya Nagar on the map of Chennai city, and pointed out its rectangular curvature. “Theayagaraya Nagar being bound by four roads — the Mount Road, Usman Road (then called as Mambalam High Road), Burkit Road, and Bazullah Road — gets its unique shape, which cannot be found in the maps of other areas,” said Vikram, adding, “The first planned area of Chennai city was T Nagar, making it a part of east Mambalam.”

Places and stories

Before forming Theayagaraya Nagar, the entire area was accumulated in the village of Mambalam. In 1921, due to housing shortage, the west side of the ‘Long Tank of Mylapore’, a lake in those days, was filled in and converted into a residential colony, therefore creating the now T Nagar. Vikram asked the explorants if they wondered why the village of Mambalam is called as West Mambalam now. He explained that while the eastern side of the lake became Theayagaraya Nagar, the west side of the lake came to be called West Mambalam. In 1923, a park was also constructed at the heart of Theayagaraya Nagar, and was named after the Raja of Panagal, giving it the name Panagal Park.

This locality was named in honour of Sir PT Theayagaraya Chetty, one of the founders of the Justice Party during our country’s freedom struggle. When people started calling the contracted version of Theayagaraya Nagar that is T Nagar, there was a fear that in the long run, people might forget the full name and the history behind it. When Kalaignar Karunanidhi was the chief minister of Tamil Nadu, he ordered the MTC buses passing through this area to have their name boards mention Theayagaraya Nagar and not its short form, which continues even today. During the storywalk, Vikram also mentioned that the names of streets and roads here are named after prominent political leaders belonging to the Justice Party.

Vikram said, “Only some roads require a walk through, to witness it in full, and one such road in India is the Sir Theayagaraya Road. Whether it is for shopping or eating out, taking a stroll down this road will get all of your senses into work.”

There are several stories around the history of this shopping hub’s name. In Pondy Bazaar, the part Bazaar has Persian roots, and Pondy was named after Pondicherry, the native place of Chokkalinga Mudhaliar, who came to Chennai for on-site visit in 1933 and had built the first ten shops on Theayagaraya Road, making it into a place for merchandise. The Tamil name Soundarapandianar Angadi, which is also given to the R4 police station, is named after WPA Soundarapandian, a Justice Party politician.

Street shopping

This place was once famous for selling different kinds of wigs and was filled with make-up artistes, and till 2013, this road was known for street shopping. “This whole road was dominated by hawkers before they were shifted to the corporation complex. Most of the shopping would be done on the streets rather than inside the shops on Theayagaraya road,” noted Vikram. He also showed the street that housed old buildings — Rajkumari theatre, the first theatre in Theayagaraya Nagar, and the Nagesh theatre. These theatres are no more, however these buildings are known as Big Bazaar and Vijaya Mahal respectively.

Vikram went on to talk about some eateries and their history. The Geetha Cafe and Restaurant was opened in 1954, a time when eating out was considered a taboo. This restaurant served as an eatery for the traders who would come to sell their goods in Pondy Bazaar. Even today, this restaurant has many people thronging for coffee and breakfast. The famous Sri Krishna Sweets had set up their first shop in Chennai on Singaravelu Street, now shifted to Venkatanarayana Road. People would wait in a queue to get the samples of their renowned mysurpa. Chintamani Softy and Juice Parlour, that has been on the street for over 50 years, is now attracting numerous people after the introduction of their softy machine. Deluxe, the first non-vegetarian restaurant in T Nagar, famous for its appam-paaya, butter chicken and their iconic briyani, is now replaced by a Malaysian restaurant.

You might think that T Nagar now is synonymous with clothe shopping. It was so then too with some popular names popping up in the market. In the 1930s, when Madras witnessed crisis in women’s clothing, the founder of the Naidu Hall clothing store opened in 1939 at the basement of the present showroom in Theayagaraya Road, manufacturing brassiere and sold it from door to door. Milan Jyothi Garden, that exists even today, was another clothing shop that manufactured easy-laundering clothes.

While the boards of the shops and the building architecture have changed over the years, what remains the same is the aroma of coffee beans from Narsus Coffee Shop and the fragrances of flowers from various florists that fill the busy road. “Walking is a non- technological way of remembering our past. Every person should take a stroll in the area where they have lived or are living now, to recollect and relive their memories and the historical past,” said Vikram.

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The New Indian Express