Luz Avenue – Once Naini Thottam
New photos by R. Saravanan
Close your eyes for a moment and think of an idyllic, summer evening with swaying coconut and palm trees, the fragrance of the ‘Paarijaatam’ flower wafting over the light breeze.
Think of red mud roads criss-crossing dry paddy fields that have been cleared after the harvest, of little boys in Khaki shorts and girls in pig-tails and paavadais gaily running around and playing cricket with a home-made wooden bat.
As the man of the house drives into the garage in a majestic, black Landmaster car after a hard day’s work, the sound of the last tram chugging back to Madras Beach station can be heard in the distance. This was Naini Thottam in the late 1940s, named after Nainiappa Mudaliar who owned vast portions of land in this area.
Naini Thottam is today Luz Avenue. A quiet and graceful residential locality tucked away in the heart of the Mylapore area with wide, tree-lined roads, stately, period bungalows with front-gardens and the ever-popular Nageswara Rao Park on its fringes.
A treasure-trove of memories is revealed as I talk to Mr. Muthuraman Chettiar, 85 years old and one of the earliest settlers in Naini Thottam.
He narrates to me how he bought the plot on which his house stands today in 1950 from Nainiappa Mudaliar who then stayed at Kallukaarar Street in the vicinity.
An alumnus of Loyola College and later Annamalai University, Muthuraman Chettiar took two full years to complete the construction of his palatial bungalow. Those were the years when the ‘Nageswara Rao’ Park did not exist ; this area was only a muddy swamp called ‘Aalaatha Kuttai’ bisected by a narrow road leading in from the Our Lady of Light church (Luz Church; north of the park).
Muthuraman recollects that when he shifted out of his old St. Mary’s Road residence to Luz Avenue, Mylapore, was already a hub of top lawyers, most of whom used to frequent the Ranade Library and The Mylapore Club, which stood on land leased from the Sri Kapaaleeswarar Temple.
Luz to Beach by trams
The Madras Electric Tramways managed by the Electricity Department operated the tram service from the Royapettah High Road-Luz Corner junction up to the Madras Beach ( off the port).
Costing half an anna for every stage, this was a preferred mode of transport for the people of the locality. As Muthuraman puts it, the two-compartment tram must have presented quite a quaint sight as it wound its way slowly across town with people in black coats paired with white veshtis hopping on and off.
For the affluent, who could be the proud owners of a Ford Mercury for the princely sum of Rs 8000 or maybe even the massive Landmaster (the Ambassador’s then avatar) which cost Rs 10000, there was the petrol bunk at Luz Corner where a gallon (5 litres) of petrol could be bought for 15 annas.
Buses were few and rare, autos were unheard of and it was the friendly, neighbourhood jhatka operator who came to the rescue for evening outings to the temple or to relatives’ places in and around Mylapore. Daily provisions had to be bought at the cluster of grocery and department stores in Luz Corner. The famous Kamadhenu Theatre was to come up on the exact site of these shops in a few years’ time.
Life in those days was full of simple pleasures, recounts Muthuraman Chettiar. Like part-taking in the milking of the cows in the backyard, helping to tend the large gardens in the house. Milk from the household was sent daily to the local temples – Sri Kapaaleeswarar Temple and the Sri MundaKanni Amman temple. Domestic hands were aplenty in those days and the house constantly buzzed with activity. The children of the houses in the area either went to Rosary Matric or to the P.S. High School on R.K.Mutt Road.
Muthuraman Chettiar’s family originally hailed from Karaikudi and arrived in Madras like many other families for business opportunities and collegiate education.
Starting off with a electrical appliance business, Mr. Muthuraman Chettiar then went on to manage the then highly successful MTSV Financing firm named for the four Chettiars who came together in partnership – Muthuraman, Thennappan, Sockalingam and Vairavan. The firm made its money by dabbling in car-purchase finance and more interestingly, Tamil film financing - ‘Naadodi Mannan’ being one of the more famous ones.
Artistes of the stature of M. L. Vasanthakumari, Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer and Bala Saraswathi have graced Muthuraman Chettiar’s house with their performances in the 1960’s to honor the yesteryear saint – Kodumuthi Ramamurthy Swamigal.
Rs.3,500 for a ground
Regaled by Mr. Muthuraman Chettiar’s nostalgic recounting of his youth, I knock on the imposing Burma Teak door of his neighbour of 50 years, Mr. S. A. Balasubramanyan, a practicing advocate of the Madras High Court. Representative of a typical Mylapore lawyer’s family, Mr. Balasubramanyan talks at length about how his father Sri S. Swaminathan – a famed senior advocate - came to settle in Luz Avenue and how life has evolved over the last 5 decades. Set in a plot of 4 grounds, Sri S. Swaminathan bought the land from Nainiappa Mudaliar at the then princely sum of Rs 3500 a ground.
Balasubramanyan recalls how he and his siblings were more than a little reluctant to move out of their old house in Palaathope and leave behind all their playmates (children of other advocate families in Palaathope) to come to this deserted, new housing colony.
Impeccably maintained and lovingly taken care of, Balasubramanyan’s bungalow is testimony to how a little financial prudence and an abundance of love over four generations can help in preserving a family’s heritage.
Masons from Chettinad, famed for their construction acumen were summoned to raise the walls. Teak had to be specially bought from Burma, renowned for its hardiness and regality. Sri S. Swaminathan spared no effort in ensuring that his bungalow was ‘state-of-the-art’ for its time. The concealed wiring put in place throughout the house was perhaps the first in the locality.
I learn from Balasubramanyan how the East Abhiramapuram of today was quite non-existent then. In its place were vast paddy fields and banana plantations. These fields would later come under the wings of the City Improvement Trust (CIT) of Madras and become what is today the elegant locality of East Abhirampauram.
It was thanks to the largesse of Nageswara Rao Pantulu, proprietor of the Amruntanjan Company that the ‘Aalaatha Kuttai’ got restored as a park. Nageswara Rao’s legacy stands to this day in the form of the expansive Amruntanjan factory and bungalow at the northern entrance to the park.
Balasubramanyan recollects the feisty tunes played by the Corporation Music Band in the evenings at the park and how entire families would turn up at the park to see the band perform. Higher up on the scale of familial recreation in those days was the family tour to the Marina to participate in the occasional Congress meeting. What would be an enjoyable family outing on the beach would culminate with a filling ‘Dosa’ dinner at the Dasaprakash mobile van on the Marina beach for 4 annas a plate.
Balasubramanyan reminisces about the days when the loud ringing of the phone would cause a flutter of excitement throughout the house and the congregation of the entire family at the phone table to witness the spectacle. A time when the high point of the day was the ride in the family car every evening around the neighborhood when the master of the house came home from work.
In conversation with other old-time residents of Luz Avenue like Mr. Mohan, Mr. TVS Sarma and others, I come to know that all of them uniformly share a rare affection and emotional bonding with the locality they live in and hope to pass this onto the next generation.
If today Luz Avenue retains its old world charm and remains an oasis of serenity and greenery in this smoke-spewing, traffic-crawling melting pot that Mylapore has become, it is thanks to the selfless and dedicated efforts of the Luz Avenue Residents Association headed by the indomitable June Headland and the secretary, Mathew.
Thanks to the efforts of the association, Luz Avenue today is a living example of how societal cooperation and civic responsibility can help in preserving not just a neighborhood’s physical structures but something far more valuable more than that – Half a century’s worth of treasured memories and anecdotes.
As I walk out onto the road from Mr. S. A. Balasubramanyan’s house, I turn back and look at the house. And I hear the gay laughter of children climbing up the mango tree, the cry of the milkman as he turns up at the gate to milk the cows, the tolling of the temple bell in the distance as the evening aarthi is performed. All from another sepia-tinted time and age…
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