An article in India Today which I wrote on the subject. They first wanted 800 words, then 650 and finally 450:-). What finally appeared is another story altogether!
Mint Street is one of the oldest and longest thoroughfares of Madras that is Chennai. It stretches from Park Town near the Central Station to Washermanpet. In 1700 or so it was called Washers Street as the washers and bleachers employed by the East India Company for its cloth business, settled here. Many of these were Telugu speaking and following them came the middlemen or dubashes (men who knew two languages), largely Telugu speaking Komutti and Beri Chetties. The area to the west of this street became the home of Gujaratis, people from the Saurashtra region, very closely associated with the cloth trade. Their presence has been recorded here even in the 1740s. Shortly thereafter Marwaris too came, largely in the role of pawn brokers and money lenders. Mint Street was therefore virtually a street of Babel and has remained so till date.
The present name of the street came about in 1841/42 when the East India Company moved its coin making facility to this street. Later this became the Government Press which still functions. Next to the Press stood Crown Talkies, one of the city’s earliest cinema theatres, built by pioneering film maker Ragupathy Venkaiah. Today only its façade survives.
The publishing industry has had a long association with Mint Street. Arumuga Navalar, set up the Navala Vidyanupalana Press at 300, Mint Street in 1860. Among its first releases was an edition of the Tirukural, the work of the early Tamil scholar Tiruvalluvar. To the press is no longer there, but a sale depot run by the Navalar Trust continues at the premises. Another old press, still functioning is the Sastra Sanjeevani Press, founded in 1900. The Ananda Vikatan, one of the oldest surviving city magazines, operated from 244 Mint Street in its early days. The first editions of The Hindu, a tri weekly in the 1880s were printed at a Mint Street press.
Mint Street houses the Madras Progressive Union School (1888), The Hindu Theological School (1889) and the Thondaimandalam Thruva Vellalar School (1854). The last two were also venues for some of the earliest classical music performances in the city. The TTV School was where the Thondaimandalam Sabha operated and in the 1880s introduced the concept of ticketed concerts. The first Harikatha performance by a woman, C Saraswathi Bai, took place amidst protests from orthodox elements at the Hindu Theological on 22nd February 1909 under the auspices of the Sri Parthasarathy Swami Sabha, one of the oldest surviving Sabhas of the city. It was also in one of Mint Street’s 20 Ganesh temples that TN Rajarathinam Pillai, the nagaswaram legend gave his first performance in the city in the 1920s. The Ramar Bhajanai Koodam is an old hall in which bhajan sessions were regularly held till the 1950s
Today despite its rapid commercialisation and hustle and bustle it is worth hiring a rickshaw and going down Mint Street. A journey could take up to half an hour and early morning, preferably on a Sunday is recommended. You can see an amalgam of architectural styles –old Ramanuja Koodams (community halls) of the Chettis, old houses reflecting Rajasthani touches, some outstanding Jain temples, the old Post Office, a combination of classical Greek and the Raj’s Indo Saracenic and art deco houses of the 1930s. Even the Electricity Board Office has an elegant metal arch fronting it. Sadly today, it is the hideously modern which is making rapid headway. If you go in the evening, progress can be painfully slow, but you can taste some of the best kachoris, puris, samosas and chats all from roadside stalls which come up and do brisk business. All said and done, Mint Street teems with life.
(the author can be contacted at email@example.com)