Incredible though it may sound today, there was no Chennai or Madras to the west of Mount Road till 1921. Land’s end was effectively the Gemini Studios, after which, all along the western side was a vast lake, known as the Long Tank of Mylapore. By 1921 however, there was a severe housing shortage in the city and it was decided that this lake be filled in and the space converted into a vast self-contained residential colony – Theyagaroya Nagar. This was the first instance of planned development in 20th century Madras. The draining of a water body would today raise concerns from environmentalists but then it was not thought to be of any importance.

The removal of a lake has led to some place names being meaningless but they have survived nevertheless. There is a Lake Area nearby as Lake View and Tank Bund Roads. All of these commemorate the vanished Long Tank. The entire area was once the village of Mambalam and when the lake on the eastern side became T Nagar, what was left became West Mambalam as it survives even now.

T Nagar, when it was planned in the 1920s, was conceived to be bounded by four roads – Mount Road, Mambalam High (now Usman) Road, Burkitt Road and Bazullah Road. This was the era when for the first time a Government by Indians was in power in the provinces. In Madras Presidency, the Justice Party was in power, with the Rajah of Panagal being the Prime Minister. This grand title did not amount to much for the real power was the British Governor. But nevertheless, T Nagar, developing as it did during the Justice Party’s tenure, was to see a number of that party’s leaders commemorated in its streets and parks. Several still survive – Panagal and C Natesa Mudaliar have parks named after them while O Thanikachalam Chetty, Sir Gopathy Narayanaswami Chetty, Dr TM Nair and Sir Mohammed Usman among others have roads remembering them.

Officialdom was not forgotten either. Thus Molony Road is in honour of J Chartres Molony who was then President of the Madras Corporation. JW Madeley, JR Coats, Sir GT Boag, J Venkatanarayana Rao and Sir T Vijayaraghavachariar were all officers of the Corporation. In the midst of all this we also have touching tributes to the humble labourers who made T Nagar a reality. Thus Nathamuni and Govindu Streets remember two diggers who were killed while laying the underground drains in T Nagar. Pondy Bazaar, which was the main shopping precinct is named after W Soundarapandia Nadar, another Justice Party man. Pride of place however goes to Sir Pitty Theyagaroya Chetty, one of the founders of the Justice Party and one of the prominent councillors of the Corporation. T Nagar takes its name from him and one of its principal arteries – Sir Theyagaroya Road commemorates him too.

Along these principal roads and arteries came the houses. The main roads had several stately bungalows, largely reflective of the then prevailing art-deco style in architecture. The area slowly developed its own amenities – the Mambalam Railway Station, the bus terminus, schools by way of the Ramakrishna Mission institutions, the Holy Angels Convent and Vidyodaya. The T Nagar Social Club, founded in 1935, provided the space for social interaction. It is still going strong, operating from its handsome premises at Panagal Park corner.

For some reason, T Nagar became the home of the Telugu speaking community. Even today it is rumoured, you can get through life knowing Telugu, if you happen to live in that area. And perhaps because of this connection, many film stars and directors of the 1950s lived here. Savitri, BN Reddy and Chittoor V Nagiah were just a few. The last named was also to give T Nagar its first music sabha – the Tyagabrahma Gana Sabha which functions from its landmark building – the Vani Mahal. Rather appropriately, his statue adorns Panagal Park as does a small exquisite one of the Rajah of Panagal. Other film personalities who have statues in T Nagar are NS Krishnan and the composer Kannadasan. Several theatres once stood here – Rajkumari (earlier Sayani) and Nagesh were two that were owned by the eponymous film stars. These have become shopping malls.

T Nagar is today known more for its shopping complexes. Among the first to set base here was Nalli’s, its trademark white art-deco showroom still a prominent presence. Another old name is Naidu Hall. Since then we have had any number of other famous names here. Come festival season, the crowds that throng T Nagar are legendary. This has also led to several problems, most notably congestion. But there is no denying that T Nagar possesses a vibrancy all of its own. It is therefore no surprise that some have come to think of the ‘T’ as being an abbreviation for trade.

T Nagar is perhaps unique in that it has a book on it and its author is none other than the industrialist Nalli Kuppusami Chetti, long time resident of the area. ‘Tyagaraya Nagar, Anrum Inrum’ is a succinct account of the various aspects of T Nagar and is a must read.

This article appeared in XS Real’s blog-