TTDC Building, Wallajah Road, once the site of the Annapurna Cafeteria

Today if someone in the city was asked to name popular restaurant chains he or she would list Saravana Bhavan, Adyar Ananda Bhavan, Vasantha Bhavan and Sangeetha. But forty years ago there was just one – the Annapurna Cafeterias. Unlike the ones listed earlier, this was not a commercial venture. In the true tradition of the socialistic years immediately after Independence, these were cafeterias run on a not-for-profit basis, with the sole aim being the sale of tasty, nutritious dishes made out of non-rationed foodgrains.

This was not a venture solely restricted to Madras or Tamil Nadu. In fact the idea came from Delhi, to be precise from Lilavati Munshi, wife of KM Munshi, top-ranking lawyer, founder of Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan and in the early 1950s, Union Minister for Food and Agriculture. Those were years of acute food shortages with the staple grains of rice and wheat being rationed. The minister frequently lamented over the manner in which Indians obsessed over their staple food and were averse to trying other grains available in relative abundance. Mrs Munshi therefore came up with a plan to sensitise Indians about the existence of alternatives – millets in particular, thereby saving on rice and wheat and in turn conserving foreign exchange being spent on imports. This led to the birth of the All India Women’s Central Food Council with Mrs Munshi as Vice President and Rasbansi Devi, wife of the President of India, Babu Rajendra Prasad, as President. The Council set up the first Annapurna Cafeteria in Delhi. It was manned chiefly by ladies on the Council, all of them from the higher echelons of society and so overheads were kept low, thereby ensuring the bill of fare was reasonably priced.

The success of the Delhi outlet led to the Council becoming more ambitious and a chain of restaurants, with multiple outlets in several cities was planned. In Madras, the most dynamic member of the Council was Mary Clubwala-Jadhav and on her initiative, several Annapurna Cafeterias came up here as well. The then Governor of Madras, Sri Prakasa was ardent admirer of Mrs Clubwala and he suggested opening one outlet at the Government Estate in Mount Road. Located next to the Triplicane Police Station on Walajah Road, it was where the Tamil Nadu Tourism Development Corporation building now stands. This was opened in 1954 by Kamini Devi, daughter in law of Sri Prakasa and his official hostess.

Annapurna outlets were subsequently set up at the High Court premises, the Port Trust and Presidency College. There followed three more, at the Income Tax Office, Wanaparthi Palace, Nungambakkam High Road, the Institute of Mental Health, Kilpauk, and Express Estates, Mount Road. Manning these outlets were members of the Guild of Service. This body, set up in 1927 by Mrs Irene Waller, wife of the then Bishop of Madras, had from 1940 onwards come under the leadership of Mrs Clubwala-Jadhav and had done pioneering work in social service in the whole of Madras Presidency. Several women of eminence in Madras were its members and they came forward to assist at the Annapurna cafeterias. The Mount Road facility was managed by the redoubtable Roda Kapadia, the first Indian woman to get a flying licence. Others who played a key role included Shakuntala Subramaniam, wife of C Subramaniam, Gnanasundarambal, wife of M Bhaktavatsalam, Sunithi Srinivasa Rao, Mrs KS Sanjeevi, Dr Hannah Mabel Sharma, Director, Public Health, Government of Madras, Dr Jayalakshmi Rao, Director of Social Welfare, Madras, and Mrs RA Gopalaswami, wife of the Registrar General of India and the Chairman of the Programme Committee of the Family Planning Board.

Madras being a State where rice was the principal food grain, the Annapurnas here also began popularising wheat. This met with some resistance but had an impact in the long run. It did however allow plenty of opportunity for jokes in the vernacular press the best one being an Ananda Vikatan cartoon where the husband holds up a chapatti and asks his wife if wheat is used for making glue as well. Many Government offices began asking for an Annapurna in their premises. Mrs Clubwala-Jadhav planned mobile counters and self-help facilities. Encouraged by the Madras experience, the chain was introduced in Madurai where it did well. Courtallam had an Annapurna during the Season when tourists flocked to its waterfall. Rajaji, as Chief Minister of Madras, did his bit – all Government parties were catered to by Annapurna kitchens only. A booklet brought out in 1957 when Mrs Clubwala-Jadhav became Sheriff of Madras declared that her favourite food items were rasam and sundal, from the Annapurna cafeteria.

In the 1950s, Lady Hartog, wife of Sir Philip, the Vice Chancellor of Dacca University, toured India and was particularly impressed by the Annapurna chain. She wrote thus:

“The All India Women’s Food Council formed in 1951 has done excellent work in popularising non-cereals, and in opening restaurants, under the name of Annapurna, at which these foods, appetisingly prepared, are sold at a very low price. The Food Council seems, in fact, to have introduced a new type of cafe into India, where well-cooked light meals, cleanly and attractively served, are obtainable at a very moderate cost, I saw Annapurna cafeterias in Madras, in Hyderabad and in Delhi; they were crowded and evidently very popular, I went into the kitchens also and from start to finish there is a high standard of cleanliness. In Madras the daily average attendance in the first year was more then 5,000, which shows how much the service is appreciated. The enterprise and enthusiasm o£ the organisers is typical of the new India.

(from her book – New India Pattern, 1955)

The Annapurna chain suffered from one serious flaw – its finances were never strong and the Government did not give it any aid. The only concession was that the premises from where it functioned were given free of cost. But the 1950s and 1960s where times when taxation began to go through the roof and this hit the chains hard. The flagship outlet in Delhi closed within a couple of years of its inauguration. In Madras, the Express Estates and the Income Tax Office outlets were the first to close. The Council also ran an Annapurna at Avadi during the Congress Session there in 1955. Water ran scarce and commercial arrangements had to be made and the whole exercise ended in a loss. The Food Council found expansion impossible in the absence of ready finance. The mobile counter idea of Mrs Clubwala-Jadhav was made over to the Guild of Service and became its hugely successful Nutrition On Wheels programme.

By the 1960s, labour trouble began raising its head. The kitchen and cleaning staff began going on strikes. With the women in charge being inexperienced in handling such matters, especially when it involved litigation, the closure of the chain became a certainty. By 1968, they had all become mere memories. But even then, the model was found useful. That year, when the Mandapam Camp became Government run and was used for housing repatriates from Sri Lanka, an Annapurna cafeteria was set up there. Today, the sole survivor is an Annapurna in Port Blair.

This article is part of a series that looks at lost and barely surviving landmarks of Madras. The earlier episodes can be read here