I usually write this series avoiding the personal pronoun but this episode requires it. I have recently moved residence from R.A. Puram, where the family roosted for decades, to Mylapore, where the family roosted for decades earlier. And the process of shifting no matter how well planned, was chaotic in the extreme with socks and shoes being separated from their respective pairs, some beloved objets d’art vanishing (sadly forever) and whatever was made of glass arriving in broking condition. Among the last-named were some treasured clocks and that meant I had to contact my good friend ‘Clock’ Srinivasan.
Unlike certain people who can be very reluctant about disclosing the source of their treasures, I am an open book. I was introduced to ‘Clock’ Srinivasan by actor Mohan Raman, who also is an open book. Mohan collects clocks and they tick noisily all over his lovely house. The man who ensures that they tick away in perfect health is Srinivasan. When my humble collection of three clocks (a Junghans, a Seth Thomas and a Tudor) began to have mysterious ailments it was to Srinivasan I turned and he worked wonders. The Srinivasan system I noticed involves, apart from a thorough knowledge of dials, levers, springs, needles, jewels and such things, a comforting bedside manner. He caresses the clocks, coos to them and while probing their innards, does so in the manner of a trained surgeon. The clocks respond well to his treatment and have run for years.
The shift however, proved traumatic. The Junghans recovered by itself but not so the Tudor, which had a seizure at 5.30 pm one day and remained paralysed ever since. As for the Seth Thomas, the glass casing of its dial had splintered. And so the call went to Srinivasan. He promised to land up after calling within a couple of days. I explained to him that I had moved from R.A. Puram to R.K. Salai, Mylapore. Where was that asked Srinivasan. I explained that I meant Dr. Radhakrishnan Salai to which his reply was Oh, did I mean Edward Elliots Road? I was somewhat taken aback, for I had not heard that name in a few years. I said yes and then proceeded to explain where precisely I lived.
Travancore Sisters From left, Padmini, Lalitha and Ragini.
Srinivasan cut me short and said that he would land up near the residence of the Travancore Sisters – Lalitha-Padmini (for some reason, old timers rarely add Ragini to the list) and call me. Once again I hesitated, for I did not want to tell the old man that the house which he referred to, had long gone, having made way for a commercial building. A similar announcement had had a devastating effect on an uncle a few years earlier, when he came from the US on a holiday. “What! Lalitha-Padmini’s house is no more?” he had said and sunk into a deep gloom. A day prior to his departure we drove down RK Salai to the place where the house stood. He got out, sighed deeply, walked disconsolately to and fro and then we drove back home in silence. Till date I do not know as to what was achieved.
Anyway, the day of Srinivasan’s ministering to my clocks duly arrived and he called at 9.00 am.
“I am just driving past S.S. Vasan’s house,” he announced.
Did he notice that the house was no longer there I wondered? Old Gemini House, formerly India House, was such a thing of beauty. Said to have been built for the Rajahs of Sivaganga, it was owned by C. Rajam, the founder of the Madras Institute of Technology who later sold it to S.S. Vasan. The movie mogul was in need of a house, what with his wanting to gift Sudarsan, his then residence on the same road, to his daughter. Today both Gemini House and Sudarsan are gone, the former making way for the gloomy Acropolis, a glass and concrete structure that towers over the road and the latter now an empty plot awaiting development.
Srinivasan duly arrived at what was once Lalitha-Padmini’s home and called me from there. The sisters, along with other sibling Ragini, owned considerable property on EE Road and the IX Street that ran perpendicular to it. A few years ago, Lakshmi Sundaram, a long time resident of the same area had written an article for Madras Musingsabout the star sisters and their homes, now all gone. A pictorial archive of the sisters while living here survives in author Betsy Woodman’s blog (www.betsywoodman.com). The American had accompanied her parents to Madras when her father was posted at the US consulate here in the 1950s. They had lived next door to the Travancore Sisters and formed a lifelong friendship. During those times, EE Road was a vast empty stretch leading to the beach, with deep-set bungalows on both sides. A star like Lalitha could cycle home from Gemini Studios without being noticed or mobbed and she did so on several occasions.
All this and more came to mind as I waited at my door for Srinivasan to come. He reminded me of my uncle when he said mournfully that Lalitha-Padmini’s house was no longer there, as also M.L. Vasanthakumari’s, the singer living opposite the stars, at the corner of IX Street. Her house was called Vidyashankar, named as a portmanteau after her two children – Sri Vidya and Shankar Raman. It was MLV’s close friendship with the Travancore Sisters, and she sang playback for countless songs of theirs, which resulted in Sri Vidya taking to dance and later, films.
“The metal grilles on Padmini’s house were so special,” said Srinivasan with a shake of his head. “Oh by the way sir, why did you not tell me you lived just behind E.V. Saroja’s house? I would have arrived here much faster.” The great lawyer T.R. Venkatarama Sastry owned a huge plot of land on what eventually became RK Salai, III Street. Four bungalows – Srinivas, Srivatsa, Sadhana and Kaustubha– stood in it. Of these, Sadhana still survives, as the Clark’s School for the Deaf. It was Kaustubha that E.V. Saroja owned later. I wanted to ask Srinivasan if he did not notice the multi-storeyed building that had come on Saroja’s plot after it had served time as Yogalakshmi Kalyana Mandapam. But then I decided not to wake him up from his world and bring him into reality. We went indoors discussing dials, jewels, levers, springs, needles and other such matters.
This article is part of a series I write on Lost and Surviving Landmarks of the Chennai. You can read the earlier stories here
My next heritage walk is at Fort St George on Saturday, August 31st at 3.30 pm. Register here
Would you please publish photos of the old houses?
I have visited both Sudarsan and Gemini house when I was a school boy. Swaminathan and Ganesan brothers also lived near Travancore sisters house.
There is yet another connection to the stars and R.K. Salai, although it’s about a celebrity who worked on stars. (No, he wasn’t a make-up man.) Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar’s childhood home was in one of the streets off this road (the one which is also home to Children’s Garden school, if I’m not mistaken). Of course he didn’t stay here for long, having moved to Cambridge after college and then to Chicago.
Blissful days to do a ‘shoot’ as a star at Gemini and cycle back home untroubled, on the lonely Edward Elliots Road, passing by Poes Garden, which was of less prominence then tucked behind the Stella Maris College, with only the wind from the Marina to keep company.
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