Whenever social media finds time hanging heavy on its hands, it re-circulates a post on T. Namberumal Chetty. And this trots out a certain amount of fact along with huge chunks of fiction. It is the standard Indian style of making myths in place of biographies of high achievers.
The first of these myths is that the builder baron of 19th and early 20th Century Madras had 99 houses near the Spurtank and so the area came to be called Chetty Pettai after him, which later was corrupted to Chetpet. Truth is of course quite different. The historian K.V. Raman writes of how a noble in the camp of the Rashtrakuta King Krishna III made a gift of gold to the Tiruvottriyur temple and this was deposited with the residents of Settruppedu in Thudarmuniyurnadu. This village is identified by him as modern Chetpet. An article in the Adyar Library Bulletin of 1958 quotes from a map of 1798, which clearly has the village of Chetpet marked. And so, the place existed long before Namberumal Chetty came along.
It is only from the 1880s that we find the master contractor’s name associated with the area. It was in 1880 that he landed his first contract, that of laying the drains at Jagannathapuram, which is just north of Chetpet, separated from the latter area by the Munro Bridge. From then Namberumal’s rise was rapid and he clearly invested in much real estate in the same area. Now we come to the legend that he purchased around 2000 grounds in Chetpet and put up 99 houses here. This is evidently an impossibility, for that would make him the owner of around 111 acres in the area. The largest of Namberumal’s houses was his residence – Crynant, and it still survives, retaining most of its acreage. It spans 64 grounds and so around three acres and a bit.
A map of Madras dating to the 1920s, by when Namberumal was nearing the end of his life, shows not more than 31 residences in the whole of Chetpet. Of these, the ones on the left of Harrington Road as you enter it, did not belong to Namberumal as their histories are quite clearly documented. What is of interest are the houses on the right, for this was where the builder constructed his famed residences.
Fortunately for us, the map of 1920s has the names of most of the houses here marked and the ones owned by Namberumal are remembered by his granddaughter, N. Panchali, who is shortly to enter into her 100th year. These, taken from the entrance of Harrington Road and all to the right of it, were Ravenscroft (this was the first house that Namberumal built according to his granddaughter), Merton, Carisbrooke, Nutford, Sydenham, Gometra, Qudsia, Lismoyle (which also appears to have briefly been named Dilkusha), Crynant, Mariposa, Mentmore, Acton Lodge, Torquay, Claycroft and Mercy Cottage. According to Panchali, the houses, apart from Crynant, which was always meant to be the family home, were rented out to ICS and other Government officers and Namberumal was quite happy for them to bestow whatever name they fancied on their residences. Some it would appear, like Dilkusha, changed names. Mercy Cottage later became Mentmore and was the residence in the 1940s of the educationist Kuruvilla Jacob even as he shifted the MCC High School from the Esplanade to Chetpet.
Of Namberumal’s set of 15 houses listed above, some have attained immortality. His Crynant still stands, a ghostly mansion that houses the family trusts and also has the family temple dedicated to Venugopalaswami on one side. Some of the design features of Crynant are clearly inspired by the edifices that Namberumal built. The doorway leading to the grand staircase has a frame that sports the same pattern as the compound wall of the Government Museum. The top storey is identical to a wing of the Connemara Public Library. A round keep on the side, which evidently houses a spiral stairway, is similar to many in the High Court. Among the others, Gometra and Qudsia, both now demolished, are remembered as residences of the mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan, whom Namberumal practically adopted and cared for in the former’s final days. Gometra was where Ramanujan died.
Rajamannar Avenue, commemorating Namberumal’s younger son, is now a road with houses on both sides but in its time it was clearly the drive leading to Crynant. The marble plaques that were in the original gate posts still survive. The one on the left reads Diwan Bahadur T. Namberumal Chetty, Crynant. Qudsia, Gometra and Lismoyle stood on the left of it, while Carisbrooke, Nutford and Sydenham were on the right. Of these, the third, fourth and sixth remain intact while Nutford is still remembered in name.
On the marble plaque on the right you find the name C.T. Chetty inscribed. This was Caranapati Thoguparti Alwar Chetty, Namberumal’s son-in-law, married to elder daughter Andalamma. He lived at Lismoyle at least until 1920, while being a partner in Namberumal’s timber business. He later became a partner in V. Perumal Chetty & Sons and moved to Gorleston, a vast garden bungalow at the end of Harrington Road, opposite Gilchrist Avenue. On a part of it came up a beautiful Arya Vysya hostel building, recently demolished. Gorleston itself has vanished, its extensive grounds now Tarapore Avenue. Andalamma was a pillar of the Guild of Service and ensured that the family’s Jarrett Garden property was made over at reasonable price to it.
Namberumal’s younger daughter Chandramma married C.T. Alwar Chetty’s younger brother C.V. Krishnaswami Chetty. Educated in Manchester, he came back and joined the Corporation of Madras as Electrical Engineer, in which capacity he illuminated the principal thoroughfares of the city. He is better remembered for being the father of radio broadcasting in India, beginning the Madras Presidency Radio Club in 1924. Krishnaswami Chetty lived in Sydenham, with canny Namberumal ensuring that the Corporation paid the rent for it! After his retirement, Krishnaswami Chetty shifted to Acton Lodge behind Crynant, which is still remembered in name.
The offices of Namberumal Chetty, with its army of masons, carpenters, draughtsmen and clerks functioned from where Kuchalambal Kalyana Mandapam is today. His granddaughter remembers leftover construction material from some of Madras’ colonial buildings littering the compound for years. It was also in the vicinity that Namberumal put up a bungalow entirely made of tin and timber! Known as Thagara Bungalow, it survived for long – originally designed as a makeshift residence that his men could put up wherever he travelled!
The best years of the family business were clearly till the old man’s death in 1925. His elder son Rangamannar was a chip off the old block and much was expected of him but he died relatively young. Thereafter, the business devolved on younger son Rajamannar who struggled in a changing world. With grandson Ramachandra choosing to administer the family trusts and his brother Namberumal junior opting to settle abroad, the houses were all that remained to tell the story. Most of these changed hands, leaving Crynant the sole survivor.
It is of course quite likely that Namberumal owned 99 houses and that these were scattered all over the city. He did own Jarrett’s Garden in Egmore (see Lost Landmarks MM, March 1, 2018) and there was his first residence Ananda Bhavan in George Town for instance. But to say he had 99 houses in Chetpet is just plain fiction. Of course, that it is possible to build 99 residences these days in the area occupied by each of Namberumal’s houses is another matter.
This article owes much to inputs from Smt Jyoti Sethupati, great-granddaughter of Namberumal Chetty and also granddaughter of CT Alwar Chetty and Andalamma.
The article is part of a series on Lost Landmarks of Chennai. You can read the earlier stories here