Incredible though it may seem 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. 

By 1924, further land, from Mambalam, Puliyur and Government Farm villages and a portion of the Mylapore division, comprising a total of 540 acres was acquired. Modelled very much on the lines of which New Delhi had been developed when it came to layout, it had a large park as its focus from which radiated three arterial roads, all connecting to Mount Road. The land in between these was made over for development, 410 acres earmarked for private development and rest being given to open spaces that would be developed as parks, and for the construction of public buildings – police stations, electric sub-stations, markets, bazaars, fruit stalls, hospitals, dispensaries, pumping stations, model schools, places of worship, industrial buildings and Government offices. The entire plan was developed by the Corporation in association with the Madras City and Suburban Town Planning Trust. Housing plots were divided into one, half, quarter, one eighth, one twelfth and one eighteenth of an acre. The cost of acquisition of the land was Rs 4.90 lakhs!

The entire development was known initially as the Mambalam Town Planning Scheme, Eastern Section. 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 are 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. One of my favourites was that of the patriot S Satyamurti, and named Sundara. It has been demolished. 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. Since then a whole lot of other schools have come up, including PSBB. Forgotten in all this is Guntur Subbiah Pillai Girls School on Venkatanarayana Road and also the Sir Thyagarayar High School. Inside the latter are the statue and school dedicated to CD Nayagam, a close associate of Periyar.  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. Also in T Nagar is the Dakshin Bharat Hindi Prachar Sabha – carrying on its work quietly of propagating Hindi. It had Mahatma Gandhi as its president. Also associated with him is the Thakkar Bapa Vidyalaya, whose foundation stone he laid and which is named after his close associate and follower.

For some reason, T Nagar became the home of the Telugu speaking community. There is an Andhra Club here, functioning from what was film producer AP Nagarajan’s house. Even today it is rumoured, you can get through life knowing Telugu, if you happen to live in T Nagar. 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. Many Tamil stars too eventually became T Nagar residents. My guess is the proximity to Kodambakkam was the reason – Sivaji Ganesan, KR Vijaya, TR Rajakumari and Manorama were a few. 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.

While on Sabhas – who can forget the others? The Sri Krishna Gana Sabha on Griffith Road/Maharajapuram Santhanam Salai was begun in the 1950s with the maverick genius Maharajapuram Viswanatha Iyer as its President. Later his son, also to become a star, was its Secretary for long. The road now commemorates him. And then there is Bharat Kalachar, the brainchild of Mrs YGP. Let us not forget the Indian Fine Arts Society, which functioned for long from here and even now has its offices in the area. Also a resident of T Nagar was Lalgudi G Jayaraman. Even today, many musicians live in this locality. 

In keeping with its urban origins, T Nagar has all religions coexisting. The Anjuman-e-Himayath-e-Islam has a huge premises here, with a large mosque. Also in T Nagar is the city’s gurudwara, on GN Chetty Road, a tribute to the vision of Col GS Gill and the munificence of Maharani Vidyawati Devi Sahib of Vizianagaram. There may be no ancient temples here but there are plenty of new ones, including the Tirumala Tirupati Devasthanam’s shrine. 

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. In the area of for, Geetha Cafe is still surviving. 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. T Nagar is today a planner’s nightmare with traffic slowing to a crawl on most days. Many of the huge shopping complexes have come up in violation of building codes. The pressure on infrastructure and the muscle of the retailers have pushed many one-time residents out. 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. Reminding us of the spaciousness with which T Nagar was planned are its three major parks – Panagal, Natesan and Jeeva. In the middle of the first-named stands the old radio house, from which radio programmes were once broadcast to the public who came to listen. 

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. A comprehensive account of T Nagar is impossible to write and I look forward to feedback on what I could have added. But before I end, I must add that Ranganathan Street needs many books by itself. From a quiet residential road to what it is now has been quite a journey. The naming itself has some unanswered questions. There are many claimants from Lord Ranganatha, to Tuppil G Ranganathan to Justice Party leader Ranganathan who was also a minister. My suspicion is that it was the last named. When we talk of Ranganathan Street can we forget LIFCO, the publishing entity created by Krishnaswami Sharma in 1929 and still is going strong?

For the record, there are four POs here – Dakshin Bharat Hindi Prachar Sabha, Thyagaraya Nagar, Thyagarayanagar North and Thyagarayanagar South.

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