When news came that my maternal grandfather was contemplating constructing his house in a place called Adyar, wherever that was, it was received with some derision by my Mylapore-based paternal grandparents. But to me it was exciting beyond belief. My mom and I would board 19M and it could have been a journey to the moon as far as I was concerned. The old Adyar Bridge, the Theosophical Society on one side (bus stop – Adyar Alamaram – which tree now does not exist) and then the Aavin Park. A signboard here said Nagara Ellai – Varuga Varuga – City Limits, Welcome. We got off here and trudged through amazing greenery and mud tracks. When it rained it was all slush and frogs, toads and serpents kept you company. Finally, we would see the distant lights of all the Nagars that the area specialised in. The breeze was phenomenal and at night the place cooled off distinctly to the rising chorus of frogs. Much of this has changed now, but to me Adyar is still a charming neighbourhood.
The postal district of Adyar is bound by Besant Nagar on the east, the river to the north, Kotturpuram and Guindy to the west and Thiruvanmiyur to the south. There is a small part of Adyar that extends north of the river as well, on a section of Greenways Road, which includes the vast campus of the Anna Institute of Management, once the Grange, one of the many residences of the Norton family. There are three POs in Adyar – Adyar, Kasturba Nagar and Shastri Nagar.
For years the southern boundary of Madras was the Adyar river. The only exception was the Theosophical Society, which came up in what was Huddlestone’s Gardens, named after an EIC servant who built it as his retreat. The TS was the birthplace of many things – including variants of the freedom struggle, the labour movement, the Women’s Indian Association and Kalakshetra. After all that activity it is relatively somnambulant now. In the campus is magnificent Adyar Library, with its collection of books and manuscripts. The Sarva Deva Vilasa, the first and probably one of the few Sanskrit works on Madras was discovered here. The TS is an oasis of calm which real estate developers and avaricious politicians would like to get their hands on – but so far happily for us, this green lung has survived. It has inside it many quaint monuments and buildings and is worth a visit. A lucky few get to walk there each evening – and you need a pass for that. The highest in the land can be seen there, walking when schedule permits.
TS was home to Kalakshetra during the years when stalwarts such as Papanasam Sivan, Tiger Varadachariar, Mysore Vasudevachar and Karaikudi Sambasiva Iyer, not to forget Mylapore Gowri and others taught there under the watchful eyes of Rukmini Devi Arundale. Maybe their music still pervades the place and imbues it with its calm.
Much of TS it is said, was once property of the Tiruvannamalai Arunachaleswarar Temple – the records may verify this. But what is for certain is that much of the surrounding area definitely is, and is referred to as Arunanchalapuram. Vasantha Press Road by the river commemorates the printing press of the TS, Vasantha being Annie Besant’s Indianised name. The Sankara School functions from the old press campus though the buildings are new. There are numerous other schools in the Adyar area, which I am not going to try and list.
Behind the TS, and en route to Besant Nagar is the Avvai Home of Dr Muthulakshmi Reddy. A school functions here as well. The round park – once where an Aavin counter used to sell delicious flavoured milk – is named after her. Opposite the Avvai Home is a vast property that was once the garden of Ramalayam, the Travancore Palace in Madras. The residence still survives though much of the garden has become residential colony. On one side of the same garden is Sishya School. After this was the Madras factory of Andrew Yule Limited, a Calcutta-based British-run company. Today that has made way for high rise. But it has left behind a lasting legacy – monkeys that descend every now and then on neighbouring Parameswari Nagar.
As I said earlier, this was all not Madras till 1947. That was when Daniel Thomas, Minister for Housing and C Narasimham, Commissioner, Madras Corporation, negotiated with the Catholic Church to purchase 150 acres of land south of Adyar. The archbishop needed funds for constructing Catholic Centre on Armenian Street and eventually a deal was struck – Rs 17 lakhs for 136 acres, the remaining 14 being part of St Michael’s and St Patrick’s – the latter being more than a century old. The new colony became Gandhi Nagar – full of gracious bungalows of varying sizes and stunning art deco facades. Here came an settled an eclectic lot – writers, musicians, lawyers, actors, doctors, scientists, architects, IAS officers, judges and entrepreneurs. A fantastic layout, it still retains much of its beauty. Gradually it got schools, a club and a temple – the last named being the brainchild of A Narayana Rao and funded by the generosity of the Travancore family, dedicated as it was to Ananthapadmanabhaswami. By its side eventually came to rest the statue of His ardent devotee and last Maharajah of Travancore – Chitra Tirunal Balarama Varma. At one end of Gandhi Nagar is the old campus of Muthulakshmi Reddy’s Cancer Institute, now a world-recognised centre for excellence. I must leave out Grand Sweets but you can read my book for more on that. Adyar Ananda Bhavan is another eatery that has put the area on the food map – and has had better success with its chain than Grand. But the marketing of food samples as prasadam was a masterstroke of the latter.
The success of Gandhi Nagar led to the purchase of the next parcel of land, from Sir Benegal Rama Rau, ICS and former Governor of the RBI. This became Kasturba Nagar and then came the rest of the field – Nagar, Nagars, and then more Nagars. Like the Gandhi Nagar temple, the one of Ganesa in B Venkataratnam Nagar is also very well known – it was a private initiative of the residents that was objected to by the Corporation, which one day confiscated the idol and tried taking it away. A spirited protest in which one of my aunts participated brought Him back and He flourishes. They always say you need to bring Ganesa from elsewhere. Here the Corporation helped. Ellaiyamman Temple, once a small shrine dedicated to the guardian deity has become a huge precinct over the years.
Lattice Bridge (I have never seen it) Road was once a lonely stretch with an ink factory on one side. You had the telephone exchange on the Sastri Nagar side and on the Indira Nagar end the Youth Hostel, now permanently associated with Hamsadhwani Sabha and its founded R Ramachandran. Other than these, you had line after line of quiet bungalows, which in the 1970s gave Chennai its first taste of modern construction techniques. Now most of these have gone.
A part of Adyar often overlooked is the vast Central Leather Research Institute – made famous and functionally meaningful by the great scientist Dr Y Nayudamma. There is a brilliant biography on him by K Chandrahas which I would encourage everyone to read and no, it is not a hagiography. Fronting the CLRI campus is the Madhya Kailash temple, of relatively recent origin and of doubtful architectural or aesthetic merit but definitely a popular shrine.
In recent years, I have enjoyed reading the reminiscences of Jayaraman Raghunathan about life in old Adyar. It takes me back to the days when Eros was the only theatre here and Coronet the only hotel. Adyar Bus depot was then land’s end. Now Adyar itself is central Chennai no matter how much Mylapore may want to distance itself from it.
As I finish, I realise Sathya Studios was always referred to as being in Adyar but as it is now in Chennai 28 I will deal with it there.
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Thank you for the post on this beautiful neighbourhood. My family has been here since the time of my great grandfather. I feel privileged to have grown up in Gandhi Nagar since the day I was born. With schools, hospitals, temples, shops and sports facilities at walking distance, what more could a person ask for? Hope this area continues to retain its charm and not fall victim to congestion. I have just moved to Dallas after marriage and I miss this place very badly. I follow your blog and Madras Musings with great interest to keep in touch with events back home. The series on the PIN codes is a great idea. Perhaps you could do one on buses and bus routes too? My younger brother and neighbour used to animatedly discuss these in their school days.
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