What do a furniture shop in Royapettah, the Pachayappa’s Trust and a women’s college in Guindy have in common – a woman called Chellammal. Let us explore the Chellammal Connection across Chennai.
Mani’s & Co
Mani’s Auction House as it is popularly known, or to give it its proper and more prosaic name – Mani’s & Co, is located on Royapettah High Road. It specialises in wooden furniture of the more antique variety. It is on my route to and from office and as I drive by, I always pause to take a look at its large open yard where tables, chairs, beds and sofas, apart from a whole host of other things, are piled sky high. It is a good thing that years ago I took a decision not to buy any furniture, the collection at home being large, sturdy, and sufficient enough to last for a few generations. And then, I am superstitious about certain things – I can never bring myself to purchase a second-hand bed or a mirror. If I had not adhered to these resolutions of mine, the chances are that I would have squandered what little I earn in purchasing stuff from Mani’s. As I drive by, I can easily make out what are the ‘new’ arrivals – by which I mean old pieces that have recently been brought in. There is a revolving bookcase I have had my eye on for some time now but then…
Interestingly, Mani’s is often referred to as an auction house but I have never seen any happening here. Maybe this happens on Sunday mornings when I don’t go by the place. The company itself was founded in 1969 by ST Subramanian and takes its name after him. His sons now run the business. Apart from the furniture that the place stocks, another aspect of eternal fascination to me is the building that occupies one half of the property, the other being the yard where Mani’s stock-in-trade is. I have been inside once and it is a period piece – a classic brick and mortar building with pillars fronting a verandah, and the whole structure being under a flat Madras terrace. Wooden windows and above them, ventilators that can be moved with a pole, control the access of air and light. Inside this space was where Mani’s more expensive pieces were housed. On the compound wall is a granite plaque that announces to those who care to know and peer closely enough to see, that the property is part of Chellammal’s Estate and is under the control of the Pachaiyappa’s Trust. That gives you some idea of what the historicity of the place is.
The Chellammal Connection
The Pachaiyappa’s Trust Centenary Volume (Pachaiyappa’s College Madras, Centenary Commemoration Book, 1942) gives us some details – “In 1914, the estate of Mylai Chellammal came under the management of the Trustees. She was born in a village near Tiruporur and became an orphan even as a child. She was brought up by her relative Muniappa Gramani, who married her to his nephew Vadamalai Gramani. Vadamalai Gramani amassed a huge fortune. Before his death he wanted to provide for the education of poor and deserving students from his vast wealth; but he died before he could execute a will. His faithful widow carried out his intentions. She made a number of wills, and by her last will, dated the 28th of November, 1913, she left her property worth about Rs 46,000, consisting of buildings, coconut gardens and house sites, to be managed by the trustees of the Pachaiyappa’s Charities for advancing education, meeting the expenses of students for food, clothing and books, and building a boarding house in her name for Hindu students other than Brahmins. This wish was partly fulfilled later by the estate contributing for a block of rooms in Pachaiyappa’s Hostel. Indigent non-Brahmin students of the High School and College at Madras are helped by this will. Chellammal died in 1917, but her name lives on forever.”
The late 19th and early 20th centuries were a period when many of the wealthy of Madras, desiring to leave some of their estate for charity, preferred to route it through the Pachaiyappa’s Charities. PT Lee Chengalvaraya Naicker and Araneri Govindu Naicker were probably the first, followed by many others among whom one was Chellammal.
The Pachaiyappa’s Trust would, years later, in 1971, set up the Chellammal’s Women’s College for arts and science courses in Guindy where it still functions. Now, as for the land on which the college stands – this, and also much of Guindy Industrial Estate (according to the college website), was once Chellammal’s property, located at Pallavaram Mitta, Adyar Zamin Village. On five cawnies of this land (6.6 acres), the Pachaiyappa’s Charities had constructed the hostel referred to earlier. It was that building which formed the nucleus of the Chellammal’s College. The website incidentally says Chellammal made her will in 1913 “in the wake of the First World War when people were fleeing the city in large numbers.” Considering that the war began in 1914 and the Emden bombing happened thereafter, this makes Chellammal a remarkably prescient woman. Sorry, but I could not help noticing that.
The college, going by its website, honours its benefactress by way of a bust and also observes her date of birth. It also gives further details on her life – she was born in 1867 at Pattipulam near Tiruporur. Her husband was of a spiritual bent of mind and was more or less a renunciate at Tirukazhukundram before he was convinced to give it all up and marry her. Thereafter he became hugely successful in business though it is not clear as to what the nature of his trade was. The couple was childless and on Vadamalai’s death in 1911, Chellammal became the sole inheritor. The will of 1913 made provisions for bequests to the temples at Tirukazhukundram, Tiruporur and Tiruvottriyur and also to a Velathamman Temple in Mylapore. The last named now seems to be in what is Royapettah, close to Express Estates. There are Velathamman Temples in Royapuram and Vadapalani as well, but Mylapore seems to have none. According to the Chellammal college site, both Vadamalai and Chellammal are buried at a samadhi off Lloyd’s Road, near the BSNL Quarters. Karthik Bhatt and I once went in search of it. We found ourselves deeper and deeper in a slum and at one point were advised by a resident not to penetrate any further. Accordingly we fled. The place of burial is known as Chellammal Thottam.
Which brings me back to the Mani & Co property. A couple of weeks ago I suddenly found Mani’s locked on a weekday. A notice of some kind was pasted on the gate. And then one day everything seemed back to normal. Only there were some vinyl notices put up declaring that all of it was Pachaiyappa’s Trust property. That there was a granite plaque to that effect seemed to have been forgotten. These notices then vanished. And then last week there was further action. The furniture in the old building was all emptied and brought out into the yard. It was clear that there were development plans afoot for the old structure. There was greater clarity a couple of days later – a massive compound wall came up in record time, dividing the old building from the rest of the yard. Since the former could not be accessed otherwise from Royapettah High Road, a part of the boundary wall of the property was broken to give entry to the structure. Mani’s will clearly continue from the yard but as to what is to happen to the building is anybody’s guess. Some of the wooden windows were removed and a whole lot of steel rods have been dumped at the site. Which probably means demolition and the building of some commercial complex to bring more revenue to the Charity, all of which is understandable.
But what of heritage? Chellammal clearly owned a lot of real estate but given that Royapettah/Mylapore/Triplicane was all Gramani community area, was this her house? Even if not, given its age, the building could have been put to some adaptive reuse. But then I am probably jumping the gun. Maybe there is no demolition and only some strengthening of the structure. But then why the divide in the property? But then what business is it of mine? I only wish Chellammal Gramani had included a clause in her will demanding preservation of the building.
This article appeared in Madras Musings in its issue of May 16, 2023 and can be read here https://www.madrasmusings.com/vol-33-no-3/lost-landmarks-of-chennai-97/