I guess I must refer to Chennai 600026 as Vadapalani to give it its present name. And that is also how the postal authorities refer to it. I however prefer to think of the place as Puliyur for that is its ancient name. Today, Puliyur is just a set of roads in Trustpuram but it was once a great centre – a fortress and a district headquarters. Prof KV Raman, in his Early History of the Madras Region notes that this was one of the two district headquarters of the Kurumbas in what would eventually become Madras, the other being Puzhal. They were both forts and each had a kottam or kutram under it – an administrative jurisdiction. The Kurumbas were a fierce tribe as per the Purananuru, which gives you an idea of the age of the place. And at one time, Egmore, Mylapore, Poonamallee, Tambaram and Pallavaram were all divisions of Puliyur Kottam.
Ancient Puliyur in Chennai 600026
Puliyur was given the name Vyaghrapuri in Sanskrit, which means the same thing, the town of the tiger. In confirmation of this is the Vengeeswarar Temple. Vengai also means tiger. Today the temple sports a large rajagopuram and is thoroughly modernised with no trace of its antiquity except for the Gajaprshta Vimana dating to the Chola period. I was stupid enough not to ask about the sthala vriksham when I went there last week and now wonder if it is the vengai. The ancient village of Puliyur clearly aligned itself around this temple for even now there is a Sannidhi street leading to the main entrance and there are caste-based street names (!!!!!) such as Vellalar Street and Vannier Street close by. In addition, at least two streets – South Sivan Koil Street and West Sivan Koil Street survive. My guess is that there were four Mada Veethis at one time and that the eastern equivalent became a part of Doraiswamy Road and the northern got consumed by Arcot Road. In terms of positioning, the Vengeeswarar Temple is most unfortunate – the Vadapalani flyover is just to its rear and modern development has killed what must have been a charming village. I am told there is a tank which is completely encroached upon but I have no idea as to where that is. There are numerous other temples in the vicinity and also a Thalaiyari Palayam which shows that the area was advanced and important enough to have guardsmen for it. I think the last nail in Puliyur’s coffin was when large parts of it were cannibalised in the making of T Nagar .
Vadapalani which defines Chennai 600026
The undoubted star of the area is the Vadapalani Murugan Temple which is just to the north of the old Vengeeswarar shrine. It traces its origins only to the 1920s when Annaswami Tambiran, a divine, enshrined a portrait of Lord Muruga in a shed. After him, a disciple, Ratnaswami took over and gradually the temple grew. It acquired the name of Vadapalani (North Palani) and its association with the savant Kripananda Vari made it into a hugely popular shrine to the extent that it gave its name to the entire locality. It is known for its serial weddings and I have attended one and been severely admonished by a woman police cop over the PA system for blocking the entrance and holding up people.
Vengeeswarar like all good fathers I am sure takes pride in his son’s success. Another Murugan and Kripananda Vari-related star that has since dimmed is Saravana Bhavan, which hotel chain still has its HQ in Vadapalani. The story of its founder Rajagagopal is not an edifying one and more details can be had from my book – Chennai, A Biography.
The Saidapet Connect
All of this area, until 1949 was part of Chengalpattu District, with Saidapet as its district headquarters. The Grand Southern Trunk (now Jawaharlal Nehru) Road runs on one side, connecting it eventually to Saidapet. A narrow street fronting Vengeeswarar Temple still bears the name Saidapet Street, for that must have been the original route connecting to that town. It now connects to GST Road.
The Studios of Chennai 600026
Arcot Road runs east to west, beginning life as Kodambakkam High Road near Gemini and eventually I presume reaches Arcot where the Nawab once lived. In East India Company times, this probably was a subsidiary route connecting the Chengalpattu district HQ to Arcot. It runs to the west of the Long Tank of Mylapore which eventually became T Nagar. Till at least the 1960s, this was however better known as Kodambakkam High Road. Today the two are neatly divided and named after two great stars. The eastern half (Kodambakkam High Road) is named after MGR while the western side takes its name from NS Krishnan. It is to the latter that the film studios of Madras came calling from the time the Second World War ended.
My guess is that the location of Gemini at the extreme eastern end was one of the principal reasons. I am also told by Mohan Raman that the construction of the Kodambakkam Power House, which is very close by, was another reason – the studios found plenty of land here and also cheap power. With that they all began moving in. A tattered copy of LIFCO’s Handbook of Madras, 1957 edition that I have lists 15 studios on either side of Arcot Road. The big two were of course AVM and (Vijaya) Vauhini. And there are many more. Today I think barring Prasad Studios and maybe a small section AVM’s original twenty acres, not one survives. But there are plenty of memories. Arunachalam Road, AV Meyyappan Road, Vijaya Gardens, Bhanumathi Road, Prasad Road, Chakrapani Road, SSR Pankajam Road and Bharani Colony, etc all remind us of the stars that twinkled brightly at one time. And we need to include institutions such as Avichi High School and Vijaya Hospitals in that list.
Books and Movies
An entire city practically aligned itself to Arcot Road and its film world. Kodambakkam, T Nagar, Teynampet and Saidapet all became localities in which film extras, hopefuls, technicians, and stars settled. Asokamitran’s Star-Crossed/Karaintha Nizhalgal is perhaps the most poignant depiction of this cinema world as it existed. In Madras on My Mind, edited by Krishna Shastri Devulapalli and Chitra Viraraghavan, there is a hilarious short story by Krishna on a Telugu agriculturist coming to the area with ambitions of making it big in films. There are besides serious works such as Theodore Baskaran’s Eye of the Serpent, Randor Guy’s Starlight Starbright and Aranthai Narayanan’s Suthanthira Poril Tamil Cinema and Tamil Cinemavin Kathai. We also have great works on the musical side among which my favourite is Vamanan’s series Thirai Isai Alaigal. Among the studio bosses, AV Meyyappan wrote a nice concise biography with a later book by Rani Mainthan. There is a not-so-good book on Nagi Reddy as well. In cinema, my favourites parodying the Kodambakkam world was Server Sundaram. I somehow did not warm to K Balachandar’s Arangetram. And let me also add here another favourite – Guru Dutt’s Kagaz Ke Phool whose film scenes were all shot at Vijaya Vauhini.
Who can forget Chandamama that emerged from Chennai 26 (and the Vauhini Studios precincts to be precise) for years and years? Did we not all wait for that uniquely sized magazine with its famed picture of Vikramaditya carrying the corpse over his shoulder? We read it in multiple languages as well. Also from Arcot Road was Pesum Padam the film magazine with yet another unique size. Where have they all gone?