Silk Route – The story of T Nagar

Textile industrialist Nalli Kuppuswami Chetti has seen T Nagar change from being a quiet residential neighbourhood to a bustling shopping hub. He talks about the transformation of this neighbourhood over the decades

I was born in 1940 and have seen T Nagar transform in front of my eyes and my interaction with people has given me insight about its history as well. We had a shop on one of the main roads in Kanchipuram and we would bring supplies to our customers in Madras. Back then, being in Mylapore was a big deal. So much so that in SS Vasan’s movie Miss Malini (1947), the heroine sings a song Mylapore vakeelaathu maatuponn aaven (I will get married into a lawyer’s family in Mylapore)!

As for Mambalam, in 1911, there was a train service from Kanchipuram called Officer’s Train, that ran between 6am – 9am and in the evening between 6.30pm-9.00pm. It was used by people who lived in Kanchipuram but worked in George Town and it cost 62p.

There was a lake that existed here, which is why we have streets like Lake View Road and Tank Bund Road. If you see, T Nagar is mostly named after the politicians of Justice Party or engineers who built these areas. Theagaraya Chetty, after whom T Nagar is named, was a prominent leader of the Justice Party. Burkit Road and Boag Road were named after the engineers. T Nagar was also the first place in modern Madras to have a proper drainage system. While the work was on, two workers died in an accident. Nadamuni Street and Govind Street were named after those two workers. And when T Nagar was ready, it was Raja Panagal who inaugurated it. So the park was named after him.

Musically Madras

There were only four or five sabhas in the 1940s – Parthasarathy Swami Sabha, Music Academy, Indian Fine Arts Society, Perambur Bhakta Jana Sabha and Jagannatha Bhakta Jana Sabha, Egmore. Later Thyagaraja Vidwat Samajam came up in Mylapore. One December rainy night in the mid 1940s, when actor Chittor Nagaiah was crossing GN Chetty Road, he saw some known faces returning home drenched in the rain. They were returning after a kutcheri to T Nagar. That is when he decided to start a sabha in T Nagar and Thyaga Brahma Gana Sabha (Vani Mahal) was opened on G N Chetty Road in 1945. The Krishna Gana Sabha later came up in 1954 after Maharajapuram Vishwanatha Iyer started it. Today T Nagar alone has around eight small and big sabhas.

T Nagar means Business

In 1911, when the capital of India shifted from Calcutta to Delhi, King George V came to India and he visited Madras as well. To honour him, they ordered silk from Kanchipuram and my grandfather supplied the silk cloth with a special border called Durbarpet.

In 1928, my grandfather got a small office near the T Nagar depo and back then, there were only 4-5 homes totally in this area. And around five buses started from T Nagar. Can you imagine, back then, Ranganathan Street was an agraharam and only one shop operated there from a house?

On Usman Road, there was just one jewellery shop. Before Geetha Café came up, there was an Udupi Hotel in its place and on the street opposite to that a businessman from Pondicherry had around 12 shops. That’s how the place got the name Pondy Bazaar.

Back then, for a wedding, people would head towards George Town for shopping. The groom’s clothes would be bought from Kasi chetty Street and the invitation cards from Bunder Street. The huge provisions would be bought from Govindappa Naiken Street and diamonds from Flower Bazaar. The hub of silk constantly moved from place to place in the last one century. In 1895 it was Nainiyappa Naicken Street and in 1915, Chintadripet became the place of silk. By late 1920s, Triplicane became the silk destination and in the late 1930s, it was Mylapore. But from the early 1950s, T Nagar became the hub of silk and it has remained so since then. Not just that, today with one visit to T Nagar, you can do the entire wedding shopping. Another reason for the popularity of T Nagar as a shopping destination has been the Mamabalam railway station. A few years back, in a survey, it was found out that the biggest Akshaya Tritiya sale happened in Chennai among all the big cities of India and Usman Road was the biggest reason.

Besides, this has been the place where the biggest of film stars and politicians lived. From Sivaji Ganesan and NT Rama Rao to Nagi Reddy and Kamraj lived here. Great people like Mahatma Gandhi have walked on these roads. Perhaps that has lent all the prosperity to T Nagar.

As told to Arjun Narayanan

(This story was published in The Times of India, Chennai for its special anniversary edition)

PS: After this story was published, R Kannan, the biographer of MGR messaged me saying from what he had heard, Pondy Bazaar got its name from the Justice Party leader WPA Soundarapandian Nadar. However, even Nalli Kuppuswamy’s story seemed interesting. So I have kept both here.

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