January 1, 2012 16:14 IST

Madras miscellany
Aerial view of George Town in 1905

A forgotten name-change

With all these articles recalling the centenary of the Delhi Durbar
and the announcement that was made there that thenceforth Delhi would
be the capital of India and not Calcutta, completely overlooked has
been the fact that George V was remembered in Madras too in 1911. That
was the year Black Town became George Town.

This Black Town, however, was the second. The first was the Indian
town that developed just north of Fort St. George, on what is the High
Court-Law College campus. The use Comte de Lally's troops made of the
buildings in this settlement during his siege of the Fort in 1758-59
led the English, once they had blunted the French threat, to demolish
this first Indian settlement they had been responsible for developing
and create an esplanade and, beyond it, in the villages of Muthialpet
and Peddanaickenpet, a new, planned Black Town, a gridiron pattern
consciously followed.

When George, Prince of Wales, visited Madras in 1905 and proved a
popular figure at every venue where he was feted in the growing city,
it was much debated what kind of a permanent memorial to him should be
created in Madras. Little came of the debate till he became King
George V in 1910. A competition was organised in Madras for Carnatic
singers to compose classical eulogies in honour of the occasion and it
was Sriram V. singing a couple of them during his talk ten days ago in
the `Namma Chennai' series organised by the Park Sheraton and
MetroPlus that reminded me of the centenary of the way New Black Town
became renamed. The visit of George V, King Emperor of India, for the
Delhi Durbar was occasion enough for Madras to remember him by naming
New Black Town after him.

Near the southwest corner of George Town he was further remembered in
1914 with a statue presented to the city by one of its leading
Gujarati merchant-princes, Chatoorbhoojadoss Govindoss of the
Kushaldoss family (Miscellany, March 6, 2006). The statue by Joseph
McLure, to whom the king gave a couple of sittings in Britain, cost
Rs. 45,000, quite a sum for the times.


The first cinema theatre

Another centenary this year is one which really should have been
celebrated by all connected with Kollywood, given the close kinship
Tamil Nadu has with the film industry. This one celebrates the opening
of the first cinema theatre in the South, the `Bioscope' on Popham's
Broadway. It was started by a Mrs. Klug who regularly screened a
number of short silent films at each show. Despite crowds that had
gathered to watch `animated photographs' at venues like the Victoria
Public Hall, Museum Theatre and tents on the Esplanade from 1896,
Mrs. Klug's theatre with its permanent seating in a well-conceived
hall was something different, but it just did not take off. In fact,
it closed within a few months. But it certainly had demonstrated the
possibilities of the medium.

It was to be 1913, by when the silent film had developed to a smoother
running display, that Madras got its next cinema theatre, the
`Electric', owned by Warwick Major and Reginald Eyre. It was `a large
corrugated iron shell with a brick façade' in what is now the Mount
Road Post Office campus. The shell developed into a more ornate
building that still survives but was acquired by the Post and
Telegraphs Department in 1915, bringing to an end its brief cinema
history. In recent years, the façade of the building and a part of
its interior have been restored and serve, since 1998, as the city's
Philatelic Bureau, where exhibitions are a regular feature.

Kitty corner from it to the east was what was home of Misquith & Co
(the forerunner of Musee Musicals,) and in 1907 a man called Cohen
opened on its first floor a hall for entertainment called the
`Lyric'. In a challenge to the `Electric', he started screening
silent films there in 1913. A fire in 1914 put paid to Cohen's hopes
of being a successful challenger. The fire also led to the building
being sold to J.F. Madan of Calcutta who at the time ran the largest
cinema theatre chain in India. In 1915 he opened the `Elphinstone'
(almost Madan's brand) Theatre there - the first with a balcony in
South India - and with it the cinema theatre was to become a major
feature of life in Madras.

But before the `Elphinstone' opened, Madras got its first
Indian-owned theatre, the `Gaiety' - which survived till just a
couple of years ago - kitty corner to the west of the
`Electric'. Film pioneer Raghupathy Venkaiah who built it opened two
more theatres in the next three years, the `Crown' (1916) and the
`Globe' that became the `Roxy' (1917). Both buildings were also
pulled down only recently. From these beginnings - and with sound -
cinema theatres in Madras began to increase. But even during those
boom years closer to their beginnings, few remembered Mrs. Klug's


An Armenian representation

The Armenian Ambassador to India, H.E. Ara Hakobyan, was in Madras
last week to inaugurate the Consulate office of Armenia in the
city. The first Honorary Consul of Armenia in Madras is Shivkumar
Eashwaran, a businessman. The inauguration was an occasion to remember
the Armenian presence in Madras as far back as the 1660s, a fact
attested to by the finding of a tombstone with the date 1663 near
Little Mount. The name engraved on it was `Khoja David Margar'.

The Armenian presence in Madras began to increase from 1688 when the
East India Company, finding the Armenians `sober, frugal and
wise', gave them the same trading rights as English
freemen. These privileges were granted after negotiations between Coja
Panous, Calendar of Isphahan, and the Company in London. The agreement
was dated June 22, 1688 and was in due course communicated to the
principal Armenian merchant in Madras, `Gregorio Paroan', and his
fellows. By these terms, they could not only trade on the same terms
as the English but also had all the rights of British subjects in
Madras, including the right to own land in Fort St. George, White

It was also promised to them that as soon as there were 40 Armenian
merchants in Madras, ground would be granted to them to build a
permanent church.

This was done in 1712 and for the next seven years the church received
50 a year from the Company to maintain a priest, under terms of the

The first known house of an Armenian in Fort St. George is what is
called Admiralty House today. It was built by Coja Nazar Jacob Jan who
arrived in Madras in 1702. On his death in 1740, it passed into the
hands of Coja Sultan David to whom it had been bequeathed. On Coja
David's death the house, by then known as `The Great House on
Choultry Street', was inherited by his son, Aga Shawmier Sultan
(Suthanoomian). This house was taken over by the Company post-1757 and
served in town, as Governor's residence, Governor's entertainment
space and the venue of sessions of the Admiralty Court.

Robert Clive too lived in this building after his marriage.

Aga Nazar Jan was the first of the great Armenian merchants of Madras
and was followed by the legendary Coja Petrus Uscan - who has
warranted much space in this column in the past - Aga Shawmier Sultan,
and Aga Samuel Moorat. When Samuel Moorat died in 1816, his son Edward
Moorat ran through his huge patrimony in enjoying a life of
luxury. With his death, the Armenian presence in Madras began to fade.

One Armenian of this era who left a different kind of mark was the
Rev. Harathun Shimavonian, who started in Madras in 1794 the first
Armenian journal in the world, Azdarar, and published several Armenian
classics before he died in 1827.

Madras once had a substantial Armenian presence, but the Armenians
followed the seat of power (they had started in Agra) and were a few
thousand in number in Calcutta during the heyday of the Raj. Their
numbers warranted starting a school there and Armenian College still
exists, struggling on with an intake of orphans from Armenia. Perhaps
it's time to establish a branch of that institution in Madras. It was
a thought that struck me at the reception when I met one of the few IT
entrepreneurs in Armenia. Why doesn't he partner someone in Madras and
establish an IT training centre for young Armenians in an Armenian
College, Madras branch?