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Vol. XXVII No. 16, December 1-15, 2017

Lost landmarks of Chennai


A house called Chintamani

Chintamani copy copy

The building that’s replaced Chintamani.

The late Raghu Tagat, in a wonderful series that he wrote for Madras Musings on the history of Edward Elliot’s Road (Radhakrishnan Salai), remarked how most houses on the thoroughfare had Sanskrit or Tamil names – Manonidhi, Girija, Kamalalayam, Sudarshan, Sudharma, Nandana, Mandara, Sadhana, Kaustubha, Srivatsa, Venkatam and Vinnagar. All of these and more once graced this road. Now there are hardly any left barring perhaps Girija, the residence of the late Dr. S. Radhakrishnan. Another, that partially survives is Chintamani. There is very little of the house, but what there is, is impressive. It is an octagonal tower that probably encloses the stairway, topped by a dome. The rest of the house has given way to a modern two-storied building that is now rented by a bank.

Chintamani was once home to a hallowed family of Madras Presidency. The progenitor, Thiruvalangadu Appayya Dikshitar, was the official Sanskrit pundit at the Tiruvavaduturai Mutt. His son, Thiruvalangadu Tyagaraja Sastri, born in 1821, attained great proficiency in Sanskrit by the age of 18. His talents came to the notice of Bhaskararajapuram Venkoba Sastri, who was then a pundit in the service of the Sudder Courts. The latter got his daughter married to Tyagaraja Sastri and also made him an apprentice. In that capacity he mastered all the languages necessary for the proceedings of the Sudder Court – Tamil, Telugu, Marathi, Kannada and Hindustani and, by the age of 25, emerged as a worthy successor to his father-in-law. But service in Court was not meant for him. Taking up a post in Rajahmundry, he fell in love with the veena and began training on it. He became a professional artiste and travelled all over South India giving concerts.

Sastri’s talents came to the notice of His Highness Brihadamba Dasa Ramachandra Tondaiman of Pudukottah State and, more importantly, the powerful Dewan, Sir A. Seshiah Sastry. The ruler became a disciple of Tyagaraja Sastri for the veena and also appointed him Chief Vakil, Pudukottah, entrusting him with legal reforms in the kingdom. Sastri served Pudukottai well and when the time came for his retirement, the ruler was pleased to appoint the Sastri’s second son, Gangadhara Sastri, to the post. Tyagaraja Sastri passed away in 1892. Gangadhara Sastri continued the legal and musical traditions. Like his father, he too became a veena exponent and also composed songs. He also taught numerous disciples.

Gangadhara Sastri’s son Ganapathy Sastri (GG Sastri) succeeded his father in turn. Born in 1876, he inherited the family’s talents in law and music. Having studied at Maharaja’s College, Pudukottah, he later graduated from St. Joseph’s College, Trichy, and got his BL from Law College, Madras. Enrolled in the Pudukottah Bar in 1900, he became, successively, State Vakil and Public Prosecutor, Puisne Judge, and finally Chief Judge in Pudukottah. He was made Dewan of the State in 1929 and retired from service in 1931. The British Government conferred the title of Rao Saheb on him in 1929. GG Sastri built Chintamani on Edward Elliot’s Road. After retirement from the post of Dewan he settled in that house and served on the Senate of the University of Madras thereafter.

His son G. Tyagaraja Sastri graduated in law and practised for a while before joining All India Radio where he rose to become its Director General.

F.G. Natesa Iyer, who served the South Indian Railway with distinction but made a bigger mark for himself in the field of theatre, was a brother of GG Sastri. He is credited with bringing K.B. Sundarambal to the notice of theatre-loving audiences and encouraging several talents in classical music such as M.S. Subbulakshmi and Palghat Mani Iyer. The ‘F’ in his name is believed to have been a Christian name. He was a practising Christian for long and, many years later ‘reconverted’ to Hinduism at the instance of the Paramacharya of Kanchi! Tongues have since wagged about the initial conversion to Christianity and many theories abound.

Today, Chintamani is hardly noticed by passers by. But the tower, earlier a light cream and now a bright ochre, is plainly visible from the road. It serves as a reminder of the glorious lineage that once called Chintamani its home.

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