Registered with the Registrar of Newspapers for India under R.N.I 53640/91

Vol. XXVII No. 8, August 1-15, 2017

Strolling down our ‘Bond Street’

by Janaki Venkatraman

A great street, but what a road!

Kombai 1

The mess on OUR ‘Bond Street’. (Picures by S. Anwar.)

When Calvin Klein meets Kala Niketan across a much dug-up road, Chennai fashionistas feel they have arrived at the right place for their spot of exclusive shopping. Khader Nawaz Khan Road is a typical and perhaps sad example of a shopping avenue that could have been world class but, like so many places in Chennai, has fallen far below those expectations over the years.

It’s eleven o’ clock on a Saturday morning when I turn left from Nungambakkam High Road into Khader Nawaz Khan Road, Chennai’s only fashion street, and practically bumping one of the two roadside tea shops that welcome you to the avenue of haute couture and fine dining. Not a great introduction, I think, as I look at the two tea-on-wheels carts with their attendant garbage and scattering of hangers on. The soil around the tea carts is slushy with utensil washing and there is the growing litter of plastic cups and plates strewn around. The carts must serve good tea, because they have a good clientele of construction workers and office goers.

It is a small street, easy to walk through if it weren’t for the dreadful pitfalls of the road. It’s shaded too, not so much by trees as by the shadows of the high rise buildings on both sides. It’s difficult to imagine that just 25 years ago, this was one of the prettiest avenues in Chennai, flanked on both sides by sprawling bungalows with lovely gardens. “In fact, it was such a handsome residential street that the Madras Corporation added to its beauty by erecting a row of hedges along one side of the road,” recalls Robin Mehra, a long-time resident. I can still see the hedges, now boxed in by steel railings, but they are not as lush as they once doubtless were. Some of the boxed in spaces are barren, while others are overgrown. “Nobody even wants them any more,” remarks a store manager in the avenue. “We’d much rather they were removed and more space provided for parking, something this road badly needs. Come by in the evening and you can see cars parked bumper to bumper, creating traffic snarls and making it impossible for residents to drive their cars onto the main road.”

THE NAME

Khader Nawaz Khan was a Deputy Collector in the Revenue Department at the age of 25, which should be around 1881. He became a District Collector eventually.

I don’t think he was from the Carnatic family, but he is a descendant of Muhammad Abrar Khan who was one of Muhammad Ali Wallajah’s able commanders. Abrar Khan was made Governor of Madurai by Wallajah.

S. Anwar

Most residents of the street as well as the store personnel are vague about whom the street is named after. “Must have been some courtier of the Nawab of Arcot,” is the standard response. In fact, Khader Nawaz Khan was a civil servant in the British government in India. He came from a line of soldiers and statesmen who served the British East India Company. He himself retired as a Collector in the Revenue Department. After retirement, he set up a business venture that proved to be very successful and he became a wealthy man known for his philanthropic activities. It is possible that he bought tracts of land in this particular area and even lived here. Nungambakkam, in general, was a place where many Europeans and civil servants lived, in large colonial bungalows. Parallel to Khader Nawaz Khan Road are other streets with Muslim names, Aziz Mulk Road, Shafi Mohammed Road and so on, indicating that this part of Nungambakkam was favoured by Muslim families. S. Anwar, researcher of Muslim roots and culture in Tamil Nadu, says this trend continued and even at present there are many families of Keezhakkarai Muslims living in this area. Khader Nawaz Khan Road has always been known for its wealthy residents and exclusivity. That aura stayed with the street even after many of its residents decided that their bungalows were too difficult to maintain and that it would be more convenient to knock them down and build high-rise apartments in their place.

Picture 1

Tea shops on OUR ‘Bond Street’.

“That was in the 1980s and 90s,” recalls Mehra.”The ground floors of the new apartment blocks were leased out to shops while the residents lived in the upper floors. What none of us bargained for was how crowded this street would become after the opening of the shops! Imagine, there was a time when no car would turn into this street unless it belonged to someone living here. Now, the traffic is a nightmare!”

I look down the street and see the big ditches that have been dug to set right clogged and overflowing drains. Elsewhere, the road is in distress because of either construction activity, or because some agency or the other has dug it up to provide some urban convenience.

Anywhere else in the world, a street like this would have been carefully showcased. The road would have been neatly laid and kept spanking clean; the sidewalks would have been broad enough to allow for browsing shoppers and the odd café. It would have been a street on which you could shop, eat, have coffee with a friend, with a lot of pleasure and comfort. You can, of course, do all these things in Khader Nawaz Khan Road even now, but it will entail hopping over the potholes or keeping a sharp look out underfoot when strolling on the pavement.

Still, there is something about this place that entices, gives you a frisson of anticipation. Glamour beckons from the stores beyond the sidewalk. These are great boutiques, Evoluzione, Silkworm, Bhandej, Amrapali, Kala Niketan, Tina Vincent, Shilpa Vummutti, OMG the Label, Kilol, Atmosphere, the exclusive outlets for popular brands like Zodiac and Wills Lifestyle, Cotton World, Gaitonde, Biba… Not so long ago, the road had several stores for international brands, Louis Vuitton, Armani, Hugo Boss, Versace. These have all downed shutters and moved shop, perhaps to Delhi or Bangalore (where people actually buy stuff from these stores; in conservative Chennai, we look, gawp, and move on wondering who would buy such overpriced goods). There’s Calvin Klein, of course, and also a Tommy Hilfiger, but Burberry has found a saner location just a little beyond where the street curves right.

Similarly, two delightful stores in the area, The Good Earth (where the sheer beauty of handmade linen and handicrafts as well as their pricing makes your jaw drop) and the Ritu Kumar boutique are situated on the quieter Rutland Gate Road, parallel to Khader Nawaz Khan.

At the very edge of the street where it leads into Wallace Garden Road, is Apparao Galleries, one of Chennai’s oldest art galleries and a place you could spend several happy hours browsing. These are quiet avenues that are wonderful to roam in, for soaking in the atmosphere and for being surprised by tiny boutiques.

Back on Khader Nawaz Khan Road, Jean Francois of Naturally Auroville, one of the street’s most popular shops, is fuming, from the heat as well as frustration. “This street has been destroyed!” he exclaims, waving at the road outside the shop. He is dressed in khakis and a blue shirt that is soaked in perspiration. “We were one of the first to open shop here,” he recalls. “People loved coming here. Now more people visit our branch in Besant Nagar because the environment there is so much better.” While he is bending down to push aside a couple of crates of stock that have just arrived from Puducherry, I wander into the well- stocked shop. The shelves bulge with products from Auroville – leather goods, wooden artefacts, jewellery, toys and books, toiletries, jams, preserves and bakery products. You could spend a lot of time and money in this shop.

At the other end of the street, the Calvin Klein show room that overlooks the tea carts from a considerable height, seems well insulated against the mess outside. The air-conditioning is heavenly, the flooring smooth and spotless and the salesmen young and bland-faced, as well they should be as ordinary shoppers are likely to display extreme distress upon hearing the prices of the jeans and might need to be comforted and sent on their way smoothly.

Imagine, denim was invented for the working class, members of which can certainly not afford the low slung, pencil thin leg coverings that the brand sells. Next, they will over price sack cloth. Wait a second. They have already. It’s called jute, the finer versions of which cost the earth. But that’s all right, really. It’s nice to be in this cool shop and enjoy the posters of supremely fit young men in tight fitting jeans and listen to the salesmen tell you that the place gets crowded after sundown by VIPs (read film and television stars). “Dhanush shops here, so does Shantanu,” the salesman tells me. At the moment, however, I cannot see a single customer. The salesman sounds a little sheepish as he agrees, “We have a lot less footfalls than before. Sometimes it’s just three or four customers a day.”

One store that has no dearth of customers is the Haagen Daaz ice cream parlour next door. Families crowd the tables as children scream for one more scoop of something. The least scoop is priced at Rs.250. But then there is a fondue that costs Rs. 2500. The store manager complains about the chaos of the road outside, but agrees that he gets a lot of VIP customers who bring their children. Actor Surya brings his, Trisha brings her friends, politicians Mu.Ka.Alagiri and Dayanidhi Maran bring their entire families.

It’s a happy store, full of the flavours of warm chocolate and ice cream. Have a scoop of their Belgian chocolate ice cream. The rich, creamy chocolate slides coolly down your throat, releasing the happiest of flavours and taste.
(To be concluded)

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