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

Vol. XXVIII No. 12, October 1-15, 2018

LOST LANDMARKS OF CHENNAI

- SRIRAM V

A special for Gandhi Jayanthi

Where a Governor’s Lady & the Gandhis were hosted

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Luz Church 2nd Street, that was once Amjad Baugh.

In the early 1900s, a Mylapore vakil‘s success was estimated based on his address. The beginners and those who were forever fated to remain in the bottom-rungs of law resided at Chitrakulam. Greater prosperity meant moving into Nadu Street. A fairly large practice saw them taking up residence at Pelathope and North/South/East Mada Streets. The truly big ones made it to Luz Church Road and beyond. Among those who belonged to the last category was Sriman Srinivasa Iyengar. The son-in-law of Sir V. Bhashyam Iyengar, he had begun life in law under the latter and later apprenticed himself under V. Krishnaswami Iyer. He became one of the giants of the Madras Bar by 1908 or so. The residence in North Mada Street not proving to be sufficient, the search began in right earnest for a house that would reflect his status.

Srinivasa Iyengar zeroed in on Amjad Baugh on Luz Church Road by 1910. Its previous ownership is not recorded and it has been guessed from the name that the property probably belonged to Muslim nobility. Ambujammal, well-known patriot and daughter of Srinivasa Iyengar, recalls in her memoirs, Naan Kanda Bharatam, the day her father took his family to see the house. There were any number of trees all around the vast compound, which, according to legend, spread over 150 grounds (eight acres and a bit more). The house had a colonnaded verandah running all around it and the rooms inside, though few in number were truly enormous. She also recalled that the property had no compound wall. A line of tamarind trees marked the boundary, with the space between them was filled in by lantana bushes.

The children loved it. Not so impressed was Ranganayaki, Srinivasa Iyengar’s wife. It was not as though she objected to the size or was awed by it. After all, her father, Sir V Bhashyam Iyengar, lived in Lakshmi Vilas, a property of comparable proportions on Luz Church Road itself. The kitchen, she noted, was quite some distance from the main house. The residence proper too, she said, was quite dilapidated. But soliciting his wife’s views was just a formality for Srinivasa Iyengar. He went ahead with the purchase. Repairs were done and a new kitchen, closer to the house, was built, with the old one becoming the cowshed.

Living in such a large bungalow was not stress-free however. The loneliness, after the more intimate surroundings of North Mada Street, was frightening. The garden threw up its challenges by way of a regular supply of snakes, several of which were poisonous. The three ponds in the premises filled up during the rains and became home to a colony of frogs that kept the occupants of the house awake throughout the night with their croaking. Luz Church Road was so quiet that any woman that braved it by walking alone would be robbed of her jewels. Even the meagre possessions of the poor women who came from the neighbouring village of Bheemannapet, to gather fallen leaves and scrub wood, were not spared. Riots would often break out between the residents of the neighbouring villages of Bheemannapet and Mandaiveli. At other times, cholera and small pox epidemics would rage through these hamlets and Luz Church Road would become a route for a series of funeral processions.

Amjad Baugh did not bring much happiness to its occupants. Srinivasa Iyengar was a short-tempered man who dominated his family. His wife had several health issues. Daughter Ambujammal had a troubled marriage, her husband suffering a nervous breakdown shortly after the wedding. Moving into Amjad Baugh from the small town of Kumbakonam was not easy for him. Srinivasa Iyengar’s son suffered an accident that left him disabled in one leg. In later years, a grandson died in a freak accident – electrocution while trying to play the radio in the midst of a thunderstorm. A brooding miasma hung over the place, which affected subsequent generations as well.

Srinivasa Iyengar became the Advocate General of Madras, in 1915. The grounds of Amjad Baugh hosted several official parties thereafter. Most notable was a visit of Lady Pentland, the Governor’s wife, for a ladies’ evening. The Government House band played and catering was from Harrison’s, of Broadway. In sharp contrast was the reception given to Mahatma Gandhi and Kasturba, when they were served boiled peanuts, apples, oranges, grapes, an assortment of dry fruits, buttermilk, coconut water and the South Indian panakam. Almost everyone invited – and this included several Englishmen – turned up, such was their curiosity to see Gandhi. The women were all indoors and most of them were bedecked and bejewelled in honour of Kasturba. Much to their shock, she was in the simplest of clothes and her only ornaments were iron bangles as worn by Gujarati peasant women. Gandhi too was in traditional Gujarati gear – kurta, dhoti and turban.

Gandhi brought much peace to a troubled household. He became an honoured guest in 1925, when he, and his wife, stayed at Amjad Baugh for several days. The household gave up all orthodoxy and threw its doors open to freedom fighters of all castes and religions. Srinivasa Iyengar, who was already a member of the Congress, became more involved in the freedom movement, and in the aftermath of the Jallianwala Bagh massacre, chose to resign from the post of Advocate General. He was elected to the Legislative Council in Delhi. Ambujammal became a staunch Gandhian, and in the 1930s, much against her father’s wishes, courted imprisonment. Released in 1934, she became a full-fledged freedom fighter and social worker. In 1941, following her father’s death, she chose to donate her extensive collection of jewels to the Congress party. Post Independence, she chaired the Madras Social Welfare Board and founded the Srinivasa Gandhi Nilayam.

Amjad Baugh was depleted of much of the family members by the late 1940s. Ambujammal had moved to Alwarpet where a street would later be named after her, the one parallel to it being named after her father.

Her brother, Parthasarathy, who had a successful career in insurance, chose a life of spirituality following his son’s death, referred to above. Becoming a renunciate, he founded a hermitage in the name of his tutelary deity Vaishnavi at Tirumullaivayil, which flourishes even today.

The land surrounding Amjad Baugh was sold by his descendants and made way for plenty of houses. By the 1990s, even the main house became a distant memory, no trace of it surviving. The space where it once stood is now a cul-de-sac off Luz Church Road.

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