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Vol. XXIX No. 1, April 16-30, 2019

Lost Landmarks of Chennai

-by Sriram V

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Tower, Annanagar

Chennai’s First Trade Centre

I owe a big thank you to Tripurasundari Sevvel for having led me to locate a lost landmark that I had been searching for, for several years. In terms of heritage it may not be all that old, just about 51 years or so. But to me it brought back precious memories of an outing in childhood.

The Chennai of today goes to attend trade fairs and exhibitions at the Nandambakkam Convention Centre. But when such events first made an appearance in the city, they were all held in what was known then as West Madras. This was a vast stretch of land, with the Ambattur Industrial Estate and the TVS factories being the only entities of any significance in the near vicinity. The space technically belonged to Naduvakkarai and Mullam villages.
I must have been five, when my parents took me to the Handloom Expo held at this place. That was in 1971 or may be 1972. The whole event is of course hazy in the extreme in my memory but what I recall clearly is a longish car journey down an empty stretch of road with bungalows set deep in gardens on either side. In the deepening darkness, I can still recall seeing a watchman switching on a light in a portico. This I now imagine, was Nungambakkam High Road. I can also recall a statue of a giant Ayyanar playing a drum. And finally, a walk up the tall structure that I know for sure is the one named after Sir M. Visveswarayya and located in the present day Anna Nagar Tower Park.

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Mural, Annanagar

This was of course not the first event to be held at that place. That honour goes to the India International Trade and Industries Fair of 1968, sponsored by the All India Manufacturers Association. It was the culmination of a decade and a half of effort to put what was then Madras State on the industrial map of India. True, the city had historically been the capital of the largest Presidency in the country in colonial times. But its industrial development lagged behind Calcutta and Bombay. It was only in 1954, with K. Kamaraj becoming Chief Minister of the State that the situation began to change. A dynamic team, comprising chiefly C. Subramaniam as Minister for Law, Education and Finance, and R. Venkataraman (from 1957 onwards) as Minister for Labour, Cooperation, Power, Transport, Industries and Commercial Taxes, worked with the Chief Minister in making Madras an industrial hub. It helped that for much of this period TT Krishnamachari was a Minister at the Centre.

With a slew of power projects being commissioned in the State, the impetus was on manufacturing. In 1958, the country’s first industrial estate came up in Guindy. This was followed by the one at Ambattur in 1964. More and more manufacturing establishments set up base in the city and the State and by 1964, when Kamaraj ceased being Chief Minister, the pace had been set. Thus when talks began for an international trade fair to be held in India, Madras was a natural choice, with Bangalore being a close contender. In ensuring that our city was selected an important role was played by KSG Haja Shareef, then Vice Chairman and Executive Director of the All India Manufacturers Association.

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Entrance Arch and the drumming Ayyanar

The Trade Fair was scheduled to be held from January 12 to February 17, 1968. The Congress lost the 1967 elections to the State Assembly and the DMK came to power, with CN Annadurai as the Chief Minister. It was therefore under his guidance and with the support of V.R. Nedunchezian, then Industries Minister, that the fair was held. Owing to the Second International Tamil Conference being held in January, the Trade Fair’s inauguration was postponed to January 21, 1968, the show lasting till March 11.

The Fair was thrown open by V.V. Giri, then Vice-President of India. Two hundred acres of land had been allotted to the event, which saw international and local participation. The overseas companies were largely from countries then friendly to India – the Eastern Bloc, with agreements for rupee trade. All the States of India put up stalls as well. Even in 1967, with the DMK in power, the area came to be known as Anna Nagar and that is how it would be referred to for all time to come. The Trade Fair saw huge crowds descending on it on almost all the days it was held. The event itself was deemed a huge success and held up as an example of what other States ought to be doing.

The venue and its design came in for great praise. Welcoming visitors were four entrances, each in one of the cardinal directions. These had a low concrete arch, done in the modernist style. Central to the Fair was the International Tower that rose to a height of 135 feet with a ramp going up to the summit. It is interesting that the first ever Industries Exhibition in Madras, held in 1915, had a similar tower, made of wood. For a fee you could climb to the top and get a panoramic view of the exhibition. The tower of 1968, made of RCC served the same purpose.

With exhibition getting over, the area was designated as a permanent centre for such events, which is how the expo I attended in 1972 also came to be there. But the area was already developing into the vast housing colony of Anna Nagar. Several facilities were coming up. The area around the Tower developed into a park. The structure itself came to be named after Sir M. Visveswarayya and remains so till now. The Thailand Pavilion became the Ladies Club and as for the Kerala Pavilion, that became the Malayali Club. By 1979, all ideas of this being a trade fair facility had been given up.

Driving up and down this area, I had all along wondered as to where I had once seen the exhibition. That was until I read a report on Tripurasundari’s work. A phone call to her and I was on my way. I located the eastern entrance to the trade fair, and also the giant Ayyanar. Close by was a bonus find, thanks to Tripurasundari – a giant concrete wall on which is a striking mural of a powerfully-built man hammering away and forging something on an anvil. Behind him is a toothed wheel and also an industrial shed. A lifting mechanism dangles in front and at the rear is an electrified transmission pole. Also seen are factory chimneys. Such murals were common in the 1960s, very much influenced by Soviet art. This must have been a part of the welcoming arch to the Trade Fair.

The Tower Park is thriving, well patronised by locals. The Tower too is very well kept. I wish the same could be said of the inaugural plaque of the Trade Fair, which, now embedded in a wall of the Tower, is covered with graffiti.

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