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Vol. XXIX No. 3, May 16-31, 2019

Memories of Muthiah and Madras Musings

V.S. Raghavan, ‘Rags’ to friends, worked during the initial years of Madras Musings with S. Muthiah. He has sent us some of his recollections of those times and we publish them below.

It all began with picking up a copy of MM in ’92/’93 and I was hooked. It so happened that the same issue had an advertisement for a freelance photographer and I applied, photography being a passion, especially street and travel photography that portrayed the human condition. I soon found myself in a house down Vijayaraghava Lane and the rest is history. Mr. Muthiah would call every other day asking me to check a heritage building somewhere or meet someone who had a bond with Madras, and I would be off taking pictures and at times writing snippets.

Muthiah once told me that K.S. Anwar’s pictures were technically perfect, and they truly were while mine were not really there. It was an era when colour film and the coin slot labs were taking over the planet and the lowly B&W lab I knew in Mylapore was doing the best it could. Then someone introduced me to Kannappan in Adyar and his processing and printing was class – and Muthiah was most impressed. Kannappan would let me into his darkroom and watch him at his dodge and burn techniques. Kannappan passed on later…

* * *

Mr. Muthiah got me permission to take pictures inside Victoria Public Hall, near Ripon Building. While the Hall itself was intact, although dusty and ill-maintained, almost all the wall-mounted fans were missing, only the cast iron brackets remained along with some wooden chairs and benches. The foundation stone laid in 1887 was on the eastern wall half-buried under mud, and the caretaker helped to dig away a portion so the text could be seen. He then asked me if I wanted to climb up to the steeple tower, which I most enthusiastically did. Some of the wooden steps were missing and some two storeys up the stairs, to my horror, I flushed a whole colony of bats dozing in the rafters. They began screeching and flying all over the stairs. Never had I descended a staircase that fast! It was no wonder that the caretaker, who otherwise accompanied me throughout the visit, preferred to stay away!

Muthiah then ran a centre spread of my pictures in Madras Musings, it was a first in the magazine.

* * *

The sprawling Standard Charted Bank campus on College Road/Haddow’s Road once housed a single mansion among the trees. When the new structures were being built, the architect Chitale Associates (I think), drew a blueprint of the campus, marking all the old trees, and then built the buildings in-between the trees ! What a wonderful way to preserve the environment and the ambience, and yet give the campus the old lived-in look, even with the new buildings – Amazing!

To shoot the pictures of the campus, I had to access the terrace of the 9-storey residential complex opposite Stanchart on Haddows Road. If I remember right, P.M. Belliappa of the Polution Control Board lived in this residential complex and he got me the permission to access their terrace.

* * *

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From his car, driven by his driver of many years, Malairaj, Mr. Muthiah would on occasions scout around for funny signboards and send me over to take pictures – although this one is completely my own discovery! I was driving down Eldams Road when I saw this sign – a haircutting saloon, which advertised ‘Step cutting and Boob cutting’ (see along side). The picture was published in MM without hesitation! I lost the original photo and had to trawl through the MM archives to find this one!

* * *

Somewhere at Mirsahibpet Market in Triplicane, there is a cemetery for the Chinese citizens of Madras. Naturally, Mr. Muthiah knew about it all the while and so asked me to go over to take some photos. The cemetery was obscured by pavement shops, the rusted gate was locked, and I asked a shopkeeper how to get in there. She said “just scale the wall” and so I did. Once inside I was taking photos of the gravestones when three men also scaled the wall and joined me. They looked tough and the lead man, wearing a towel around his shoulders, asked what I was up to – when I gave him my credentials, he seemed convinced. Then his towel slipped off his shoulder and I noticed he had only one arm. I should not have, I don’t know why, but I still asked him what happened – he said he lost his arm in an aruval (sickle) fight. Never have I scaled a wall faster to get back home.

Muthiah loved these little anecdotes I related to him from my escapades ‘on assignment for MM’ !!

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This all-metal Deer on wheels is a relic from the days of the Raj, parked inside Children’s Park, Guindy. Why on wheels you would ask – this larger than life deer is made of heavy metal plate and mounted on railway wheels. On researching more for MM, I came to know that this was actually a metal target that ran on rail tracks inside Guindy National Park/Raj Bhavan. Meant for moving target practice, British soldiers stationed here would stand broadside to the target and fire at the ‘running deer’ that was pulled on a long rope by our Indian sepoys (!) hiding in the bushes out of harm’s way. If you did examine the ‘Deer’ closely, you could find holes made by bullets that drilled right through the 12mm plate! My story was published in MM – I lost the my original photo and this one is courtesy off the Internet. Do visit Children’s park and examine this relic yourselves!

* * *

Mr. Muthiah sent me to the IMH (the Institute of Mental Health) at Kellys sometime in the ’90’s – the Great Man told me clearly no pictures of the inmates, just those 150+ year old heritage buildings. I was taken around the sprawling campus by a Doctor who told me that they were once sending out invites for a convention of Psychiatrists to be held at IMH, and the clerk, in haste, dumped a few invites without postage stamps into the post box and the addressees had to pay for the postage — the doctor quipped that the addressees may have remarked that this was indeed the true Mental hospital, including the Admin staff.

* * *

Mr. Muthiah sent me to interview and take pictures of a medical practitioner in Royapettah. I met the daughter at the entrance and introduced myself. She yelled out to her father upstairs that someone from Madras Nuisance was at the door

* * *

During the hellish summer days in Madras, the traffic policemen were issued pith helmets to keep their heads cool. Mr. Muthiah asked me to find a policeman wearing one and I found a specimen at the Alwarpet/Luz Church Road junction. I spoke to him and he readily agreed to pose for photos. He stood against the backdrop of the Alwarpet Post Office on Mowbrays Road – before the Alwarpet flyover was built – and I shot some pictures. While talking to me, he referred to his summer headgear as peethattu – making that sound gross like a plate full of shit. Well, pith hat spoken rapidly became peethattu.

Eventually the policeman became a familiar face and we waved out to each other whenever our paths crossed.

* * *

While on assignment for MM searching for a side street at Parry’s corner – long before smart phones and Google maps, I asked a fruit vendor at his pushcart for directions – He asked to me to take the street next to Bombay MUTTAAL building. Mutually, we both knew what he meant!

* * *

There was this lady jockey that the Mr. Muthiah had heard off and I got in touch with her. For some odd reason she could not come to the racetrack for pictures, so we agreed to do her photos at her home in Saidapet. She was not dressed like a jockey as I would have liked, but wanted to look like ‘the girl next door’ in a shirt and jeans. I had also taken pictures for MM at Parrys of a lady who ran a freight forwarding company. Well, the photos got mixed up and Mr. Muthiah called me on my landline – this was 1994 I think – asking me which of the two ladies rode a horse and which one did not !

It was then when I came to understand that horse racing is one of the few sports where men can compete with women – apart from male and female horses competing together that is.

* * *

Sometimes I wrote and did the pictures, and sometimes Mr. Muthiah would assign the story part to Vekatachari Jagannathan. Between Jagan and I we became a formidable team – like Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein of the Watergate scandal fame ! Mr. Muthiah , how did he ever get to research so much – told us that Martin Luther King had visited Madras and inaugurated a community centre near Mamallapuram. So Jagan and I hit the road on my Ind-Suzuki Motorbike. Halfway to Mahabs we had a flat tire. The intrepid Jagan borrowed a cycle from a nearby coconut vendor, pedalled all the way to the nearest puncture shop, pedalled back with a mechanic as pillion, and to cut a long story short – we were on the road to Tirukazhugukundram soon and found the hamlet, which Dr. MLK had visited. The community centre was in complete ruins – not surprising how the powers that be here respect such places worth preserving – except for the granite plaque that bore testimony to the great civil rights leader’s visit to Madras

* * *

When I was visiting Sri Lanka in ’94, Mr. Muthiah referred me to his friends in Colombo and I got in touch with them. In no time I got an invite one evening for drinks and dinner hosted by his pals, and the guest of honour was me (!) a friend of Muthu’s from India! Oh man, did they regale me with stories from ‘Muthu’s days in Colombo’! In his heyday, and well beyond ‘Muthu’ was indeed a fun person with an acute sense of humour.

* * *

No snippet series of mine can be complete without mention of my visit to Armenian Church, on Armenian Street, on assignment for MM. I met the caretaker and keeper of the faith, a Mr. George Gregorian, and after referring Madras Musings and Muthiah, got down to talking to the man before shooting pictures. For a man of God, Gregorian was most cantankerous and edgy and seemed to take an instant dislike to me. In all fairness Muthiah did warn me of the man’s short temper, but a priest who swore in foul language? Once I got my pictures done I remembered what Muthiah had told me – “if Gregorian is in a good mood, ask him and he will ring the church bell for you”. So I summoned my inner courage and asked – Mr. Gregorian promptly booted me outside and asked me to “get lost and come back another day”.

When I told Muthiah of my escapade at the Armenian Church, his belly rocked with laughter and he remarked ” I told you so”!

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