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Vol. XXX No. No. 12, October 16-31, 2020

Lost Landmarks of Chennai

The Story of Sweet Home

Today, the property is a landmark of the city, for it is where the Music Academy stands. But what is interesting is that this is one parcel of land that has maintained the same contours since 1875 or so. And it has a long and interesting history even before the Music Academy came to buy the place. For the record, the old colonial bungalow that stood there was named Sweet Home. In the Academy archives there are some surviving photographs of it, from which it is possible to imagine its grandeur.

The Corporation records show that this property in 1875 belonged to George E. Pazold and was bounded on the west by lands belonging to the Mathu (Madhava) Perumal Temple and by farms on all other sides. In 1881 it was acquired by Eudora, wife of Alfred Faciole, “a merchant of Broadway.” This was clearly the proprietor of M. Faciole & Co, which firm appeared to have dealt with piece goods and bric a brac. Sweet Home was not for long with the Facioles and by 1888 we find the new owner to be Mount Venugopala Pillai, son of Mount Annasami Pillai, Telegraph Master of the Government of Madras. While it is not clear as to why the family had the prefix Mount, what is known is that after the progenitor who was into telegraph his descendants were businessmen with interests in Madras and Vijayawada.

In 1900, Venugopala Pillai having died, his descendants partitioned the property among themselves but it was all consolidated soon thereafter in the hands of his sons Mount Ethiraja Pillai and Parankusam Pillai. It is not known as to whether Venugopala Pillai constructed Sweet Home or whether it dated to the time of George Pazold or the Facioles. But there is no denying that it was a stately home of Madras, set in as per the reminiscence of Sangita Kalanidhi R. Vedavalli, extensive grounds full of trees. Interestingly, in what appears to be a forerunner of the Music Academy setting down roots here, the house was a centre for music performances even while the Pillai-s were in residence. Justice W.S. Krishnaswami Nayudu in his memoirs recalls attending concerts of artistes such as Bangalore Nagarathnamma and M.S. Subbulakshmi at Sweet Home, in the 1930s.

The magazine Madar Manoranjini in its issue of May 1901 carries a report in Tamil of a wedding that took place at the house. A rough translation is given below chiefly for the image it evokes of a Radhakrishnan Salai around 120 years ago:
We publish the report sent by our correspondent of a wedding at Sweet Home, the residence of Rao Bahadur Ethiraj Pillai who is well known for all the work he has done in the towns and zilla-s on the east coast of India. His son M.A. Gajapati Rao Pillai married Devaki, the youngest daughter of Thiruvenkatam Pillai. The costly presents and the presence of Pillai’s prominent friends, both local and international, only went to establish his prowess and fame. The house has been freshly painted and the garden spruced up. The first courtyard of the house was beautifully decorated with seats for the guests, serial lamps and punkahs wrapped in muslin hanging from the ceiling. Around 300 guests could be seated to listen to a music performance. Another room was made up for the event proper and this was decorated with beautiful paintings. This had a Japanned screen for ensuring the women guests had privacy. Among those who attended were the Hon’ble Sir V. Bhashyam Iyengar Kt. CIE, Raja Sir Savalai Ramaswami Mudaliar Kt. CIE, Dewan Bahadur S. Raghavachariar, Rao Bahadur M.A. Singarachariar, M. Veeraraghavachariar, Rao Bahadur Pattabhirama Iyer, Krishna Rao and others. All Annadana Samajam-s in Chennai were ordered to feed their inmates for three days at the family’s expense. Hundreds in Bezwada were fed and clothed while temples in that town had special worship conducted.

The property passed into the hands of Parankusam Pillai’s daughters, the subsequent documents describing Ethiraja Pillai as being without issue. It is likely that the couple who wedded in May 1901 did not live long. The inheritors were all married and living in T. Nagar by the 1940s and Sweet Home was empty. This was when it was offered on sale to the Music Academy. That august body was most reluctant, for the price was a steep Rs 1,12,000! It was the persuasive skill of Basheer Ahmed Sayeed, then a Committee Member and later a Vice President, that tilted the scales. The Academy borrowed from the Indian Bank and the property changed hands on May 15, 1946. The actual shift took more than a year though what was the cause of the delay is not clear. On August 15, 1947, the Academy observed Indian Independence by hoisting the national flag at the premises, a practice that continues till date on each Independence Day. It had a grihapravesam ceremony on the 28th of August. The Teachers’ College of Music, run by the Academy, shifted in and classes began to be held in the first floor thereafter.

Having taken possession, the Academy struggled to retain Sweet Home. It found the repayment of the loan quite tough. To augment its income, it rented the ground floor to the Shakti Press of V. Govindan, the pioneering publisher who did much to compile all of Subramania Bharathi’s poems and bring them out as one volume. This tenancy was not a happy one for Govindan’s finances were parlous at best and finally he had to be asked to leave. The Academy however did not use Sweet Home for its December conference, used as it was to auditoriums by then. The concerts continued to be held at the R.R. Sabha as they had been since 1942 while the academic sessions happened at the prayer hall of the Lady Sivaswami Iyer Girls School. But monthly performances were held at Sweet Home, with the doors and windows kept open – the surroundings were so quiet that concerts could happen without any disturbance. On such occasions, the building, lit up at night, would present an ethereal sight.

It had all along been the vision of the Academy that it would one day pull down Sweet Home to build an auditorium. That became feasible by the mid 1950s and on October 5, 1955, Pt. Jawaharlal Nehru laid the foundation stone, followed by a concert by M.S. Subbulakshmi. By then it would appear that Sweet Home had been fully demolished for the photos show the event being held at an open site. Earlier on the morning of October 5, Secretaries Dr. V. Raghavan and C.K. Venkatanarasimham had officiated at a formal bhumi puja. The Academy’s auditorium would be completed by 1962 and in the interim, it held its annual conferences at a pandal in the P.S. High School Grounds.

Sweet Home it would appear had some music to see it off the premises. The movie mogul S.S. Vasan who lived next door and who was also the Academy’s Vice-President, hired the empty site to conduct the wedding of his son Balasubramanian. The event was filled with music, the nagaswaram being by the maestro T.N. Rajarathinam Pillai. He was a dying man but he made it and gave of his best. There was also a concert by Ariyakkudi Ramanuja Iyengar.

Surviving photographs of Sweet Home reveal plenty of slatted windows, wooden flooring, high ceilings, trellis work on the verandahs and a balcony with bellied balusters. There was also a large courtyard surrounded by pillars and as Vedavalli recalls, a kitchen the size of a modern-day flat. There were also magizham trees whose flowers carpeted the entire ground. Today all that remains of that old building is a perenial well.

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