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Vol. XXXIII No. 5, June 16-30, 2023

The Panagal Park I knew

-- by Vaidyanathan Seshan

A few days ago, I was travelling with my friend through Panagal Park. To be honest I was amazed (pattikattan pattanam parkara madhiri – like a bumpkin in a city) looking around searching for some known names. My expectation may not have been fair because I was visiting the place after a few decades. This was one of the most sought-after places those days with broad roads surrounding Panagal Park.

The entrance to the park is on the eastern side. When you stand there you can see the towering structure of one of the most prominent schools of T. Nagar – Sri Ramakrishna Mission Boys School (Main) in the south east on Bhashyam Road. Many are illustrious alumni. Moving towards south while taking a right into Nageswara Rao Road, T. Nagar residents (I mean those who grew up in T. Nagar and long-time residents) would certainly recall the presence of T. Nagar Social Club which was at the corner of Venkatnarayana Road, Thirumalai Book Stores (none of the students would be able to forget the shop), Parklands Hotel, popular for its Masal Dosai and Rose Milk and of course ice cold water in glasses in sharp contrast to the then popular aluminium tumblers. Wood Lands Hotel (not the original woodlands I suppose) came up in the corner, but with limited success. The Parklands Hotel building was bought over by Nallis and currently there is a garments shop belonging to them.

The Raja of Panagal’s statue at Panagal Park.

Visitors to Madras would invariably ask for Nalli Silks and this was not surprising as the silk retailer has a well-deserved reputation across India. I have taken some of my friends from Bombay and Calcutta to Nallis. The old building (thankfully the old structure remains and few old employees as well) with excellent air-conditioning and a nice fragrance is a unique experience. The hospitality still continues in the same way and people do not hesitate to spend time inside. When you stepped out of Nallis after finishing purchases, there was a bus stop which was very convenient for people going to West Mambalam and Ashok Nagar areas. Another nice aspect was the presence of vendors just outside Nallis, selling jasmine flower strands tempting people to buy. An interesting point to note is that none of the autos or taxis would be willing to ply towards West Mambalam or Ashok Nagar those days and they would always demand double the fare stating they had to return empty. People would pay grudgingly, particularly if they were laden with shopping bags.

Adjacent to Nallis were T.B. Jewellers, Galada, Vummidiars and Kumaran Silks. There used to be a marriage hall – Sugan Vihar. How can one forget Gem Pens, one of the oldest establishments? And they were experts in the business. It is quite sad it is missing. Softy Ice cream in cone used to be a craze those days and Laxmi Softy Ice Cream immediately after Gem Pens catered to the residents of T. Nagar, West Mambalam and Ashok Nagar.

Moving towards west, we used to have Bombay General Stores where you could source items such as Kashmiri Chillis which were generally not available in the normal provision stores. Universal Bakery was where you could buy fresh bread and nice cakes. Cone Cake with a cherry on top of the cake and bun-butter-jam sourced from Universal stores would be very tasty. Many people still remember K. Ramanathan & Co opposite Nageswara Rao Road which specialised in silver utensils. It is a bit disappointing so many of the shops which were prominent a few decades ago have now gone.

Come summer, one shop which used to be extremely busy was Sugan, authorised sellers of Binny, for school uniforms. Since T. Nagar had many schools within a radius of a kilometre from Panagal Park, Sugan managed to gain the patronage of them all. There was a tailor – M.A. Kesavan just outside Sugan who specialised only in uniforms. There was also a shop selling ground nuts. Canara Bank T. Nagar Branch was housed in a big building and I am not sure if the Branch exists there now. The first floor of this building was where Canara Bank Sri Sri Ravi ShankarJi’s Yoga sessions used to happen three / four decades ago. The next compound was a sprawling area of few acres where the famous RKM Sarada Vidyalaya Girls High School still exists. I am not sure about the current size of the compound.

The western side of Panagal park had the Vegetables and Fruits market (Usman Road) which was well known for its high-quality of produce. The elite of Madras would always prefer to visit Panagal Park market. There was enough space for parking those days and the driver, sometimes accompanied by a servant would go with the bags and the list. The shopkeeper would fill up the bags and carry them to the respective Car/s. The shopkeepers were not accustomed to bargaining. Apart from the elite of Madras, Panagal Park market also used to have film personalities of yesteryears visiting the market for their vegetables, fruits etc and many times I have seen Sowcar Janaki and K.R. Vijaya.

Moving towards north, when you take a right into Prakasam Road, we had Venkateswara Vivaha Mandir, Yogalakshmi Kalyana Mandapam and Devendra Kalyana Mandapam. It is quite difficult to imagine how so many Kalyana Mandapams (although they were not big by current standards, they were affordable) existed surrounding Panagal Park which was accessible to people by bus and train (Mambalam Station was close by) and none of these exist today. Obviously, they have been converted into commercial complexes (not very successful though) and if I am not mistaken also residential flats. One more prominent building is the T. Nagar Branch of Indian Bank, and it continues to exist as it happens to be the Bank’s own building. Adjacent to Indian Bank in the corner of Prakasam Road there is a school run by the Corporation of Madras. A series of bus stops which used to be there those days still continues to exist, as all the buses plying from T. Nagar, Ashok Nagar and from Vadapalani would stop here. Prakasam Road curves and leads to G.N. Chetty Road. When you take a right into Bashyam Road, the corner building on the left opposite Panagal Park used to be the Corporation Building. The building currently houses the T. Nagar Police Station which has moved from the original location in Pondy Bazaar. Just opposite Panagal Park is Sir Thyagaraya Road which leads to Pondy Bazaar and to Teynampet. It is appalling to see that the width of road has been compromised to give way for huge footpaths as it is one of the identified places for the smart city project. Development and improvement are always welcome but it should also take into account practicality.

Ultimately it all depends on the people frequenting and who have a sense of belonging to ensure that the place retains its charm. People belonging to Gen Y and Z would certainly not believe that so many different businesses existed as they are only used to ‘Saravana Stores’ and Pothy’s and RMKV etc. I would not blame them either. But I am quite stunned with the rapid change which has happened and is still happening constantly. I am not sure what further changes are in store with Metro work happening in the area.

However, I still feel the flyover on Usman Road is an eyesore and am not sure how many old (original) residents of T. Nagar would disagree with me. In my opinion, it has only made matters worse with too much congestion and the entire area has lost its charm. Perhaps my expectation is weird because my understanding of development is outdated and expecting all the old charm to remain the same is far-fetched.

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