There are cracks on the floor but the house wears them like proud scars.

Madras week Luz House a heritage bungalow that whispers stories of yesteryear Madras
Features Madras Day Friday, August 26, 2016 - 19:19

On a humid Madras afternoon, a light drizzle dots the path to two pristine white columns, blades of grass giving way as the drops tease the lawn. Ripples of granite shyly peek through the portico. “They’re called coping stones,” says Abhimanyu Prakashrao, a sixth generation proprietor of the Luz House. In a sense, it’s what the charming bungalow has done for over 250 years – coped. And how.

The lane leading into the regal structure in Mylapore is littered with cars and suburban apartments, nothing like the 100 acres of lush forest that faced the house 250 years ago. Luz, or the original Lutz, is said to have got its name when Portuguese priests were floundering in a storm and prayed to Mother Mary. The light that guided them was the place where the Luz Church was built. Portuguese barracks were stationed at the bungalow that was the Luz House.



First floor corridor

What was once barracks had then passed on to Moddaverapu Dera Venkataswami Naidu, the patriarch, who was a translator, then known as a dubash, to Parry & Co. The story goes that he became enormously wealthy from his business dealings as primary translator for the British and acquired twenty acres in Luz where the Luz House already existed.

In 1868, Venkata Mahipathi Naidu, more famously known as Buchi Babu, grew a fondness for cricket as a young boy. “Cricket then was seen as the white man’s, not the black man’s game, as they called us,” recounts Abhimanyu. His nannies took him to Chepauk, and he began playing between the two mango trees in front of its large portico. Taking on the British in a match after he outraged over not being able to use the MCC pavilion, he was part of the first all-Indian team to win against an all-British team in the South. Thus goes the story of the Father of South Indian Cricket.  He went on to found the Madras United Cricket Club. 




West wing

The Luz House itself has always remained within the family. 

“In the old days, wealthy patrons would invite artists to come and perform. They had bigwigs, like the governor of Madras, coming together to witness these events. It feels like we’ve come back to that past and we revisit it with every event," Abhimanyu says. But for all the openness, the bungalow emanates a reserved air. It's an exclusive space that still bears the weight of undeniable privilege and elitism in Madras society. 

But Buchi Babu as a character himself was one for open spaces and challenging the status quo. Cricket in Madras till he came along was an Englishman’s game. His dream of having a ground open to everyone for play was the start of the process through which the Chepauk grounds were freed of the MCC monopoly and, eventually, were leased by the Tamil Nadu Cricket Association. Naidu also challenged the social norms embodied in Madras cricket, such as the rule that forbade non-Europeans from enjoying the comforts of the pavilion during lunch and instead being left sitting under the shade of trees to eat lunch.




First Floor Hall

The house thereby became home to an illustrious family of sportspersons - Buchi Babu was proficient in riding, tennis and cricket, while his younger brother, Chitti Babu, was a tennis champion and a cricketer. Buchi Babu's three sons went on to play test cricket, and subsequent generations have played at the Ranji Trophy matches. 

Abhimanyu’s grandfather presented a fascinating contrast in terms of defining space –  he lived in a “room” at the back of his house that was a corrugated tin roof held together by four thin columns with a tiny fan and no walls. It was a minimalist idea of a breezy open space that carried no ostentation unlike the bungalow, but was extremely private. 




Stairway

Chequered tiles across the patio are creased with age, alternating across the house with red oxide flooring. Every room has its own whiff and warmth. The cream walls carry the weight of history – faded photographs of the family’s boastful past hang. 

Commercialisation hovers over the spaces, and has crept in by way of the doors, which have transformed from creaky shutters to studio glass. Knobs have been ordered from Jaipur to keep to the antiquity. Any wood is largely new and winding staircases have corroded over time.

 "Once, the foundation was shaky when a column had shifted in the process. And Kalpana Ahmed, the architect responsible for restoration, got to work re-laying the roof. She saw a crack, and swiftly called the engineer, spending 3-4 days trying to figure out what to do with it," Abhimanyu recalls.  A long green mat with a plastic cover that screams orange hangs over the treated pillar, and the plaster hardly shows.




Portico

A picture of five men positioned around a ginormous trophy pops from the walls. "At the hilt of the British empire, the Raja of Kolanka was an amateur polo player who felt insulted that he wasn’t recognized enough to be one of the greats. So what did he do? He satiated himself by making one of the largest trophies in the world that could fill 10 bottles of champagne," he laughs. 

Cracks run across the floor brazenly flashing the wear of the house like proud scars instead of shameful bruises.  Abhimanyu believes it goes with the weathered look. He shares a whimsical moment of the past. "Once, my grandfather hosted a few people and they were wary of old houses because they were hubs for ghosts, or so they believed. My father and brother cut up two white sheets to scare the living daylights out of them," he says with a grin. 



South wing

The rear end of the house is a revelation of what it was, with moist patches from the rain crowding around the mud walls. Windows and bricks are neatly stacked around the backyard that was once used by Hindustan Motors. The blue paint on the mud walls is peeling away with touches of moss scrawling across the space. “This is the part of the house that’s most worn down and needs a lot of work, but it’s also the one that has the most character,” Abhimanyu observes. 

The house is precariously sunken by at least three inches, forcing the roots to burst and creep along the walls. “To preserve the walls without uprooting the trees remains the biggest challenge,” Abhimanyu says. A large house sinking is usually attributed to the urbanizing of a space and better draining system - streets and sidewalks are built at a level above the prevailing grade so the sewers could drain by gravity. But no heritage, judiciously treated with love and affection, can sink under its own weight. 

All pictures by The Luz House.

Show us some love! Support our journalism by becoming a TNM Member - Click here.