Madras week: Meet the awesome people who are preserving the city's historical artefacts

You'll find anything from tram tickets to lamps in their collection.
Madras week: Meet the awesome people who are preserving the city's historical artefacts
Madras week: Meet the awesome people who are preserving the city's historical artefacts
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Scouring flea markets from across the country and proudly displaying their wares at exhibitions, some men toil to restore pieces of Madras, a few artefacts even dating back to the 1800s. 
Keeping a low profile and enjoying little to no publicity, these collectors often surface during the Madras week celebrations and speak passionately of what some may call a pastime. But to them, it’s an inseparable part of their lives. 

On the last day of a special exhibition on the trams of Madras, Winston Henry is a busy man. He’s showing a few people around the exhibit but doesn’t hesitate to answer a call from anyone interested in his collection. Chirpily, he begins to explain his tryst with trams in his 9 years of collecting.

Winston Henry

Buildings were done, books were done – it was time to find a new subject of study. “Old books held the key to photographs, maps and clippings of newspapers,” he says. Access isn’t easy, but Winston has an easy leg in thanks to years of collecting and running his prized establishment – the W&H Book Search that houses 10,000 books. Note, Madras was the first in the country to have an electric tram system in 1895. 

A tram dating back to 1940.

Thus ensued a deep study into hand-drawn maps from the 1900s and tiny, yellowing ticket stubs. “It changes perspective. The Hotel Everest opposite the Ripon Building once had a tram running through and it was a beautiful sight,” Winston says. But the biggest repository of information and anecdotes came from people themselves who had traversed these trams and who spoke of the golden period with pride. 

“A friend’s colleague, who was an athlete, would take note of the train timings from Vepery, and the fascinating thing was, he didn’t take the tram. He would run along with the tram to see who would reach Vepery first,” he enthuses. 

A tram ticket stub from 1940 

At the time, the charming tram system easily seeped into local culture. “There was a popular short story about a man who was asked to buy quail from Moore Market and while he had kept the quail in the tram compartment on the way back, they burst out. His satire was focused on how everyone on the tram unitedly tried to capture the quail and missed their stops,” Winston recounts. 

The tram system was discontinued in 1953, but not without a protest. “Tram drivers, linemen, all the workers who were involved in the functioning of the system would beat a drum and go door to door asking for money. Not like collecting alms – they would keep a record of each person who gave them money,” he says. Tram workers also demanded that their Provident Fund be paid. 

“My wife calls it an addiction, and there is no space in my house,” laughs John Moses, an avid collector of lamps and clocks since the 1980s. As a young boy, Daniel was doted on by his grandfather, an accounts officer for the British Government stationed in Burma. He would bring home intricate lamps, entertaining John with stories on antiques.

John’s 20 years as a technician for a company came in handy after he began collecting. “I restore lamps, gramophones and clocks that I find in flea markets and small bazaars. Once, I bought a gramophone for Rs.3,000 and on opening it, I found rats just scampering around,” he says. But nothing disgusted John. “Rats don’t stop me. People who throw away these things are people who don’t have any love for them. They are better off in my hands.”

Daniel Moses with his lamp collection

One rare collectible is an iron horse that he managed to find in a small shanty in Pallavaram. “I paid Rs.2,300 for it and wondered why it was expensive. I discovered that Rajiv Gandhi used to play with the toy horse as a child,” he says. Another rare object was a rusting paper clip from Parker and Sons, dating back to 1845. There are only three of the kind – one with a private collector, one in the Fort St George museum and one with John.

This is no cheap hobby – a Miller lamp that sold for Rs.110 in 1980, now sells for Rs.4,000 apiece. But with the end of Moore Market – a major hub for antiques and all things rickety – John finds the market saturated. “The most faked item is a Rolex watch, usually from Lucknow or Faridabad,” he says. John has been duped by fakes many times, but his undeterred affection for antiques is as real as it gets.

Tucked away in a quaint building in the bustle of RA Puram, Govindaraju’s bookshop was once packed with 10,000 rare books. Now at the ripe age of 80, he has found a loving collector in Winston, whose bookshop currently houses all 10,000 of them. He has now started from scratch. “I started my collection in 1958 with Penguin’s penny paperbacks. Ramachandra Guha is an ardent fan of my shop and I have the first editions of Mahatma Gandhi’s “Harijan” newspaper and weekly “Young India.””

The first edition of Harijan, Mahatma Gandhi's weekly magazine.

Each of the numbered classics was swiftly bought by Govindaraju and the first ever book “Ariel” was in his hands. There’s been no looking back since. He has a wide collection of magazines and print ads of every single advertisement that appeared in Indian newspapers from the 60s to the 90s. “I can’t afford signature editions or first editions, but I do know that a rare book is not just one that I can hardly procure - it’s one that deserves the most love and care,” he grins. 

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