The Chennai landmarks that define Dravidian history

From Victoria Public Hall to Valluvar Kottam, we take you on a tour of the places and streets where the Dravidian movement took shape.
Victoria hall, Valluvar kottam and Anna square
Victoria hall, Valluvar kottam and Anna square
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With less than three weeks left for the elections, candidates have hit the campaign trails. While we watch the events as they unfold, we thought we’d take you on another trail. A historical and anecdote-filled journey across the city of Chennai, stopping at some of the notable places where the Dravidian movement took shape, at different points in time.

Madras, which was the capital of the Madras Presidency that encompassed most of south India during British rule, became the birthplace of the Dravidian movement in the early 20th century. And the city that it has become today, Chennai, continues to hold significant historical remnants from the movement. Some have been lost to time, while others have been transformed.

We’re familiar with roads, statues and neighbourhoods named after Dravidian stalwarts such as Periyar EV Ramasamy, CN Annadurai, M Karunanidhi, and later popular leaders such as MG Ramachandran, and J Jayalalithaa, but there are landmarks in the city that hold stories connected to the Dravidian movement. Let’s start with the formation of the Justice Party.

This takes us to Citi Centre Mall on Radhakrishnan Salai. The space where the building stands was once a coconut grove. According to Chennai’s heritage expert and editor of The Madras Musings, Sriram V, “It was in a coconut grove that stood here that the South Indian Liberal Federation aka the Justice Party had its birth.” It was here that members, who would later go on to form the party, convene and hold their meetings.

The Justice Party was, however, officially established at Victoria Public Hall, a stunning red-brick building that’s in Park Town, on 20 November 1916 by three gentlemen — Dr C Natesa Mudaliar, TM Nair and P Theagaraya Chetty. The party itself was the culmination of efforts to bring about equal representation in education and administrative fields in a society that was, unapologetically, dominated by Brahmins.

Victoria Public Hall | Image courtesy: wikimedia commons

P Theagaraya Chetty, one of Justice Party’s founding members, also lent his name to a popular neighbourhood in the city, that is now better known as T Nagar. Historian, photographer and writer Kombai S Anwar shares a big chunk of history that is associated with Theagaraya Nagar. “Theagaraya Nagar, popularly known by its abbreviated form T Nagar, was created as an urban suburb of Madras during the 1920s by the Madras Presidency government, led by the Raja of Panagal, of the Justice Party. The town was named after Justice Party leader Sir Pitti Theagaraya Chetty, while the streets, parks and localities in the new neighbourhood were named after important members of the Justice party,” he shares.

“Localities in T Nagar were named after prominent personalities such as the Raja of Panagal (Panagal Park), Dr C Natesa Mudaliar (Natesan Park), Sir Muhammad Usman (Usman Road), WPA Soundara Pandianar (Pondy Bazar). Soundara Pandianar took the bold step of cancelling licenses of bus services that did not allow Dalits to board them,” he adds.

Then there were other Justice Party leaders like Thanikachalam Chetty, Thirumalai Pillai, GN Chetty, and Venkatanarayana whose names have also been etched on T Nagar roads. 

The heart of the Justice Party, however, lies in the older neighbourhoods of Chennai. The first mid-day meal was served at a corporation school in the Thousand Lights locality. Theagaraya Chetty, who served as the President of the Corporation between 1919 and 1923, is credited with the idea of introducing the mid-day meal scheme in the city. Then there’s Theagaraya College in Old Washermanpet, founded by Theagaraya Chetty in 1897 as an educational institute. A portion of Theagaraya Chetty’s once-palatial house still remains on Balu Street in Old Washermanpet, marked by the connecting bridge to a house across the street, that had definitely seen better days.

Anwar also adds, “Natesan Mudaliar had started a hostel for non-brahmin students in Triplicane in 1914, the exact location of which is today lost.”

While the fall of the Justice Party is a story for another day, we will now make a swift jump to when the Dravidian party was born. This happened at a park in north Madras. The Robinson’s Park aka Anna Poonga, in Royapuram is where DMK leader CN Annadurai held the historic public meeting announcing the party’s launch in 1949. This meeting also marked Anna’s split from Periyar and his intention to launch a party for electoral politics.

Not far from the park is Arivagam, which was once the Dravidian party’s headquarters, but today is a wedding hall.

Anwar also talks about an important cafe in Triplicane that witnessed anti-Brahmin agitation around the 1950s. “It was referred to as Brahmnal cafe, the name indicating that it was for Brahmins only. The cafe was actually called Hotel Murali Iyer Cafe (Murali’s cafe) and is no longer there today,” Anwar adds.

However, there’s a landmark of even greater importance that’s forever lost to time. The Othavadai theatre hall on Wall Tax Road, where Erode Venkatappa Ramasamy, the crusader of women’s rights, was rightfully christened ‘Periyar’ by none other than Annai Meenambal Shivaraj. She was a significant woman leader of the self-respect movement and the first Scheduled Caste woman president of the South India Scheduled Castes Federation (SCF). The event took place during a women's conference held at the theatre in 1938. The theatre was also where several important plays and Dravidian movement events used to be staged.

The Marina promenade that holds the memorials of Anna, MGR, Jayalalithaa and Karunanidhi, (Periyar memorial is in Vepery) is also marked by statues of important personalities, cutting across race and religion, who had contributed immensely towards Tamil literature, from Avvaiyar to GU Pope. This is a reminder of the World Tamil conference held in the city in 1968, during Anna’s rule - the first government by a Dravidian party.

Anna memorial | Image courtesy: wikimedia commons

The tracing of the movement would not be complete without paying a visit to the derelict memorials of Thalamuthu and Natarajan in Moola Kothalam, the two who sacrificed their lives during the anti-Hindi agitation between 1937 and 1940.

During the anti-Hindi agitations of 1965, more lives were lost and this includes Dheeran Sivalingam and Aranganathan, the two are today remembered by the subways in T Nagar that have been named after them. “Two of the subways that connect T Nagar to West Mambalam are named after men who self-immolated themselves during the 1965 anti-Hindi agitation. Interestingly the Duraisamy subway is actually known as Dheeran Sivalingam Subway as per Corporation records,” Anwar shares referring to the anecdote shared by historian Padmapriya Baskaran during a heritage walk in 2017. Anwar had written about it for the Madras Musings.

“On the night of January 25, 1965,” Padmapriya had said, “21-year-old Sivalingam who was working with the Corporation of Madras died by self-immolation, protesting against the imposition of Hindi. The railway gate gave way to the subway in the late 1960s, and as he lived close by at Viswanathapuram, it has been named after him. Aranganathan who actually went to pay his last respects apparently decided to follow suit and died by self-immolation the next morning.”

Valluvar Kottam | Image courtesy: wikimedia commons

However, to many, Valluvar Kottam is considered the biggest symbol of Dravidian political success. Located in Nungambakkam, it was built during the 70s by then Chief Minister Karunanidhi.  Dedicated to the Tamil poet Thiruvalluvar, the exaggerated architecture is considered symbolic of the Dravidian identity. And it seems like the fitting place to end this piece and take in the Dravidian movement's strong echo that can be heard even today.

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