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T.Nagar: Shop till you drop, and then shop some more

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Pavement shopping is part of the great excitement of T. Nagar; everything, from safety pins to shower curtains, is available on the sidewalks, except space to walk.

TRAFFIC AT T. Nagar in Chennai. Bijoy Ghosh
TRAFFIC AT T. Nagar in Chennai. Bijoy Ghosh

Nina Varghese

Chennai, Aug. 28

A group of tourists outside Nalli, the well-known sari store in T. Nagar, watched the surging crowds in bemused silence. "What are all these people doing on the road," asked one from the group. "Shopping," was the laconic reply from another.

There are hordes of people shopping in T.Nagar at all times of the year, with the big stores attracting over thousands of people every day. Mr Princeson Jose, Director of Prince Jewellery, said that on weekends, on an average, about 2,000 people visit his store.

Of course, it swells to extraordinary numbers during festivals and marketing extravaganzas that the big retail brands run from time to time. The shopping peaks during the days preceding Akshaya Tritiya and Diwali.

Though actual turnover figures are unavailable for both the sari and gold businesses, Mr K. Sivaram, Vice-President of World Gold Council, said that 70-80 per cent of the gold sold in Chennai - the most important gold market in the southern region - is from T. Nagar. The southern region contributes to 45 per cent of the 800-tonne annual national offtake, he added.

It is not just the residents of Chennai who shop in T. Nagar. Besides Indians from all over, the big-time shoppers are from Sri Lanka.

Silk saris and gold jewellery shopping have been synonymous with T.Nagar for the last 50 years. During this period, T.Nagar has evolved as the centre for silk saris, gold jewellery and stainless steel utensils - paraphernalia of a typical Indian wedding.

Currently, the new shops sell not just Kancheepuram silk saris, a must at all Tamil weddings, but also designer saris, readymade garments and linen.

A family can finish the entire wedding shopping with two or three visits to this central business district, as there are shops that sell wedding invitation cards, gold plated one-gram jewellery and contemporary patterns. Over a period, the variety in shopping has grown.

Pavement shopping is part of the great excitement of T. Nagar. Everything, from safety pins to shower curtains, is available on the sidewalks, except space to walk. Shoppers weave in and out of the traffic, making driving in T.Nagar a nightmare and finding parking space an even bigger one.

The popularity of T.Nagar has lasted longer than other areas where people used to shop, said Mr Nalli Kuppuswami Chetti, Partner, Nalli Chinnasami Chetty.

Silk shops

The first silk sari shops came up, understandably so, in George Town towards the end of the nineteenth century and were popular until about 1915.

Then new shops came up in Chintadripet, followed by shops near the temple in Triplicane, a few years later. By the late 30s, sari shops near the temple in Mylapore started attracting people. T.Nagar started getting popular as a shopping destination after 1950 and has remained so until today, Mr Chetti said.

The jewellery stores followed the silk saris to the area. Mr Jose said that his father started the store on Ranganathan Street in 1958. He moved the store to its current location in the 80s.

The T.Nagar extension was developed in 1923 when Long Lake was drained out. (Today, T.Nagar is located in the centre of the city, south-west of the Anna Flyover.)

The Railways laid the suburban railway line from Egmore to Kancheepuram in 1911 with a station in Mambalam, which would eventually cater to this new area. The locality was called Thyagaraya Nagar (T.Nagar for short) after Sir Pitti Thyagaraya Chetty.

A park was developed in the centre of the new locality, which was to be a residential one, and was called Panagal Park honouring the then Chief Minister of Madras, the Raja of Panagal.

Mr Kuppuswami Chetti said that there used to be a public radio inside Panagal Park those days. A small crowd used to gather there to listen to music and news. The crowd would disperse after the last news broadcast at 7.15 p.m., after which all the streets would become deserted.

Name game

How the name Pondy Bazaar came about seems to be a bit obscure. Mr Kuppuswami Chetti said that Devaraj Mudaliar of Pondicherry built 10 shops on Sir Thyagaraya Road and called it Pondy Bazaar.

However, Mr S. Muthiah, Madras historian, in his book

Madras Rediscovered

, says: "A name whose origins has been surrounded in mystery till the Government in one of its periodic name changing operations stated it was restoring it to original uncontracted name - Soundarapandia Bazaar."

The broad roads in this new locality were tree-lined, as were other parts of the city, and were named after stalwarts in the ruling Justice party then. Two of the roads, however, were named after two workmen, Nagamani and Govindan, who died while digging trenches for the new drainage system.

Strangely, there was no hotel in the three- and four-star categoreis in T.Nagar until the Residency came up in 1991. Today there are seven hotels with over 80 per cent occupancy rates, according hotel industry sources.

With T.Nagar growing as a central business district, once famous theatres like Sun, Rajakumari and Nagesh have given way to commercial complexes, Mr Kuppuswami Chetty said.

The Nalli story

The Nalli story is part of the growth of T. Nagar. When Nalli Chinnasami Chetty opened his showroom in T.Nagar in 1935, it become the first Kancheepuram silk sari shop in the area, though he had been selling silk saris from a house in T.Nagar as early as 1928.

Though Nalli Chinnasami Chetty had a number of famous and well-to-do clients, the shop did not clock the roaring sales it does now. Mr Kuppuswami Chetti, the founder's grandson, remembers that if sales then crossed the Rs 102-mark on any particular day, he would get ice cream as a bonus.

Then came World War II; Madras city was evacuated as the fear of Japanese bombing grew. Mr Kuppuswami Chetti said that all the textile shops in Madras closed down, except Nalli.

For 21 days Nalli was the only textile shop open, which created goodwill and also served as a brand-building exercise. By 1951, Nalli became the top seller of silk saris in the city, he said.

In 1946, the three silk saris used in a Hindu wedding cost Rs 54, while today the average spend would be Rs 75,000 to Rs 1 lakh for the three wedding saris, the saris to be given as presents and the silk dhoti. This could go up to anything between Rs 2 lakh and Rs 5 lakh. A 9-yard silk sari cost Rs 18 then; customers used to pay Rs 5 for three months and Rs 3 in the fourth month.

When, Nalli opened, none of the banks had branches in this largely residential area, Mr Kuppuswami Chetti said. The nearest bank was in Mylapore. The first bank opened its branch in T.Nagar in 1935, followed by Indian Bank in 1937, to which Nalli shifted its account.

(This article was published in the Business Line print edition dated August 29, 2006)
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