B S Raghavan

Days that can never come back

Updated on: May 24, 2011

The report “A history of Chennai in priceless pictures” in The Hindu of May 19 on the launching of the second edition of the book, Madras – its past and its present , by the veteran crusader for protection of heritage, Mr S.Muthiah, transported me all the way back to the Madras presidency of the 1930s when the population of India was a bare 330 million and a family of six members (parents and four children), such as the one in which I grew up in Poonamallee, 12 miles from Madras, could manage with Rs 50 a month!

(Yes, the distance was mentioned in yards and miles, the weights in viss ( veesai ) and seer , and money in rupees, annas , pais )

The picture of 75 years ago will make no sense today. How spacious the times must have been for the police to go after cyclists without lamps, jaywalkers (those who walked in the middle of the road) and those crossing the railway tracks and get them convicted and sentenced (usually with hefty fines of five rupees or a few days' simple imprisonment in lieu) by mobile courts functioning out of sight under a tree or in some unpretentious premises!

The Hindu report refers to ‘wet collodion' photography in vogue in those days requiring ancient bulky cameras and sensitised plates. My father was a photography-buff and had one of those cameras. Once in a way, with me holding on to his coat-tails (he was a practising High Court lawyer), he would clamber on to the bus (seating 12-15 and open on both sides) with the camera, a bunch of plates and a tripod, reaching Mount Road near Spencer's at about 11 am, after an hour's arduous journey from Poonamallee. We would perchance see 20-30 people, and five or six bullock and horse-drawn carts, but no cars or buses, along the 12-mile route!

Long exposure

There used to be only five or six souls, each separated from the other by half a mile's distance, and perhaps a single horse buggy from end to end throughout the entire stretch of the road. My father used to plant the tripod right in the middle of the thoroughfare, fix the camera on it, insert the plate, cover his head and the camera with the thick cloth, which was jet black on one side and deep red on the other and which was meant to serve as a sun-shade, and take pictures by giving each an exposure of 30 seconds or so. In fact, the long exposure meant that if there was any involuntary movement of the head or the arms, you came out in the positive looking like a four-headed Brahma, or six-headed Lord Muruga or even the ten-headed Ravan!

My father had a number of such plates of old Madras, “developed” by him with silver nitrate (I think) solution at a darkened room at home. Alas, it never occurred to us that they were a priceless treasure. We let them be damaged and lost during our frequent relocations after our father passed away in the 1940s.

The long-distance trains leaving Madras (Egmore and Central) for various places numbered about ten. There was no reservation system, but there were plenty of seats of all classes available, with many of them going empty.

There was no air or water pollution. We drank water straight from the well, pond, stream or river with no ill effects. Even on Sundays and holidays, there would be only some 200 persons promenading along the Marina, and the number of cars plying on the beach road would also be few and far between.

People were acutely conscious about keeping their honour and reputation unsullied. The failure to repay loans of 10 or 20 rupees was considered a disgrace. (We see even today farmers brought up in that tradition committing suicide for not being able to repay loans of Rs 10,000 and Rs 20,000).

All said, those days are good only for photographs.

Published on June 02, 2011

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