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New multiplex in old club

The Madras Club's new home was built from scratch on a property it bought from the Rajah of Bobbili, Branson Bagh, just east of where the Mount Road flyover begins.

WHEN THE Madras Club sold its first home, on Club House Road, in 1946/7, it did so to move into smaller premises more suited to the needs of a shrinking expat membership. Its new home was one it built from scratch on a property it bought from the Rajah of Bobbili, Branson Bagh, just east of where the Mount Road flyover begins. The Club paid Rs. 2.54 lakh for the five-acre property and requested Prynne, Abbott and Davis to design a custom-built clubhouse.

The leading firm of architects of the time, Prynne, Abbott and Davis were successors to Jackson and Barker who had become Prynne, Jackson and Barker before Abbott and Davis had joined Prynne in the firm in 1946, succeeding the founders. Abbott who spent much of his time in Bombay, died in an air crash while on his way to Madras shortly after the new partnership had been floated. Davis, an engineer, was the outgoing sales personality of the business. The architects included the elderly Prynne and newcomers Kiffin-Petersen and Bennett Pithavadian. Kiffin-Petersen and Pithavadian were to take over the partnership in the mid-1950s and then, when Kiffin-Petersen left a few years later, it became Pithavadian and Partners, the name that survives despite Pithavadian being no more. The design might have been done by Kiffin-Petersen, but it was Davis who sold it to the Club and negotiated a cost of around Rs. 9 lakh for the building.

The building comprised a tall-pillared and pedimented portico, echoing the earlier building and fronting a long horizontal two-storey block parallel to Mount Road, but with a large garden and driveway setting it well back from the road. The main block with the public rooms was built by R.G. Patel & Co. The two wings, built by N.T. Patel & Co., perpendicular to the main block, provided six suites for married couples in the left and 21 bachelors' quarters, including one for the Secretary, on the right. Into these premises, the Club moved in April 1948.

Comfortable though it was here, a failing membership led to a decision to merge with the Adyar Club and acquire the Adyar Club's smaller but better located property on the river. And so the Branson Bagh clubhouse went on sale in 1962.

Eventually it was early-1963 before the sale was completed, Khivraj Chordia, a well-known financier from Sowcarpet, buying the property for Rs. 27 lakh. Meanwhile, even as the terms of the sale were being fulfilled, Chordia negotiated a sale with Esso for the bachelors' quarters and the eastern garden for around Rs. 11 lakh. He also got M/s. Veecumsees to purchase the western `Tennis Garden', 17 grounds in extent, for Rs. 5 lakh. And took over what was left when the Club moved to Adyar in 1963.

Khivraj Motors was developed next to the Esso property. The main block was rented to the Income Tax department. The Married Quarters became offices. And Veecumsee's developed the first multi-theatre cinema complex in India — the Safire. At the best of times, the main clubhouse could not be seen from Mount Road, the tree-lined driveway hiding it. So the picture from John Davis's collection accompanying today's Madrascapes is a little seen view of a yesteryear building. That building has now vanished, having been pulled down for high-rise a decade or so ago. All that survived when I last visited the area a year or so ago was the `Married Quarters' block.

At that time the Safire Theatre complex was very much there. A once landmark building, it was derelict and dilapidated, awaiting the wreckers' hammers, the only reminder of its days of splendid filmfare a few cinema hoardings along one wall. It was a far cry from when it opened in 1964 with the widescreen Cleopatra and in later years screened some of the most successful films in Madras, like The Sound of Music, My Fair Lady and Lawrence of Arabia.

Built by Yeshwant Veecumsee on the tennis courts of what had been the Madras Club in its second avatar, the Safire Theatre complex was a path-breaker in the country. It was the first multiplex cinema hall in the country, hosting the wide screen Safire, seating around 1000, the medium-sized Emerald screening Hindi and Tamil films, and the 200-seater Blue Diamond showing `oldies' and second runs. The Blue Diamond also introduced a new concept in Indian cinema theatres, a popular feature abroad, namely, continuous screening. Your Rs. 2.50 ticket entitled you to stroll in and stroll out when you wanted, many spending a whole day in the theatre.

Apart from the plushly furbished theatres reflecting in their names the family's main business, there was an added attraction at the Safire complex, also reminding patrons of the lapidary connection, Nine Gems — succeeded by Navaratna — serving North Indian snacks and chaats, later, meals. With pioneering waitress services, it became the `in' place for the cinema-going young to `time pass'.

For over 25 years, the Safire complex was the place to go, but by the 1980s the writing was on the wall. With Cable TV keeping viewers at home, the crowds dwindled to almost nothing and the Veecumsees closed the complex down. In 1994, they sold it to the AIADMK — which promises a multi-storey building that will be as prominent a landmark the Safire was in its day. The question is who are going to occupy it apart from the Party. Will some of them also be the `in' places to be seen in, as the Safire once was?


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