The people's space
Development has left People's Park with little green and no name. But for nearly 100 years, it was indeed a Madras landmark and a popular destination for many. Today, even the ghosts of the park would fight shy of an area that was once the pride of the Corporation of Madras.
ALL THE municipal expansiveness, a part of which I referred to last week, came up in a forgotten name and space today, People's Park. Beyond that west wall that was completed in 1772-73, there was created an esplanade as bare as the one that gave the northern ramparts of Fort St. George a clear field of fire. This western esplanade, created where an ancient potters' village had once existed, was what Governor Sir Charles Trevelyan turned his attention to when he arrived in Madras in 1859.
Amenities for the people, even if they be the Western versions, he and his brother-in-law Macaulay felt it was their duty to bequeath to India, was what Trevelyan came to Madras determined to provide. And so the western esplanade, that he saw no longer served a military purpose, he turned into what he named People's Park. Its 116 acres were made a splendid garden space, with ornamental palms and ponds, well laid-out walks and flower beds, creating in its entirety the largest lung in the city, more extensive than The Marina and The Island! In its heyday, it had 11 ponds, 5 ½ miles of road and walkways, a bandstand, a public path, two tennis courts and a small zoo. Hardly anything remains of that beautiful park - or its traditions - today.
Bits and pieces of the park were slowly taken over, over the years of new `improvements'. These `improvements' were started with the move to its north-eastern corner of the city's first zoo, which had been started in the gardens of the Museum in 1855. The growth of this zoo in the 1860s, reduced much of the northern space of People's Park. When the railways began to look for space to expand in, the days of the Zoo - like those of Moore Market - were numbered. In the case of the zoo, perhaps that was a merciful thing considering the pitiful state that institution had sunk into in 100 years. Vandalur certainly was welcome relief - even if the 40 km distance does put it out of the reach of the crowds that used to visit the People's Park zoo in the 1930s.
The Town Hall followed the zoo in taking up People's Park space. When it opened in 1887, it was sited in 3 ½ acres it rented from the Corporation on a 99-year-lease at 8 annas a ground a year, a lease rent of little less than Rs. 30 a year!
Additional space at the southern end of the park, adjacent to the Town Hall, went for Moore Market, when work on it started in 1898. And then, when the South Indian Athletic Association was founded in 1901 by Col. Sir George Moore and a largely Indian committee, the Park lost more space at its northern end in providing the SIAA its grounds. A charming old-world pavilion was built by the SIAA, Sir George Moore laying the foundation in 1902 for the sloped, tiled-roof building that was to be named after him.
The space the SIAA occupied, however, served the public well for 75 years, both through sport as well as entertainment. The Association, considered "the birthplace of boxing in India", its first bouts organised in 1903, was one of the pioneers in other sports as well, taking to football in 1902, billiards in 1903, tennis in 1906 and cricket in 1909. Professional boxing and wrestling, both organised by the Association, drew large crowds. The Association was, however, best known for its annual Park Fair and Carnival of Sport, including rekla (light horse-carts) racing that it organised from its very first year of existence. The carnival was the highlight of the city's Christmas-New Year-Pongal season till Independence, after which all the fun of the fair began to diminish, till other attractions finally extinguished it in 1977. The Park Fair may have become the Season's highlight in the hands of the SIAA, but it was a city institution from the 1870s, a citizens' committee being invited by the corporation to run it - which it did till that invitation to the SIAA. On December 31, 1886, the city's biggest fire till then devastated the Fair - but failed to put a stop to the tradition. It is a tradition waiting to be revived, but will it ever be?
The SIAA's activities have become abbreviated after its ground lease expired in 1977 and, while it searches for new premises, it occupies rooms on the ground floor of the Town Hall.
The Sir Ashley Biggs Institute, which once nurtured much railway talent, took over the Moore Pavilion after the SIAA moved out. But the pavilion today is a far cry from the time when members and VIPs watched games from the first floor, above a pillared verandah, and overlooking what used to be terraced stands and a tidy lawn.
Despite all this development, there was, till the early 1960s, still a substantial part of the park left and its pride, My Ladye's Garden, a once beautiful garden rich with flower beds, fountains and ornamental sculpture. Here for nearly a hundred years was held the city's second most important annual flower show. With the Horticultural Society also now no longer holding annual flower shows, Madras must be the only major city in the country without an annual flower show.
As for My Ladye's Garden, with it little tended, its fountains no longer operative, its ponds dry and its ornamental sculpture in ruins, it truly looks a pale shadow of its past. What price `singara' or `ezhilmigu' Chennai with things of beauty reduced to the state My Ladye's garden is now in?! A popular vegetarian restaurant that used to attract crowds to the garden is also now part of history here.
With much of the past in People's Park in a sorry state, what is left is newer construction that has taken up the rest of the park.
Ripon Building, inaugurated in 1913, and the Corporation it is headquarters of, deserve a separate article. So I move on to the rest of the newer construction. Between My Ladye's Garden and the Town Hall, an open-air facility named Nehru Stadium was opened in 1962 for major football, cricket and athletics events. Nehru Stadium was completely refashioned with roofed stands and permanent seating in 1993 and then splendidly refurbished for the South Asian Federation Games by 1995. To the north of My Ladye's Garden was also built for the games a modern Indoor Stadium by 1995.
Both stadiums, unfortunately, suffer from a lack of regular maintenance, but they remain two of the better sports facilities in the city. And still further north, near Kannapar Thidal - which took up further park space for a public meeting place - there was opened in 1991 and 857-shop market set in 1 ½ acres which, with its vague resemblance to that institution of the past, has had people calling it New Moore Market.
Others call it the Lily Pond Market, but by whatever name it remains virtually unoccupied and deteriorating by the day. Tremendous cost overruns have led to high rents being asked - and Moore Market oldtimers, used to ages of nominal rents, will have none of this. So there's another white elephant in the city - built with little planning.
All this development has left People's Park with little green and no name. But for nearly a hundred years, it was indeed a Madras landmark and a popular destination for thousands. Today, even the ghosts of the park would fight shy of an area that was once the pride of the Corporation of Madras, Asia's oldest.
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