“You could hear the howling of jackals and foxes at night” says Kausalya Tirupuvanam of her childhood home at 2, Lalbagh Road. “Behind it were fields. The compound stretched all the way down from Richmond Road to Mission Road.” The spry 92 year old talking to me is dressed in a traditional Tamil sari. Her stories sparkle with wit and her memories of growing up in an unconventional Mudaliar household are razor sharp. She is a born storyteller, down to the last inflection.
The business and philanthropy driven Mudaliar community is said to have originally migrated to Bangalore from Tamil Nadu. They settled predominantly near the Ulsoor Lake, High Grounds, Commercial Street and MG road areas in the Cantonment and became an integral part of Bangalore’s socio-economic landscape. Kausalya Tirupuvanam’s childhood home was one of only three sprawling bungalows located at what is now the chaotic intersection of Lalbagh Road and Richmond Road. She says the houses were originally owned by three English sisters. One was called `Land’s End’ and bought by her mother, Gajambal with her streedhan while another belonged to her suave businessman father, V Ramalingam Mudaliar (1879-1942).
Not a conventional household
His unorthodox life was marked by dramatic twists and turns right from the moment he stalked out of his home in a fit of temper at age 17 and made his way to Bombay, only to moonlight as a tourist guide. He eventually returned home to an ailing father; Vaidyalingam Mudaliar, a sheristedar who had a successful timber contract business at the Kolar Gold Fields (KGF) near Bangalore where ancient gold workings had been discovered by Captain Warren in 1802. Following his father’s death, Ramalingam’s two brothers, V Shanmugam and V Devanaikam continued the business but things soon began to fall apart. The young man stepped in and the business prospered. He then became a building contractor and built a theatre (New Imperial) and a clubhouse for the English population at KGF amongst several other projects before moving on to a stint at the Hutti Gold Mines. The family moved to Bangalore from Mysore around 1917.
“He was forever doing something progressive” says Kausalya, and her eyes soften. He built a tennis court at home and his children were taught by markers from the BUS (Bangalore United Services) Club and Century Club. Ramalingam Mudaliar also believed in education and solicited permission from the British Resident for his daughters to study in English at Bishop Cotton Girls School (where he donated a chapel) in the 30’s. It was meant to `broaden their outlook to life.’
KT: “He was the first person to marry his brother-in-law to a young widow. He knew the whole Mudaliar community was against it so he invited them all to lunch. They were all sitting down to eat, when he brought in the young widow, the wife. They looked at each other and said “Don’t eat. Don’t wet your hands!” And he said, “start eating!” They had no other option but to eat. But in return for his highhandedness, they removed his photo from the Mudaliar Sangam. He was outlawed.” (chuckles).
The years at school were incredibly happy ones. Her principals at BCGS were both guides and family friends.
KT: “I remember the principals, Mrs Elmes, Mrs Waller (Bishop Waller’s sister) and Mrs. Thomas as well as the ill-fated Miss Enid Joyce Drayton… I got the scripture prize in the 10th Std. Mrs Waller came to my father and said “Mr. Ramalingam, you will have to forgive me. This is a Christian school, and it will not be good for us if a non-Christian gets the first prize for scriptures, so I will have to give her the second consolation prize in front of everyone. But here is my first prize” and she gave me beautiful hand bound volumes of Scott and Dickens. That’s the kind of person she was.”
The builders of Bangalore
But there was more to V Ramalingam Mudaliar than just derring do. If people make the place, then a large part of the city bears his stamp. He was a contractor for the Thippagondanahalli Waterworks, Jewel Filters, the underground water reservoir near the Race Course and the beautiful monkey top West End Hotel amongst others. Night owls from the 80’s know that the immensely popular after-hours joint `Impi’s’ actually got its name from Imperial Talkies located right opposite. It was one among several other movie theatres he owned and managed in the Cantonment, including BRV (Cubbon Road) which was leased from the military. It was where he ran “an eat-out and some sort of cooperative stores’. Imperial Talkies had “box seats, sofas and general seats for the public.” He brought his family here `once a year’, after `making sure the films screened were suitable for children.’
The enterprising businessman also established the Standard Brick & Tile Company in Bangalore, the India Sugar and Refineries Ltd. in Hospet and owned prime property in Chickmagalur, Jalahalli, around Brigade Road, Dickenson Road, Infantry Road and the Lalbagh area that the family now hopes to reclaim through the Ramalingam Gajambal Trust. He also bought the Cash Bazaar (India Garage) from his beleaguered friend, Hajee Osman Sait on August 18th, 1924.It was leased thereafter to the VST Group.
Living the high life
It was truly the age of indulgence. Distinguished guests like Salar Jang III, Diwan Sir Mirza Ismail, C. Rajagopalchari and Seth Walchand Hirachand of HAL sat at their table alongside members of the royal families of Mysore, Sandur and Kapurthala. The house, she recalls, “was a museum of collected things.”
KT: “He had a lot of parties. Special parties. He owned hotels…and had special cooks for all these dinners. In those days it would go up to six courses…different kinds of wine. As little children we would peep to see all those different tumblers with different colours that used to be served. He was very cosmopolitan.”
Both parents were extremely broadminded. She says her father also donated land for the Zoroastrian Fire Temple on Queen’s Road. “ We used to call Abdul Wajid (then Revenue Commissioner of Mysore) `Mama.’ All our aunts would laugh, “a Muslim man and you are calling him, Mama?”
He was also loving and generous. At Christmas, a glittering MG Road resembled `a fairy land’ to the young Kausalya. “Children were taken in for gifts. He would let us choose whatever we wanted. Then we would go to a good restaurant.” They also dined here at his other establishments; Baccala, which was once a sweets and confectionary shop around 1912 and the famous Funnels (now the Deccan Herald building) which was frequented by swinging Cantonment party goers and army officers.
KT: “He knew a lot of British men in Kolar so every Christmas, he would tell our cooks to bake about 25 Christmas cakes. I would say 5 pounders, or 6 pounders. Big cakes, like this (indicates) all iced with a layer of almonds. All complimentary from Father. And he would get big baskets, huge layer of vegetables, then huge layer of fruits, then this cake and wine and it would all be sent to Kolar by car.”
Remnants of the past
It was a life lived in cinemascope till his demise on 18th December, 1942 at the Victoria Hospital, where he had directed for Rs. 50,000 to be donated towards a Gynaecological Ward. He also wanted the balance of his estate to be invested in a fund “for encouragement and development of industries, education or medical research, diffusion of medical knowledge, including work in nutrition and dietry by the grant of scholarship etc.” But fate had other plans.
The events that followed are all too familiar to Bangalore’s landed gentry, many of whom have equally complex family histories. The estate, immovable- movable assets and cars (a Mercedes-Benz, Studebaker, Peugeot and Plymouth) were lost along with a life that once had `no wants’. Intense hardship followed for the feisty Gajambal Ramalingam, daughter of the well-to-do contractor Loganathan Mudaliar from Arni, Vellore. Kausalya says she had been involved in public service, was a frequent chess-mate to HH the Maharani of Mysore and had hosted Gandhiji and Mira Ben, the Nehru family and members of the newly formed Congress at her home.Gandhiji came to Bangalore over 14 times during the course of the freedom struggle.
KT (TEXT NOTE):“The big compound was overflowing with dozens of goats all brought from Yelahanka to supply goat milk for Gandhiji every hour…the whole house’s upholstery was changed into white khadi covering because of his prejudice against leather and foreign material.”
Gajambal donated extensively (Rs.1,00,000) for the Quit India Movement in 1938, got arrested, burnt her silk saris and was the first to throw her jewels into the basket for Gandhiji during the ladies meetings held at the Kumara Krupa grounds. She was also invited to deliver the welcome speech for HH the Maharaja of Mysore as a leading citizen of Bangalore during the Town Hall opening ceremony. But family fortunes , as we know, are often as fickle as the wind.
She continued to be the backbone of a large family of nine sons and three daughters whose children too went on to distinguish themselves, both in Bangalore and Chennai. “Her staunch faith, her perseverance to know the truth, her struggle to overcome all difficulties” also proved inspirational for a young Kausalya, who was married in 1943 and widowed after just eleven years.
While I am still trying to come to terms with this overwhelming narrative, her eyes grow wistful. I know she is far away, in a place where “home is, I suppose, just a child’s idea. A house at night, a lamp in the house. A place to feel safe”- VS Naipaul. Her memories are inextricably woven with the ghost of Bangalore past, a graceful, sepia tone world of long gone spaces and people that we can only re-imagine through second hand memories. But as Kausalya Tirupuvanam brought her parents to life, I found a direct connect with the past, still living in the present.
This story was originally published in the Bangalore Mirror, May 19th 2014.Read it here.
The memories and information in this story are excerpts from my oral interview with Kausalya Tirupuvanam on May13, 2014. They are part of `A remembered city’, a project that maps Bangalore through the personal narratives of its people.