James, an American who now lives in Andover, Massachusetts, USA had been in the area to pursue his interest in Carnatic music and interact with people like the late vidwan Ramnad Krishnan.
James’ haunt in Mylapore was Hotel Suprabath on North Mada Street, a place that provided many different experiences. That landmark has gone but James wants to reconnect with its owners and other Mylaporeans he once knew.
Here is his story. In reading it you may also want to share notes with him and this newspaper –
After a 42-year absence, I recently returned to Chennai to see some old friends, walk down memory lane, and explore new parts of South India I had missed in my previous visits.
The primary purpose of my visit was to bring to the family of Ramnad Krishnan (the great Carnatic vocal musician who I had the fortune to study with at Wesleyan University and in India) several previously unknown recordings I had made of his concerts during 1968 and 1971, my time in Madras.
During my periods in Madras, I stayed about six months each time at the Suprabath Hotel (really a boarding house) located at #10, North Mada Street in Mylapore, now the site of the Saravana Bhavan, it would seem.
This hotel allowed me to live in a South Indian style in a inexpensive way, being a young man pursuing his studies, make friends with Indian men in their twenties and thirties, like myself in college or recently employed.
My rent was 150 rupees, not a day, or a week, but a month. How inflation and the exchange rates have changed in 42 years.
A vegetarian meal was for 1 rupee, 50 paisa. The bicycle repair guy on the street would fix your bicycle’s flat tire for 25 np ( naiya paise) and the old sage palm reader would give you a thoroughly researched two-page 14 point report of your fate based on a careful imprint of your palm for just a few rupees.
While he was off the mark that I would be the owner of several movie theatres before I had reached my sixty-fifth year, I am hoping that I meet or exceed his prediction that I would “live to the age of 90 years, like Winston Churchill.” I must remember to get back to you in 2036 on that one.
North Mada Street and the surrounding area was quieter and much less congested than I found it today. There were no shops on the temple tank side of the street, and one could see all of the tank and the Kapali Temple from the front door of the Suprabath.
Motorcycles and cars, while present, were a rarity, the transportation being primarily bicycle, cycle rickshaw, pull rickshaw, bullock cart and the red diesel buses that spewed black smoke as thick as the old steam driven locomotives.
There were more goats, cows and water buffalos. Lepers on low wooden carts were pushed down the street quite regularly to seek their alms. Velaikarans like myself were seldom seen; maybe just two or three a month would make their way up from Luz Corner to the temple area, and I was as surprised to see their white skin as the local residents must have been to see mine.
Trains and autos were vehicles firmed rooted to the ground, not flying over it. Traffic jams were caused by napping or recalcitrant cows, not by a plethora of vehicles. And the Indian Bank on the corner seemed like the most modern building from my perspective, looking massive, secure, and soaring one or two stories above street level.
As I made my pilgrimage to my former abode in early January 2013, I looked for someone who might be able to fill me in on what happened to the Suprabath, its owners, and any of those young bachelors with whom I had many great conversations. What had happened to the owner of the hotel, and the manager, such a friendly man who lived there with his family? And the staff: Sashee and Raju, who dutifully kept the place clean and ran simple errands? What about the parade of young engineers who lived there, saving money and building a career before they ventured into the demands of married life?
On this journey to India from Andover, Massachusetts, where I live in the United States, I was able to return to the place where my love and appreciation of Carnatic music was nurtured and my connection to South India was deepened.
While I successfully kept up my pursuit of Carnatic music for a few years in the 1970s, I did not seriously continue my studies in that field, taking a different direction professionally, but still in the privacy of a few friends have tried to sing some of the old varanams and kritis I learned, with full knowledge of the damage I was doing to the raga gods . .. But the real connection with India has been the people I met, who really without exception, have proven to be generous, genuine and a lot of fun to be with. If anyone reading this piece might be able to shed any light on what became of the people who worked at or stayed at the Suprabath during 1968 or 1971, I would enjoy hearing from you
Mail me at – JLMcConaughy@aol.com
The photo featured here is of James’ veena teacher, Mookapatti Rageswara Rao who taught James, seen riding a bike on North Mada Street in 1971 – when there were no shops on the temple tank banks. Shot outside what was once Hotel Suprabath