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Tracing Coimbatore’s rich heritage through cinema and industry

Coimbatore, known for its musical Tamil and wonderful weather, is also famous for its industries. Although the city has been hosting a slew of Europeans and Indian entrepreneurs for more than two centuries, not much about the city is documented. Well, not as much as Chennai at least. 

Situated on the Tamil Nadu border with Kerala, Coimbatore was a part of the Vijayanagar empire in ancient times. After the empire collapsed, it was taken over by the Wodeyars of the Mysore Kingdom and subsequently by Hyder Ali.

“After Hyder Ali’s demise, his son Tipu Sultan took over the region which included today’s Malabar, Salem, Trichy and others. Later as a part of the settlement agreement with the East India Company, he had to sacrifice the region to the British,” begins Sriramachandra Prasad, the Convener of the Indian National Trust for Culture and Heritage (INTACH) Coimbatore chapter and a history enthusiast. He adds that Vellalore, now a locality in Coimbatore, was a part of the spice route from India to Europe.

Adding that back then Coimbatore had severe water scarcity, Sriramachandra says that Sathyamangalam and Pollachi were the trading centres in the region. “Coimbatore was, in fact, a punishment posting for English officers due to the water scarcity,” he adds laughing.

The British bosses then appointed poligars or paalayathukkaarars in the region and assigned a small area for them to collect taxes from and administer. That probably gave rise to a lot of villages and towns with ‘-palayam’ suffixed to their names. Few of these poligars went on to become pioneers of industry and entrepreneurship in the region.

Coimbatore and industries

“GD Naidu was one such poligar appointed by the British to oversee the region,” says Sriramachandra. GD Naidu introduced motorised public transport in the region and operated buses for public use. He also founded an engineering college, which was later taken over by the state government and is now known as the Government College of Technology. 

GD Naidu with one of his buses. Image: Historic Coimbatore

Kuppuswamy Naidu was another pioneer who started industries in Coimbatore. He founded Lakshmi Mills, which is now an unmissable landmark in the city. His successors also established Lakshmi Machine Works (LMW). 

Lakshmi Mills, Coimbatore. Image: Wikimedia Commons/Ask27

Any talk about Coimbatore’s industrial prowess would be incomplete without mentioning the Englishman Sir Robert Stanes. Coming to India as a teenager, he established the Stanes school and the T Stanes and Company, which is now a leading agricultural company headquartered in Coimbatore.

Stanes spinning and weaving mill, Coimbatore.  Image: T-Stanes Company Limited

Coimbatore and cinema

“Coimbatore was Kollywood up until the 1960s,” says CR Ilangovan, a Coimbatore-based history enthusiast and researcher. Once home to popular film production houses that made movies in all south Indian languages, all that remains now are a few old theatres and the rich legacy that surrounds those structures.

“Samikannu Vincent brought the bioscope device from Europe and started exhibiting motion pictures to a wider audience. He then took the device far and wide to show movies to the people, which came to be known as the ‘Touring Talkies’,” explains Ilangovan. 

Variety Hall theatre, Coimbatore  Image: Historic Coimbatore

Samikannu Vincent then established the Variety Hall theatre in Coimbatore in 1914, which was the first cinema theatre in Tamil Nadu. “Not only was he a cinema technology enthusiast, he was also into film production. The movie Valli Thirumanam was produced by him,” says Ilangovan. Sriramachandra adds that Samikannu also set up a generator to power the Variety Hall theatre in the early 1920s and the streetlights around the theatre. “That was probably the first time that the city was seeing electricity and it brought many people to the cinema hall to watch movies,” adds Sriramachandra. Samikannu also set up soda factory in Coimbatore known as Vincent Soda and Crushes.

Vincent Soda, Coimbatore Image: Historic Coimbatore

Central Studios, established in 1935, became a place that introduced the who’s who of yesteryear cinema to each other. “Former chief ministers M Karunanidhi and MG Ramachandran, singers MK Thyagaraja Bhagavathar, PU Chinnappa, TM Soundararajan, poet-lyricist Kannadasan, composer-singer MS Viswanathan – all knew each other from Central Studios in Coimbatore,” says Ilangovan.

Central studio gate, Coimbatore Image: Historic Coimbatore

Pakshiraja Studios, known for its hit movie Malaikkallan starring MGR and remade at that time in six languages including Sinhalese, was founded by Coimbatore businessman Sriramulu Naidu in 1945. 

Pakshiraja studios, Coimbatore   Image: Wikimedia Commons/Durai.Velumani

Pakshiraja’s most popular production, Malaikkallan, starring MGR   Image: YouTube screengrab

By the late 1950s, the founders of the studios migrated to Chennai, taking with them a rich tradition of movie-making and production. It was after this that Chennai became a centre for south Indian cinema.

Secret behind Kovai Tamil

Coimbatore is well-known for its polite language and musical ‘kovai thamizh’. Ilangovan attributes the reason behind the Tamil spoken here to the city’s multi-lingual influences. “We have a lot of people in the region who are originally Kannada and Telugu speaking. That could be one reason behind the musical Tamil that you get to hear here,” he says.

While the influx of Kannada-speaking people happened during the Wodeyar period, Telugu-speaking people have been here since the Vijayanagar rule, says Sriramachandra. “Even today you can see specific localities that have a concentration of native Kannada and Telugu speakers in the city,” he adds.

Heritage on social media

“Coimbatore is not documented as much as Chennai is, though the city has so much history,” says Varun Keerthikeyan, a history buff who runs the Facebook page Historic Coimbatore with his friend Kumaragurubaran. Started in 2010, the page has a rich collection of old-time photographs of Coimbatore and its surrounding areas like the Nilgiris. “Though groundwork for the page started around 15 years back, we started the page on March 23, which was the birth anniversary of GD Naidu,” Varun adds. 

The page crowdsources old photographs from collectors across the world and posts them with a background note about each picture. With around 10,000 followers currently, the page hopes to spread more awareness about the rich heritage of the city in the coming days. “We have enough museums and places of historical importance in the city. All it takes is an hour’s time for us to step in and discover a world of information about what the city was in the past,” says Varun. 

Source: The News Minute