The Legend of Pattanna

A. Pattabirama Chettiar (1906 - 1986) was an innovative entrepreneur. He was an honest and hardworking person. People trusted him. A. Pattabirama Chettiar was popularly known as ‘Pattu Chettiar’ and was also known as ‘Pattanna’ within his close circles. He had lost his parents quite early and was brought up by his three elder sisters. Pattanna had spent a bit of his time in all their residences. He had just done his third standard. Those were times when practical life was considered to be the best for of education. His elder brother A. Dhandayudham Chettiar had become a business partner of the great jeweller P. A. Raju Chettiar around the year 1923. The firm was named as P. A. R. Krishna & Co and was located opposite to the market on Big Bazaar Street in Coimbatore. It had been thus named after the birth of Krishnan, the first son of P. A. Raju Chettiar. Young Pattabirama Chettiar joined the firm and he was quick to learn the tricks of the trade here (tricks have to be interpreted as business techniques).  

Business began to flourish in P. A. R. Krishna & Co. Pattanna grew up to be a bright young lad. P. A. Raju Chettiar (P. A. R.) was quick to see the promise in him. Besides, the good nature of the youngster became an added attraction. These qualities made him an eligible bachelor. P. A. R. had a number of eligible nieces and the quiet Chandravadhanam was among them. She was the fair and good looking daughter of Vasavambal (elder sister of P. A. Raju Chettiar) and Krishnan Chettiar of Kalayamuthoor. P. A. R. was known to put all his dear ones together and therefore he solicited the hands of Pattanna for his niece. The wedding took place nearly ninety years ago and the couple began to live next door to P. A. R. on Vysial Street in Coimbatore.

Chandravadhanam (1916 - 1966) was born among three brothers - K. K. Venu, K. K. Dhandayudham, K. K. Pandarinathan, and three sisters Kaliki, Kamalam, Sarojini. Her mother Vasavambal lived next door. However, Chandravadhanam was keen to ensure a stable and good relationship between her and her maternal home. Therefore, she would try not to spend too much of time with her mother. Her mother, Vasavambal was also known as Ammayamma. She would tie her hair, make it into a ball and turn it internally. It used to be found on one side and this style was known as Koppam. Therefore, she came to be known as Koppamma. The fair complexioned Koppamma was dear to her younger brother P. A. Raju Chettiar and she began to live in ‘Moodoe Illu’ (third house from his). This had earlier been the residence of P. A. R. He had moved over to a mansion that had been constructed nearby (1930).

Vasavambal known as Ammayamma/Koppamma had contributed towards the making of a silver vahanam (processional vehicle) in the Vasavi Kannika Parameswari Temple at Coimbatore. The Temple was located opposite to her dwelling. She was a true patriot and had contributed Rs.1000 towards making of the statue of Mahatma Gandhi that was placed in the Arya Vysya Primary School on Vysial Street in the year 1950. The large statue of Gandhi continues to add to the splendour of Vysial Street in the Pettai area of Coimbatore. This school had been endowed by Vasavambal's younger brother P. A. Raju Chettiar. The iconic jeweller had wanted his community to serve the society though this school.

“The Koniamman Car Festival was an important event those days. We would descend upon our maternal grandparents residence and stay there for about a week in order to savour the festivities. I still remember my great grand mother Vasavambal who lived until 1955, having me on her lap during the Car Festival. She was a fair-complexioned lady. Unfortunately, she had gone through a lot of trials and tribulations in life. I was fortunate to spend time with her and my maternal grand parents, Chandravadhanam and A. Pattabirama Chettiar,” stated Mothi Padmanabhan of Trichy.

Chandravadanam and Pattabirama Chettiar were blessed with five daughters and three sons. Only five of the kids (four daughters and one son) survived . They were, Alamelu married Mothi R. Ramudu Chettiar of Trichy, Shakuntala married K. P. R. S. Rajasekharan of Palani, Ramani married V Chetty Radhakrishna Chetty of Vellore, Girija married Kota Nandakumar of Bengaluru and Bhaskar married Urmila. They had ten grandchildren through their kids - Padmanabhan, Sridharan, Sivaraman, Suryanarayanan, Eshwari, Nandakumar, Narayanan, Gayathri, Balaji and Chandrakumar. Chandravadham has seen nine of her grandchildren by the time she passed away at the age of fifty.

P. A. R. Krishna & Co. had been a success and the partners decided to start one more venture. Raja Theatre was thus born in 1938. This iconic theatre came up on N. H. Road in Coimbatore. It was a fifty-fifty partnership between P. A. Raju Chettiar and his partners at P. A. R. Krishna & Co. There had been a big pit on the spot and the partners purchased a lorry in order to transport the material required for the filling up of the pit. P. A. R. Krishnan, his schoolmate, Lakshmana Iyer and others would play badminton in the same premises and it was prior to the construction of the theatre. The Perur Patteeswarar Temple elephant, Janaki took part in the foundation ceremony of Raja Theatre.

Raja Theatre took some time to pick up. Eventually, A. Pattabirama Chettiar got involved with the theatre. He ensured that it was run in an extremely profitable manner. He parted with his brother over the years and the family's share in Raja Theatre came to him. Pattabirama Chettiar was an astute businessman. His estimates were perfect. He was also known to assess movies under production. This led to the purchase of movies by Raja Theatre and the partners reaped rich dividends. Super Tax had to be paid. He used to visit the residence of P. A. R. everyday evening at 9 pm and chat up with him for sometime in the Verandah. The time would be spent on business discussions too. P. A. R. would enquire about a new movie under production and Pattanna would jocularly state that he began to sweat after listening to the songs. The partner, P. A. R. would understand that the movie would bomb after its release. Raja Theatre was extremely profitable during the partnership period of A. Pattabirama Chettiar.

A. Pattabirama Chettiar did not bother much about recognition and went on with his work. There would be many celebrations in Raja Theatre and mementos would be received. However , Pattamma did not seek any of them. He would feel happy seeing it in the showcase at the residence of his mentor, relative cum partner, P. A. Raju Chettiar.

Pattanna's sense of humour and its timing was legendary. On another occasion, PAR wanted to know about the cumulative financial status of the films purchased. He had given a witty reply. It went like this, “We managed to get one first class engine for our train. But our team just kept adding too many goods compartments to the train. Now, it is huffing and puffing to our station. Hope it reaches safe and sound.” Just look at his sense of humour. He conveyed that bad movie purchases had created a big burden on the firm. The first class engine had been the good movie and the too many goods compartments were the bad movies which were eating into the profits of the firm.

On another occasion, Pattanna was coming out of the income tax building. The firm had earned well and paid ‘Super Tax.’ His auditor found him searching for something. On being queried, Pattanna had stated that he was trying to look out for his name on the walls of the building. He funnily felt that he had given most of his income to the building but it did not carry his name. But other places (temples & schools) had acknowledged his smaller contributions by putting up his name in bold letters. His other take was on high interest rates, If someone was paying three percent interest per month in order to solicit deposits. He would state that the depositor would be left with three percent and the firm soliciting deposits would get gain ninety seven percent!

Pattanna was once reading the inauguration advertisement of a business in the local newspaper. On seeing the ‘With Best Compliments From’ part in the advertisement Pattanna had quipped, “See, the borrower is the one inaugurating the business today and the lenders are the ones found in the compliments part of the page. From now on, the lenders would begin to pray for the wellbeing of the advertiser. That will be the best way to keep their investments safe!!”

Pattanna had a motorcycle long ago and was known as ‘Motorcycle Patti.’ One day, he had been chased by a huge bull, and this made him seek refuge inside a car shed. Pattanna and P. A. R. Krishnan had been to Pakshiraja Studios on Puliyakulam in Coimbatore to watch a movie shoot. They discovered people running up and down within the floor of the studio. It was learnt that a tiger which had participated in the movie shoot was missing. Immediately, Pattanna took P. A. R. Krishnan into the cage and told him that it was the safest place to be. The cage would be the last place for the runaway tiger, according to witty Pattanna.

The interesting businessman had once looked into the tax affairs of PAR . Leading advocate, Nani. A. Palkivala had appeared for the tax dispute on behalf of PAR. Pattanna had been in the Madras High court at that moment. PAR and others wanted him to tell them about Palkivala. “What is there to say. He came and everyone looked up at him. Some arguments took place for a short time. We got the order instantly in our favour. He just wished me and immediately left by a flight to Bombay. That's it,” has stated Pattanna. That was his way of stating that Palkivala just stormed through and won the day for PAR.

P. A. Raju Chettiar trusted A. Pattabirama Chettiar all his life. The successful PAR was known as Vikramaditya and his trustworthy partner was known as Patti, i.e. they were known as Patti-Vikramaditya. Two brothers who flourished together. It was Patti in vernacular Tamil for Bhatti, the brother of Raja Vikramaditya who looked after the kingdom during the yearly six month absence of the latter. Pattanna would come first in the mind of P. A. Raju Chettiar. He took interest in the marriage of P. A. R. Krishnan, the first son of P. A. Raju Chettiar. In fact, he personally took the horoscope of P. A. R. Krishnan to seek the hand of Lalitha Bai, daughter of Setty S. N. Padmanabha Chetty of Salem.

A. Pattabirama Chettiar had served as the Secretary of the Sri Vasavi Kannika Parameswari Temple in Coimbatore. He had contributed towards the upgradation of the Temple. The thoughtful visionary had included the names of his brothers A. Balu Chettiar & A. Dhandayudham Chettiar on the  donor slab. He had practised inclusivity at all times. 

"My mother Chandravadhanam was a calm and quiet person. She looked after all of us very well. Mother never spoke ill of others and would never gossip. She was a quiet person and was bereft of any kind of wish or desire. Mother did not wish anything for herself. It was a rare trait but  was found in abundance in her. It was a Shivarathri day and my father woke up only to discover that his eyesight had gone down enormously. One eye was gone completely and the other was very weak. Mother became quite worried. Father had been diabetic but mother did not expect this to happen. It was a major shock for her. Father adjusted his life quite a bit, but  my mother could not come to terms with the new reality. She passed away due to heart failure thereafter. This was in 1966," stated Kota Girija Nandakumar - the fourth daughter of Chandravadhanam and A. Pattabirama Chettiar. 

"Grandfather had supervised the building of Raja Theatre. He used to stay up in the scaffolded area in order to ensure the quality of construction," R. Sivaraman, the son of Shakunthala and K. P. R. S. Rajashekaran.

"Grandmother saw everything while she was just 50 years of age. Four daughters, one son, four sons-in-law, one daughter-in-law, numerous grandchildren and the success of her husband. She would not go out much. Her sarees were brought from P. A. Raju Chettiar & Co by one Venkataraman. She would choose from the lot that was brought brought home. Her main concern had been the failing eyesight of my grandfather. Well, grandfather would not repeat his words. He liked to eat karaboondhi with curd rice. The half cooked, Methani chakkilam (soft hand made spiral snack which resembled a twisted coil) was loved by him. It was normally hard but was removed half-made while it would be soft. While everyone would eat regular idlis, grandfather liked to eat the hot idlis that were used for making sarasthalu (sandhigai). Dwadasi was the time for him to enjoy nelli vadigam pachadi and avusikeera. Thenkai Dosa was one more of his favourites and he would enjoy having it. He lived long enough to see a few of his great grand kids. They enjoyed his company. It was mutual," added Mothi Padmanabhan. 

Pattanna lived a retired life after his eye sight had almost failed. He sold his share in Raja Theatre to P. A. Raju Chettiar and retired to the residences of his children. He would spend a lot of time in the residences of his daughters. A. Pattabirama Chettiar went to Sitapur in Uttar Pradesh for setting his vision right. He used to go by train to Lucknow and then by metre gauge to Sitapur. These visits yielded limited results. His would attend to his work all by himself. The third son-in-law V. R. R. (V Chetty Radhakrishna Chetty of Vellore) had got him a Philips electric shaver. This was used by Pattanna efficiently. The radio was his constant companion. He would listen to the news everyday. This helped him stay in touch with the world. 

"My grandfather A. Pattabirama Chettiar and P. A. Raju Chettiar had purchasd a Rs.1000 ticket in aid of a fund raiser. This was to help in the 1962 war effort. Actor Sivaji Ganesan and others gave a performance in the V. O. C Park grounds at Coimbatore. There was only one ticket and I remember my grandfather and P. A. R., dropping me off and picking me up after the show. I was about 14 years of age at that time. I can recall one more instance. Every actor was given a silver kooja during the celebration of the success of 'Nadodi Mannan' in Raja Theatre in 1958. Our family members wanted to have one kooja as a souvenir. However, grandfather would not have any of it. His words prevailed," stated Mothi Padmanabhan, the first grandchild of Chandravadhanam and A. Pattabirama Chettiar. 

A. Pattbirama Chettiar just did his work and success followed. He was a Karmayogi all his life. His ready wit was backed by his ability to be practical. Wisdom and foresight were part of his strong foundation. He did not get carried away. Raja Theatre in Coimbatore had been his life and soul for about three decades. He had to give up being an active theatre owner because of the passing away of his wife and failing eye sight. A. Pattabirama Chettiar just did what was practical and right at that moment.  Acceptance became his motto in life. Honesty, integrity and toil were his life long companions. 

Pattanna was much loved by his family and also the family of his partner, P. A. Raju Chettiar. This love was his greatest asset. The life led by him is now part of business heritage. A life lived well is always remembered well. 

Mr. Rajesh Govindarajulu is one of the founding members of the Verandah Club Pvt. Ltd. He is a leading columnist, historian, jeweler, entrepreneur, and a heritage enthusiast who is earnestly working to revive the past in the light of the present. Experiential learning about the history of Coimbatore is his main course of interest and he is also a panel member of many colleges in the city.