1940 – The year of Fires

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Fires of a world war were raging across the globe, but 1940 was a year of three famous blazes in Madras, which in a way rewrote the history of the town.

The New Year started with a fire which gutted the Congress run All India Khadi and Swadeshi exhibition, whose organization had been compared in the newspapers to the Osaka world expo.  The General Patters road the Congress building nearby was also burnt down.

W.O Newsam, a district judge was appointed to enquire the disaster, mainly to rule out arson because the office of the main opposition to the British rulers had just been reduced to ash.

While commencing enquiry in his new office in the fort Newsam made it clear that it was neither a judicial enquiry nor was he trying to find a culprit.

Gross unpreparedness was visible from the evidence. Only 25 sand buckets had been installed for an area of 100000 square feet.  Only 600 gallons of water was stored in a tanker van for emergency, the rest having been used to water the grounds to control the dust.

Two of the four fire engines in Madras had been out of usage for months together and the hoses for the working ones had been only 30 feet long. The fire brigade accepted in it testimony that its machinery was primitive.

It was finally decided that accidental short circuiting or a cigarette butt could be the reason for igniting the thatched roof. The most important takeaway from the enquiry was of inadequate fire control support in a growing city. This led to the organisation of the Madras fire service which was soon mimicked all over the sub-continent . The old fire engines were replaced by Dennis Turbine motor fire and trailer pumps.


Motion Pictures Producers’ Combine (MPPC)- a joint stock company, founded by lawyer-turned filmmaker Krishnaswamy Subrahmanyam, had a big name and great location (on Mount road).

The studio had two floors, with a tin sheet on the top and the ancillary buildings were of thatch. But inspite of that, MPPC was churning out block busters like Thyagabhoomi and Kacha Deyani.


But in 1940, the studio was gutted in a fire accident, widely believed to be arson by business rivals.  The producers lost their shirt when the nitrate-based negatives of a fully-shot movie ‘Inbasagaran’ were charred. There was no insurance and the pounding induced a great deal of squabbling within associates.

The property came up for auction and reportedly Subrahmanyam persuaded his distributor SS Vasan to bid for it. A hesitant Vasan   bid for Rs.86,427-11-9, the abnormal number included remunerations of the unpaid workforce.

The new studio opened under the name Gemini (after the astrological sign of his wife and not as a jackpot winning horse as widely believed). The new façade had statues of ‘The Gemini Twins’, blowing the bugle. It became perhaps the premium studio in Asia and went on to become a celebrated film production.


When the presses of Indian express -one of the three major English papers of Madras caught fire, the fire engines could not approach the site because of narrow streets in George Town. Soon its machinery and paper stock were reduced to ashes.

Unlike other businesses, a newspaper would be out of reckoning if it did not print editions for an extended period. During wartime, machinery could not be easily imported. It was the disaster time and people already started writing off proprietor Ramnath Goenka.

But succour was arriving from unanticipated quarters. The main rival of Express- The Hindu heard of the blaze. Instead of despatching gleeful reporters to cover the fire, Kasthuri Srinivasan, the editor sent his press superintendent to meet Goenka with a proposition he could not refuse even if it came from his biggest rival.


Hindu had moved to its new location, opposite the government estate. Srinivasan offered his old office and the rotary press on rent to the Express with immediate effect. With a break of less than a week the three musketeers as they were called – Indian Express, Andraprabha and Dinamani were back on the stands again, all due to help from a rival.

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