The 8-year-old boy picks up his pace to match his father’s giant strides. His huge eyes soak in the vibrant ambience of Moore Market of Madras (Chennai). He is oblivious to the high-octane energy of the place, the whispering people all talking at once, and all about one thing. Independence.
India was on the cusp of creating history. Freedom from an oppressive 200-year-old rule was just around the corner. Emotions were running high, and freedom was the only thing the old and young could speak of. The little boy was not only living in history but also dreaming of creating his own.
For D Hemchandra Rao, the crowded labyrinthine bylanes of his favourite Market was like a museum offering the most bewitching gifts. Ancient artefacts, books, instruments, tasty treats, postcards of places he has never seen, models of ships in all sizes, and his favourite—stamps.
Today, after 70 odd years, Rao welcomes people to, possibly, Chennai’s first Maritime Heritage Museum which, incidentally, is his home too, located in a lane off the busy Kaliamman Koil Street in Virugambakkam.
The boy has come full circle.
Dhow models, anchors, coins with ships engraved on them, models of brass ships, wooden houseboats, pocket watches, clocks, ship lanterns, postcards, and the pride of the collection—innumerable stamps; of lighthouses, canals, buildings, famous personalities and all things in between. Rao’s museum boasts of a collection worthy of a pirate’s haul collected over decades.
For this, he is immensely grateful to his father, who introduced him to the idea of preserving something that has a history, heritage value and cultural importance.
Hailing from Kerala, Rao now calls Chennai his home. Rao’s curiosity for memorabilia, souvenirs and oddities stems from his passion for history. A passion that took birth in his childhood which he has nurtured ever since.
After completing his Majors in Civil Engineering, in 1963, he went on to work with two firms, one of which was a shipping firm that reaffirmed his penchant for ships and lighthouses.
In 2002, Rao retired, and just like every retired person, had several questions about his life ahead.
Speaking to The Better India, he says,
For 37 years, I worked, and suddenly, one day, I was doing nothing. I had no idea about how I would utilise my free time until I took a walk on an arch bridge in the city. The beautiful architecture of the building piqued my interest to read about its history.
Rao spent the next five years chronicling the history of bridges and canals, “The bridges are constructed across three seasonal rivers, namely Cooum, Buckingham Canal and Adyar. It is a common misconception that Buckingham Canal originated in Andhra Pradesh. However, it was in Madras. Lack or misleading information pushed me to find out more about the bridges,” he adds.
Rao went beyond the history books and visited over 20 bridges to observe their architecture, patterns and designs in detail.
The expedition inspired him to dive into the mysteries surrounding lighthouses. In 2015, he travelled extensively across India and covered Andhra Pradesh, West Bengal, Maharashtra and Gujarat in four years, and visited many lighthouses.
Amidst these expeditions, Rao’s attention went to the Buckingham Canal that is seven feet below Krishna Canal in Andhra Pradesh, “I remember we walked endlessly from Marakkanam to Peddaganjam amidst the thorny bushes and uneven roads to reach the place.”
Rao has articulated the history, facts and trivia about the canal in his museum through maps, pictures, and a 16-foot-wooden boat that is a replica of one of the boats that crossed the canal in the 1870s.
His collection of replicas of boats include the famous Kerala boat houses, brass boats and others. Meanwhile, his garage displays 200 photos of lighthouses that he has visited.
Courtesy his travelling experiences, Rao’s living room now boasts of unique and antique items. The walls are painted in blue to give the visitors a feeling of being ensconced in a submarine helping them immerse into maritime history.
He opened the museum to the public last year in August, and so far around 150 people have visited, “I am an old man, and I did not initially keep a register for visitors as I had not expected people to be interested in my museum. But after people started coming regularly, I started to keep a count.”
It takes an hour to tour the house. Rao personally attends every visitor and tells them the history and significance of each of the displayed items.
My goal is to spread knowledge to as many people as possible. Personal interaction also helps me learn new things from people belonging to varied backgrounds, he says.
Rao now plans to expand his museum and add three more rooms to display his entire collection. He has also written a book on lighthouses, and his next on bridges will be out soon.
The Directorate Of Lighthouses And Lightships has recognised his efforts and gifted him five shipping ties.
Rao charges no fee for a visit to his museum, which can be visited at any time of the day. But Rao prefers the evenings considering the household chores keep him busy during the day.
If you wish to visit him, ring him at 9840870172 or write him at: firstname.lastname@example.org
Postal Address: 8, Elango Nagar Annexe, Virugambakkam.
(Edited by Saiqua Sultan)