Chennai@175: Madras to Chennai – Evolution of media in the last 150 years

25 Aug,2014

R V Rajan

By R V Rajan


The mass media as we understand today took roots with the establishment of print media in the  West during the 17th century., which offered opportunities to reach a large and dispersed audience simultaneously. It was the East India Company of the British Empire that brought this media to India and to Chennai.


Evolution of Print Media

Newspaper publishing started in Chennai with the launch of a weekly, The Madras Courier, in 1785. It was followed by the weeklies The Madras Gazzette and The Government Gazzette in 1795. The Spectator, founded in 1836, was the first English newspaper in Chennai to be owned by an Indian and became the city’s first daily newspaper in 1853.


Early advertisements in Madras Courier were in the form of classifieds.


In 1851 the Madras Almanac & Compendium of Intelligence carried public auctions, theft, theatre, birth and death announcements.


In 1860 came the ‘Fort St. George Gazette and the Madras Times.  And it was in 1870 that the Madras Mail which occupied a pride of place on Mount Road was started.


In the decades that followed several Tamil publications were launched: 1881 – Swadesamitran (Tamil weekly), 1888 – Jana Vridhi, 1894 – Gnana Banu (religious weekly), 1897- Pariyan (A Dalit weekly) – all of which carried relevant classified announcements. But the history of journalism  and advertising in Madras, is very much linked to the growth of the Maha Vishnu of Mount Road – The Hindu.


Started in 1878 by G Subramania Aiyar as a weekly tabloid with M Veeraraghava Chariar as partner Hindu became a daily newspaper in 1889 which was bought over by Kasturi Iyengar in 1905.


It is interesting to note that in the initial years, the first page of the paper was entirely devoted to advertising – mostly classifieds covering a range of topics from ballroom dancing to widow remarriage!


Several other publications followed , significant among them being Ananda Bodhini (1920), Ananda Vikatan (1926) and Indian Express (1932) all of which were successful in getting advertising  support for their publications.


Today, Chennai has six major print media groups that publish about eight major newspapers and magazines. The major English dailies are The Times of India, The Hindu, The New Indian Express and The Deccan Chronicle; evening dailies: The Trinity Mirror and The News Today. As of today, The Hindu is the city’s most read English newspaper, with a daily circulation of over 5.5 lakh copies. The major business dailies published from the city are The Economic Times, The Hindu Business Line, Business Standard, and The Financial Express. The major Tamil dailies include the Dina Thanthi, Dinakaran, Dina Mani, Dina Malar, Tamizh Ossai, Tamil Murasu,[theekkathir] Makkal Kural and Malai Malar.


Hundreds of magazines are today published from Chennai. The popular ones areAnanda Vikatan, Kumudam, Kalki, Nakkheeran,  Kungumam, Swathi (Telugu magazine), Frontline and Sportstar Chennai was also a pioneer in starting free community newspapers. South Madras News by Speciality Publications owned by R.Desikan was the first community newspaper of India started  in 1974. Today, apart from the popular neighbourhood newspapers such as The Annanagar Times and The Adyar Times there are a whole host of neighborhood  papers catering  to particular localities all carrying local news and  advertisements targeted at specific target audiences.


Newspaper representatives to advertising agents

Contribution of the legendary S S Vasan (Gemini Film fame) and T Sadasivam in the growth of the advertising business during the 1930s is significant.  Vasan was into mail order and publishing business.  He started Vasan Advertising Centre canvassing advertisements for various newspapers and getting commission from them – one of the early  representatives of advertising agency business. He bought out Ananda Vikatan and also started  Merry Magazine in English.  Ananda Vikatan which was being edited by another legendary Tamil writer- Kalki Krishnamurthy had T Sadasivam as the advertisement representative charged with the responsibility of getting new advertisement business.  Sadasivam had a flair for writing very persuasive direct mailers appealing for advertisements.  It is said, thanks to Sadasivam’s efforts advertising income of Ananda Vikatan went up from Rs.6,000/- to Rs.72,000/- in six months.


Sadasivam left Ananda Vikatan  and started  Kalki with Krishnamurthy as the Editor. The magazine became a big success thanks to the popular historical novels penned by `Kalki`and serialized in the magazine week after week.


Paper advertisements in those days covered products like Keshavardhini Hair Oil, Asoka Beetlenut powder, Amrutanjan, Narasus Coffee, Binny & Co, Westend Watch Co., Himalaya snow, Horlicks Malted Milk, cars like Rover, Morris, Murphy radio, Macleans toothpaste,Andrews Liver etc. salt apart from advertisements for announcing new film releases.


One of the earliest full fledged advertising agency was started by P S Mani Aiyer in 1939.  Mr Aiyar began  his advertising career by canvassing advertisements for Swadesamitran and the Hindu.  It is said that he got 25% commission from these  newspapers for the ads he got for them.  Simpson and Spencer & Co were two of his well-known clients.  He had innovative ideas.  He hired artists to create advertisements with interesting visuals. He is supposed to have persuaded Simpson & Co,  dealers of cars, to offer cars on hire purchase. A car costing Rs 3,500 was available on a monthly instalment of Rs.100.


It was in the early 1930s that advertisements which were essentially classified ads started getting a  new look with the introduction of visuals to support the catchy copy matter. Line  drawings and half tone prints of human figures were used to make the advertisements more attractive.



Radio broadcasting in Madras  started from the radio station at the Rippon Buildings complex, founded in 1930 and was then shifted to All India Radio in 1938. The city has two AM and fifteen FM radio stations, operated by Anna University, All India Radio and many private broadcasters.


Radio as an advertising medium is bound to grow as evident from the growing popularity of many of the FM channels in Chennai.


Film / TV Advertising

Other than Jayendra Panchpakesan, an ex-copywriter and film writer and P C Sriram the well-known cinematographer and director, another Madras-based advertising film producer who caught  the imagination of the Bombay advertising world was Rajiv Menon who is also well known as a cinematographer and director.  He produced some memorable ad films for Asian Paints and Titan watches.


The Madras ad world can be proud that it nurtured some of today’s celebrities during their days of struggle. Today’s icon A R Rehman was popular as Dilip in his earlier avatar. He used to compose advertising jingles for many products in his spare time.  Balakrishnan (Balki) of Lowe Lintas is another contribution  from Chennai to the national advertising scene. Senthil from JWT Madras who was responsible for creating the  Cannes Award winning Naka Mooka commercial for Times of India is another Madras boy who is doing well on the national advertising scene.


M G (Ambi) Parameshwaran and Ramanujam Sridhar are the other Madras boys  known for their intellectual contribution to the advertising field in the form of books on Branding and  Advertising based on their long association with the advertising business.



Madras was well known for the huge, larger than life, hoardings on Mount Road promoting new and old feature films. The idea was first conceived by the legendary film director S.S. Vasan for the block buster movie Chandralekha in the early 50s.  The idea caught on and over the years not only films but also products and services of all types started featuring their messages  on hoardings occupying every vantage point on the roads of Madras, leading to mindless  growth of the media.  Many accidents later the State Government passed a law in 2008 barring hoardings in public places.


For over four decades thousands of talented artists made a living out of manually painting the big hoardings using miniature drawings as reference.The banning of the medium completely in Chennai  has left many people dependent on this medium literally on the streets.


Satellite and Cable TV

It was in the mid-90s that the advertising through cable TV started penetrating homes in Madras.  The government`s decision to allow private channels to enter the TV space dominated till then by government owned DD,  has led to proliferation of TV channels. From just one TV channel in the early 80s, today nationally there are nearly 700 channels. covering almost every language of the country.


In Tamil alone we have eight channels offering a wide variety of programmes catering to different tastes of audiences. Almost every political party has its own TV channel Like Jaya (AIADMK), Kalaignar (DMK), Makkal  (PMK) and Captain (DMDK) to mention a few, Leading them all  is Sun TV, one of the most successful and profitable channels operating  out of Chennai that has today become a big multimedia conglomerate. The Sun Network, a Rs. 5000 crore public firm, is the country’s second-largest broadcasting company, in terms of viewership share. Some of its TV shows have generated the highest television rating points in the country. In addition to owning 19 TV channels in all major South Indian languages, the group owns FM radio stations in over eleven cities and some Tamil magazines and newspapers. SCV is a major cable TV service provider of the group.


Direct-to-home (DTH) is available in Chennai via DD Direct Plus, Dish TV, Tata Sky, Sun Direct DTH, BIG TV, Airtel Digital TV and Videocon d2h. Chennai is the first city in India to have implemented the Conditional Access System for cable television.


Current Advertising Scene in Chennai

The last decade has seen a steady decline of traditional advertising spend in Chennai  by FMCG companies (like Cavincare) and consumer durable companies (like Hyundai and Ford)  many of whom have moved their marketing departments to Mumbai or Delhi leading to a major setback for the Chennai  branches of the established multinational agencies. Though  there has been a tremendous growth in the advertising business from the Retail, Realty and Educational sectors, it has not helped professional agencies because many of the new generation advertisers representing these groups are not professional in their approach and go for media agencies who are able to offer them lowest rates. However for an adman who is willing to adapt to the changing scene in Chennai the profession still provides enough opportunities. As evident from the success of many local agencies.


Once considered an overgrown village that went to sleep by 9 pm, Madras during the past decade has acquired a 24 x 7 reputation. The city has drawn people from all parts of India. Result: This metropolis can offer anything that anyone wants! Be it the choice of food, products, services or even entertainment!


Old, tradition-rich conservative Madras is today a vibrant cosmopolitan Chennai. The young are willing to try out anything new! What better challenge than that for the advertising professional? I am sure that the Chennai advertising world will soon bounce back to its glorious past!


RV Rajan is a veteran advertising person living in Chennai and widely regarded as the Father of Rural Advertising. He can be reached at


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