Mini-museums at heritage businesses in Little India showcase shops' rich history

Thandapani Co's mini-museum features the raw form of common spices used in Indian cooking, as well as an ingredient list for its famous house mix, Thandapani Briyani Masala. PHOTO: TAMIL MURASU

SINGAPORE - Madam Meena Gnanapandithan took over the business of providing custom blends of Indian spices from her father-in-law in 2005, but she is still hesitant about changing anything about the shop over a decade later.

"Everything around us is modern and new now but here, even the wooden baskets holding the spices are filled with tradition and history. I don't want to change a thing," said the 45-year-old.

The spice store, Thandapani Co, is one of eight heritage businesses that will feature a storefront mini-museum in a wooden cabinet to showcase the rich history behind their ventures.

The Street Corner Heritage Galleries is an initiative by the National Heritage Board (NHB) to encourage appreciation for history and heritage in everyday spaces.

The first run of the initiative was launched in Balestier in March 2020, followed by the Kampong Gelam precinct in April 2021 which featured seven businesses, like tea store Bhai Sarbat and perfumery Jamal Kazura Aromatics.

In the Little India edition launched on Friday (Jan 28), stores like vegetarian restaurant Ananda Bhavan and Haniffa Textiles filled their storefront mini-museums with items that were significant to their shop's heritage.

Thandapani Co was founded in the 1960s by Madam Meena's father-in-law, Mr Sanmugam, who came to Singapore from India in 1946.

Present day, the shop provides spice mixes and custom blends for not only those in the Indian community but also customers all over the island.

"For our regulars and our multi-generational customers, we know the taste their families prefer - how spicy they like their dishes, so we know the perfect proportions to serve them," said Madam Meena.

Other than adding flavour to the personal kitchens of their customers, the shop also serves restaurants and chains, with curry puff chain Old Chang Kee among its past customers.

The store's mini-museum features the raw form of common spices used in Indian cooking, as well as a handwritten ingredient list for the shop's famous house mix, Thandapani Briyani Masala.

In another mini-museum in front of Jothi Store and Flower Shop, a one-stop shop in Campbell Lane that sells various goods like items needed for prayer and religious ceremonies, visitors will find betel leaves, colourful plastic bangles and clay oil lamps.

Now occupying a five-storey building, the shop has seen vast changes over the years from the hole-in-the-wall shop it once was in 1960.

Mr Murugaia Ramachandra, 90, came to Singapore from India in 1948, and opened the shop after a stint as a compositor at The Straits Times in the 1950s.

He expanded the store to include a flower shop after he realised there was a demand for flower garlands to be used in religious offerings in nearby Hindu temples.

Mr Rajakumar Chandra manages Jothi Store and Flower Shop. PHOTO: TAMIL MURASU

Even after his son, Mr Rajakumar Chandra, 63, took over the business in 1985, Mr Murugaia still comes to the shop every morning to serve customers.

When the global Covid-19 pandemic hit in 2020, both father and son were worried about how their customers would be affected. They then set up an online site to offer deliveries during the circuit breaker.

Mr Rajakumar said: "Previously, we thought that since Singapore was so small and accessible, there's no need for us to go online.

"But the day Jothi was told to close due to the circuit breaker, which no one could have ever imagined because we are usually open 365 days a year, we were shocked but knew we had to adapt so that our customers would still be able to get what they need," he said.

The mini-museums that tell the stories of shops like Jothi Store and Flower Shop and Thandapani Co are aimed at both tourists who are new to Singapore's culture and also locals who are familiar with the shops, said assistant manager for education and community outreach at NHB, Ms Cheryl Lim, 25.

She said: "These heritage businesses play an important role in defining the precinct's unique character, and with the galleries, their stories are more accessible to the public.

"I'm sure some of their long-time customers may not even know a lot of the history of these shops, so hopefully these galleries will raise more awareness."

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