365 years of Madras

By Bishwanath Ghosh

A big city is no different from a human being. It wakes up at the crack of dawn, stretches lazily and sets about its chores. It works during the day, enjoys in the evening and retires to bed at night. It has its good qualities and its flaws, as well as its eccentricities.

And like all humans, it also has a heart and a soul. And its moods. Sometimes it behaves like a pampering mother and sometimes like a sulking wife. At times it gives you a cold stare like a stranger and at other times it embraces you like an old friend. Only that a city has an infinite lifespan. The people who live in it are incidental: they come and go. But the city goes on. Like Chennai.

The Chennai that we know was born in 1639 as a strip of beach three miles long and one mile wide — acquired from the governors of Poonamallee by two East India Company employees, Francis Day and Andrew Cogan. That makes the city 365 years old. During this period it contributed to the history of modern India in different capacities — as the seat of the British power in the South, as the capital of the entire South India, as the venue of some defining political movements and, of course, as the capital of Tamil Nadu.

But what has survived the political changes, and is still flourishing, is the culture — something that accords Chennai its unique place. Idli-sambar, Bharatanatyam, Carnatic music... these are things you can happily take out of Chennai, but you can never take Chennai out of them.

It’s also a city awash with colour: walls in the entire city are wrapped in posters while gigantic cinema billboards unseen anywhere else in the country tower over prominent junctions. And in the nights it’s not uncommon to pass by illuminated larger-than-life cutouts of gods and goddesses and also of politicians. It’s only here that politicians enjoy the status of gods.

Amidst all this Chennai exudes warmth — something rarely found in the other metros. Bombay is too busy while Delhi loves to show off — every Delhiite thinks he or she is a nephew or niece of the Prime Minister. Calcutta, on the other hand, is too snooty — it never tires of celebrating itself.

As the celebrated British journalist, the late James Cameron, wrote in An Indian Summer: “...I have a sort of trust in Madras... It is an agreeable, rather boring place; it is the sort of place I would be if I were a town.”

The accompanying impressions celebrate not only Chennai’s birth anniversary but also the trust Cameron has talked about. But hang on, whose anniversary are we celebrating — Chennai’s or Madras’? Now, what’s in a name! Thayir saadham tastes as good as curd rice.

Landmarks of another day
By Shreekumar Varma, a novelist who is writing a book on Chennai

One burnished evening when I was still in junior school, I remember walking down Nungambakkam High Road with our driver. A new restaurant had come up beyond Gemini Studio, less than two kilometres from home. It was a building set on large green parkland, but we were told to our disappointment that the restaurant would only open the following week.

It opened, and we were back. It was a novel concept. You could eat a meal without ever having to step out of your car. That was the beginning of Woodlands Drive-in, one of the most enduring landmarks of Madras, having survived several decades of change and “upgradation.” When I returned to the Drive-in a couple of months ago, I was surprised to find that little had changed. Even some of the old waiters and greying “boys” are around.

Another landmark, which remains only in our minds today, was the Moore Market. It was a total shopping experience, shabby and thrilling, with layers of excitement waiting to be uncovered.

The suave hunchback who met you at the car park, the smelly pet shops at the back, the books and novelties, were all features you waited impatiently to re-access. When my grandfather came down from Kerala, he was sure to take me, as delighted with the small plastic and rubber trinkets, the ‘‘jumping frog’’, the ‘‘actuvally-sailing’’ boat and the grotesque, garish masks as I was. One evening as he walked on ahead I was confronted with the fact of a pleading teenage prostitute, a part of the market’s sad, seamy and unrecognised sideshow.

Another memory rests with what were called ‘‘drives’’. Traffic wasn’t so torturous then. You could take in a world of landmarks through a single leisurely trip with no particular destination in mind. Today’s ECR (East Coast Road) used to be lonely, long and languid, and could transport you to new degrees of experience with its haunting call of waves, birds and breeze, a virtually unbroken canopy of trees, and spreading fields — in short nothing remotely like today’s ECR.

The “Guindy Road” was large, quiet and academic. The bald-headed building that housed a technical college was considered (by me) a marvel of architecture at the time. Behind it was desolate land, another journey out of civilisation. Once, when we spotted a violent gypsy couple, my father hastily backed the car away, and afterwards my parents kept referring to the incident as the “gypsy fight”, as though it was one of the city’s many mysterious attractions. Only years later did it strike me that we may have intruded into a very private moment.

Besides the historical ones, Madras was and is full of emotional landmarks. The beaches (Marina and Elliots), pre-burn Spencer’s, Buhari’s-upon-Marina, the University buildings, theatres like New Elphinstone, Wellington, Globe and Safire (which also packed the “continuous” Blue Diamond where college students crowded the aisle to watch Woodstock all day), the ultra-foam lassi at the Round Tana, Gandhi Mandapam, Gaylords on Mount Road, Fountain Plaza, the ambience of Mylapore and Triplicane — it is the magic of Madras that has turned these landmarks into legend.

Under the banyan tree By Maalan, editor, Sun News

Many morning walkers strolling past the grand old banyan tree in the wooded Theosophical Society in Adyar may not know that the great political movement that changed the course of India’s history was born under its shade. Alan Octavian Hume, a former British Civil Servant but remembered in history as the founder of Indian National Congress, was a staunch Theosophist. In 1885, during a discussion with his friends from Mylapore, under the banyan tree, he mooted the idea of Congress.

Thirty years later, the same banyan tree was witness to the birth pangs of another political movement, Home Rule. Dr Annie Besant, described bitterly by her rivals as a ‘woman of deep penetration, quick conception and easy delivery’ held consultations with her colleagues, under the tree, for a movement that would make “India to be a sovereign nation within her own boundaries owing only allegiance to the imperial crown.”

New generation Congressmen may not remember, but history acknowledges that it was Dr Besant who played a pivotal role in reunifying the Moderate and the Extremist factions of the then Congress, which had split at the Surat session. Madras was the venue of this reconciliation.

Dr Besant’s political manoeuvres sowed the seeds for another movement — the Justice Party — on the other side of the Adyar river. Prof Eugene F Irsschick of University of California at Berkeley (who was born in Tamil Nadu and had his early education here) observes, “the catalyst which triggered the formation of the Justice Party was the foundation by Annie Besant of the home rule movement.”

Justice Party, the mother of all later day Dravidian movements, had its genesis in Madras Dravidian Association founded by Dr C Natesa Mudaliar of Triplicane. A significant task of the association was the running of the hostel for non-Brahmin students at Akbar Sahib Street in Triplicane. This was a long-felt need at the time, as students who moved from districts to pursue higher studies in the city colleges were not served food at Brahmin hotels.

Congress and Dravidian movements have moulded the mindset of millions of Tamils over many decades. But what is not said often is the role played by the Dravidian movements in steering the destiny of the nation. Dravidian political leaders, dismissed off as regional chieftains by the national newspapers, were able to foresee much ahead of others the course of national politics. They predicted the end of confrontational politics and the beginning of the era of multi-party coalitions as early as in 1980, when DMK and Congress, the arch rivals, forged an alliance to face the Parliament elections.

Chennai has been regarded as a cultural capital by many for many years. Although not widely acknowledged, it has also been the hub of many political movements and activities.

Music, Madras and Me
By V Sriram, editor, Sangeetham.com

My earliest memories of Madras are of waking up in the morning listening to grandmother singing the Lalitha Pancharatna stotram, a short and sweet set of five verses, each of which she would sing in a different raga.

Ours was a joint family, with an aunt or two always in the final months of pregnancy or a newly-married cousin from whom everyone expected good ‘‘news’’. The song Shri Matrubhootam of Muttuswami Dikshitar would invariably be taught, as it was believed that this song helped in safe delivery of the baby. Within a few years all of us knew it by heart. In the afternoons, D K Jayaraman would come on a bicycle from his house which was nearby. In a series of classes all through the afternoon, he would teach a couple of the pregnant aunts and then also an uncle who was by far the best singer in the family. The neighbours would come in just to listen to uncle and DKJ singing in tandem.

In the evening, I would have my own music lessons, taught by a lady teacher who would come home. It was taken for granted that when we were six, we would all be subjected to the beginner’s lessons and tested out. If a new male teacher was teaching the girls in the family, then grandmother would invariably be present, just to ensure that there was no hanky panky. The acid test would be during Navaratri when we would all be asked to sing, irrespective of age or sex.

As we grew up, all of us had to take turns in escorting grandmother to the Music Academy, that Mecca of Carnatic Music. The Academy lobby was a kind of stock exchange for horoscopes for all cousins of marriageable age. We would be shown T Brinda or M L Vasanthakumari as they passed by. As for M S Subbulakshmi, a debate on her saree and jewels would invariably erupt on the way home from the concert. Inside the auditorium we would all be grilled on raga identification, our sense of tala (I came off very poorly in this) and would occasionally also be privy to the latest gossip on the musician who was performing.

With grandfather’s death, the joint family broke up and grandmother came away with us to Calcutta. There one had to entertain her each evening by reading the music reviews in The Hindu, Ananda Vikatan and Kalki. We heard very little of Madras other than music.

Coming back many years later to the city, I got married and my wife and I began learning from the same guru. On coming to know that my wife was expecting our first child, he immediately taught her Sri Matrubhootam. Some things never change in Madras.

Madras and mudras
By Anita R Ratinam, a well-known dancer

As a teenager, I would stagger out of bed bleary-eyed and face another day of school and dance classes with Rajee Narayan. My Arangetram in 1964 was at the Abbotsbury marriage hall (now the site of an abandoned hotel complex). The occasion was my uncle’s wedding reception.

The performance was two hours long and I was eight years old. Just five days earlier I had slipped down the stairs and hurt my back and could not bend like Kumari Kamala (an inspiration for an entire generation to learn Bharatanatyam) in the snake dance! I was crushed but tried to make it up with my Ava Gardener smile. After five costume changes applause, my father rushed backstage and scolded my guru for making me sweat so much!

I remember tailor Aiyyelu coming to our present home on Cenotaph Road to take measurements. My sister Pritha and I danced together whenever she decided she could divert her mind from her first rank in class exams. My mother Leela was an innovator in colours and costume design and created several outfits that Aiyyelu understood with his quicksilver mind.

Performances were always exciting. An assortment of celebrities sat in the front row . My mother or one of my gurus, Adyar K Lakshman and Madurai N Krishnan, would pop in informing me about the various VIPs who arrived but all I wanted to know was ‘‘Has Subbudu come? Has NMN come?’’ The two dreaded dance critics of Indian Express and The Hindu.

December 1971. The greats MS and Bala in the audience and me backstage. The occasion. The opening session of the annual Music Academy Conference and a dancer appearing after several years to open the session. Years later. The morning prayer under the banyan tree at Kalakshetra with Atthai (Rukmini Arundale) and Sankara Menon attending. Dreaded 'araimandi’ sessions with Sarada Hoffman and lovely dance classes with Neila Sathyalingam and Jayalakshmi teacher. A stern Atthai summoning me and asking me to take part in one of the famed Ramayana dance dramas as Kausalya — mother to Janardhan sir’s famous Sri Rama. Heart fluttering each time I had to repeat a movement and Sarada teacher barking “innum ukkaaranum ( you have to sit lower)” until my long legs could hardly make it out of the class sessions.

Dance means Madras. Sweat. Heat. Sound of wood on wood. Tamil, English and Malayalam melting in the sweltering heat. Paint, lights, applause or walk outs. Reviews and gossip sessions with Sruti magazine’s Janaki. Mylapore, North Mada Street, checking out new costume jewellery at Sukra.

Today. New costumes planned for a new production on the Lotus. The land phone and the mobile ring simultaneously. My kids yell their annual mantra, “Amma! Please leave your dance for one December and come with us on a holiday.” My mother looks at my wall filled with awards and honours and calmly declares, “All okay, but when are you getting your Padma Shri?”

Crossing borders, re-inventing cultures
K Hariharan, a film- and documentary-maker

Moving to Madras in late 1979 to pursue filmmaking as a fulltime career was probably the most important decision I took in my life. Brought up in Bombay as a pucca Hindikaran, I did have enormous apprehensions of being accepted into the film industry here. My Tamil was just enough to ensure safe passage with a Rickshawkaran or a Paalkaran, but for making films, it was woefully inadequate. And here I was in the midst of people who were supposedly very chauvinistic about their love for Tamil. But my fears were completely unfounded.

I realised that Madras has had a long tradition of people like me, from Ellis Duncan to Nimai Ghosh and to a whole lot of film people who spoke and continue to speak better Telugu than Tamil. It was apparent that the film community in Madras respected filmmaking talent and simple discipline more. Above all I was in the glorious company of filmmakers like Bharathiraja and Balu Mahendra who were willing to experiment with new forms. 16 Vayadinile and Mundram Pirai used slender stories to discover a new Tamil landscape.

The 1980s witnessed the end of the era of Sivaji Ganesan and MGR, who were replaced with two radically different personalities — Kamalahasan and Rajnikant. Unkempt, sexy and mostly lumpen, they addressed the desires of a populace who were plain tired of the old order. The most welcome change came through the screenplay/ dialogues of Bhagyaraj and Mahendran. Down to earth and contemporary. So it seemed appropriate that somebody like me could also be appreciated. It was during this inspiring phase that my film Ezhavathu Manithan was released in 1982 and it did create a small wave.

But Madras and her Tamil cinema were not going to be content with changing paradigms at home. The landmark film that made this huge leap across the borders was a low-budget love story by K Balachander called Ek Duje Ke Liye in Hindi. Produced by L V Prasad, this film starring Kamalahasan and Rati Agnihotri smashed box-office records all over India. And the entire collections from this film went into setting up the country’s most sophisticated 70mm sound recording theatre in the Prasad Film complex. Technological innovations and up-gradations became the order of the day here as a powerful maestro swung his baton to synthesise music and songs by the hundreds. This one-man accelerator was, of course, Ilayaraja.

Filmmakers from all over India came pouring into Chennai, renamed coincidentally with her new hi-tech status. In this synergetic framework, the duo of Mani Ratnam and P C Sriram launched a visual design that would virtually change the syntax of Indian cinema. Mani Ratnam could summon stars from all over India into his Tamil films to redefine conventions for a new imagi-nation! But I think it was his combination with A R Rahman that gave Tamil cinema its most awesome facelift. But did Chennai and her citizens change in any substantial way? Well just look around and see the number of Tamil films released with English titles; the amount of Hindi being fused into our songs and the acceptance of ‘Tinglish’ in our dialogues. So after 25 years, Hindikaran is not an unusual phenomenon anymore!

From The New INdian Express on Sunday

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