Chennai Heritage walks schedule for Madras Week

July 30, 2014

August 16th, Saturday – Looking back at Lloyds Road – walk led by Mohan V Raman and Sriram V- 6.00 to 8.30 am

August 17th Sunday – Coursing down College Road – walk led by Sriram V – 6.00 to 8.30 am

August 23rd –The Gujaratis of Sowcarpet – walk led by Karthik Bhatt – 6.00 to 8.30 am

August 24th – Touring around Triplicane – walk led by Sriram V – 6.00 to 8.30 am

All walks require registration (at and payment of Rs 500 in advance. All walks end with breakfast.

Madras Musings talks for Madras Week 2014

July 29, 2014

August 17th Sunday – The Park – From Madras to Mandalay – Geeta Doctor looks at the Madras-Myanmar connect through conversations with S Muthiah and Visalakshi Ramaswami, readings from the book A King in Exile, a short film by Shylaja Chetlur and a special menu presented by Chef Rajesh of The Park – 6.30 pm

August 18th Monday – GRT Grand, T Nagar – A Piece of the Past – Mementoes from 18th Century Madras- A talk by Dr Swapna Sathish – Swapna has been teaching art history and design in the department of Fine Arts at Stella Maris College, Chennai since 2001. A freelance art critic, she has authored catalogues, exhibition reviews and contributed chapters to books. She is interested in 18th century colonial art and received a Charles Wallace India Trust research grant to undertake post-doctoral research in the United Kingdom studying art and artifacts from the homes of British ‘nabobs’ with a Madras connection in 2011 – 6.30 pm

August 19th Tuesday – The Hyatt Regency, Anna Salai – The Indo Saracenic Man – A tribute to Robert Fellowes Chisholm on his death centenary – A talk by Sriram V – Entrepreneur, Writer and Associate Editor, Madras Musings – 6.30 pm

August 20th Wednesday – Chamiers (Anokhi) – 106/79, Chamiers Road – From LA to Mylapore in seach of music – Well known film critic and writer Baradwaj Rangan in conversation with young and fast rising Carnatic musician Sandeep Narayan – 6.30 pm

August 21st Thursday – Amethyst, Whites Road, Royapettah – ‘Foodpreneurship’ in Chennai – Panel discussion anchored by entrepreneur Chandu Nair. Panelists – Kiran Rao of Amethyst, Vinit Chordia of and Bhuvanesh of Donut House – 6.30 pm


August 23rd Saturday – ITC Sheraton Park Hotel & Towers, TTK Road – A birth centenary tribute to veteran comedian and character actor TS Baliah – Talk by Mohan V Raman – actor and entert’r’ainer- 5.30 pm

August 24th Sunday – Savera, Radhakrishnan Road – Screening of Karan Bali’s feature length documentary film An American in Madras which is on the life of Ellis R Dungan. Programme co-hosted by Cinema Rendezvous. The director will be present and there will be a discussion after the screening – 6.30 pm

August 25th Monday – ITC Grand Chola, Guindy – My memories of Madras – Veteran artist, art director and designer Thotta Tharani speaks – 6.30 pm

Yet another Madras Week

July 28, 2014

Let there be Madras Week, said the Chief, and there was Madras Week. The Man from Madras Musings can almost imagine the Chief, bare toes and knee caps and all, being wafted through the sky in a billowing cape in which are also carried the team of evangelists of the Week, MMM being one of them. In front leans Madras itself, suitably clad, of course, and the Chief ignites it by the touch of a finger. At least that was how MMM visualised the scene, falling into a light doze after a heavy dinner and while reading a book on Michelangelo and the Sistine Chapel.

And, so, here we are with yet another Madras Week. And may it be a success as has been its wont in the past many years. MMM, as always, looks forward to it, for apart from the hustle and bustle of celebrating the city, it also gives him enough and more for this column. In the past, MMM has written about the freeloaders (and has been roasted in letters to ye ed) and the critics (who anyway roasted MMM) who surface suddenly during the Week. This time, MMM would like to take his lyre and sing of the over enthusiastic under-achievers who too surface suddenly during the Week and then vanish as abruptly as they came.

This band fancies itself to be volunteering for the Week. It is not to be confused with those who really volunteer and do the many unseen acts of kindness that make the Week a success – conducting events in the neighbourhood, spreading the gospel of heritage, and generally broadcasting sweetness and light. Of that lot MMM has nothing to say beyond the fact that he would like to kiss the hem of their garment as they pass by shedding light. Of the first lot, however, MMM has quite a bit to write.

This is the kind that usually calls MMM just around the time that action for the Week begins. After the usual opening gambits (Oh, MMM! How are you? We must meet soon for dinner etc), to none of which MMM responds for they mean nothing, the caller gets to the main subject – the pet idea for Madras Week. The concept is usually of two kinds – the first where the caller wants an event arranged for himself/herself, where he/she is the centre of attraction with all the work to be done by MMM and his ilk. These people are once again of two kinds – the aggressive or the petulant. The first one declares himself/herself to be an expert on every topic under the sun (with information usually plagiarised from the writings of the Chief and a few others) and demands to know why he/she has not been invited to speak during the Week. The second variety chooses to be maudlin and declares that he/she has not been invited to participate owing to a conspiracy of some kind to keep him/her away. These self-centred people are placated very simply by telling them that there is always a next year. If not, they can be told to organise an event by themselves (such voluntary organising is what Madras Week is all about) after which nothing much will be heard from them till the subsequent Madras Week.

Far more numerous is another variety of caller – the one with strange ideas, all of which they would like someone else to implement. These can range from declaring the Beach Road a pedestrian plaza for one week, lighting up all the heritage monuments of the city every night for seven days, declaring a holiday for schoolchildren for a full seven days so that they can enjoy the Week, and, above all, getting those in the highest echelons of Government to participate in the celebrations. Answering these is tricky. A ‘no’ would mean being branded a naysayer for life. A ‘yea’ would mean taking on more than can be handled. Here again, MMM has discovered that it is best to let them do the implementation, which ends the discussion. After all, MMM recalls, Madras Week is all about volunteering to organise events, is it not?

Transforming slums and translating Tirukkural

July 25, 2014
Gover's sketch for transforming the Royapuram slum

Gover’s sketch for transforming the Royapuram slum

If at all a book on the hundred greats of Chennai is ever written, I hope to find Charles E. Gover in it. A Sanitary Inspector with the Corporation, perhaps his most heart-warming work was in the slums. In 1869, he identified that although “drainage and the provision of pure water are the great requirements of the city, neither can exert more than a portion of their true power while their influence is neutralised by (the) filthy and uncleanable collections of thatched huts, hitherto deemed beyond the pale of all public effort or expenditure.”

Gover enumerated the slums to be one hundred within city limits and noted that they had neither road nor drain and no scavenger cart could enter them. “Language fails me to describe fully the abominations and conditions of these places,” he wrote.

The worst of these according to him were at Royapuram and Choolai and he noted that smallpox, cholera and fevers of every kind were always present. At his first inspection of the Royapuram slum he found “one woman lying dead and eight other persons in various stages of smallpox. Pigs wandered everywhere and found their chief food in the adjacent latrine. Filth abounded.”

Gover convinced the slum-dwellers to pull down the shanties in stages and rebuild them, on the commitment that the Corporation would construct the mud walls up to four feet and also give a bonus of Rs. 2 for every house rebuilt according to the civic body’s directives. At the end of the “weary task to all concerned” the success gained “was worth waiting and working for”. There arose a neat little settlement that could accommodate 1,000 people. Gover then took on the task of reorganising 17 other slums. But sadly, he was dead within two years, having contracted typhoid from the very slums he sought to transform.

There was more to this man. His spare time was spent reading and translating South Indian poetry, the Tirukkural or ‘Cural’ as he writes of it, being among them.

In 1871, the year he died, Higginbothams published his The Folk Songs of Southern India, in which an entire section is reserved for the Kural besides giving details of Tiruvalluvar’s life, which by then had gained heavily mythical overtones. “A collection of these odes would give a very elevated idea not only of the poetical power of the Dravidian people, but of their appreciation of the beneficent operations of nature, and of their perception of the dignity and beauty of the physical world,” was how he summarised the Kural.

No portrait of Gover has survived, but a plan drawn by him for the reconstruction of the Roypuram slum is published alongside.

This article appeared in The Hindu dated July 26, 2014 under the Hidden Histories column

What’s brewing for Madras Week?

July 24, 2014

Chennai’s 375th birthday looks as though it is going to be a bigger bash than ever given the number of events that are being planned. After ten years of conducting the event, the groundswell of volunteers this year has come as a pleasant surprise. It is also posing a challenge to the catalysts behind the show – some volunteers have venues that need events, others have events that are in search of a venue. That is perhaps easily sorted through a mix and match, but what of those who want to just be volunteers and are seeking out events and venues with plenty of enthusiasm? This has to be nurtured and encouraged. And so if there is anyone out there who needs volunteers for conducting Madras Week events, do e-mail us.

This year is one of several anniversaries – Ripon Building turned 100, the Corporation 325, Queen Mary’s and Women’s Christian Colleges are turning 100 and it is a hundred years since the Emden shelled our city. It also happens to be the death centenary year of R.F. Chisholm, the architect who gave us so much built heritage. It is 50 years since we eradicated small pox. Some corporate houses, a couple of them staunch supporters of Chennai Heritage, are ­completing ­landmarks – Parry & Co is 225 this year and Sundaram Finance ­completes 60. There are therefore enough and more reasons for ­celebrations and it is to be hoped that every one of the happenings listed above is commemorated in some way or the other.

A very exciting initiative has been the cultural mapping of the Cooum River. A group of volunteers is walking, touring and even stalking the river from its origin to its mouth, listing all the heritage locations along its banks. Last heard, the group was heading to Takkolam on July 20th. The idea is to complete the exercise and then present the findings – both in physical and virtual formats.

It is also interesting to see the way celebrations in the city have changed over the years. Initially, we used to have talks, walks, and school events. A new generation appears to be actively getting involved – the Cooum study will be up on the web, there are promises of mobile apps, marathons, video shoots and even a song on Chennai to be shot and presented as a video track with music by Raihanah, A.R. Rahman’s sister. All of these have happened voluntarily and it is an indication that Madras Week is going on to auto-pilot. And that is perhaps the best, for events such as these must be a spontaneous ­celebration if they need to survive in the long run.

This is not to say that the traditional element is missing. It is in fact present in greater numbers. There are at least sixteen(!!!) heritage walks to choose from, for instance. The number of schools wanting to celebrate has gone up. There are people outside Chennai who want to celebrate it wherever they are living. And as for the number of talks in the city, we have long since lost count.

But we will be happy with more. The number of events we are targeting is 375, to match our city’s age. We still don’t find any excitement in North Chennai. And we don’t find the retail community ­responsive enough. Can the restaurants, shops and establishments please chip in? Can the gated communities not join us? And what about the IT industries in their exclusive corridors? We appeal to all of them: come and get the party going …

Infrastructure, the first and only need

July 23, 2014

The latest Union budget has, in keeping with the political equations, not singled out the Chennai area for anything exceptional but it has held out two promises – the development of Ponneri as a satellite town and Kanchipuram as a heritage town. Both of these are exciting ­prospects that can do much good, provided they are planned and executed on ­different lines as compared to what has happened in the past. The question is, are we capable of that?

Let us deal with the satellite town first. The Union Budget has called for the development of ‘smart cities’ and has identified Ponneri as one of the areas capable of such development. The choice of this locality has been dictated by the fact that several Japanese companies have set up base there, given its proximity to Ennore Port. A visit to the town will reveal that while it admittedly holds potential, it presently lacks even the most basic infrastructure, road connectivity ­being the first. And so development has to begin from scratch.

In the past we have had developments of ­satellite towns – Tambaram was supposed to be one, Siruseri was yet another. In the case of the former, growth happened in a laissez faire fashion. ­Private developers acquired land and sold plots and a town came up. It has the narrowest possible roads, the worst drainage systems and what little ­support infrastructure there is – hospitals, schools and transport – has come up owing to sheer serendipity. And the same story has been ­repeated when it came to deve­loping other localities – Thorai­­pakkam, Perungudi and Velachery. In the case of Siru­seri, which was planned as an IT city, the offices came up far ahead of the support infrastructure. As a consequence, what was to be a self-contained area has become one to which peo­ple spend hours commuting from Chennai during the day. And at night it is practically dead, barring companies that operate night shifts, thereby giving rise to other problems.

If these are to be the models for development of Ponneri, then we have plenty of pro­blems ahead. What is needed, on the other hand, is proper planning of the infrastructure before the land is thrown open for development. It is just not enough to hand over the space to private developers after drawing up a rudimentary layout and expect that time will take care of the rest.

In the case of Ponneri, the Government could do no better than seeking out Japanese help for this, given that that country has been working on sustainable and smart infrastructure for its cities for quite some time now. Since 2012, it has also launched what it has termed the Future City Initiative, whereby it has committed itself to building sustainable cities with superior environmental technologies, core infrastructure and resilence. Can Ponneri be the first of that kind in Inda?

Kanchipuram has other issues. Being a heritage town, it needs to be developed as one on the blueprint of what is being done in newever cities. Too often, Madurai, Thanjavur and Tiruchchirappalli being prime examples, our idea of development has been to build the most ugly and space-wasting bus terminus in the heart of the town, allow for rampant commercia­lisation of the core area, and destroy every vestige of built and natural heritage in the town. The only survivors are in­variably the temples and they too end up losers for, thanks to the availability of funds, they embark on massive and, sadly, unscientific restoration pro­jects.

This is not what is needed in Kanchipuram. It is best that the Government looks at European cities for help, for they have some of the best instances of heritage town development. Pedestrianisation of the core areas, building of support infrastructure in close proximity but not within the city centre, protection of historic buildings, the education of the local residents about the business potential in heritage, and the marketing of the city have been some of the steps taken there. Are we ready to go along those lines?

Moolah for statues, morsels for heritage

July 22, 2014

The latest Union Budget includes a provision for Rs. 200 crore to be spent on a statue for a great leader of the past. We do not have anything to say on that beyond wondering whether the Iron Man of India would have wanted such amounts to be spent on his deification. The same budget also has provision for Rs 200 crore to be spent under the rather oddly named National Heritage City Development and Augmentation Yojana, which is abbreviated for some reason to HRIDAY. This is praiseworthy. But the amount is to be shared by six cities – Mathura, Gaya, Amritsar, Ajmer, Velankanni and Kanchipuram – that comes to Rs 33 Crores per city. In other words – Rs. 200 crore for one statue, Rs. 33 crore for each of the historic cities that need support! That essentially sums up the importance given to heritage in our country.

There are plenty of other examples within the country and closer home as well. The newspapers carried a story recently about the historic Town Hall in Shimla, which is to be restored at a cost of Rs. 8 crore, out of which Rs. 6 crore was to come from the Asian Development Bank. In Chennai, the VP Hall restoration project, which is dragging on interminably has a budget of Rs. 3 crore. Ripon Building, another structure that is undergoing restoration, has a budget of Rs. 7.7 crore. Here again, the bulk of the funds has come from the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission (JNNURM). The National Art Gallery in the Museum complex has had Rs. 11 crore allocated for its restoration, though work on it has not yet begun. Given that the latest budget has established Rs. 100 crore as the lowest denomination for projects, most of our heritage requirements appear to be measly. And given that the amounts needed for restoration are so small, why make such a song and dance stage show about their allocation when they can be handed out across the table? After all, the disbursal of such small amounts probably falls within the purview of lower level bureaucrats.

Now that we have established that what is required for heritage restoration is infinitesimally small compared to what is needed for new grandiose new developments, can we hope for faster allocation of funds? And if at all money is still a constraint, why can’t the Government rope in private sector participation or public subscription for heritage restoration? Our city has already established such a trend with the Senate House project that took place in 2006/2007. Old students, corporate bodies and foundations donated to the cause and the work was undertaken quickly. That despite its satisfactory renovation, the building was not put to the use that was promised was due to petty university politics is another matter altogether.

Perhaps it is time for the Government to throw open conservation of heritage buildings in its control to private participation. This is the practice all over the world. With Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) norms becoming more generous, companies will be more than willing to contribute for such projects. And the figures that we are talking about are not much. Such an exercise will not only speed up restoration, it will also make corporate houses or other institutions think twice before demolishing heritage properties that they themselves own.

Old Woodlands Hotel

July 21, 2014
Woodlands Hotel, Royapettah

Woodlands Hotel, Royapettah

Completely cut off from public view and located at the end of a curving drive is a sylvan property that is now on its last legs. It is reliably learnt that the space has changed hands and developers will soon swing into action.

One of the prominent landowners of Madras Presidency was Shanmukha Rajeswara or Naganatha Setupathi, Rajah of Ramnad, and among his many properties was Woodlands, Royapettah, a stone’s throw from the erstwhile Madras Club property that became Express Estate and is now a mall. Set in the midst of 16½ acres. Woodlands was the city residence of the Rajah before he moved to Cenotaph Road. Woodlands was purchased by Muni Venkatappa, a building contractor, in 1937, for a hotel business. Not finding the going easy, he offered it on rent in 1938 to K. Krishna Rao (1898-1990).

Krishna Rao had worked as a dishwasher, waiter and flour-grinder before he got his big break, when he was asked to manage a restaurant on Acharappan Street in George Town. Having made a success of it, he struck out on his own and set up Madras’s first Udipi hotel, ‘The Udipi Sri Krishna Vilas’ on Mount Road in 1926/27.

He leased the Royapettah property and established the eponymous Woodlands Hotel here, the first of what is now an immensely popular worldwide chain. The hotel had 45 rooms at a rent of Rs. 5 a day. Krishna Rao would himself solicit guests by waiting at Central Station! The Music Academy’s annual conference in 1938 was held here under the leadership of Ariyakkudi Ramanuja Iyengar, which proved a strong advertisement for the hotel. It became the place where the glamorous stars of the 1940s – M.K. Thyagaraja Bhagavatar, N.C. Vasanthakokilam and others-stayed. The War years brought difficulties, including the crashing of a light plane in the garden! In 1947, Rajaji hosted a tea party on the lawns here to celebrate India’s independence.

In 1952, Krishna Rao moved Woodlands Hotel to Edward Elliot’s (Dr. Radhakrishnan) Road, where it became the New Woodlands Hotel, to ­distinguish it from the old at Royapettah, which continued as a hotel. Despite the outstanding success of the former, the latter remained popular as a venue and, in 1959, it was from here that Rajaji launched his Swatantra Party. The place was also a favourite location for photo and film shoots.

In 1966, Woodlands, and especially room number 32, shot briefly into ­notoriety. 750 bars of gold were discovered under the mattress following a tip off. The consignment had been brought by car from Bombay and was hidden here by a guest who, having locked the room, went off to the Dasaprakash Hotel to stay. Investigations led to the arrest and trial of Kotumal Bhirumal Pihlajani and several others. In its time, it was a sensational instance of gold smuggling.

Till the mid-1970s, Woodlands continued to remain one of the well-known hotels of the city. It then went into a decline. The property itself now houses a hotel and a theatre under different managements and both share its name. The hotel building, with a portico that was probably added later, is of the typical Madras roof type. It has some fascinating and beautifully maintained period furniture and fittings. A few plaster statues adorn the vast gardens. Apart from the cheap lodgings it provided, the hotel was till recently known for its lunches, which were of the traditional South Indian variety.

Other Lost/Losing/Surviving Landmarks of Chennai

The Oceanic Hotel

My Ladyes Garden

Connemara Hotel

The Airlines Hotel

Everest Hotel

Modern Cafe


The Eastern and Western Castlets

The Madras Bulwark

‘Stellar Cash’ coffee in Chennai

July 20, 2014

Every day, The Man from Madras Musings sees fresh evidence to indicate that Chennai is truly an international city. We have already seen it become Chengapore (after all we too have signboards indicating that those who litter will be punished) and Chengai (there are always attempts at converting the sea face into commercial land). Now we become Chenncinatti or Checago, for the great American brand of coffee, which can roughly be translated into ‘stellar cash’, is here. Or is nearly here. Or is planning to be here.

MMM is aware that there is a certain variety of the local dweller who plans to welcome this arrival here. However, MMM is not going to be one of that ilk. Before you run away with the idea that MMM has something against stellar cash as a company, let him disabuse you of that notion. MMM, on the other hand, admires the company and the way its founder, after retiring, came back to turn the organisation around, rather in the manner of a local head honcho who, after declaring himself mentor or vision-holder or some such thing, came back, son in tow, to mentor and vision hold the company he founded as it was slipping into a morass. Now both Pop and Son have gone away once again, Pop to mentor and Son to a land across the seas. The stellar cash head in the manner of all American bosses, and unlike the local vision holder, wrote a rather good book on the process of turnaround and MMM read it with great interest as well.

But what MMM dislikes about stellar cash is its coffee – namely its multiple variants. To MMM and his kind, coffee is just decoction, milk and sugar and it was to have just this that he and his good lady charged into a stellar cash outlet several years ago on their maiden visit to the US of A. There they were subjected to such an interrogation regarding size of coffee, flavour, milk, sugar, syrup add-ons and, last but not least, “’ere or to take away” that thoroughly confused then. They nodded to everything and came away with two elephantine mugs of coffee. These, on being open­ed and sipped, tasted just like rat poison or so the good lady claimed, MMM having never tasted the rodent pesticide. Not that the good lady had, but she does have a sixth sense about these things. There was no option but to dump the liquids down the nearest drain and walk away, thinking wistfully about the coffee served at Hotel Six-faced-God Boudoir or the Adyar Abode of Bonhomie in this, our city.

Ever since then, MMM and good lady have harboured a deep distrust about the stellar cash product. They wish it well, but their custom is strongly plighted to other and more traditional outlets.

Tambrahm wedding, in Washington

July 18, 2014
A recent edition of Washingtonil Tirumanam

A recent edition of Washingtonil Tirumanam

A golden wedding anniversary had passed silently by and nobody noticed. I allude to that of Rukmini and Rajagopalan, which took place, as I see from the invitation card, on April 29, 1963. I am assuming that the couple had a happy married life and were still around to celebrate the 50 anniversary of tying the knot.

What is all this you ask. And what is so unusual about a Tambrahm wedding that happened 51 years ago? Well, in the first place, it took place in Washington, a rather unusual location for those times. And secondly, considering that it took place in an era when media was in its infancy and the Internet was something that the army used, thousands of Tamils followed the build up to the actual event with bated breath all across the world.

Those belonging to that era would have caught my drift. Those who came in later will need explanatory notes and here they are – it was in 1963 that the well-known Tamil writer, humourist and editor of the magazine Dinamani Kadir, Sa Viswanathan (Saavi) embarked on his entirely fictitious account of a Tambrahm wedding in Washington, courtesy the wealthy Mrs. Rockefeller.

The plot in brief is like this – the well-to-do Hopes family based out of New York is extremely close to the Murthy family, whose head works for the UNESCO. From Vasantha, the Murthy daughter, Loretta, the Hopes child, hears about the wonders of India. When Vasantha gets married in Thanjavur, the Hopes come down and participate in a full-length wedding.

Back in the US, the Hopes brief Mrs Rockefeller about the wondrous Tambrahm wedding and she is keen to see one; not by herself but in the company of all her family and friends. She therefore, using the good offices of Murthy, selects a South Indian couple who are to be married in Madras, to come over the US. They are of course accompanied by their respective clans, an assortment of cooks, priests, musicians (Ariyakkudi, Lalgudi and Palghat Mani Iyer) and nagaswaram artistes, countless other service providers and above all, a battalion of Mamis who are brought in to make appalams.

What follows is a grand wedding at R Street, Washington DC. Wielding a facile pen, Saavi created a hilarious account of how a Brahmin wedding is organised, contrasting it with the wonderment of the Americans. As you read it, you also get the feeling that Saavi was laughing at us. The story when serialised, was accompanied by the sketches of veteran Gopulu, making for a big hit. Alliance Publishers later released it as a book, which is still in print.

Washingtonil Tirumanam became a successful play, staged by every sabha in the city. Making his theatrical debut in it was Poornam Viswanathan. The highlight was the audience participating in the traditional procession accompanying the bridegroom, conducted every evening around the venue.

51 years later, Washingtonil Tirumanam remains evergreen – a testimony to Saavi, and our weddings that keep getting bigger.

This article appeared in The Hindu dated July 19, 2014, under the Hidden Histories column


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