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

Dasaprakash

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

Dhoti controversy, as seen by Michelangelo

July 17, 2014

2b-Stars

The character on the left appears to be having a wardrobe malfunction

Let’s celebrate Madras 375!

July 15, 2014

Madras Week 2014 will be celebrated between the 17th and 24th of August. And the celebrations this year are likely to be even bigger than ever because August 22nd, Madras Day, marks the 375th birthday of the city. Please join the celebrations.

The Week, which started off as Madras Day 11 years ago to celebrate the founding of the city on August 22, 1639, has become virtually a Madras Month judging by the programmes last year. The celebrations this year are, like last year, likely to be spread throughout August and will carry on till the first week of September. For the small band of volunteers who catalysed this celebration and now help coordinate the programmes, the response from corporates, educational institutions and citizens of the city has given enormous satisfaction.

This year, the hotels of the city will, once again, be enthusiastic participants. Some will be venues for talks while others will host art and photographic exhibitions besides organising food festivals with Madras cuisine as their theme. Restaurant chains are also planning to celebrate Madras 375. And art galleries have taken to the event in a big way.

The Murugappa Group’s Madras Quiz for schools State-wide is now an annual event and will be the highlight of a Madras quizzing season that’s a feature of the Week. The Chennai Chapter of the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH) is also planning several competitive programmes for schools and colleges, such as quizzes, elocution contests and debates with Madras as the focus. Mylapore Times, the Press Institute of India, the Roja Muthiah Research Library, Anglos in the Wind, United Way of Chennai, Nizhal, the Australian Consulate-General and the Goethe-Institut too are organising a wide range of events for Madras Week. And local groups in Vadapalani, Kodambakkam, Royapuram, Kilpauk and Anna Nagar are planning a variety of events. These include walks, quiz contests and other programmes. As has been the practice in past years, Chennai Heritage, publishers of Madras Musings, will be hosting eight talks at various locations on subjects related to the city. It will also lead several heritage walks in the city during the Week, as will several individuals.

Perhaps indicative of the success of Madras Week as a means of creating an awareness about the City and its heritage is the fact that more and more institutions are coming forward each year to celebrate the city. Several IT companies organised programmes last year and are planning to do more this year. So have several Clubs and Rotary Clubs. The celebrations have also spread to the suburbs such as Tiruvanmiyur, Nanganallur and Tambaram. Private apartment blocks and various societies are planning their own events. The Coordinators look forward to several more participants this year. What is heartening is the number of emails we have received from several individuals wanting to be volunteers for the Week. We will soon get in touch with each of them individually.

Participation is purely a VOLUNTARY effort by those wanting to organise programmes during the Week. The role of the informal group of coordinators is only to encourage such participation, try to organise publicity for the events, offer advice and, where possible, arrange venues. This is a first call for individuals/ groups/institutions who wish voluntarily to celebrate the founding of this city to join in. For any assistance or information please contact: editor@madrasmusings.com or themadrasday@gmail.com or info@prism-india.com.

A dog’s business

July 14, 2014

The Man from Madras Musings who used to run, run and run to places, has over the years slowed down to walk, walk and walk. But in the last month or so, he has been pretty much grounded – a knee is not what it used to be. And so he has had plenty of time to look out of his verandah and see life go by. And sometimes he wishes he did not see what he saw.

Most significant among the sights of this kind is a shuffling gent with a massive paunch and a high-society dog – the kind that has a passport of its own, traces its pedigree to an ancient clan somewhere in the Swiss Alps, and goes to a spa for its nails and hair, not to forget the weekly massage and shampoo as well. The gent, incidentally, is known to hold forth on how organised things are abroad, how clean the roads are, and how broad the pavements are. He is, in short, of the view that things could be a lot better in ‘namma’ Chennai.

What would you imagine such a man to be? A pillar of society? The kind that writes letters to newspapers beginning with the lines “Dear Sir, Are you aware” or “Apropos the article on” etc? In short, a man with a social conscience. And you would not be far wrong. Yet, it is this same person who, while walking his dog, allows the animal to defecate in some of the most strategic spots – a broad bit of surviving pavement where newspaper vendors gather each morning, a tree under which pedestrians rest a while for some respite from the relentless sun, and a sharp corner while turning which people cannot notice the mess on the ground and are likely to step or, even worse, skid on it. And having allowed his dog to do its bit for natural manure, he and the pet move on, the latter sniffing at car tyres, and the former arching his nose and sniffing in disgust at the stench from a nearby garbage dump. In his view the garbage cleaners are not doing their job properly. Let MMM assure you that this pet owner is not alone in this kind of behaviour.

What amazes MMM is that this is the kind of person who travels abroad frequently. If not for anything else, he must have been there to procure his pet. While there, he must have observed that pet-owners carry a cleaning kit when they take the animal for a walk. This comprises a brush, a trowel and a plastic bag. After the dog completes its business, they shovel everything into the bag which is then dropped into the nearest garbage bin. Why can’t the so-called educated elite adopt the same practice here? Is public cleanliness and civic sense only for the lower classes and the conservancy worker?

From Chintadripet to the CIA!

July 11, 2014
Zion Church, Chintadripet

Zion Church, Chintadripet

Zion Church in Chintadripet is probably the only shrine in our city that owes its existence to the Americans. It was established by the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions (ABCFM), the first Christian missionary organisation from the USA, set up in 1810.

In 1820, Dr Myron Winslow moved from the USA to Ceylon and began the work of the ABCFM there. In 1836, he came to Madras to establish what would later become known as the Zion Church. He also did pioneering work in creating a Tamil-English lexicon, which he completed by 1856 or so and for which the Harvard University awarded him an honorary doctorate. One of Dr Winslow’s daughters was married to John Welsh Dulles who came from a Presbyterian family of Philadelphia. In 1849, Dulles, ordained as a minister, set sail for Madras, along with his wife. Arriving here, he began spreading the gospel among the natives, the Zion Church being his base. Ill-health forced his return to the USA in 1853 and there he was to write a book based on his stay in our city – Life In India, Or Madras, Neilgherries and Calcutta. Published in 1855 by the American Sunday-School Union of Philadelphia, it is a fascinating work. Accompanied by black and white sketches, it has detailed descriptions of Mount Road, Chintadripet, Town, Mahabalipuram, St Thomas Mount and other localities of the city and is available as a free download from the Internet. By the 1860s, the ABCFM began focusing on Madurai, where it established the American College. The Zion Church was handed over to the Christian Missionary Society. Today it falls under the Church of South India.

Back in America, John W. Dulles continued his work till 1887. His son Allen Macy Dulles carried on the Presbyterian tradition but not so grandsons John Foster and Allen Welsh Dulles, taking as they did after their mother’s family that was into politics and public office. The elder brother served as Secretary of State during Eisenhower’s tenure as President. Cancer cut short his career in 1959. During his tenure in office, his younger brother headed the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) of the United States. Between them, the brothers advocated a strong stance against communism, which dictated much of Cold War policy including interventions in Iran and Guatemala.

The Kennedy administration however did not take kindly to Allen Welsh Dulles. Following the Bay of Pigs fiasco in 1961, President John F Kennedy (JFK) forced him to resign, a day after he had awarded him the National Security Medal! More irony was to follow in 1963, when following JFK’s assassination President Lyndon B. Johnson inducted Allen Dulles into the Warren Commission that investigated the murder. Dulles’ appointment, given that Kennedy did not like him, came in for criticism and much of the botched up nature of the eventual report of the Warren Commission was indirectly attributed to Dulles.

Standing at the Zion Church, who would think of its link to the CIA?

This article appeared in The Hindu dated July 12, 2014, under the Hidden Histories column.

Random rants against Madras Musings

July 10, 2014

“Do you read a fortnightly called Madras Musings?” asked the elderly gentleman standing next to The Man from Madras Musings. MMM did not choose to answer immediately, for, you see, experience has made him wary about acknowledging this fact. The good old mag, brought out for the past twenty-five years by the Chief is generally well loved but there are certain institutions, bodies and individuals who turn a bilious hue when the publication is mentioned in their presence.

A majority of them are Government servants while they are in office. To them, Madras Musings is anti-establishment, activist and quixotic – fighting for impossible things such as pedestrian rights, parks and open spaces, heritage preservation and adherence of buildings to approved plans. They shun the magazine as long as they are in service, gadding about in chauffeured cars with the ‘G’ number plate and revolving red beacons.

The moment they retire from service, they suddenly discover that the publication is not so bad after all. They then write long letters and even longer articles, most of them about pedestrian rights, parks and open spaces, heritage preservation and adherence of buildings to approved plans and send them in for publication in MM. A common theme in all of them is how they did their best to protect all of the above while they were in service, but how they could do nothing against vested interests. Some of them who know MMM have even gone to the extent of claiming that they recommended the Chief’s name for this lotus or that but then “you know how it is”. The Chief, MMM suspects, couldn’t care less.

But this now-hot, now-cold variety of MM reader is not the one that MMM is wary of. Retirement being the inevitable end to bureaucratic careers, MMM is well aware that this kind will some day come to see the magazine’s point of view. The people he has learnt to avoid are those who feel that the magazine ought to carry articles only on those topics that they are interested in.

“These days your paper carries stories only about the 1950s and 1960s,” grumbled an elderly gent. “There was a time when you would have articles about the 1750s. What a period that was! Who is interested in stories about hotels that stood till recently?” MMM forebore from asking if the 1750s was when his interlocutor had been young and a man about town. Clearly this subscriber was of the kind that believes that even nostalgia is not what it used to be.

But those that MMM avoids the most are the variety that calls to ask if MMM knows who MMM is. That may sound philosophical and MMM will make it plainer. “You are associated with Madras Musings, are you not?” asked a subscriber once. MMM replied in the affirmative. “Do you know the person who writes under the name of The Man from Madras Musings?” was the next question. Those were days when MMM was still young and innocent. And so he replied in the affirmative as well. “You can tell him that he is the most useless writer I have come across. Why does your Editor allow him to waste so much of space that could be put to better use, I wonder,” was the response.

The reason why MMM brings all this up is that last fortnight’s article on menswear during summer appears to have churned up emotions quite a bit. Many have sent in responses claiming MMM is elitist and has no right to scoff at drivers and AC mechanics who wear polyester and stink to the high heavens. What is it about articles on apparel that stirs the reading public so much, MMM wonders. It was a year or so ago that MMM wrote on Indian women appearing in public in nightwear and got roundly ticked off by a Lovely Lady from Lancashire now settled in Madras.

The Cosmopolitan Club – a brief history

July 9, 2014
A photo of the Cosmopolitan Club, taken in 1956

A photo of the Cosmopolitan Club, taken in 1956

Strategically located on Mount Road, the Cosmopolitan Club is one of the landmarks of the city. Founded in 1873, it was meant to be a place where Indians and the English could meet on an equal footing unlike the earlier clubs, such as the Madras Club and the Madras Cricket Club, that were only for the whites. The Club was initially at Moore’s Gardens, Nungambakkam, and moved to its present location in 1882.

Set in a compound filled with trees, the club building is two-storeyed and is a traditional brick and lime structure. The portico spreads into a verandah that goes all around the building. The best feature of the place is the lobby that is accessed from the verandah. Lined with the best timber of the times, it ends in fluted Corinthian columns that frame a wooden staircase. The first landing has an alcove that hosts a bust of Sir C.V. Kumaraswami Sastry, Justice of the High Court of Madras. The first floor is noteworthy for its wooden-floored hall, a card room and a grand library.

W.S. Krishnaswami Nayudu, Justice of the High Court of Madras in the 1950s, has in his memoirs given us some details of the early days of the Club. Formed on July 27, 1873, the first meeting was presided over by H.S. Cunningham, Advocate-General of the High Court of Madras. He became the first Vice- President, when its President was Justice Holloway. The first Secretary was Captain Tyrell. The Club began with 40 members.

The present property is said to have been the site of Simpson’s, coach-builders, or of Thomas Waller’s stables. It was bought by the Club through the good offices of Haji Muhammad Abdul Sahib for Rs.17,000. The purchase was funded through the issue of debentures to members.

Though it was meant to be a mixed club, the European element left by 1890. It had always been the convention of the Club to have a retired Judge or Government official as its President. This was first broken in 1882 itself when Mir Humayun Jah Bahadur, a grandson of Tippu Sultan, became President. In later years, other notables, such as Raja Sir Savalai Ramaswami Mudaliar and Sir Pitty Theagaroya Chetty, have also been Presidents. The convention of Judges or Officers becoming Presidents has been given up in recent times.

The Club played an important role in the formation of the Justice Party, its founder, Dr. T.M. Nair being noticed by the social elite of the city only after he became a member. It is, therefore, in a way the birthplace of the Dravidian politics of today. During the early years, it was also home to the Egmore lobby of lawyers of the High Court, as opposed to the Mylapore lobby. The Club’s platinum jubilee in 1954 was a grand affair, with Justice A.S.P. Ayyar presiding and W.S. Krishnaswami Nayudu preparing the souvenir on behalf of a committee.

It is one of the most popular clubs of the city, known for its South Indian cuisine and its facilities.


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