Chaos, set in concrete

April 23, 2014

The Corporation of Chennai is no doubt patting itself on the back for having embarked on concretising its roads. The idea was originally to do this only for streets and thoroughfares that are not easily accessed by road-laying equipment. But, as The Man from Madras Musings can see, it is now done for whichever stretch takes the Corporation’s fancy. There comes a day when a roaring behemoth that spews concrete arrives in your neighbourhood and settles down for a long stay. The road is cut off to all traffic and the concrete pours forth. It is allowed to set and then the crew vanishes, behemoth and all.

But, as is usual with anything that our Corporation does, there is no concept of planning a forehand or anticipating the consequences of any action. Thus, houses that were all along an inch or two above the road, find themselves a foot below overnight, thanks to thickness of the concrete and there is nothing anyone can do about it. Secondly, the CMWSSB (MMM assumes he has got all the consonants correct and in order), which deals with our water and sewerage, has not shifted its manhole covers or elevated them or whatever it was supposed to do. And, so, the smooth concrete surface is marked here and there with deep craters below which the manholes lurk. Vehicles plying on these roads keep jumping in and out of these depressions which, in the good old tar days, were just a few inches deep but now go down by at least half a foot.

And then, what about the edges? The concrete is not spread up to the footpaths (if they exist) and quite a deep rut now runs between the sidewalks and the road proper. Vehicles going in and out of residences have quite a challenge and as for those who park along the sides (remember that Chennai follows a strict “No parking for visitors “cars” policy) they just cannot get to the edge. They now simply park on the concrete, thereby narrowing road space still further. So, it is chaos as usual.

Makes you want to hark back to the days of good old red earth and bullock carts, does it not? MMM is quite confident that we will eventually get there, given the way we are going about modernising. When our Corporation is with us, why worry?

Lost Landmarks of Chennai – Everest Hotel

April 22, 2014
Everest Hotel, Jaya Mansions

Everest Hotel, Jaya Mansions

This one is not strictly ‘lost’ but it is almost that. Everest Hotel (now Everest King Castle) is one of the best known occupants of Jaya Mansions, a classic art deco building constructed in the late 1930s by S.P. Jayarama Nadar, Merchant and Councillor of the Corporation of Madras, to serve as a commercial hostel for students of the Madras Medical College. By the mid-1940s it had become commercial premises with a number of shops and establishments renting the rooms in the ground floor. Everest Lodge, as it was known, the creation of Sundaram Iyer, took the upper floors.

Located as it was midway between Central and Egmore stations, it became a very popular place of stay. There was a rooftop restaurant as well, which also functioned as the premises for the Muthialpet Sabha. It was here on a full moon night that Tiger Varadachariar is said to have performed a pallavi in Raga Poornachandrika.

Sundaram Iyer married a well-known dancer Swarna Saraswathi en secondes noces as the expression is, and the couple later moved to Delhi where they lived till their passing.

The hotel changed hands and continues to function from the same premises though ill-advised attempts at modernisation have robbed the facade of all vestiges of art deco.

An interesting aside is that Everest also ran Zoo Café, which, as the name suggests, was a restaurant at the Zoo which at the time was just behind Ripon Building, barely a stone’s throw away.

Other Lost Landmarks of Madras

Modern Cafe


The Eastern and Western Castlets

The Madras Bulwark

Park with a past

April 21, 2014

Hidden Histories, after a hiatus has been revived and is now part of The Hindu’s Melange, which will come out every Saturday. The first article is on the May Day Park in Chintadripet.

May Day aka Napiers Park

May Day aka Napiers Park

Summers are best spent away from Chennai and if you are stuck here, it is best to remain indoors with a powerful air conditioner and a tall cooling drink by your elbow. But if you are the outdoors variety then May Day Park is probably one location that you could visit. Its tall shade-giving trees, green lawns and herbaceous borders are the most soothing sights on a hot day. You access it from Anna Salai, taking a left along Simpson & Co. And there, just opposite the Chintadripet MRTS station is the park, all 14.5 acres of it.

In 1849 or thereabouts, all of this area, Simpson, The Hindu, The Mail and P Orr & Sons included, was one large property, occupied by Burghall’s Stables, a firm that was into the hiring out of horse carriages and the manufacture of saddles and livery. In 1869, a part of its land was handed over to the Government for the creation of a park. It was named after the then Governor, Francis, 10 Lord Napier and 1 Baron Ettrick. Entrusted to the Municipality in 1879, it became in time a much-required green lung for the Chintadripet area.

It is quite likely that much of the lush greenery here is due to sewage. In the 1860s, when underground drains were yet to make their appearance, the largely organic sewage in various parts of the city was drained into specially designated farms. Napier Park received the sewage of entire South Madras. One of the first modern sewage pumping stations was set up here in 1932 and Pumping Station Road next to the park commemorates this.

There is very little apart from the greenery to see and admire in the park. At the extreme left, HT Boddam, a highly unpopular judge from the early 1900s glowers down at you from below an ornate canopy. At the opposite end is an elegant Ashok Pillar, unveiled in 1966 by actor S.S. Rajendran. In the middle is what is best avoided – a gruesome rockery, commemorating the change of name to May Day Park in 1990. Madras was the first city in India to observe May Day, way back in 1923 under the leadership of M. Singaravelar. The park itself had much to do with the city’s labour history, being next to what was one of the biggest employers before modernisation brought numbers down – Simpson & Co. Known for militant labour unionism in the 1960s and ’70s, it is here that the workers of the company meet even today, on May 1.

On January 25, 1965, thousands of students marched from Napier Park to Fort St George as part of the anti-Hindi agitation. The then Chief Minister M. Bhaktavatsalam refused to meet them and tear gas shells were exploded injuring many. That treatment of students is even now believed to be one of the reasons for the Congress defeat in 1967, after which it has never come to power in Tamil Nadu.

This article appeared in The Hindu dated April 19, 2014

Note: I have earlier written on May Day Park for this blog to protest against Metrorail taking it over. For some reason (and we must be thankful), only the playground was sacrificed. Metrorail has also promised to return the ground to its original state after the Metro becomes a reality.

On Election Duty, Immediate

April 18, 2014

These days, you amount to nothing if you don’t have the above statement stuck on your car windscreen. The Man from Madras Musings notices that with this notice strategically positioned so that all can read it, you can get your vehicle to do anything that James Bond did with his, and more. The ‘On Election Duty, Immediate (or Urgent)’ is the current equivalent of the red beacon light that was so hated by an emerging political light before it somewhat extinguished itself (by which MMM alludes to the political light and not the beacon light which is going strong). With that notice pasted on, no matter if it is just a newspaper with the message scrawled in red ink, you can jump traffic signals, park your car anywhere, overtake on bridges and, above all, still get policemen to salute you.

There is apparently a class hierarchy in this. With just a red beacon, you can still get by, but that is just about all you can do. Having the ‘On Election Duty (OED)’ sign means you have climbed to stratospheric heights. If you have both, then chances are you don’t read this paper. Probably someone else reads it out to you and only those bits that please your ears, which is very likely to be very little.

‘OED’ has also given rise to another caste division, though ours is technically a casteless society, at least on paper. MMM was made painfully aware of this when he was walking along with a group of well-heeled citizenry. MMM had let his mind wander and he came back to earth only when he heard a business baron suddenly say rather proudly, “Twice”. To which a mega magnate rather disdainfully replied, “Four times”. Whereupon the biz baron looked abashed and turned around to MMM and asked how many. MMM was stumped for an answer. For one, he did not know what was being talked about. Were they enumerating daily bowel movements or divorces or coronary bypasses he wondered. His confusion only increased when another moneybags interjected saying, “Three and always by the Gemini Flyover”. Clarity came when he added that a thorough search was made but nothing was found.

They were it transpired counting the number of times their vehicles had been stopped by the OED men and searched for cash, without which, so MMM has been given to understand, political parties feel the poll process is incomplete. Apparently, the OED brigade also feels the same way and hence stops all and sundry by the wayside and counts their cash. Hang on, did MMM say all and sundry? Well, he was mistaken. To be searched you need to have a certain type of vehicle – it has to be closer to a bus in length, breadth and height than a car. It should also have tinted glasses, though that is really not on as per law. But then when you go around in these uber-sized vehicles, you really are above the law and so such trivialities make no difference. Then, and only then, will you be searched by the OED gang. And going through this ordeal is the new ticket to high society. It reminded MMM of his days in Delhi when businessmen considered Income Tax raids to be badges of honour. The more, the better.

MMM had to rather sheepishly confess that he had not been stopped and searched. Whereupon the others looked pityingly at him and moved on. MMM now has two options before him to shore up his fallen prestige – he either gets a large car or he goes around in his current one with a huge stash of currency notes, hoping that it will be noticed by the OED lot. But as he has no hopes of either – a new car or disposable wads of cash, he has to reconcile himself to being on the fringes of society.

NB: Since this was written, MMM is happy to report that he has been searched – outside the Amalgamations Estate, Sembium.

Party Manifestos

April 17, 2014

All parties have only one manifesto – Vote for me! But there are some subliminal messages which keep coming through:

Congress – Defeat Modi. Also we are secular, we empowered women and we brought RTI.

BJP – Vote Modi (LK Advani has a different manifesto as do Murli Manohar Joshi, Sushma Swaraj, Navjot Singh Sidhu, Uma Bharti….. but we dont need to go into that)

BSP – We dont care who is the largest party but just get us enough seats so that we can bargain with them for (y)our benefit. This manifesto can be anyone else’s also- SP, JP, Biju Janata Dal, TMC, ADMK, DMK,TDP, TRS, SAD, MNS, etc.

ADMK – Vote for Amma.

DMK – Dont vote Amma (pleeeeeeeaaaaaasssse!!!!!) This is Thatha’s last election so sob, sob! Also Amma responsible for Kaveri water crisis, power crisis and all other crisis. When we were in power we hid them all from you.

TMC – Only thosh who bhote phor didi are shekoolar and not maoisht

Left – We dont know. Our rout(e) will be clear after May 16th. Oh what a pity matchmaker Harkishen Singh Surjeet is dead.

AAP – Dont vote Ambani, Adani

Some street names in Swamimalai

April 15, 2014

What with my having fallen in love with Indeco’s Swamimalai heritage resort, going there has become an annual affair. I was there this year in February and one morning, as part of my daily exercise, I walked from the resort which is neighbouring Bapurajapuram to Swamimalai town. En route, what with the Swamimalai Municipality having taken its duties very seriously, I could not help noticing the bright blue signboards bearing street names. I am thankful for these in every way – their visibility and the fact that they bring long forgotten street names back.

To someone from Chennai, where everything is either an Anna or a Kamaraj, with some left over for Gandhi, Nehru and more for Mu Ka et al,the street names of Swamimalai are refreshingly forthright. No hiding of locality history under the guise of secularism. Thus we have:

Muslim Street, Swamimalai

Muslim Street, Swamimalai

Then there were the community-based streets like these:

Chinna Saliyar Street, Swamimalai

Chinna Saliyar Street, Swamimalai

Does Mudukku Theru (the second name on the above signboard) indicate it is a crooked street?And if there was a Chinna Saliyar Street, a Periya Saliyar Street had to be close by. As it was:

Periya Saliyar Street, Swamimalai

Periya Saliyar Street, Swamimalai

I strongly suspect that Yadava Street is a later caption, when the Saliyar community decided to give itself some other name. Some street names were pretty standard and common to several other towns. The main street is Raja Veethi:

Raja Veethi, Swamimalai

Raja Veethi, Swamimalai

And how can any self-respecting town not have a Chinna Kadai Street?

Chinna Kadai Street, Swamimalai

Chinna Kadai Street, Swamimalai

Some names were beyond me. What is Lingadi Street? Though its other name Mettan Theru probably means it is at a relative elevation.

Lingadi Street, Swamimalai

Lingadi Street, Swamimalai

This one probably has some old Mahratta connection:

Khandoji Street, Swamimalai

Khandoji Street, Swamimalai

There was one more which said Madapirappu Kattalai Street (மாதபிறப்பு கட்டளை) – the street for the First Day of the Month Endowment. I dont know what that is.

I suppose a time will come when everything in Swamimalai will come Puram and Nagar (nahar in #kogul). But until then, let us rejoice in some local history.

Lost Landmarks of Chennai – Modern Cafe

April 14, 2014
Modern Cafe, Esplanade

Modern Cafe, Esplanade

Featured here is the Modern Café,which was one of a chain of restaurants begun by K. Seetharama Rao, before he founded the Dasaprakash Hotel on Poonamallee High Road. Modern Café, Mysore (by appointment to HH The Maharajah) was the first. Modern Café, Madras, came next, by the early 1930s. Then followed Modern Hindu Hotel, with two outlets, one each in Mysore and Ootacamund.

The Madras one featured here was on Esplanade Road (now NSC Bose Road). It made its name catering to the lawyers of the High Court. In its heyday, the Modern Café ran a hotel at Hari Nivas, Thambu Chetty Street, and also two other restaurants called Modern Café, one in Egmore and the other at Basin Bridge. Seetharama Rao, whose motto was service, also began the first organised canteen on the Marina, next to the swimming pool, thanks to the encouragement of O. Pulla Reddy, Commissioner of the Corporation of Madras, in the 1940s.

You may want to read about these lost landmarks as well:


The Eastern and Western Castlets

The Madras Bulwark

Lost Landmarks of Chennai – Dasaprakash

April 10, 2014
Dasaprakash Hotel on Poonamallee High Road

Dasaprakash Hotel on Poonamallee High Road

The chief has been drooling over a Madras Guide of the 1950s which has photos of some famed commercial establishments of the city. The quality of print is terrible but still the photos evoke a memory. I have been given the enjoyable task of writing the notes for each.

The first of these is Dasaprakash Hotel. A wonderful art deco building, it was part of a chain built up by Kuttethoor Seetharama Rao who gave up a lowly Government job in 1921 to join his brothers in running a restaurant in Mysore. He later established others in Madras and Ootacamund, and the chain moved to North India in the 1970s and, thereafter, to the USA.

The Poonamallee High Road flagship hotel was inaugurated in 1954, as was its twin kalyana mandapam, Dharmaprakash. The hotel was known for its good Udipi fare, ice creams and comfortable rooms. In its time, its restaurants had seen visitors ranging from Pt. Jawaharlal Nehru to J.K. Galbraith.

Differences in the family and the five-star culture saw the closure of Dasaprakash in the 1990s. The building was demolished in 2010 to make way for highrise after the property changed hands.

Heritage just a facade for Metrorail

April 9, 2014

RSRM Choultry

Barely a month or so after the Raja Sir Savalai Rama­swami Mudaliar (RSRM) Choultry facing Central Station was taken over by Chennai Metrorail Limited (CMRL), rumours are flying thick and fast about what is to happen to the heritage structure. It is reliably learnt that CMRL is contemplating retention of just the frontage of the building and intends to demolish everything else. If this is the truth it is a shame and yet it runs entirely true to the past track record of CMRL.

The land and building comprising the RSRM Choultry were handed over to CMRL following the judgement of the High Court of Madras in litigation that went on for almost two years. CMRL had in its plea committed to preserving the heritage structure and it was on this assurance that it was given possession of the property. We at Madras Musings had even then raised doubts on the capability of CMRL to maintain such a structure. Now it is understood that CMRL claims that it is just the façade of the building which can qualify as heritage and the rest can be done away with.

Why are we not surprised? CMRL has used the same logic not once, but four times already. In the first instance it was the taking over of the old Male Asylum Press property just behind the Poompuhar building on Mount Road. It had then argued that the Justice E. Padma­nabhan Committee report had included only the front (Poom­pu­har) in its report and so the rear did not qualify. Later, in the bitter battle that was fought in the take-over of the rear workshops of P Orr & Sons the same logic was applied. It was in vain that the Indian National Trust for Arts and Cultural Heritage offered to come up with alternative alignments and locations of stations. The judgement of the High Court of Madras went in favour of CMRL and the buildings were demolished.

In the case of Bharat Insurance Buildings too, CMRL has taken over all the land on its side claiming that only the building and not its precinct qualifies for preservation. It has demolished everything but the main structure which is in an enfeebled condition already. Lastly, CMRL also demolished a heritage building in the Teachers’ College campus claim­ing that a photograph of the structure in question did not feature in the Justice Pad­ma­nabhan report.

At the risk of offending those who decide on the fate of such buildings, we make bold to point out here that this logic of CMRL’s is flawed and it is quoting the Justice Padmanabhan Committee report out of context. That Committee was formed to list buildings and precincts that could not be hidden by outdoor hoardings. It naturally looked at all structures from the point of view of their facades only. It is a different matter that the same report was later accepted as a starting point by the Heritage Conservation Committee of the CMDA and the owners of the buildings listed in it requested to consider their buildings as heritage buildings and not undertake any work on them without the Committee’s permission. It was this position that the Committee adopted in the Bharat Insurance Building case. Following that case, the High Court had ordered Government to prevent demolition of all the buildings/precincts listed in the Padma­nabhan Committee report. The Heritage Conservation Committee was asked to go into the merits of each case and take action. As to the functioning of that Committee and the actions it has taken (or the lack of them) we don’t need to go into it; suffice it to say that our readers are quite familiar with the subject.

But it is not correct to keep quoting from a report that had to do with the outer appearances of buildings and insist that the rest of the structures do not, therefore, matter. The Court had made it clear that each of these structures was worthy of preservation, according to the grade in which the Padmanabhan Committee had placed it. There can be no question of frontage or rear. If the CMRL is choosing to interpret the report that way, it is making a mockery of the report and the spirit in which it was prepared.

Coming back to the RSRM Choultry, it is necessary to preserve the entire structure. If it is just to remain a sham façade, CMRL may as well demolish the whole edifice and put up one of its buildings on the site. We may tolerate ugliness in the name of modernity, but we don’t expect hypocrisy in the name of heritage preservation.

Threat to Pulicat lake’s buffer zone

April 8, 2014

If a country had a magnificent lake that dates back to the Holocene period, rich in bio­diversity and history, what would it do? Protect it? Promote it? Neither, if the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MOEF), Government of India, is to be believed. In a startling move, the MOEF has proposed that the buffer zone around Pulicat Lake be reduced from ten to two kilometres! This unexpected blow has environmentalists up in arms.

The move comes following a decision by the Ministry of Shipping, Government of India, to develop Durgarayapatnam (Armagon of Francis Day fame) as a port and shipbuilding centre spread over 5000 acres. The proposed development, notified in September 2013, is expected to take over at least 5 km of protected area in the vicinity of Pulicat. It centres on Tuppili­palem (in Andhra) which happens to be just around 4 km from Pulicat Lake itself.

There are several questions about the sustainability of this port, but the Ministry has decided to go ahead nevertheless. It is to allow for this that the MOEF has, on January 3, 2014, proposed a restricted Eco Sensitive Zone (ESZ) around Pulicat. This overrides the Andhra Pradesh Government Forest Department proposal for a ten-km ESZ around the Lake. That was mooted in 2007, following a Supreme Court order in 2004, asking for ‘shock absorbers’ around ecologically sensitive areas. That it has not yet been notified and remains on paper is yet another matter.

The Lake is of vital importance not only to the Tamil Nadu-Andhra region around it but also to international birdlife.

Firstly, around fifty villages, most of whose occupants rely on traditional methods of fishing, depend on it for their livelihood. The building of a port, however world-class it may promise to be, will immediately mean the end of a way of life. It must be pointed out that most of the fisherfolk here practise what is known as the padu system of fishing. Known for its ecologically sensitive way of harvesting fish, it is already facing a decline thanks to the setting up of the Ennore Thermal Power Station, which discharges effluents at elevated temperatures into the Lake.

Secondly, the Lake is a bird sanctuary that has international significance, located as it is on the Eastern Flyway of the Central Asian Flyway, a crucial migratory route. Birds while migrating across the globe, therefore, visit it and some of them are highly endangered species. Tampering with their habitats can spell disaster to some birdlife across the world. It is feared that the proposed port will impact not only the flight pattern of the birds but also the aquatic life in the Lake, which forms an important link in the food chain needed for the birds to survive.

Thirdly, the Lake itself depends on three openings to the sea, the northernmost of which is at Durgarayapatnam. It is the view of conservationists that the port will result in the sealing off of that outlet following construction activities. This particular mouth is of immense importance, for it is from here that the seawater enters the lake, the openings in Tamil Nadu serving as exits. If this is to be shut off, the lake will be starved of fresh water supply. The impounded water will evaporate in summer, resulting in hypersalinity, which will kill the aquatic life.

Lastly, India is a signatory to the Ramsar Agreement that aims to protect water bodies. This is “an intergovernmental treaty that embodies the commitments of its member countries to maintain the ecological character of their Wetlands of International Importance and to plan for the wise use, or sustainable use, of all of the wetlands in their territories,” to quote from its website. To what purpose such agreements if they are not to be implemented at ground level?


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