My article on this stalwart appeared today in The Hindu:
Archive for August, 2010
S Anwar made a very nice presentation on the Nawabs of Arcot yesterday as part of the never-ending Madras Week celebrations. This was at the Freemasons Hall. The refreshments included vadai (good), laddu (did not eat) and tea (with paper cup strongly smelling of sack in which it was stored). The exhibition of Freemason memorabilia was interesting.
The presentation had some brilliant pictures of Arcot and mosques in Triplicane. Anwar had researched the subject well and despite the bad weather, there was a decent (in terms of numbers) turnout.
The highlight of the evening for me was my neighbour at the venue. He had brought a plastic topped brief case with him and inside it was his cell-phone. Halfway through the presentation there was a loud fart like noise. It was the cell, vibrating in silent mode and rubbing against the brief case.
Drrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrbppppp -it went, sounding extraordinarily like the breaking of wind. It was a real eye-opener, especially for those who had feasted rather well on the laddus and made merry over the tea. The next release was even louder and longer. And then it sustained itself on auto-pilot.
The phone was obviously enjoying itself for it was moving rapidly in the interior making more and more digestive sounds. My neighbour was trying to pretend that all this was not from him (it was really not him but his cell). He even made some waving movements with his hand which a few rather unfortunately interpreted to mean the fanning away of er… odours. But in the end good sense prevailed and he opened his box and yanked the phone out. Peace was restored and we focused once again on the Arcots and their deeds, both fair and foul.
Gassed out of wits
The Man from Madras Musings is not certain about those of you out there but he has definitely been bitten to the core by the mosquitoes that have sprung up all over Chennai following the rains. And MMM, in his rather naïve way, has been hoping all along that the Corporation would soon begin its gassing or to give it its more dignified nomenclature, fumigation services. But MMM’s hopes were belied for long till one evening when he was out for a stroll along a rather quiet road near his house. There was a sudden blood-curdling roar which MMM, a little while after his heart had ceased to flutter, managed to make out to be “vallaam, vaa”, the standard cry adopted by men who imagine that they are helping someone to reverse a vehicle the proper way. In this instance MMM noticed that the vehicle was of a sound vintage (perhaps pre Second World War) and had a caged rear rather like the ones in which stray dogs are impounded.
As the contraption on wheels appeared to be making straight for MMM, he rather wisely moved behind a parapet wall and waited. The decrepit vehicle wheezed and jolted its way, entirely in the reverse, accompanied by the steady chant of “vallaam, vaa”. The intonation and the movement stopped within a few feet of MMM so that he could get a good glance at the interior of the cage. A man sat on a rickety stool, holding to a dirty old oil drum which was tilted at an angle. His job was to prevent the drum from toppling over and it was a wonder that he was still holding on it. From the lid of the drum emerged a tube which was connected to a pump of some sort. This in turn led to a cannon like contraption that protruded out of the rear of the vehicle. The floor of the cage appeared to be the receptacle of a wide variety of refuse and litter.
It was a shock to realise that this was the fumigation vehicle for MMM had always imagined these to be state-of-the-art tankers with electronically-controlled nozzles for spraying the fumes. Perhaps it was the rather belated realisation of the truth that this offspring of a gun carriage and a kennel that stood before him was going to spray the gas that completely dulled MMM’s wits. He stood rooted to the spot and suddenly the man reciting the reverse mantra stopped it all and let out another yell. This was a shout of a different kind and it immediately galvanised the man inside the cage into action.
He rocked the drum which sprang into life and lurched forward so alarmingly that it almost threw the man onto the floor of the truck. There was a sound like a death rattle and the cannon shook all over. Then came a mushroom cloud of gas, all completely aimed at MMM. By the time MMM recovered from it and managed to get his eyes to stop watering and his nose to resume breathing, the jalopy and all that it contained had vanished. A distant clanking noise and dull roar indicated that the operation was continuing elsewhere. Down by the road, MMM could see several mosquitoes happily dancing over a puddle. It appeared that they had nary a worry in this world. And why not? If this is the method used for gassing mosquitoes, then MMM would rather be one. Better to be a mosquito for Madras Musings than be a man.
Twisted Tales from T Nagar
T Nagar is to the Man from Madras Musings a microcosm of Chennai that was once Madras. It’s poorly maintained roads, its burgeoning population, its buildings- many of which are forever in the news for violation of building norms but continue functioning anyway… and above all the crazy traffic. The much touted flyover near Panagal Park has not done anything much by way of easing the congestion. In fact it has only added to the chaos for it now has a scissor shaped cross-roads below it where traffic from four different directions meet. As to how they disengage themselves and move on is one of life’s eternal mysteries.
Perhaps you are shaking your heads and saying that nothing much can be done about it. But surely you would agree with MMM that steps can be taken at least to not let the situation worsen any further. But that does not appear to be priority for those in charge of smooth traffic flow.
Under the mistaken notion that this area would be a little less crowded on Sundays, MMM drove there. Little did he realise that this is the day when every man and his uncle was out there shopping. To add to the atmosphere, a funeral procession chose that very hour to wend its way slowly down the subway close by, cross the road and then proceed along one of the principal thoroughfares. MMM agrees that the timing of the final moment cannot be chosen by anyone and he is therefore definitely not holding a grudge against the dear departed. But surely his mourners could have chosen to move a little faster and be somewhat brief over the dance, the bursting of crackers and the strewing of flowers. At one stage, crackers were burst by a man who was in some sort of a stupor most probably not induced by grief, close to a vehicle laden with gas cylinders. And with around a thousand cars in the vicinity! MMM simply shut his eyes and prayed and that is an act that you must have noticed MMM indulges rather too often in these days.
But MMM’s prayers were shortly to be answered though not in the way he would have wanted to. Shortly after the cortege had moved on, so did the traffic, until it came to the next bottleneck. This was a wayside shrine at which the birthday of the Goddess was being celebrated. Among the many acts demanded of the faithful was one that involved walking over a pit of live burning coals. MMM was amazed to find traffic being diverted along a narrow alley that in Biblical times would have qualified as the eye of a needle. The reason? Half the main road had been cordoned off to build the pit which would carry the coals. A huge plaster cast of the Goddess benignly watched the proceedings. A vast open-air kitchen had sprung up at her feet and food was being cooked in huge cauldrons, all on the road of course. Perhaps this is one of the reasons why Chennai is still considered an overgrown village.
Manual Automated Parking Lots
India is a human resource rich country which means it is grossly overpopulated and there is no better illustration of that than our city. This is probably the reason why even automated tasks become eventually manual activities. Take the automated parking system introduced in Mylapore with much fanfare a couple of years ago. These are now entirely controlled by the attendants who were initially meant to assist people to learn how to use the parking meters. The Man from Madras Musings finds that these machines now do not accept rupee notes and only take in coins. And who should supply them for you but these assistants? And then the decision to allow some people to park without paying the fee is also taken at times. For some reason, parking fees are charged only for certain hours of the day and for the rest of the times, the attendants turn off the machines. MMM is not certain if this is as per the agreement with the company that installed the machines and is charge of collecting fees. If so, it is a very inefficient system.
With real estate booming in the city, it is not only property developers who are contributing to the rapid destruction of our built and natural heritage. Religious institutions, along with schools and colleges under their control, have joined the fray. Unfortunately, several of these are in possession of heritage precincts and these are being done away with rapidly. And with a Heritage Conservation Committee that is still coming to grips with its tasks, there is very little protection that is being extended.
All over the city, churches, temples and shrines of other faiths are in a race to either modernise their existing structures or to build new ones of empty tracts of land in their possession. The latest instance is the complete demolition of the Christian Literature Society building that stood next to the Memorial Hall at the intersection of Evening Bazaar Road and Memorial Hall Street. A quaint structure which was a classic example of the art of building in the 1850s, it has been razed to the ground to make way for an eight-storeyed building. That such a high-rise would completely alter the skyline of fine buildings beginning with the Medical College and ending with Victoria Public Hall is not of course a thought that would have occurred to anyone involved in this act. Memorial Hall has also not been spared. Long used as an exhibition and sales venue, it has now been leased to a bank for its Park Town branch. While the positive aspect of it is that the exterior of the building has received a fresh coat of paint, the flip side is that there is no accounting for what changes have been made to the interior to accommodate a commercial institution. In the past issues, Madras Musings has reported on wholly unplanned changes and modifications being made to St Ebbas School buildings. Historic Conway House in St George’s School is still facing an uncertain future as there is a feeling that the building ought to be demolished and a new and modern structure ought to come up in its place. These are but a few examples. A year ago, a century old church in the Egmore area was brought down with the promise of building a brand-new one. This contrasts strangely with the practice in European countries where old churches are maintained as they are and when parishes dwindle down, these buildings are put to imaginative alternative uses. A classic example is Robert Chisholm’s last creation, The Church of Christ, Scientist at Chelsea, London, which was bought by the Cadogan Estate and converted into a concert hall, keeping almost the entire exterior and interior intact.
In the predominantly Hindu areas of Mylapore, Triplicane and Tiruvottriyur, the modernisation of choultries, schools, residences and shops belonging to Mutts and temples continues without check. Several of these new developments are completely tasteless and entirely out of keeping with the surroundings. Madras Musings had recently carried an article on the destruction of an age-old pavilion at the Virupakshiswarar Temple in Mylapore to make way for a new gopuram. A similar exercise is now on at the Kalyana Varadaraja Swami temple in Colletpet, where the old gopuram has been demolished simply to build a new one in its place. And in the last few months, there is talk of a marriage hall being planned on a vast verdant property full of trees near Greenways Road, that belongs to the Kapaliswarar Temple.
All religious institutions have the same story to tell when they are approached with this issue- fear of encroachment, the necessity to enhance the income received from such properties and the inability to maintain old structures. There is also a complete lack of awareness that anything worthwhile can be done with heritage properties. The last point can perhaps best be addressed by an organisation such as INTACH, involved as it is in promoting the awareness of heritage. But for all the earlier reasons cited, the only answer is a Heritage Act.
Such an Act should not only prevent quick decisions to demolish but also ensure that there are avenues available to people who are either wanting compensation for preserving a heritage property or need funding for restoring and maintaining it. There is also the question of transfer of development rights, which is at best inchoate right now. All this indicates that the HCC needs to get its act together and move quickly, failing which we will have only a few Government buildings left to tell the tale of heritage in this city.
This is an article on three temple complexes – The Chenna Kesava-Chenna Malleeswara swami temples of George Town, the Adi Kesava-Adi Pureeswara Swami temples of Chindadripet and the Kalyana Varadaraja Swami Temple of Collet (Kaladi) pet.
On the 18th I was at the Sir M Ct M School, Purasawalkam where young Karthik Bhatt spoke on “Some Gujaratis of Madras”. It was a well researched piece with the presentation divided into sections comprising Jewellers (TR Tawker, TR Joshi, TB Mehta, Bapalal, Surajmals, Veecumsee), those involved in the cloth trade (Goocooladoss Jumnadoss, Mani Sunker Davey), cycles (R Patel & Co, a name that I forget and now the sole Gujarati representative BM Davey), general merchants (Haji Mohd. Sait, Mohammed Ali Sharafali, Joonus Sait, Popat Jamals) and the great families of Lodd Govinddoss and Kushaldoss. He presented it with enthusiasm and I would give full marks for a maiden attempt. Unfortunately the attendance was thin. Not many takers for heritage at Purasawalkam or so it would appear.
Yesterday, a mammoth audience struggled its way into the first floor meeting space at the Gymkhana Club to listen to Sujatha Shankar on the “The Old Guard- Early 20th century architecture firms of Madras”. She covered Prynne, Abbot & Davis (later Pithavadian and Partners), LM Chitale, CR Narayan Rao and RR Sarma. It was interesting to see that descendants of LMC, CRN and RRS were all in the audience as were the present partners of Pithavadian. A representative from each of the firms (in the case of RRS whose practice did not continue after his lifetime, his daughter spoke) came up and gave their comments.
Noted film critic Baradwaj Rangan gave a talk yesterday on this subject at The Park as part of the Chennai Heritage Lecture series. It was an excellent talk. Any speaker would have fallen into the trap of an overdose of humour with such a subject. But with Baddy (as some of us call him), it was a serious analysis with the right mix of humour. Baddy showed clips from Tamil cinema to highlight instances of English being used to depict:
2. Putting down someone who does not know it
3. A conversation between intellectuals
4. Arrogance of the English-knowing man/woman
5. Stupidity of a person who can speak only English
6. English in a poor light as compared Tamil
8. A law court (and comparing it with a scene where only Tamil is spoken but with the same effect)
9. Class differentiation
The highlight of the evening was K Balachander, the famed director (many episodes of whose films were shown in the presentation) attending the talk and staying till the end. The attendance was very good despite at least one newspaper printing the wrong venue for the event.
Has this ever happened to you? Considering that it was a presentation on heritage, it was perhaps appropriate. Last evening I went to inaugurate the exhibition at Studio Palazzo. My presentation was on Robert Fellowes Chisholm, the architect who gave Indo-Saracenic Architecture its present form. Just as I was about to begin the power failed. Which meant the projector did not work. Since it was a tiny hall, the audience and I decided unanimously to dispense with the LCD. All I had to do was to turn the laptop to face them and begin the talk.
It was like the Black Hole of Calcutta and I dripped all over the laptop. To cap it all my glasses misted over and I could barely see what key I was pressing and finally used my cell phone display to illuminate the keyboard on the laptop. The presentation got over and the power came back almost at once. So I ran the photos through once again on the LCD. It was certainly a unique experience. Chisholm would have understood. God knows how may drawings he made by lantern and candlelight.
Last evening, 16th August, Mohan Raman spoke of JP Chandrababu, the comedian of yesteryears and to whom credit goes for introducing Madras Bhashai to films. Mohan showed several clips and made it a very good experience. There was a huge audience turnout (in Chennai Heritage terms that is – 100 people). Nobody left till the end. For some of us it was tharai ticket as we were short of chairs. At the end, I was left with mixed feelings – awe at Chandrababu’s talents and a feeling of great sadness over such a brilliant life cut short. Sridhar Joshi has reviewed the talk here – http://sridharjoshi.blogspot.com/
The Park had put out a good spread but what with some of those who came to listen choosing to dine rather than having high tea by the simple expedient of hogging whatever was available (one man more or less cornered the market for chocolate cake; must be having a digestion of cast iron), some had to go hungry.