Heritage tour of the Harbour on August 9, 2015

July 30, 2015
Heritage tour of the Harbour in collaboration with the Royal Madras Yacht Club

Heritage tour of the Harbour in collaboration with the Royal Madras Yacht Club

Abdul Kalam and the MIT Gate: When Kalam visited the Madras Institute of Technology – The Hindu

August 1, 2015

Abdul Kalam and the MIT Gate: When Kalam visited the Madras Institute of Technology - The Hindu

Abdul Kalam and the MIT Gate: When Kalam visited the Madras Institute of Technology – The Hindu.

Abdul Kalam at the Music Academy

July 27, 2015

It is long past my usual bedtime but I am unable to sleep. Somehow Kalam’s passing is like the death of a close relative. True, he was 83 but somehow I thought he would always be around – simple in his joys, straightforward in his communication, honesty personified, friendliness radiating from his eyes…In a nation whose leaders are by and large arrogant crooks (except during elections), he made a difference and somehow held out a hope. If a man of such humble origins could make his way to the top through just hard work, surely India was a meritocracy? And now he is gone. Today I am able to understand why men wept and women broke their bangles on January 30, 1948.

I met Kalam only once and briefly at that. And that is not the story I want to relate. The one I am writing about is of his coming in 2002 to inaugurate the December Season at the Music Academy. The Sikkil Sisters were selected for the Sangita Kalanidhi and this being the platinum jubilee of the Academy, four great musicians – Semmangudi, MS Subbulakshmi, DK Pattammal and Pt. Ravishankar were to receive a special award. Of the four, only Semmangudi made it, MS and DKP were quite frail in health and Raviji was abroad.

The Music Academy as you know, has a fetish for punctuality. It had in the past once drawn the curtain when Madurai Mani Iyer failed to finish on time. A wooden box that had a red bulb in it would greet those giving lecture demonstrations. This would be placed on the lectern just below the nose of the speaker and in case he/she exceeded the time limit, it would begin to glow. Time if not tide, did not wait for anyone at the Academy. It was said that its second President, KV Krishnaswami Aiyar began the trend. It slackened somewhat under his successors but picked up pace from 1982, when TT Vasu became numero uno.

Vasu became the red bulb himself. Giving his trousers a characteristic hitch, he would think nothing of bounding up to the concert performer or speaker and wag an enormous finger in front of their face in case they exceeded time. He would also begin a countdown of sorts, waving five, then four fingers and so on till just the forefinger would remain standing. The curtain would descend almost simultaneously. I cannot say I disapproved of what Vasu did. In a tightly packed typical Season Day, this discipline was needed. But perhaps it could have been done more gently.

Vasu’s terror tactics did not work with Kalam however when he, as President of India, came to inaugurate the Academy’s platinum jubilee concert series. The curtain went up to reveal Vasu, Kalam, a couple of Secretaries, Semmangudi and the Sikkil Sisters on stage. It was clear from the word go that the time schedule was going to be shot to pieces. After the standard nAdatanum anisham invocation, Dr VV Srivatsa, one of the Secretaries, led Sikkil Kunjumani to the mic. They were so slow in their progress that Vasu began to grunt impatiently. Kalam however beamed beatifically. Kunjumani then began a longwinded speech that clearly overshot the time allotted to her. Vasu began to get up, finger already uplifted when Kalam smiled at him in a soft fashion and grasping his hand, pushed him gently back into his seat. “It is all right Vasu sar,” said Kalam. It was a quite a sight – the President of India cajoling the President of the Music Academy to calm down! Poor Vasu did not say anything and squirmed considerably in his seat. Kunjumani eventually finished her speech and was led back by Srivatsa as slowly as she had come to the mic. Semmangudi received his award and when asked to speak said in his characteristic fashion that Vasu had told him to be brief (Vasu enna romba pEsa kUDadunnu sonnAn). He spoke little and then sat down.

This was a day when Vasu got an award as well – a silver plaque with a verse in his praise. Kalam handed it over. Vasu spoke briefly and then it was Kalam’s turn. We were already ten minutes behind schedule and with some luck would get the concert of the evening going some half an hour late. But the Academy had not contended with Kalam or the audience adulation of him.

Every move he made was received with thunderous applause. This was no President but a matinee idol. The Academy lectern was too tall for him and a special platform was placed behind it for him to climb on. When he achieved this simple task, we all cheered. He delivered his speech in English and there was loud clapping at the end of every sentence. This was no prim and proper Academy inauguration but a college graduation day.

The speech came to an end and everyone clapped once again. Vasu stood up, ready to get a Secretary to deliver the vote of thanks. Kalam however was not getting off so easily.

“Mr President,” he said. “I am aware that there are many people in the audience who know only Tamil and so I have brought a Tamil translation of my speech. With your permission sir, I will now read it.”

I don’t think anyone else could have got away reading the same speech twice in the same evening, even if its second declamation was in another language. But Kalam achieved this impossible feat. And what’s more, the audience cheered all over again. Vasu had to grin and bear it.

The speech came to an end and Vasu was once again on his feet. But Kalam had other plans.

“This is a great occasion Mr President Sar,” he said. “And so I have composed a special song for it. My DRDO members will now perform it. But before that one of my colleagues will read out the lyrics.”

The applause hit the rafters even as what looked like a minor army came on stage bearing all kinds of musical instruments. Vasu had given up by then. The instruments were tuned and then even as Kalam beamed with joy, the song was sung by a couple of scientists to the accompaniment of other scientists in the orchestra.

By the time the national anthem was sung (and here Kalam entreated everyone of us to sing loudly), we were a good 45 minutes late – an unpardonable crime at the Academy.

The next day’s papers revealed that Kalam drove from the Academy straight to MS Subbulakshmi’s house and presented her with the award in person.

We have never seen such crowds at any Season inauguration day ever since at the Music Academy. And never again has the audience cheered a speech or song so much. Simplicity was the hallmark of this great man and that is why we loved him. India and the world is poorer by his passing.

Railway Passes for Freedom Fighters

July 27, 2015

The Man from Madras Musings read the newspaper reports concerning reformation of railways with much interest. It would be no exaggeration to state that the railways are close to MMM’s heart, both his grandfathers having worked for that behemoth. In short, MMM is filled with railway blood.

But having said that, he is quite aware of the fact that there is much scope for improvement in what has put our country on the move. One of the many savings it can achieve though it may not amount to much is its tendency to distribute free travel passes to all and sundry. MMM’s memory goes back a decade or so when he had to travel frequently on a particular route to and from our city. And one of the regular travellers on the same route in the AC two-tier coach was an elderly man of vaguely nationalist aspect. His companion would, however, be a different person on each journey and it was clear that these people were not in any way related to each other.

MMM was naturally curious but refrained from asking until one day the patriotic man struck a conversation with MMM. He had noticed MMM travelling often on the route, he said, and so would like to help MMM. When MMM asked how, he explained his modus operandi, which stunned MMM so much that he has never forgotten it since. The man was a freedom fighter and was entitled to a railway pass under the category. This entitled him to travel a certain number of times each year with a companion, both tickets being free of cost. He therefore sold the free ticket to anyone wanting to travel at short notice, he said, and so if MMM was at any time needing to travel at short notice, all he had to do was to call him up and everything could be arranged before MMM could say Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi.

This, as MMM said, may not have made much of dent in the railway budget but if every rupee counts, these freebies could be curtailed somewhat.

Hidden histories: The seedy past of Chennai’s Lockma Nagar – The Hindu

July 25, 2015

I saw this street sign where Kilpauk gives way to Purasawalkam. On consulting my usual references, I came to know that the place was known as Lock Cheri at least till 1968 or thereabouts. That was when the Corporation decided to do away with slums, in thought, if not in deed, and renamed all cheris as nagars, a couple of them becoming ma nagars (big colony). And that is how Lock Cheri became Lock Managar, which later transformed into Lockma Nagar. A street directory of 1933 revealed that this was Lock Street at least till then, the slum coming up later. By 1943, when this area was among the worst affected during the great flood of Madras, it was known as Lock Cheri. I speculated momentarily on whether it was where one of the many locks on the Buckingham Canal once stood, till I realised the waterway is miles away. The Otteri Nullah is closeby, but that never had locks.

Heritage enthusiast Karthik Bhatt speculated whether the name had anything to do with the Lock Hospital. And sure enough, that was it. Corporation reports of the 1800s reveal considerable outlay of funds on the maintenance of the Lock Hospital at Kilpauk, set up in 1810. This institution was part of a chain, a colonial phenomenon. London got one in 1747, and thereafter, Lock Hospitals were opened wherever the British Empire spread. It was a necessity, for it specialised in treating venereal diseases. The reason for the name is lost in time.

The East India Company was largely an all-male establishment till at least the 1840s. That meant that prostitution was fairly rampant wherever the British set up base. In the 1600s, houses of pleasure in Portuguese San Thome catered to the new conquerors. By the 19th century, Mount Road alone had nine brothels. Chengam Bazar in George Town was another flourishing centre. The now lost Vodacaul Street, that connected First Line Beach to George Town, catered to the sailors. It was no wonder that the city desperately needed a Lock Hospital and got not one but two — one exclusively for the military and the other, civil. It is the latter that stood at Lockma Nagar. Overall, Madras Presidency had nine Lock Hospitals.

Some interesting statistics emerged over the years. It was noticed that admission of women surged during famines when they were left destitute and took to immoral trafficking to earn money, thereby contracting the disease. Aged prostitutes admitted themselves to the place, considering it a good retirement home. A more intriguing find was that army men came in larger numbers when there was a war. A report dated 1879 noted that soldiers on the move were “always prone to fall into mischief”.

The administration was forever in doubt about the efficacy of these hospitals. The one in Kilpauk was closed in 1835, only to reopen again a few years later. It survived till the 1880s. The name, however, has lived on.

This article appeared in The Hindu dated July 26, 2015 under the Hidden Histories column.

The Rayala Story Sriram V Rayala Corporation M. Rajagopala Naidu – The Hindu

July 22, 2015

The Rayala Story Sriram V Rayala Corporation M. Rajagopala Naidu – The Hindu.

Bonding over a boarding pass

July 21, 2015

The Man from Madras Musings grew up in an era when several aspects of life had a glamour of their own – upper class railway travel, eating out and going to the cinema being some of them. All of these have now become commonplace and, between you and MMM, rather stressful outings given the difficulties that our city’s infrastructure puts you through. MMM would like to add to the same category the strains of air travel.

When MMM was a Cherubic Child of Calcutta, he would have various relatives flying in and out and they portrayed it to him as rather pleasurable experiences. Coming to man’s estate, MMM also looked forward to being airborne but of late he views such opportunities with less enthusiasm. The first of the deterrents is an sms that is received from the airline stating our world-class airport is subject to congestion and so all passengers should better come over at least two hours before departure. Considering that most of the destinations that MMM flies to are just about a couple of hours away, this always strikes him as a preposterous demand. And it is not as though our airport offers anything by way of entertainment beyond falling ceilings, rusting railings and leaky toilet taps. MMM has tried being defiant and landed up once or twice with just an hour to spare for the flight only to be told that the counter has closed and he ought to have known better.

And so MMM does leave as early as he can. An early morning flight therefore means a sleepless night and stepping out of chez MMM just as the cat comes back and the milkman starts on his journeys. These days, the airlines ask you to print out your boarding passes at home as well and MMM strongly suspects that a day will come when they will ask you to bring your own seat. So it was that last week MMM found himself at the entrance queue to the airport, complete with boarding pass, baggage and identity card. The process of entry was taking longer than usual and on enquiry it transpired that a couple of passengers up front, man and wife, had printed their boarding passes, front and back, on the same sheet of paper. The guard at the entrance was rather taken aback and after some humming and hawing, let them through.

It was MMM’s misfortune that he had to stand behind the same couple at the baggage drop counter. The booking clerk was astounded at this frugality but having turned the sheet this way and that, took their baggage in and asked them to proceed. All hell however broke loose at the security check point where, as you know, they separate the sexes, the women being shepherded into an enclosure while the men have it all in the open. The female in the duo had made off with what MMM can only describe as the boarding pass (bp) sheet leaving the male, as it often happens, high and dry.

She managed to pass through security but when the officer in charge of the men discovered that her partner did not have his bp with him, his (by which MMM means the officer’s) bp shot up to stratospheric levels. Having counted till ten, even as the passengers behind were well into their hundreds, he politely asked the man to wait and then went off to where the woman was standing, brought back the precious sheet and, having stamped it, waved the man through.

That was not the end of the story. When it came to boarding the aircraft, as most of you will be aware, the boarding pass is torn into two, the main part being retained by the airline staff while the counterfoil is returned to the passenger. Only in this case, the sheet could not be torn as the two boarding passes, front and back, were on the same sheet of paper, the airline had to perforce retain the counterfoil of one passenger and the main part of the other. By then the other passengers had had enough. They surged ahead as one passenger, were attended to by other staffers and let into the aircraft. MMM does not know how the bp imbroglio was sorted out, but the couple did make it to the flight, without turning a hair. The satisfaction of having saved paper and, therefore, a tree amounts to much.

A talk on Fort St George

July 21, 2015

The link below is to a video recording of my talk on Fort St George, delivered at the Madras Book Club sometime in June 2015 https://youtu.be/iezfM288WtQ

Know Fort St George – 7, The Parade Square

July 20, 2015

One of the predominant features of Fort St George, and which shows that the Fort always had a strong army presence, is the Parade Square, known variously in history as the Parade, the Parade Ground, Barracks Square and Conrwallis Square. You just cannot miss it. As you walk to the rear of the Assembly building, it immediately strikes the eye. Cordoned off and now macadamised, its emptiness cannot be ignored for it presents a sharp contrast to the rest of the Fort which is mostly taken over by cars, police vans and two wheelers. Surrounding the Parade Square are some very handsome buildings.

Parade Square

Parade Square

That some kind of a parade ground existed in the Fort from at least the 1670s is evident when you read the accounts of various ceremonial occasions. Thus when Elihu Yale hoisted the king’s flag for the first time on the Fort ramparts, the garrison soldiers performed an “orderly march round the Fort” and then “drew round within the Fort.” In his Story of Fort of St George, Lt Col D.M. Reid throws some light on the initial days. The Fort was restricted to what was called Fort Square, the area currently occupied by the Assembly and Secretariat. To the rear of this developed the Parade, a long and narrow piece of ground that was hemmed in by houses on all the other three sides. Parade Square acquired its present contours following extensive renovations to the Fort in 1762 by which time most of the houses surrounding it were demolished. These had in any case suffered extensive damage during the French siege of the 1750s.

West face of Fort St George by Francis S Ward, 1785

West face of Fort St George by Francis S Ward, 1785

We get a reasonable view of how Parade Square looked in 1785 from Francis Swain Ward’s depiction of it in his The Parade and the West Face of Fort St George. The notes accompanying it state that the right side of the picture is the western face of the Fort. The tall domed structure, almost a Catholic cathedral in its design, no longer stands. It was in fact a street away and marks the location of Portuguese Square where the Namakkal Kavignar Maligai presently stands. This domed multi-storied structure was once the Court House in which civil and military prosecutions were carried on. In the same picture, the southern and the northern faces of Parade Square have colonnaded and pedimented buildings, all built in the classical style, and these have survived till date. The army and its various functional units occupy all of these.

The western face, diametrically opposite the rear of the Assembly, has barracks that were built late in the 19th Century. With that, Parade Square opened out to barracks on three sides and it came to be known as Barracks Square. The Cornwallis cupola and its statue of the Governor General stood close to the rear wall of the Assembly building on Parade Square and faced west from the early 1800s till 1905. Parade Square was therefore also referred to as Cornwallis Square. The unveiling of the statue here was a gala event, as we have noted earlier. So also was the arrival of Cornwallis in 1805 when, having assumed charge for the second time as Governor General of India, he visited Madras, en route to Calcutta. On that occasion, he addressed the troops and Madras citizens at Parade Square.

The ceremonial that accompanied these events was in marked contrast to the night of August 23, 1775 when Sir Robert Fletcher, Commanding Officer, gave instructions for the arrest of the Governor Lord Pigot. The latter was imprisoned by Col Stuart and conveyed to St Thomas Mount. Pigot’s sympathiser and son-in-law, Claud Russell, also a member of the Madras Council, records that Parade Square that night was a picture of confusion. Lit by a full moon, it had army officers, Europeans and natives walking hither and thither even as carriages blocked the entrance to the Square. The garrison was sharply divided and the troops mutinous but eventually the anti-Pigot faction had its way. The Governor died a mysterious death a year later at St Thomas Mount while still a prisoner.

Parade Square was never paved over till at least the 1950s. It remained a well-beaten piece of earth and, given that a regiment had always been quartered in the Fort for over two centuries, was used for marches and parades. P. Unnikrishnan, the former Managing Director of Binny’s, remembers Parade Square in the 1930s when his father was Law Secretary, Government of Madras. He would often walk up to the Fort from the Madras Christian College School, then in George Town, to go home with his dad in the latter’s car. He states that a parade was held every alternate day in the Square and it was a grand spectacle. Despite it being used for parades, the residents of the Fort cut across the Square as and when needed and this led to a clearly demarcated track emerging over the years.

Several accounts of ceremonial parades conducted here have survived over three centuries. A ceremonial parade was held in August 1801 to welcome “His Excellency Meer Alam Bahadar, ambassador from His Highness, the Subahdar of the Deccan”. The visitor came in through St George’s Gate and was received with presented arms by His Majesty’s 51st regiment, “which then formed a street from the gate to Parade Square”. Thereafter, a street was formed by the 2nd Division 1st European Regiment and the Madras Militia under Major Taswell. A salute of seventeen guns was fired and the troops continued to present arms till the distinguished visitor left the Fort. Another account dates to September 13, 1807, when the appointment of William Petrie to the post of Governor was announced. A salute of 19 guns and three rounds of “musquetry” were fired from the troops of the garrison, all of whom had assembled on Parade Square.

Mrs. Penny in her book wondered as to how the Englishmen “ever survived such an ordeal by fire, as a parade in full dress under an Indian sun must have been.” Evidently most did, but there are several accounts of backsliders as well, all of whom were court-martialled. On July 14, 1837, Capt. John Mahon of HM 63 Regiment of Foot was tried by order of Maj. Gen. John Doveton for having absented himself from parade on June 22, despite having been admonished by his senior officer for a similar misdemeanour on an earlier occasion. He was exonerated on all charges on a technicality much to Doveton’s distress. Far worse was the charge against Capt. John Arnaud of HM 34th Regiment. He had been arrested for some indiscipline and, while under incarceration, “appeared in an un-officer like dress when the regiment was on parade” and stood there and looked on. He too was acquitted of this charge.

Being drunk on parade was clearly an unpardonable crime. The trial of Lt. John Winrow was held from January 13, 1817 and dragged on for some time. He was of the 1st Battalion of the 30th Regiment and was tried for “shameful and unofficer like conduct, in appearing on the general parade of the Battalion, in a state of intoxication, on the evening of the 30th December, 1816.” Clearly, his New Year celebrations had begun early.

The judgement was curious to say the least. While it found him guilty of irregular and improper conduct at the Parade… when not perfectly free from the effects of liquor, it acquitted him of the charge of “shameful conduct in appearing there in state of intoxication.” Lt. Winrow lost two steps and was asked to take his place immediately behind the two lieutenants who till then had stood next to him. The order, though entered into the book, was never implemented, for Winrow had died even when the trial was in progress.

Parade Square is now cordoned off for its own safety, for if opened up it will be filled with Government vehicles and, perhaps, even high-rises.

Earlier articles from the Know Fort St George series:

The Fort – its Topography

The Flagstaff

The Sea Gates

The Moat

The Cornwallis Cupola

The Assembly and Secretariat

Queen Mary’s centenary: coffee table book on Queen Mary’s college: Hidden histories – The Hindu

July 17, 2015

Queen Mary's centenary: coffee table book on Queen Mary's college: Hidden histories - The Hindu

Queen Mary’s centenary: coffee table book on Queen Mary’s college: Hidden histories – The Hindu.


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