Having grown up in Calcutta, I have always felt that that city had a way of ringing in the New Year that was unsurpassed. Celebrations went all the way down to Park Street and Chowringhee, the club events and above all, for those who lived near Alipore and Kidderpore, the tooting of the ships’ horns as midnight approached. In Chennai or Madras, it is relatively subdued. When you read historic accounts, you come away with the same feeling — almost all descriptions of New Year celebrations pertain to Calcutta. A few Madras records surface but they are invariably about New Year’s Day and not Eve.
Perhaps the earliest reference pertains to January 1, 1679. The account has it that “the Governour and Councell mett in the Councell Chamber and gave the accustomary New Yeares Gifts of Scarlett and Broad Cloth to Casa Verona & c. Partners, the Company’s Principall Marchants, the Pedda Naigue, Choultry Bramini, and Linguist”. Casa Verona was Kasi Viranna, the Chief Merchant of the East India Company, who was then transacting with it through a Joint Stock firm that he had promoted along with others. The Pedda Naigue was the Chief Watchman of the town, a post that would later grow to become the Commissioner of Police. As to who the Choultry Bramini was I cannot comprehend but the Linguist was the Chief Dubash or Translator to the Government. All very businesslike as you can see. No mention of any celebrations of any kind.
By the 1700s, with a full-fledged garrison being here, the army lent some colour to the celebrations and we do know that on January 1, 1771, General Smith invited all the officers of the garrison to dinner and supper at an unnamed hotel in the city.
The first relatively extensive account of New Year’s Day celebrations in Madras is from 1815, exactly 200 years ago. It has its share of routine and unusual observations. The Literary Panorama and National Register have it that the principal European residents of the city went about calling on the judges and senior government officials. The natives, it’s said, travelled all around the Choultry Plain (today’s Mount Road) in hackneys, palanquins and on horseback, offering flowers and fruits to “the objects of their veneration”. Does this mean that the tradition of visiting temples on the first day of the year had begun even then?
January 1 that year coincided with an important but unnamed Muslim festival and so that community “formed fantastic groups and processions”. But by far the most curious reference is to the Portuguese of the city, who dressed in the costumes of several centuries earlier, paraded around to commemorate the first landing of Vasco Da Gama in India. In the evening, “His Majesty’s Judges, the Members of Council and principal European inhabitants” were invited by the Governor to dine with him at the Banqueting (now Rajaji) Hall.
Nothing really spectacular. But then, Madras always underplays things.
This article appeared in The Hindu under the Hidden Histories column