Sunday, August 31, 2008

The most detailed history of Madras yet… first volume launched

Will this man ever stop writing books on Madras that is Chennai? Certainly not as long as he can. Today, at the Museum Theatre (venue well chosen), to cap Madras Week celebrations for the year, the first volume of Madras (Chennai): A 400 Year Record of the First City of Modern India, edited by S. Muthiah, was released by the Tamil Nadu Governor, Surjit Singh Barnala.

The second volume is likely to be launched in April, and the third during Madras Week next year. The three volumes will be the result of a collaboration between the British Council and the Association of British Scholars Chennai (ABS).

The thought for the three-volume Madras Gazetteer as it was originally planned to be called arose during a meeting Muthiah had with Venu Prasad who was then president of the ABS. No serious work had been done on the history of Madras until then, and Prasad’s enthusiasm led Muthiah to start work on the gazetteer.

The result was that about 50 writers contributed, about 60 per cent of them experts from the ABS, and the remainder experts from outside. So, when the third volume is released next year, we will see the most detailed history for any city in India being published.

The first volume released today is about ‘The Land, The People, & Their Governance’; the second will be on ‘Services, Education & The Economy’; and the third on ‘Information, Culture and Entertainment’.

Muthiah’s premise, as a historian, has always been that Madras, till the 1770s, was the capital of British settlements in the East. Whether it was primary or technical education, basics of medical treatment, or municipal governance, Madras showed other Indian cities the way, registering a first in each case.

The three books will be factual and based on documented facts. It will be a good starting point for any serious researcher of Chennai’s history.

Present at the launch were Sir Richard Stagg, British High Commissioner in India; Mike Connor, Deputy High Commissioner; and Chris Gibson, Director British Council, South India, and P. M. Belliappa, president of ABS.

Gibson described the first book as a saga of the persistent efforts by the ABS. Connor said that Muthiah’s books on Chennai were compulsory reading for all British Dy High Commissioners. He called Muthiah a chronicler, balladeer, storyteller, editor, author and a one-man-army. Quoting Oscar Wilde, he added: Anybody can make history; only a great man can write it.

Stagg said that education would define India’s success in the coming 50 or 100 years. Indo-British ties had great potential in this area. The new generation was unaware of history and more concerned about the future, he added.

Outside, refreshments included hot piping dosas, vadas, jilebis and coffee.

Picture shows a view of the Museum Theatre today an hour before the programme, with tight security in place. Cameras were not allowed inside.

Friday, August 29, 2008

Well, it’s not quite over yet. There are more ceremonies now… back at the hotel. As the newly wedded couple arrives, women holding wick lamps and flowers welcome them. But before that the husband has his feet washed and wiped by the bride’s nephew.

The husband offers his wife roses. He takes charge of her soon after and once the ceremonies are all over, they have time to sit and contemplate. Only just...

It has been quite a day, already!

A new dawn arises

Malayalee weddings are quick affairs. You wait and wait for D-Day and when it finally dawns and the events unfold you hardly have time to savour them. So, here the bride and groom become husband and wife almost in an instant. He ties the thali or gold necklace around her neck, they exchange garlands, and pray to the Almighty to bless them (here, from outside the sanctum sanctorum). It is a new dawn… new hopes… new aspirations.

It's all happening

Well, it’s the day of the Wedding. Look at her hands – those beautiful designs will remain for a long, long time, you can be sure. Last few comforting words (does today’s bride need those?) from her sister and the bride moves on… towards the kalyana mandapam outside the main shrine.

Outside the mandapam where the wedding ceremony will take place, the groom and his sisters wait.

Bride comes calling

Now, on to the wedding. We’ve all heard of arranged marriages, and the role played by jadagams or horoscopes, and astrologers in making a marriage possible. Across India, this still holds true, though it must be said that youngsters have begun to choose their own partners. In the age of the Internet, Indian parents have shown that they have it in them to move with the times. So, this is the age of arranging marriages based on the curriculum vitae furnished on various matrimonial Web sites by the parents of prospective brides and grooms, or by the youngsters themselves.

Many, many marriages are taking place this way. But perhaps most among families who have their children of marriageable age working outside India. Some call them NRI or non-resident Indian marriages. So, if you are an Indian working in Dallas, you can tie the wedding knot with another Indian working in Houston – someone you never knew existed until you or your parents found his or her name and particulars on a matrimonial Web site. Hmmm…

The wedding we attended was the typical New Generation (is it Generation Y?) wedding – bride and groom work abroad, parents work or are retired in India.

A few hours before the wedding, the would-bride flaunts a new sari. She looks resplendent and no wonder photographers (of the home-made variety) are busy clicking away close to midnight!

Midnight dosas

Before Krishna Inn, the Elite Hotel was for years the place to be seen in, in Guruvayur. Perhaps it still is, I’m not quite sure. We landed up there for dinner and the food was all right, although there was little choice on offer. Past 10 pm, it is difficult in these parts to gauge how popular a restaurant is because that is the time most restaurants close shop for the day. In the first picture, the man behind the cash counter chats with a waiter as they wait for us to finish our meal.

Outside, hot piping dosas were being made on a steaming tawa. Awesome aroma and all that… but we had already eaten. Clearly there would be customers late into the night and this make-shift eatery on the road between Krishna Inn and Elite is an example of how successful you can get if you are enterprising enough.

The kind of dosas this man makes is not available down this stretch of road. He knows that they are special and that people will come by. He was not quite willing to pose for a picture though…

Krishna Inn

We stayed at the Krishna Inn, which is not much visible from the main road. It plays host to the Who’s Who of Kerala and South India, whenever these people visit the temple. Left to myself, I would have preferred an ordinary place, closer to the temple. But we were guests and sometimes when the host offers regal fare on a platter you just can’t refuse, can you?

Service is excellent here, unobtrusive and polite. There are a couple of restaurants, and the food quite good. Only vegetarian food is served, like in most of the hotels and restaurants in Guruvayur, a temple town, remember…

I took pictures of the reception are and the foyer late night. The attendant at the doorway was always all smiles and I couldn’t resist the temptation one morning. The last shot is of a view of the East Nada Street running towards the main entrance to the temple from the road outside the hotel.

The legend of Manjulal

Well, a break from the routine always does you good. I was part of a small group of people that visited the Guruvayur Temple in Kerala to have a darshan of the Lord and to also attend a family wedding. This year, there has hardly been any rain in Kerala, God’s Own Country and, quite unlike this part of the year, the weather was warm and dry.

One of the first pictures I took was of Manjulal, the peepul tree named after a devotee of Lord Krishna, called Manjula. Legend has it that she came one night, garland in hand, to offer it to the deity. From where she stood, near the peepul tree, she noticed the temple doors closed for the night. Saddened, she was about to leave when a saint, Poontanam, came by and told her to leave the garland on a stone and pray – God was omnipresent after all. This she did. The following day, when the temple priest was removing the adornments of the previous night from the deity, one garland refused to come off. Poontanam, who was present, said aloud that if the garland was the one placed by Manjula, it should come off. And lo and behold, it did! The peepul tree near where Manjula stood became a shrine. Today, of course, how many care to pause and have a look is another question…

Monday, August 25, 2008

An early morning breath of fresh air

It is not the easiest of things to do on a Sunday morning – getting up early to set off on a tree walk in the Government Museum campus. But this is Madras Week and somehow a few of us find that extra ounce of energy. Prasad, a local resident, is the first to arrive. Usha from Nizhal greets us at the entrance to the Museum complex.

Prasad is an early morning walker and the Museum compound is where he usually comes to. But Prasad is upset, upset that the Museum authorities having now stopped morning walkers like him from entering the compound after bomb scares all over the country. He hopes that they will admit people like him who have for years used the pathways inside the premises to take the early morning breath of fresh air.

Pushpa, botanical curator at the Museum, arrives at about 7am. She too has had an early start, having left her home in Avadi more than an hour earlier. Madras Narasimhan Pushpa is what she tells me when I ask her full name. She is a fund of knowledge – you can probably ask her anything you want to know about flora and chances are you will get an answer. It is her passion for the subject that surfaces as she leads our group of ten from one tree to another. The Government Museum premises in Egmore, spread over 16 acres, has the largest variety of plants and trees in Chennai, she says. Women’s Christian College has the second largest, in its campus of 20 acres.

I have never before been to the rear side of the Museum. As we trudge slowly beneath the tree canopy, it almost seems as if we are walking into a forest. A large colony of bats greets us with shrieks and flutter of wings as Pushpa stops by to explain a thing here and something there. They are obviously not used to human sounds early morning. Prasad confirms that the early morning walkers usually receive no such greeting from the bats. So it must be our chatter.

By the end of 90 minutes, we have all improved our knowledge of botany a tiny bit and are able to identify plants like kiraar nelli, kuppamenni and tulsi, as well as neem, mahogany, teak and Ashoka. And, of course, the nagalingam poo …

Pictures show tree cover in front of the Connemara Library inside the campus; Pushpa getting started; a white mushroom; Pushpa continuing her lessons; and the walkers taken aback by the shrieks of bats at the rear.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Chef Amsa is a star

Krishna Kumar or KK as he is better known, general manager at Hotel Green Park, Vadapalani, must be complimented for his continued enthusiasm and support during Madras Week. Not many in Chennai have experienced the ambience at Green Park. Vadapalani, after all, is not a place you’d take the trouble of visiting unless absolutely necessary – the traffic on Arcot Road is chaotic most of the time. But Green Park is worth a visit and more.

Well, this year, Chef Amsa Raju was determined to do something special during Madras Week, and the result was a three-day food festival, ‘Cuisines of the Madras Presidency – A Journey into the Past’. I now learn from KK that the food festival attracted record crowds and that many had to wait to find seats for dinner. Chef Amsa’s sora puttu and the mini dosa were hits, and he relied on his mother’s, grandmother’s and wife’s recipes. More than anything Chef Amsa proved a point – that if you do something with passion, it stands out.

Sketches and pictures of old Madras provided just the right setting and judging by the success of the food festival I’m certain KK and Chef Amsa must be looking forward to 2009. Well done, Chef Amsa and the Hotel Green Park team!

Did I forget to mention Chitra Madhavan’s talk on ‘Temples of Chennai’ at the Vijaya Hall on August 23rd evening? It was a fascinating presentation and after her 40-minute talk, a very participative audience asked questions for about an hour. I wonder whether Chitra, who is now a sought-after speaker, has ever fielded so many questions after a presentation!

Pictures show the entrance to Tulips where the food festival was held; and Chitra Madhavan fielding questions.

Girls rock

The second programme was a thematic dance presentation, ‘Chennai is the Cultural Capital’ by Sheela Unnikrishnan and her troupe of pretty young girls. Sheela, a dance teacher in Padma Seshadri School, K.K. Nagar, and the director of Sridevi Nrithyalaya, has trained scores of girls in Bharata Natyam. The programme commenced with a performance by Suvasini, one of Sheela’s most promising students. Anusha, Aswati, Harish and Deepak effortlessly weaved a story around Chennai to make it interesting for the audience, traversing through some of the heritage spots in the city. The dances fitted in well.

In an interlude, Srijith, Sheela’s son, played the mridangam as Gayatri sang. Teenage girls swinging to the beats of modern English pop music brought up the finale.

Pictures show Suvasini kick-starting the dance performance; young girls demonstrating Bharata Natyam; Anusha, Aswati, Harish and Deepak weaving the story; Subhiksha sketching Ganesha in the midst of her dance routine; and the finale.

A lesson on Chennai's wildlife, through puppets

Spring into Reading, an activity centre for children in K.K. Nagar, conducted two programmes at Hotel Green Park yesterday. This is the second year the centre has been associated with Madras Week. Last year, it was a scintillating storytelling performance by Nandini Sridhar and thudumbu artistes (drummers) that captivated the audience and had the Press literally lapping it all up.

This year, the action was no less absorbing. The first was a puppet-making programme titled ‘Wildlife of Chennai’. Bhanumathy, who runs the Pavai Centre for Puppetry conducted for children in the 5-12-year age group an interesting session on simple puppet-making based on Chennai's wildlife. Her objective: to create awareness in the children about wildlife in and around Chennai, its importance as natural heritage of the city and their role in protecting and conserving such heritage.

When Binita and Shrimathi of Spring into Reading and Bhanumathi together planned the event, they would never have expected the sort of response that they received. About 60 children participated, many had arrived with parents in tow long before the scheduled time of the event.

It was wonderful to see the young joyous faces, beaming smiles and the brimming energy that the children displayed on the floor – drawing, colouring and painting puppets. And did they learn a lesson or two? Yes, indeed, they chorused at the end of the show. They would all do their bit to save birds and animals and ensure that they were not harmed.

Pictures show children all excited and raring to go; listening to instructions from Bhanumathi; a girl drawing a puppet face; some of the finished products; and children raising their puppets in glee.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Here is restored heritage

Gallery Sri Parvati, which has been a part of Madras Week this year and the last, is a 1930s heritage home that has been refurbished. It is not a well-known heritage landmark such as the Bharat Insurance Building or Gokhale Hall. But this gallery or home is worth talking about during Madras Week because it is an excellent example of what proper restoration can do. Those who have old homes would do well to take a leaf from owner Lakshmi Venkataraman’s book.

According to Lakshmi, in the 1940s, ‘50s and ‘60s, the place used to come alive with the laughter of children and the pitter-patter of their feet as they played through the day while frogs croaked in the large pond in the premises. After Soundarya Nursery shifted, P.S. Venkataraman, a builder, established his home over four-and-a-half grounds on 33 (now 28/160) Eldams Road in 1935. It was a typical old-fashioned home, a screen dividing the big hall into two sections, a dining hall, a kitchen and a small room. Rajammal, Venkataraman’s wife, would tend to the banana and mango trees and feed the cows in the cowshed.

This was where their daughter Lakshmi grew up and spent the first 40 years of her life. She remembers taking the bus to school when there would be hardly any traffic on the roads. Laksmi decided against pulling down the house; instead, she restored the building and turned it into a cultural centre. Part of the ground floor is now let out as office space.

Sri Parvati (fa├žade seen above) is named after Lakshmi’s grandmother.

Impressions of a Madras gone by

After a day’s break, I was back into the thick of things during Madras Week. I decided to visit Lakshmy Venkataraman’s Gallery Sri Parvati on Eldams Road where an exhibition titled ‘Madras Impressions: 18th-20th century’ has been on the past week and will go on for another.

The artist P. Krishnamurthy’s sketches are based on his memories of the Madras of his youth as well as on impressions he has gathered over the years from his research for historic films.

An alumnus of the College of Arts and Crafts, Chennai (1960- 66), P. Krishnamurthy is a contemporary of veterans like Adimoolam, Bhaskaran, Vasudev and Viswanadan. He has been a passionate painter dealing with esoteric themes like yoga. Being associated with music and dance since childhood, they too have a strong influence on him.

Krishnamurthy was closely associated with theatre some years ago and his close friends circle included people like Girish Karnad, Karanth, Gopalie and Na Muthuswamy. It was purely by accident that G.V. Iyer invited him to do the art direction for his film Hamsa Geethe in 1972. Since then he has done art direction for numerous films and documentaries and received several state awards for art direction and costumes – from Kerala, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu as well as five Natural Awards.

Though he hails from Poompuhar, Madras has been his home for five decades.

This exhibition, like the ones at the CP Art Centre and Rajaji Hall, is worth going to. Sample some of Krishnamurthy’s works above and I'm sure you will be tempted.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Zeenat Aman and the original he-man

After that absolutely stunning run by Usain Bolt in the 200m (you could have watched the replays all day!), I put my legs up and tuned to another old favourite Hindi film – Yaadon ki Baraat. Have a close look at the TV grabs here (remember the son ‘O meri soni…’?), and notice how svelte and desirable Zeenat Aman looked in her prime! And when you look at that image of Vijay Arora, can you believe he is now no more? Hmm… but those were the 1970s and, yet, like Sholay, Yaadon ki Baarat captivates you even today.

I still remember how years ago, when I watched the film in a theatre in Calcutta, the crowd in the front benches whistled and cheered and threw rupee notes when Dharmendra makes a dramatic appearance, jumping from a bridge on to a running train, and later during the bar sequence when he thrashes one of Shakaal’s henchmen, as only he could have.

Ever since I watched Jugnu, Dharmendra became my favourite hero and films like Yaadon ki Baarat and Sholay only cemented in my mind his image as one of Hindi filmdom’s original he-men with the Greek God looks. Of course, films like Satyakam and Chupke Chupke brought out his softer side. And I’m only too glad that today he marks my 100th blog.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

The magic of Sholay

Recognise these TV grabs? Hmm, well, in the midst of Madras Week and the Beijing Olympics (was just watching Usain Bolt strike the second time – and oh boy what a 200m race did he run!), I found time to watch Sholay one night. And sat through the film for what must have been the umpteenth time. The dialogues resonated as sharply as ever, dialogues that I had come to learn by heart when I was in school in Calcutta.

The magic of Sholay never fails to charm you, does it? Each of the main characters – Thakur Saheb, Veeru, Jai, Basanti, Choti Bahu, the redoubtable Gabbar Singh and even the others – remains as firmly etched in your mind as ever. And somehow the story never turns stale. Call it the magic of Ramesh Sippy or what you will, but there can never really be another Sholay – not in terms of a repeat but in terms of another movie that can enthrall you decades after it is released.

And no scene in any film quite captivates me and brings goose pimples as that magnificent opening scene when bandits astride horses attack the moving train… And whenever I watch that scene, I wish had a 70mm film screen at home!

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

...A fine exhibition

Three more pictures that show a view of Government House and Council Chamber, Brodie Castle from Hudleston’s Garden, and the landing on the Madras coast (part of Bentinck’s Building, demolished in 1989, is also seen).