Monday, August 30, 2010

Where homegrown and international brands coexist

Somebody said the other day that from early morning to late night, we have a close association with some well-known brand or the other. So, if it's Colgate in the morning, it could be Tupperware in the afternoon followed by Cafe Coffee Day, and, well, Durex (if you will) at night...

At Express Avenue, I saw several signboards of brands I'd not heard of before; some I understand are big brands abroad. Here, brands are boxed together product-wise, judging by what I saw. So, the brand names automatically mark out the different sections - for watches, for shoes, for electronic items... An eclectic mix, of homegrown Chennai brands, Indian brands as well as the overseas biggies. They are all there...

I didn't find one brand / outlet though... perhaps it may soon open... Nevertheless, its absence surprised me.

Unadulterated joy at Fun City

An area in Express Avenue that particularly appealed to me was the one in and around Fun City. On Sunday, children of all ages were totally absorbed in the various video games even as their excitement rubbed off on to parents and grandparents.

Around Fun City are a range of eateries. You are spoiled for choice here and there are cozy nooks to huddle and talk while munching on food if you want to. Seated, you can sip and munch and chat and watch the world go by. Typical of the UK and US street corners. Only here, you are up on the fourth or fifth floor.

The entrance to Fun City is as inviting as it can be; the boy was so immersed in steering his way through the game that he did not notice me taking his picture (his grandfather was equally engrossed); a view of the various consoles at the play station; the open area that has games of a different kind and leads on to another wing of the play station; and brother and sister squeal in delight as the 'rocket' takes off.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Welcome to Express Avenue - a microcosm of the India that is

Sundays are generally lazy days, and today might have been yet another. But with Madras Week programmes listed till the month-end, I decided to visit the Express Avenue Mall in Royapettah to check out the vintage car display and parade there. As it turned out, there was no such display, but disappointment soon gave way to pleasant surprise as I soaked in the ambience at the mall and liked what I saw and felt.

I’m not a mall freak if that is how I must describe some of my younger friends, who include my daughter and nieces, and, of course, my boss at home (no second guesses needed here). She accompanied me today and did try her best to get me to breathe easy as I bristled with indignation at no sight of any heritage car.

As we entered the mall, we were guided to the car park at the basement after a surly looking ‘black cat’ sort of person checked the car dicky and gave the clearance. There were some cars parked outside and when I asked why not there, an attendant told me that it would cost me 90 bucks; basement parking was cheaper by more than half, he added. I thanked him for gauging my capabilities and headed where he directed me.

Car parking over, we quickly arrived at the entry point for the mall. It was another matter that when we returned less than two hours later, we took a good 20 minutes to locate the car and learned our lesson for the day. In the rush to see vintage cars, we had not cared to make a mental note of where the car was parked in the sprawling area.

Overall, it was a wonderful experience. Express Avenue is full of life and energy. It is a microcosm of what India today is. You really don’t have to go to the swanky football field-size malls in Gurgaon or Noida to see the new India. I could almost hear Gulzar’s (noted film maker) echo, of how the new generation was a brave lot and had a mind of its own. It also had a feel of some of the malls in the UK or in the US, with eateries splattered across all the floors and people munching burgers, sipping coffee or fruit juices, or licking ice cream cones.

Youngsters were having a ball – and it was hardly 11am on a Sunday. There were crowds of them everywhere, a floating population as well, but the mall was spacious enough to accommodate all the movement. They brought the mall to life, made the various images come alive, and the brand names, indigenous and foreign, would have been deadwood without them. And, indeed, it is the spaciousness and airy feel that distinguishes this mall from Spencer's and places it in a different league.

I was reminded of my days in high school and college when my friends and I used to roam around Calcutta’s Park Street and New Market eyeing the shops and, obviously, the ‘chicks’ as we used to call pretty young things (PYTs) in those days. My roving eye caught many of them today and I was tempted to click a few pictures, especially one of a long-haired girl caressing the cheeks of her boyfriend as if there was no tomorrow… but restrained myself.

I had my picture taken too – against the backdrop of Café Coffee Day of all places – and with my kurta and bald pate I must have looked like Devdas from the pages of history.

Look at some lively pictures here. I fell in love with the first picture. The girl symbolises what Express Avenue is all about – bubbling with life. The second picture gives an idea of the buzz as visitors go up and down escalators and explore every part of the mall. The third offers a view of three floors as people file up. The last is a shot of the mall façade – quite ordinary. It’s only when you get inside that you feel the difference.

Friday, August 27, 2010

On a trail of the First War of Indian Independence

S. Suresh, convener of the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH), Tamil Nadu, first made a mark with his Roman Trail some years ago. He then went on to take visitors around Fort St George and on a couple of other local trails during Madras Week and also began making himself visible on the lecture circuit.

Now, backed by retired but active history professor Prema Kasturi, Suresh has come more into the public eye. Most articles on heritage written from Chennai are likely to have some quote or the other from him.

All that is well and good, but I wish Suresh and Prema, who is co-convener, INTACH-TN, find a little more time to organise regular meetings and ensure that more proactive steps are taken on the heritage front in Chennai and Tamil Nadu. The INTACH-TN office operates from Suresh’s residence, but the one-room office has been furnished adequately, with enough room for all INTACH files and a computer, scanner and printer.

Credit must go to Suresh and Prema for organising several programmes in schools during Madras Week this year. More of that later.

Some months ago, Suresh took five visitors from the UK on a tour of sites that saw action during India’s Great War of Independence. It was while lecturing about cultural tourism in South India at the India Tourism Office in London in May-June 2006 that Suresh made contact with the overseas visitors.

In 1997, on his way back to Chennai from a Rotary cultural exchange programme in North Carolina, Suresh had made a stopover in London to visit the British Museum. His first visit to London and to the Victoria Albert Museum was in 1990 as a PhD student on an INLAKS scholarship. Four years later, he would visit the Coins Department at the British Museum as a Nehru Visiting Fellow to conduct research on the Roman finds in India. Yet, none of those visits had sowed the seeds of opening out a whole new world for him as the one in 2006.

Read more about the Mutiny trail here:

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Madras Week: Of a 'crazy city' and temples along ECR

One of my efforts over the years has been to get interesting speakers to come to the Vadapalani-KK Nagar area. People in these neighbourhoods hardly get a chance to listen to speakers like S. Muthiah, Randor Guy, Mohan Raman, V. Sriram or Chitra Madhavan. And not everybody can go to Hotel Savera or to the Connemara or to the TAG Centre to listen to well-known speakers.

Developing a community also means bringing in resource people from the city centre and promoting interactions between them and residents. So, every time I have been able to get a speaker to either KK Nagar or Vadapalani or Anna Nagar, areas that are cut off from the cultural and literary circuit in Chennai, I am delighted.

Randor Guy came to address an audience at Hotel Green Park a few years ago, and Mohan Raman did the honours last year.

This time, I managed a Double Bill – V. Sriram and Chitra Madhavan in back-to-back talks. For Chitra, it was a second time at Green Park. A couple of years ago, her presentation was so well received that there were far more questions than anybody had bargained for.

Sriram as usual was as irrepressible as ever and the audience broke into peals of laughter time and again as he ploughed through the city with interesting visuals and rib-tickling content and commentary, an effort that showed the crazy side of the city.

Chitra, dwelling on temples along the ECR, amazed everyone with her sheer breadth of knowledge of temples and architecture, sculptures and inscriptions. She was able to answer with ease all the questions out to her.

Pictures show Meenakshi, a local resident, expressing happiness at being present; Sriram talks to a visitor as wife Sharada (left) chats with storyteller Jeeva Raghunath; Chitra converses with artist and interior designer Madhusudhanan as her father (Madhavan) and a visitor look on; and pictures of old Madras at the entrance to the dinner buffet at Green Park.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Madras Week: A little more of Bommi & Friends

Jeeva Raghunath introduces Rahul (the elephant) as his sister Riddhima (the crow), squatting on the floor, and others watch. Siddhrath and Shreya rock as Vijay and Shreya; the kids pose at the end of the show (few Bommi characters missing); and Senthilkumar (left) and Mathiseelan distribute Bommi & Friends posters to the children.

Madras Week: More of Bommi & Friends

Bringing alive scenes from the pages of Kodambakkam were these children:

Sudeeksha and Monasri as MGR and Saroja Devi; Swatika as Avvaiyyar; Adit and Supraja as Gemini Ganesan and Vyjayantimala; Aiswarya as Manorama; and Abhinav and Vallimmai as Vikram and Shreya

Madras Week: When Boomi & Friends brought Kodambakkam alive

Well, as you know, the Green Park show did not end with the craft workshop. No sooner had the children posed for the flashing cameras, holding aloft their attractive lanterns, than it was time for Bommi and her friends to come to Dazzleland, Kodambakkam in this case.

A few words about Bommi. Bommi and Friends is an original 3D animation IP (intellectual property) targeted at children of pre-school age, up to nine years. Production of the first season of 13 episodes for television is complete, and the telecast is likely to commence early 2011. The series has been created for children worldwide. In many ways, Bommi owes her existence to ace storytellers Jeeva Raghunath and Nandini Sridhar. Together, they developed the character. Image Venture, which owns the IP, developed the image and character of the girl and named her Bommi.

In the open lobby, despite all the colour Bommi and her friends brought to public view, there were patches of disorder and onlookers found it a bit difficult to connect the Bommi act with the images running on screen from yesteryear Tamil films a distance away from the performance.

The Madras or Chennai connection begins with Bommi visiting Dazzleland (Kodambakkam). So enthused is she by Kollywood, she calls her friends along and together they revisit scenes from the past as well as of the present.

Coordinating the show as only she can, Jeeva was in my view the star of the programme. But let the kids take it – they did a marvelous job. And it must not have been easy acting when almost the whole of Green Park was watching.

Kudos to the organisers of the show, Binita and Shrimati of Spring into Reading, for pulling it off yet again. And to Mathiseelan and Senthilkumar who attended the show with their families and distributed goodies to all the participants. They, along with Sivayogen, run Image Venture.

Pictures show Jeeva in her elements as she addresses the cast; the actors are all too excited to be coming on stage; Siddharth freaking out as he dances to a popular Kamal Hassan number; Bommi smiling as Jeeva introduces the stars – Thangavelu, Ajit, Sri Devi and Vijay; and children and parents watching expectantly.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Madras Week: Of children, colour, lanterns and razzmatazz

Madras Week programmes at Hotel Green Park are usually grand affairs, and this year was no different. Most of the events have to do with children, art and craft, and storytelling and, naturally, there is always a lot of colour and joie de vivre.

This time, Spring into Reading, run by Binita and Shrimati, organised two programmes for children – one to do with art and craft, and the other with storytelling. This was followed by back-to-back talks – by V. Sriram and Chitra Madhavan. Overcast skies and an afternoon downpour came as a bit of a dampener but in the end it did not take the spirit away from the Madras Day celebrations at Green Park.

Madras that is Chennai has a tradition of kolam creation. Using that as the theme, children, 35 of them in the above-six age group, were taught to draw kolams on handmade paper, shape the paper into a box shape, string beads on it and fashion a lantern.

The skillful Sindhu Suresh and her assistant Rani Edward got the activity going, helping the children draw patterns first and taking them through the exciting process of lantern-making. The event lasted an hour and a half. For the first time, Hotel Green Park allowed use of its spacious lobby, but even that seemed small on Sunday because the whole place was swarmed by children, parents, volunteers and photographers.

There were children not only from the neighbourhood, but even from places like Nanganallur and Nerkundram. Rain and clouds had not deterred them. Indeed, it was quite a brilliant start to the proceedings, and the ambience in the lobby area was as festive as it could get.

Pictures show ace storyteller Jeeva Raghunath quizzing children on the significance of Madras Day; Sindhu getting the students started; children engrossed in work as a model lantern hangs above; mothers lend a helping hand; and children with their strikingly attractive creations (in the background are Sindhu, Rani, Binita and Shrimati).

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Madras Week: The Fort where it all began

Working out of the Fort St George premises must be quite an experience, especially if you have a sense of history. I wonder how it must be for Sathyabhama Badhreenath, superintending archaeologist, whose office, the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), is inside the Fort. According to her, it is an old private building that once belonged to an Armenian merchant.

Sathyabhama, whose presentation today at the CP Arts Centre was a tad boring, is surrounded by other historic buildings at her work place – the Fort Museum (originally the Exchange Building where trade happened), the St Mary’s Church (built by William Dixon and designed by Fowle), the Fort House ( probably the first built structure after the John Company set up shop, reconstructed over the years), and the Parade Ground. Indeed, whether for trade, religion or other activity, the British had built a conglomeration of buildings around Fort House.

In some strange way, although the seat of Government has now shifted to Anna Salai, the Fort is still seen as a seat of power. Kottai piddippon (we’ll capture the Fort) has always been a slogan during election time. But once upon a time, it was just a dream of Francis Day and Andrew Cogan, John Company agents, happy to get calico cloth at a cheap rate. But from the Fort grew Madras and many institutions of modern India; as Sathyabhama said, it was the “bones of the Empire”.

Sathyabhama referred to the building where Robert Clive lived after his marriage, how later the Company took it over, and which now is Clive House, a museum that brings alive the history of the period. Close by is a building where another well-know figure, Arthur Wellesley, lived.

Sathyabhama showed pictures of King’s Barracks, built in 1755, the earliest barracks in the country. So also the flag mast, the tallest in India, according to her. Most of buildings inside the Fort had long verandahs, huge columns, Madras terraces and Mangalore tiles that together aided sufficient ventilation. While people resided on the first floor, the ground floor was often used as a place for storing goods.

What remains of the Fort today? Sadly, many of the first lot of buildings do not exist. The few that do are in a state of neglect. Fortunately, Sathyabhama has been taking interest in restoring some of the old buildings. Clive House owes its sparkle to her. She said she had plans to restore some of the other old buildings. Work is already going on one of the oldest buildings. Work on a couple of others could begin once she gets permission from the Defence establishment which owns them. Let’s wish her efforts success.

The lady with the mike told the audience she had lived for several years in the Fort and recounted some of her experiences; Sathyabhama with historian K.R.A. Narasiah; historian S. Muthiah and Narasiah chat with visitors; and M. Bhargavi, honorary secretary of the C.P. Ramaswami Foundation, with Sathyabhama and Muthiah.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Madras Week: From sandy strip to growing metropolis

The management of the Jaigopal Garodia School in Anna Nagar has always supported Madras Week activities and over the years heritage talks and exhibitions have been conducted on the premises. Ashok Kedia, managing trustee, and Vijayakumar, principal, play the perfect hosts and ensure that there is a full house.

This year, Chitra Madhavan made a wonderful presentation on Lesser Known Temples in Madras and their evolution as Madras grew from sandy strip to metropolis. In attendance were students and teachers interested in history, as well as visitors from the neighbourhood. At the end of it, there was masala tea prepared by Viji and crisp samosas.

I suggested to Ashok and Vijayakumar that from next year they look at a weeklong programme, with a talk every evening. They could also organise a heritage walk in the Anna Nagar area with help from the local community, people who have a fair knowledge of the place.

The problem with many schools is that the students have so much work to do on the academic front that they find very little energy and time for Madras Week. Only when the management considers it worthwhile does it have a spiraling effect, as Asan Memorial School, for instance, has shown.

There were quite a few questions after Chitra’s presentation, mostly from visitors. Surprisingly, no student had any. One gentleman came up with an interesting one: Why always talk about 370-odd years of the city’s history when it was in existence centuries ago.

The answer to that was Madras or Chennai never really existed before 1639; all that existed were several small villages such as Mylapore, Triplicane, Egmore, Purasawalkam and Tondiarpet. It was only after the deal was struck on August 22, 1639 between two hatted and cloaked traders Andrew Cogan and Francis Day of the English East India Company and the Nayak of Poonamallee, through the broker or Dubash, Neri Thimmanna, that Madras had its beginnings.

To add a bit of detail, the new English ‘factory’ in the early 1640s was little more than a small fortified enclosure within which were a main Fort House, completed in a rudimentary form on April 23, 1640, St George’s Day (thus explaining the name of the Fort), and 15 or so thatched huts. This ‘factory’ was to grow into the Madras of today.

To the north of it, on what is the High Court campus today, sprang up what was called ‘Out Town’ or ‘Gentu (Telugu) Town’. This ‘Black Town’, in the shadow of the Fort and stretching to today’s NSC Bose Road and south Broadway areas, came to be known as Chennapatnam, its name recalling Chennakesava Nayak, the father of the Nayak who made the grant to John Company.

The ‘urban agglomeration’ of the Fort, with ‘White Town’ within, and ‘Black Town’ without, was the genesis of today’s metropolis. In effect, Madras in 1640 was the ‘Castle’ (or ‘Inner Fort’) enclosing within its walls and four bastions the Factory House and the official European quarter; the ‘Outer Fort’ enclosing this ‘Castle’, other European homes and the Portuguese St Andrew’s chapel – all protected by four bastions, three walls and two gates in the north wall leading to ‘Black Town’. Fort St George is where it all began. And the Fort, named after St George, was built with the simple intention of protecting the trading outpost and merchandise of the English from their formidable and troublesome neighbours. It was never constructed with the notion of military aggression.

Pictures show Chitra fielding questions. Ashok Kedia is in the last picture (seated, extreme left); and Vijayakumar and Kesavan, vice principal, are in the first (seated in front).

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Madras Week Nostalgia: The Mount Road of 1905

Mount Road or Anna Salai is no longer the stretch it once used to be, even compared to the early 1980s when I arrived in Madras. Then, the old Spencer's building was still there and there was a charm to walking around aimlesly, window shopping, trooping into various shops on the stretch, or just walking past, watching life go by.

The Safire complex was very much alive. I remember watching a film in Blue Diamond one morning, just to get a feel of what it all was about. Yes, I did go in alone! And there were outings late at night too, when I was an officer in the insurance industry. Those days, we would have kababs and ice creams at Tic Tic, and relish the variety of paans that the Khan Sahib outside prepared, and then head to Safire for the night show. Or sometimes just walk to Cakes & Bakes for some delicious pastry. Good old memories.

Today, not many talk about going to Mount Road to spend an afternoon or evening. There is the new-look modern three-phase Spencer's Plaza, but it isn't what it used to be. With shopping malls coming up all over town, Mount Road has lost its importance as a shopping destination. When I drive past the Gwalior showroom or Roshanlal's, I sometimes wonder whether they still do good business. Perhaps they have a dedicated clientele. But most are not as lucky. Business has dwindled along the stretch and that has a lot to do with the four-lane traffic system that came into being a few years ago. It's another matter that now hardly anybody follows rules meant to be followed on the stretch; it's the law of the jungle - might is right.

If Mount Road was different to someone like me, I can imagine what old-timers will have to say. Jaffar's ice creams and Buhari's would certainly find mention in their list.

Well, here's how Mount Road looked like in the early part of the 20th century. Sigh!

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Madras Week: Certificates for hard work

More pictures: Students from Padma Saranagapani School make a presentation, and students from Sir Sivaswami Kalayala (Mylapore), PSBB Millennium, Kavi Bharati, and Padma Seshadri (KK Nagar) receive certificates and mementos from actor S.V. Sekhar.