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).

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