Thursday, October 30, 2014
Wednesday, October 29, 2014
It was sometime in the late 1910s that Gopala Menon, of the Mokkil Maruthur tharavad in Vadavanur landed up in the city of Madras. The eldest of 6 siblings, he had to move to Madras to study medicine - and stayed on in the city to set up practice. Within a short time he was very popular in Kodambakkam, where he was practicing from. His popularity came not just from his medical abilities - which were considerable - but from his seemingly boundless compassion as well. He discriminated patients only on the basis of their health condition and he drew his clientele from all classes. It helped that he was fluent in several languages: Malayalam, Tamizh, Telugu, Hindi, Sanskrit, English, and, it is reliably said, the dialect of Narikoravas, the nomadic tribes of the region. He could relate to his patients and talk to them in their language.
And they flocked to him from all over the Presidency. It was common for his clinic to have indigent outpatients from from as far away as Pazhaverkadu and Nellore; patients in similar straits from Malabar were a constant factor. The doctor would treat them, very often gratis, and then give them free board and lodging for a couple of days, besides giving them "theevandikooli" (steam train fare) to get back to their villages. Such largesse was partly subsidised by Dr. Gopala Menon's well-to-do patients, who included the zamindar of Vizhuthamangalam (more about that connection in a later post) and others. The generosity of such patients also enabled the doctor to acquire lands in the Mambalam / Kodambakkam area, on which he settled some of his patients, helping them find gainful occupations. That was very much in keeping with his belief, printed on his letterhead, "लोका: समस्ता सुखिनो भवन्तु" ("lokah samastah sukhino bhavantu" - may everyone everywhere be happy).
His generosity extended to his siblings and their families. He brought all his sisters to Madras and had them married off; one of his brothers died young, but the other was brought to Madras and settled down. Meanwhile, his nephews were coming of age and they needed residences of their own. As many of them as possible were accommodated in a 'compound' in Kodambakkam, which was given the name of the ancestral tharavad - Mokkil Maruthur. Having all these members of his extended family around made the doctor forget that he had to get married and have children of his own; he died, a bachelor, on December 26, 1976. The family had little say in the post-mortem ceremonies; dignitaries dictated and the residents of Raja Pillai Thottam, the neighbouring slum, took over the funeral, for he was their doctorayya, the one whose kairasi ("goodness of hands") set right their malaises without ever failing. It was they who made sure the road next to Dr. Gopala Menon's house was renamed in his memory. In the manner of most street signs of Chennai, this one also has got the spelling of his name wrong - that alone testifies to the greatness of the doctor!
Tuesday, October 28, 2014
There have been a couple of news items during the past week about Chennai as a travel destination. One was Lonely Planet putting Chennai into its list of 'Top 10 Cities for 2015'. It was great to see Chennai coming in at number 9 on that list, even if it invited disbelief from many, including resident and non-resident Madrasis.
The other, not so flattering appearance, was on the list of 'worst airports'. Especially galling was that it was the third year in a row that Chennai was finding a place, this time as the sole representative from India. This one is more believable for those who use Chennai's airport frequently. Though I have not been involved in any such mishap (or personally know anyone who has been), falling ceiling panes - over 20 times in one year - are not confidence inspiring.
The last time I was at the airport, I found this cherry picker rising up to repair the roof. Hopefully, it will hold up - and get better - so that the cheering crowds coming in to Chennai next year do not have to worry about the sky falling on their heads!
Monday, October 27, 2014
If you are driving northbound on Gandhi Mandapam Road through Kotturpuram, there is one place you would need to be extra careful. The road is quite neat and well maintained, and the traffic flows along smoothly, so it is usually a pleasant drive. However, just before you reach the bridge across the Adayar, make sure you are alert for a sudden pause. Many of the vehicles, just before they reach the bridge, hit the brakes for the occupants to look left and offer a quick prayer at this temple from inside the vehicle.
That is the Varasiddhi Vinayagar Temple. It is not of any great antiquity, probably dating back to the 1970s or 1980s - I will not swear to it, though. Over the years, it has been quite popular with the passing motorists. Most of the times, the pause in front of this temple is not obviously noticeable; because of the road from the TNHB flats which comes out to join the main road, traffic does slow you down. It is when the road is clear that the pause and obeisance become most identifiable - and unexpected.
The temple was in the news recently, when the former Chief Minister Jayalalitha returned to Chennai from Bengaluru after being granted bail. Each time that she passes this temple on her way to the airport, she has the habit of stopping across the road and praying to Vinayagar, the remover of obstacles. Late September, on her way to Bengaluru for the court hearing that saw her - unexpectedly - being jailed, she had supposedly broken that habit, even though the police had made arrangements for her to halt and pray there. It is reported that she made amends on her way back!
Sunday, October 26, 2014
In the middle of the mall, actually. The elephant made of papier mache and plaster of paris stands in the middle of the Express Avenue mall. All decked up in anticipation of the festival season.
The ambari on the elephant's back carries an image of the Goddess Lakshmi. With the shopping season in full swing, guess both images are needed for the visitor - Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth to provide the moolah and an elephant to cart away all the stuff that would be bought during the season!
Saturday, October 25, 2014
Wonder what has happened to that Audi. It seems to be in good shape, so I guess it has not been lifted out from an accident site. Because it has an out-of-state registration, is it being transported to Chennai because its owner is shifting base to this city?
Or is it being re-possessed because the owner did not pony up the instalments in time?
Friday, October 24, 2014
The Dare House, at the corner of Rajaji Salai and NSC Bose Road, is the headquarters of the Murugappa Group. The Group's origins can in some way be traced back to a time when Chettiars were a significant presence in the traditional banking industry in Moulmein in South Burma. Legislation in Burma in the late 1940s made it difficult for them to continue there and they came back to India, setting up a business empire that is roughly $4 billion today.
From the top of Dare House, one can look down and across Rajaji Salai at another set of businessmen who also had to flee Burma during the 1960s. In 1964, the Ne Win government nationalised shops, which set small and marginal traders fleeing from the country. It is estimated that, during the '60s, almost 250,000 people of Indian origin fled Burma - and with over 90% of them being of Tamizh origin, Madras was one of the magnets for them to return to.
The official figure - one that is from 2001, though - is that 144,445 refugees have been rehabilitated in Tamil Nadu. Part of the rehabilitation programme was the Tamil Nadu government setting up shops for them just outside the Madras Beach railway station. That was in 1969 and over the years, the stretch has grown to roughly 200 shops, selling everything from A to Z. Known as Burma Bazaar, it has long enjoyed a reputation of being the go-to place for anything that is not allowed in through normal import channels. That reputation may be a bit dented now, but Burma Bazaar continues to be the magnet for things that regular stores would not be able to stock!
Thursday, October 23, 2014
Going along Raja Muthiah Road - earlier known as Sydenhams Road - you find yourself going past the Ripon Building on your left and then, as you continue northwards, you begin to get glimpses of the Jawarhal Nehru Stadium. Almost all sports are possible in this stadium, with its indoor and outdoor facilities. It also houses the offices of almost all sports associations in the state.
It is therefore not surprising that on the opposite side of the road, one gets to see several 'trophy houses'. With the stadium hosting several competitive events at different levels - you could also have your intra-company sports festival here - there is a demand for some kind of recognition for the winners. Cups, trophies, shields or plaques, the vendors along Raja Muthiah Road will be able to give you what you want.
This building however seems to have taken the idea of trophy house a bit further; rather than the usual depiction of a godly figure - Krishna, Lakshmi or Murugan are the more commonly seen ones - the builder of this house seems to be celebrating sporting success. From its style, I would guess that it pre-dates the stadium - but then, Periamet has been the home of the South Indian Athletic Association for quite a long while, and maybe this house is paying tribute to that tradition, such as it is!
Wednesday, October 22, 2014
Tuesday, October 21, 2014
Monday, October 20, 2014
If ever colonial administrators could be canonised, Sir Thomas Munro would be first on the list for the people of the Madras Presidency. They came to idolize him as Munrolappa, for the simple reason that, even in his first posting as a lieutenant, Munro concluded that the King was levying a far higher share from the common man than the latter could bear. He argued that a fair tax would ensure higher compliance - and less scope for bribery. Such a line of thinking was not conventional for British officers in the late 18th century and it was no wonder that this man became a favourite of the local populace.
But it was not only about pleasing the locals. Sir Thomas was also highly regarded as a competent administrator and it was on his recommendations that the administrative system of the districts was reorganized to what, by and large, is its current form. His sensitivity towards matters of faith showed up in his actions at Tirupathi and Mantralayam. In Tirupathi, he set a practice of offering pongal to the deity - a practice that continues to this day, with the offering made from a vessel called the Munro gangalam. His decision to waive all taxes from Mantralayam's Sri Raghavendra Swamy Mutt was so surprising that the citizens decided he must have had a vision of the holy saint himself.
Much more than all of these, Sir Thomas Munro held a firm belief that the British could not stay on as rulers for ever. He actively prepared for a transition by placing 'natives' in important positions of administration. He argued that Europeans, especially those who disdained local language and customs, were unfit to dispense justice on local issues. That attitude was probably what helped him become victorious in the Pindari War of 1817. His army was overwhelmingly local and in the words of Lord Canning, "Nine forts were surrendered to him or taken by assault on his way; and at the end of a silent and scarcely observed progress he emerged ... leaving everything secure and tranquil behind him." The tranquility he gave others came to him as well. In his final days, the legend goes that he saw the bangaru toranam, the golden garland made by Anjaneya for Venkateswara - a reward for the purity of his thoughts and deeds!
Sunday, October 19, 2014
Chennai has been seeing non-stop rains since Friday; of course the streets are all flooded and the schools have been closed - and it looks like the rain will continue into the next couple of days as well.
It was probably worse 20 million years ago in this part of the world. During the Mio-Pilocene age, there were severe floods - and probably some volcanic explosions as well. The forests south of modern-day Chennai were washed away and many of the trees ended up around Thiruvakkarai, about 175km away from Chennai. Over the eons, the trees were fossilised and turned to stone. Roughly 200 such fossilised tree-trunks can be seen today at the National Fossil Wood Park in Thiruvakkarai.
One of the chunks was brought over to Madras and placed on display at the Museum. It remains there, open to nature - I guess if it has been weathered over 20 million years, a couple of centuries more or less would not matter. This display, along with the skeleton of a whale, is the first memory I have of the museum's exhibits. Next time you are there, do look out for this - it is quite easy to miss!
Saturday, October 18, 2014
Yesterday, this building would have seen a considerable level of celebrations. Not merely because the General Secretary of the Party was allowed bail by the Supreme Court of India, but also because yesterday was the 43rd anniversary of the party's founding. The AIADMK was formed in 1972 when MGR, the iconic movie-star-turned-politician broke away from the DMK and set out his own party. He picked up the constitution of the DMK and replaced 'President' with 'General Secretary', thereby replicating the organizational structure of the parent party, but for a change in the centralization of power.
Of course, MGR was the founder-General Secretary and held that position until he died in 1987. The party lost its way for a couple of years, when his widow, Janaki Ramachandran tried to run it. In 1989, MGR's protege took on the mantle - including the feminine version of MGR's title - which many believed was hers by right. And since then, through all the ups and downs of politics, she has ruled the party with an iron hand.
It is ironic that this building on Lloyds Road, which has been the headquarters of the AIADMK since 1986, was gifted to the party by a person who was probably its weakest leader - Janaki Ramachandran!
Friday, October 17, 2014
The month of October is special for fans of 'Sivaji' Ganesan, the Nadigar Thilagam (the crown jewel of actors?) of Tamizh cinema. The first of the month is the birth anniversary of Villuppuram Chinnaiahpillai Ganesan, who went on to rule the Tamizh screen for over four decades between the 1950s and 1990s. He had many awards to his credit, including that of Best Actor at Afro-Asian Film Festival in Cairo in 1960 - the first Indian actor to win that award in an international festival.
That career started with the film "Parasakthi", made by AVM Studios in 1952. The script was by Mu Karunanidhi. Questioning the social mores of the day, the film's dialogues were quite fiery; quite a bit into its making, A.V. Meyyappan, the studio owner (and co-producer), as well as Krishnan-Panju, the co-directors, had doubts about the young man who was making his debut in the role of Gunasekaran, the lead character of the film. It was Mrs. Meyyappan and P.A. Perumal of National Pictures, the other co-producer, who backed Ganesan - and the rest, of course is history; not just for Ganesan, but also for the scriptwriter who would go on to become the state's Chief Minister. Parasakthi set the tone for a new kind of film-making.
It was on October 17, 1952 that this landmark of Tamizh cinema was released. 50 years later, this memorial to the movie was inaugurated inside the AVM studios. Apparently, it was initially placed a little way away from its current location, but was later shifted to the spot where Sivaji Ganesan delivered his first shot of the movie. At the bottom of this stand-up plaque, there is another shaped liked a book, listing the names of the people who had worked on the film: writers, lyricists, music director and technicians. The entire monument is topped off with the image of Sivaji delivering the first word of his first shot. Prophetic it was, for what he said was - "Success!"!
Thursday, October 16, 2014
Had heard - vaguely - of the T. Nagar Cooperative Bank earlier, but was not aware of anything about it beyond a name.
Not that I know much more about it now, but at least I know where their head office is. Noticed this new building on Doraiswamy Road, and then realized it was housing a business that has been around for quite some time. Long enough for its address to be registered as 'Madras' on the DICGC's website!
Wednesday, October 15, 2014
Tuesday, October 14, 2014
One of the yards of the Port of Chennai. Of course it is a sea-port, which is why you can get to see a boat and a ship in this picture. Because some of the berths are just behind the Chennai Beach suburban railway station, you can see a passenger train passing by every once in a way. The port has a railway track running inside for goods trains; and there is one waiting here. There are also the container trucks bringing in the goods to be shipped out
Apart from all these, there is a batch of passenger cars in the yard, waiting to be loaded on to ships. From this distance, I'm unable to make out if they are made by Ford, or by Hyundai - or is there any other car making plant in Chennai that ships out its products through the Port?
Monday, October 13, 2014
Sunday, October 12, 2014
It is difficult to imagine that, 8 years ago, this was a dump yard. Even though it had the grand name of 'River View Park', the Corporation of Chennai had not got around to doing anything about making it a park, as it had done with several of the other public spaces under its control.
In 2006, Nizhal, a not-for-profit organization stepped in to support the Corporation. With the help of several volunteers, the rubble was cleared, saplings were planted, the area was better demarcated. Each round of effort with the volunteers raised the Corporation's confidence - and some funds through contributions - which helped in adding facilities like walking tracks, a wall around the park and staff for its upkeep.
Today, the Kotturpuram Tree Park is a wonderful getaway from the city's sights and sounds. The saplings have grown, through the trees are still not so big as to provide great shade, they are all well on their way. The Friends of the Kotturpuram Tree Park (FKTP) have provided signs with the names of the trees - botanical, as well as the local name. The FKTP also helps with the upkeep and in coordinating the efforts of volunteers, many of who are children from the nearby streets and schools. Nizhal continues to be involved, helping the FKTP and the Corporation figure out how to leverage this showpiece of public-private partnership in the cause of general welfare!
Saturday, October 11, 2014
Friday, October 10, 2014
Thursday, October 9, 2014
The Marina Beach is supposedly 13 kilometres long, but that's the entire stretch from the edge of the Port of Chennai, all the way down past Besant Nagar. Somehow, I am unable to consider all of that as one beach, because the shoreline changes its character as it passes through Chennai.
This 4km stretch is most likely the beach that captivated Sir Mountstuart Elphinstone Grant Duff when he visited Madras sometime in the 1870s. He returned to Madras in 1881, this time as its Governor. One of the first things he did was to commence building a promenade along the sandy strip. On its being opened to the public in 1884, he named it the "Marina", from his recollection of the Sicilian beach - apparently an Italian general, when walking along the promenade with the Governor, mentioned to him that the beach reminded him of Palermo.
Since then, the Marina has been graced - and at times disgraced - by several projects. It was one of the key points in the city for public and political rallies. Thilagar Thidal, where Mahatma Gandhi addressed the people on his visits to Madras, is now just a memory. At the northern end, memorials to two former state Chief Ministers got the courts to declare that the beach should not be used for any other such memorials. At the moment, the sandy strip is going through one of its relatively cleaner phases; so, even if you are not able to go along all the 13km, this stretch should be good enough to rejuvenate you!
Wednesday, October 8, 2014
Tuesday, October 7, 2014
The Anna Centenary Library probably had the highest point in its young life on July 20, 2011, when the then US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited Chennai. This library was the venue for her interaction with the general public of Chennai, in the 1000-seater hall attached to the library. Both hall and library were opened to the public on September 15, 2010, the 102nd birth anniversary of the former Tamil Nadu Chief Minister C.N. Annadurai.
A year later, the library was in danger of being shut down. The government in the state had changed and the new power did not think very much about this venture, even though Annadurai was their political mentor - as of their predecessor, too. The new government wanted to convert this into a hospital, and there was quite a bit of support for that proposal, especially from the younger generation. The issue has been referred to the courts, which don't seem to be in any particular hurry to make up their mind on what to do about this facility.
Thus, the library has not been able to realize its potential. Its 375,000 sqft over nine floors houses only 500,000 books. That's a rather poor utilization of space. Membership is - hold your breath - zero. Until the courts decide, the library is not taking any chances in taking on members. For now, it remains a place where one can go and read the books that are available, but can't hope for anything more. Sad!
Monday, October 6, 2014
A visit by any VIP of significance will see the area being cleaned up hurriedly by workers of the Corporation of Chennai. Not only does the garbage get swept up under the bins, but the workers go one step further.
Part of their VIP cleaning equipment is a bucket with its bottom punctured with a pattern. Filling it with kolamavu, the worker walks it along the side of the road, dipping it to touch the road every once a while.
So the VIPs go around and see all these clean streets and repeating kolam patterns. If only they get to see the garbage as it is, maybe they will get to see much more intricate and beautiful kolams as well!
Sunday, October 5, 2014
In the 19th century, when India was still a part of the British Empire, native - Indian - lives were considered 'sub-standard' by life insurance companies. The first insurance company in India, Oriental Life Insurance Company, established in 1818, was almost exclusively meant for European lives. With a lot of pressure being brought to bear on them, Oriental and the other insurance companies which started later began to insure Indians. But, no matter what their standing in society, Indians had to pay far higher premiums for their insurance.
The Bombay Mutual Life Assurance Society was set up in 1870 to combat this prejudice. In that sense, it was the first Indian insurance company. They did not distinguish between native and European lives and therefore managed to carve out a significant market share - apart from prudence, patriotism seemed to have played a major role in helping Bombay Mutual establish itself. In 1953 - the last year for which I have been able to find data for - Bombay Mutual had generated Rs.43,287,250/- worth of new business, with an average sum assured of Rs.2,571.
In 1956, the insurance business was nationalised. By then, Bombay Mutual had already established its presence in Madras, with its headquarters in George Town. Built in the Art Deco style, the building had come up on land that it had acquired from the Madras Christian College, which had by then moved to Tambaram. After insurance nationalisation, the building passed on to the Life Insurance Corporation. Together with its neighbours on NSC Bose Road, the Bombay Mutual Building blends well with its neighbours, showing off the Art Deco heritage of Chennai!
Saturday, October 4, 2014
It is a little after 4 pm, but the sun is still quite warm. It will take a while for the beach to be filled up. So we went up the Madras Lighthouse to see what the view from up above was like. In its original conceptualization, the lighthouse was not meant to be a tourist attraction, so the viewing gallery is not really tourist friendly. It is a narrow strip running along two sides of the tower's triangular (remember, this is the only lighthouse in India with such a shape) cross section, and can hold about 30-40 people at a time.
Of course we weren't allowed all the way up. The focal plane of the lighthouse is ~58m above mean sea level, and the viewing gallery is about 5-8m below that. Standing there, the view is quite boundless; Chennai is a flat city and there are not too many buildings blocking out the view, so with good eyesight (or a fertile imagination), one can see all the way to the city's outskirts. The light from here flashes twice every 10 seconds, but in an irregular manner; each flash lasts for 0.57s and the space between two flashes are staggered as 1.93 and 6.93 seconds. The light itself can be seen at least 22 (and up to 35) nautical miles away.
It will be another hour before the light is switched on. In the meantime, the shadow of the building goes out about 300m into the beach - and provides good shade for several of the early beachgoers, and a merrry-go-round carousel as well!
Friday, October 3, 2014
Jagannath and Parthasarathy are but two manifestations of Krishna, an avatar of Vishnu. One of them has given a word to the English lexicon. A word that was used by Charlotte Brontë in Jane Eyre, and by Robert Louis Stevenson to describe Mr. Hyde trampling over a child.
There. Even without the clue, you would have guessed by now that I am talking about 'Juggernaut', which came from a description of the chariot of Puri Jagannath, at the wheels of which, it was claimed, Hindus sacrificed themselves.
These wheels, though, are from the chariot of the Parthasarathy temple at Triplicane. They may not be as big as that of Jagannath; yet, you had better be careful to not get in their way, upon pain of creating a synonym of juggernaut!
Thursday, October 2, 2014
Umapathy Street in West Mambalam is so narrow that two cars have to slow down to a crawl to get past each other without scraping paint. And if a vehicle comes in from a side street - say, J.P. Street - in a little bit of a hurry, it would cause a gridlock that would make Kolkata proud. And it should, too, for this is where a teeny-weeny bit of Kolkata pops its head up in Chennai.
The Madras Kali Bari Temple was inaugurated on February 3, 1981. It does not have the gopurams typical of Tamil Nadu temples, but is a nine-spired tower, in the Navaratna style of Bengali temple architecture. All nine spires are on a single tower, spread over two levels - or three, if you consider the tallest, single spire as a separate level. The other two levels are kind of concentric squares, with a spire at each corner. In that design, the Madras Kali Bari takes inspiration from the Dakshineswar Kali Temple near Kolkata. A magnet for Bengalis of Chennai, the temple is especially crowded during the Durga Puja season, giving the area an additional layer of traffic, and an enhanced Kolkata touch.
Inside, the meditation hall in front of the sanctum has been converted into a puja pandal. On ashtami day today, the pandal was full. There were enough locals in the crowd - but there was very little to be heard of any language other than Bengali. And though there was a separate area housing the Golu, the focus was on Ma Durga!
Wednesday, October 1, 2014
There is a lot of it everywhere you turn to. Movement. A big city like Chennai is always on the move, even if it does not seem like it on most occasions. But even when you are stuck in traffic in Chennai, it is not a full stop. Traffic moves, even if slowly, on such occasions. There are several other places in the world, and even in the country, where traffic comes to a standstill on multiple occasions.
Chennai is far better. Most of the pauses in your journey on the road happen at traffic intersections, where the red light stays on for longer than every motorist thinks is required. One such intersection is this one at the meeting point of Jawaharlal Nehru Salai (that's the NH 45 going inside the city) and Arcot Road. With the Chennai Metro construction also encroaching on the road space, everyone tries to get past this crossing as soon as they can.
And, if the car coming at you flashes lights at you, you had better stay out of the way - he is in too much of a hurry for you to attempt any movement into his path!
Theme Day at the CDP - and you had better get a move on there if you want to see the theme 'Movement' interpreted in cities around the world!