Tuesday, March 31, 2009

One his own

He may have done several things in his life, but for Madras, Julian James Cotton's memory lives on in his work 'List of Inscriptions on Tombs or Monuments in Madras', a work that he published circa 1910. He had the weight of a huge legacy that he had to live up to; as seen on his tombstone, the three generations of Cottons before him had made their name and fortune in the services of the John Company. His great-grandfather, Sir Joseph Cotton, was a Director of the East India Company and his grandfather John went on to become Chairman of the Company. Sir Henry Cotton, his father, was a governor of Assam and, being a votary of India's right to self-rule, became president of the Indian National Congress.

Julian James does not seem to have inherited any of that derring-do. The thirty-four years he spent in the Indian Civil Service appear to have been without any deed worthy of a mention in the dispatches. Maybe his father's dalliance with the Indian independence movement cost Julian James his knighthood and also prospects of his career advancement. He seems to have spent all his time in and around Madras; joining the service in Madras in 1893, he remained there till his rather sudden death in 1927.

Julian James' son, however, inherited his ancestors' drive - born in Madras, Sir John Richard Cotton moved to England after his father's death, only to come back a few years later, after winning the Sword for Military History at Sandhurst, where he was also a Prize Cadet and King's India Cadet. With Sir John's death in 2002, five generations of the Cottons' serving the British soverign in Inda came to an end!

Monday, March 30, 2009

Caring for animals

The earliest veterinarians to qualify in India had their training on the banks of the Adayar, because that's where the Farm School was located. That school went on to become the Agricultural College and in 1876, the College, deciding that veterinary science needed its own specialised course, began offering a 2-year diploma course in that faculty. Madras once again led the field, in the sense of creating the specialty, but it took the city 27 years to upgrade that scheme of instruction to a proper college, with a 3-year course leading to the diploma. In the meantime, the veterinary colleges at Lahore, Bombay and Calcutta had gone ahead with their diploma programmes.

When scouting around for a suitable location for the college, Veterinary Major WD Gunn, the Superintendent of the Veterinary Department, was offered use of hospital donated by the Raja Venugopal Kishan Bahadur to them, by the SPCA. Under the terms of their agreement, that hospital could be used as a teaching hospital, but there was to be no change in its name - an arrangement that continues to this day. Major Gunn requested for and was allowed use of Dobbin Hall, a little way across the road from the RVKB Hospital for Animals, as the premises of the Madras Veterinary College. Thus, the Madras Veterinary College enrolled its first batch of 20 students in 1903.

The early start that the institution had was not entirely in vain. In 1930, a Royal Commission recommended that one of the veterinary colleges in India be upgraded and allowed to offer a degree in veterinary science, rather than just a diploma. For three years, a government Commission went around inspecting the all the colleges in the country before awarding that honour to the Madras Veterinary College. But it was only in 1936, when 50 students were admitted to the degree programme, that the Madras Veterinary College become the first in the country to award degrees in veterinary medicine - see, you just can't keep that first away!

Sunday, March 29, 2009


Though I am be ready to bet on it (yet), this building marks the location where the Cancer Institute (WIA) began service from. The font used to write its name gives away its age, even if the building construction itself could be anytime between 1950 and 1970. Other sources tell us that it is true, the Cancer Institue was established in 1954 in a small hut and it moved into this building in 1955. It is probably the only institute that the WIA (Women's Indian Associaiton) manages; a wise move to not take up any other cause. Considering that the Cancer Institute screens over 125,000 persons every year, the WIA will have its hands full managing the processes and the standard of care provided by the CI (WIA).

Today this is not the only building; in a long stretch which seems to be the backbone of Gandhi Nagar in Adyar there are at least 3 other buildings of the Institute. The fifth one, which was inaugurated in 1977, is on Sardar Patel Road itself, a little way away from this 9-acre campus. When it was inaugurated, this institute was the second dedicated centre in India for treating cancer - the first was the ICRC at the Tata Memorial Hospital in Mumbai - but it has been a pioneer in many other ways. The Institute has played a key role in securing several changes to help treatment and prevention of cancer - duty exemptions, travel concessions, recognition of Oncology as a specialty and many other far-reaching initiatives. Most of all, according to this article in The Lancet, the Institute has built capacity for cancer control in the country.

And for all that, the Institute is run on the lines of a not-for-profit; of the 423 beds it has, almost 300 are free; even among 'outpatients', almost two-thirds of them are treated for free. Such dedication has been instrumental in the survival rate among cancer patients going up!

Saturday, March 28, 2009

From here to California

Shri Seetharama Rao firmly believed in the saying "we are what we eat". It was his endeavor therefore to move away from the more traditional choultry and sarai into hotels. His plank was to have hotels with a difference and the one he chose was to emphasize that this hotel would be completely vegetarian. In the 1920s, it was a novel concept, but Seetharama's bet that people wold love to have 'home food' without having to cook it was more or less spot on and so Hotel Dasaprakash became one of the happening hotspots of Madras in the '20s and '30s.

It was not just those times. Hotel Dasaprakash was active well into the first few years of this millennium, even though it had stopped being the favourite watering hole for the kind of people it used to attract in its early years - and even a while later. One can imagine the Freddie Threepwood kind of gentleman cutting up the rugs somewhere in this Art Deco building during the swinging sixties, but sometime after that, Hotel Dasaprakash became one more of those haunts for salesmen travelling on a budget, needing to keep up the appearances.

There are quite a few cars parked inside the gates. But the gates themselves have been shut for almost two years now, as the owners of the property try to make up thier minds about whose offer to accept for the building. There is little chance of Hotel Dasaprakash getting back to its glory days, for the new generation seems to have cashed in on the popularity of the brand - Hotel Dasaprakash has a property in Ooty and is also part of Bangalore's history - with the Dasaprakash restaurant in Santa Clara, California, USA. Maybe one day the brand will come back to its place of birth!

Friday, March 27, 2009

An officer and a litterateur

Not many people have been successful at combining the hard life of a police officer with the sensitivity of an author and playwright. Throw in the fact that one of his most famous works is an interpretation of Harischandra and the contrast between the two personas becomes that much sharper. It is therefore a significant credit to Diwan Bahadur Saravana Bhavanandam Pillai that he is remembered (although only just about) equally for his policing prowess as well as his literary legacy.

Bhavanandam Pillai was one of the first Indians to rise through the ranks to become the Assistant Commissioner of Police in Madras. He was also keenly interested in the history of the Tamizh language and set up the Bhavanandam Academy Trust to help scholars research into that history. Newton House on Jeremiah Road, where he lived, is now home to the library of the Academy and also serves as its head office.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Shell park

In the days when corporations weren't shells, there was a Shell that was a corporation. In India, however, it was only a brand, one that was the face of Asiatic Petroleum, a company that was formed to market petro-products in the British territories of Asia. That company was itself jointly owned by Shell, Royal Dutch and the Rothschilds and came into being to counter John D.Rockefeller's behemoth, Standard Oil, from extending its stranglehold into Asia. The company tied up with Burmah Oil Company, which was drilling the stuff out of the ground and getting it refined and then distributing the distillate. By some logic, the new entity, for 'end-to-end' of oil, was named Burmah-Shell.

That was in 1928, and some forty years later, the Burmah-Shell company decided to do a bit of public service and funded the setting up of a Children's Traffic Park, on Poonamallee High Road. Given that location, it was always 'on-the-way' for me, never a destination to be savoured. Looking at it from a passing vehicle, the traffic park seemed to be a nice idea that needed to be tried across the city.

Unfortunately, even this park has not been used regularly or with the sense of discipline. In all my years in the city, I haven't come across a single person who learnt his / her driving skills from this traffic park - I wonder where those alumni are!

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Grand old place

There is probably no photographic record or plans of 'Somerford', a garden house that stood at what is today Nos. 1 & 2, Greenways Road. Even without them, it is not difficult to imagine that 'Somerford' would have looked completely different from this building. Having bought that house sometime in the early 20th century, Raja Sir Annamalai Chettiar commissioned an Italian architect to modify it; the resulting interpretation of a Baroque design stands to this day, imposing its majesty upon visitors, coming in to marvel at the Chettinad Palace.

Visitors are allowed; one can walk in and be shown around a portion of the ground floor that is open to public view, unless there is some special function or festivity on that day. And there is quite a bit to marvel at, from the intricately detailed wooden ceiling in the common reception area, to the photographs of celebrities, politicians and royalty who have visited this palace, to the 300+ trophies won by racehorses belonging to MAM Ramaswami, Annamalai Chettiar's grandson.

This photograph may not be very impressive; but think - this is only part of the palace, one that stands on 70 acres of land on the banks of the Adayar. From any part of the grounds, you would not be able to see this structure in its entireity; but a more panoramic photo can be seen here, thanks to PlaneMad!

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Port gate

For a long, long time, I had assumed that there was only one entry point into the Port of Madras. Far from being the only gate, it is one of the minor gates, the one through which children on a school trip, going to see ships berthed in the docks, were allowed.

Almost at the southern tip of the Port, this gate is probably the most visible one to the common Chennai-ite. I'm willing to take a bet that any city resident who is not required to visit the port for his or her livelihood will tell us that this is the 'main' entrance to the Port - all the others are well hidden, I guess!

Monday, March 23, 2009

Sweets and more

There are several sweet shops in Chennai, each one of them trying to create its own brand of what are intrinsically unbrandable sweets. Some of them have been successful, maybe too much so, that many today believe that mysurpa and mysore pak are the same thing. That story has its beginnings in Coimbatore, not Chennai, so I'll let it pass and stick to a more 'local' sweet shop.

In 1982, G.Natarajan was at some kind of crossroads in life. The oil-press he started near his village had failed. A retailing venture in Madras was probably way ahead of its time and it took off only his wife's jewels, all 300 sovereigns of them. A more recent transport business had been successful enough for him to buy back the oil-press. The industrial canteen he was running at Manali seemed to be a good bet. So good, in fact, that he took a leap of faith and bought the house at 24, II Main Road in Adayar's Gandhi Nagar area and started making and selling the generic snacks, traditionally made by the old ladies of the house - the sweet mysore pak and laddoo as well as the crunchy, savoury 'mixture'.

Today, Grand Sweets and Snacks has resisted the urge to expand, beyond their outlet in Anna Nagar. Staying in Adayar, their range today runs into over 250 items, including ready-mixes for vathakuzhambu and puliyodharai. There certainly was no looking back for Natarajan. He must have bought back all of his wife's jewels and then some; crowds like these, jostling at the counter for his wonderful sweets and snacks, played a part in his receiving a post-humous award in 2002 for being that year's highest income-tax payer in the region!

Sunday, March 22, 2009

In the name of the 'reformer'

As had happened with many other Britons of his era, William Henry Cavendish, the Lord Bentinck, also found his first stint as a government servant in India ending with some degree of mess. Taking charge as Governor of Madras in 1803, he muddled along until 1806, when he brought out a 'dress code' for Indian soldiers. This code, which forbade Hindoos from displaying religious marks on their foreheads and required Mohammedans to shave off their beards led to the Vellore Mutiny of 1806; a single day on July 10 during which over 500 soldiers - 200 British and then, in retaliation, about 400 Indian - were killed. That was enough for Lord Bentinck to be called back home, in 1807.

It took him a couple of decades to return, this time as Governor-General of Bengal. Given the mandate to turn around the losses incurred by the East India Company, he stuck to it closely and was reasonably successful. Taking over as Governor-General of India in 1833, Lord Bentinck put his full weight behind Thomas Macaulay's 1835 Minute on Indian Education. He capped the subsidies being provided to schools which taught in any language other than English. To be fair, he also encouraged new schools promoting western education to come up, speeding up the spread of English as the link language across the sub-continent.

Lord Bentinck is also credited with putting an end to the practice of sati, where a widow is cremated at her husbands pyre. In some ways, this gave him the aura of a social reformer with a special interest in women's rights and he played up this image by advocating that girls should also be educated. With that image fresh in their minds, the founders of this school named it after the Lord Bentinck - and that name has remained unchanged since 1837!

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Door in the wall

Very nice, isn't it? 'Hotel Bindu' is not easy to find. It primarily serves the armymen based in Fort St George - and I am not sure if it is still in business, it does look as though the door hasn't been opened for a long while.

The hotel has walls that are at least a couple of feet thick, especially the wall opposite this door. They have to be, because the hotel is set in the outer walls of Fort St George!

Friday, March 20, 2009

Gated pond

The crowded, narrow streets of Mylapore do not really appeal much to the eye, unless one is aware of how much history is packed into them. Though the first image of the locality is the imposing Kapaleeswarar Temple, there are several other temples in the area. As with many other temple towns in south India, dwellings around the temple were typically a kind of row-houses, with just a common wall separating one unit from its neighbours. With a profusion of temples, the streets merge into one another, empty spaces between long rows of dwellings, filled with all kinds of people seeking or providing spiritual services. The hustle and bustle assaults you but then, suddenly, you're in this clearing; across the walls, you can see into three other streets.

One is not really prepared for the Chitrakulam tank, because the Adikeshava Perumal temple, with which it is linked, is a slight distance away. If you do not know it, you might wonder why anyone has bothered to build walls around a seemingly unused pond!

Thursday, March 19, 2009

A sleepless night - and a new dawn

Gandhiji was in Madras on March 18, 1919, staying as a guest of Rajaji, who he had met for the first time earlier that day. He had come to the city to mobilize opposition to the report of the Rowlatt Commission, which had been submitted to the Imperial Legislative Council in 1918. Set up in response to a conspiracy by radical Indian nationalists and Germany to undermine British power in Asia, the Rowlatt Commission recommended that the Viceroy of India be given untramelled power to persecute anyone suspected of treason or sedition. Gandhiji, even then, believed the British government would play by the rules, that they would pay heed to public opinion against the provisions of the 'Black Bill'. His visit to Madras was part of his nationwide campaign against those provisions.

Gandhiji addressed a meeting of leaders at Tilak Bhavan, a guest house belonging to Kasturi Ranga Iyengar and the gathering continued their discussions on actions against the Rowlatt Bill late into the evening. As they were debating, they received news of the Bill becoming law; the infamous Rowlatt Act had been passed. Gandhiji's belief that the British government could be countered by normal democratic processes was completely shattered by this high-handed behaviour. No wonder that he spent a "..restless historic night..." as the inscription says. The morning brought clarity with it: Gandhiji had now become a convert to the idea that cooperating with British institutions would not bear fruit and he articulated his chosen form of attacking them through satyagraha, (desire for truth) the non-violent, non-cooperation movement that became his defining legacy much later.

That, as 'The Story of Gandhi' says, "...was the great awakening of India in her struggle towards independence". But Thilak Bhavan, where that restless sleep and the great awakening happened, is no more. The high-powered business executives, movie stars and political leaders going into Sheraton Chola do not have the time to even spare a glance at this monument to that historic day of 90 years ago!

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Tower view

Looking out through the arched window of a 120-year old building, it is not so easy to imagine what the view might have been in the days when it was new. At that time, someone looking through would have been able to see clear for miles away, but today that view is blocked by the Moore Market complex of the Southern Railway.

The only things one can see clearly are the yellow autorickshaws and the parked cars. Beyond that building lie the rails of the northbound spur of Chennai suburban rail system, heading out to Thiruttani or Sulurpet. Being a Sunday, the streets are not so crowded, allowing that jaywalker to sit on the median and ponder about life!

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Knockdown Hall

After having founded the Young Men's Indian Association (YMIA) in 1914, Annie Besant decided that the Association needed a home in Madras. The YMIA was intended to shape youth with 'a strong body, an informed mind and a noble character' so that they could take on the task of becoming public leaders. It was therefore critical that the home should have a hostel, library, canteen, gymnasium and an oratory. Funded rather substantially by Dr. Besant, the home was ready in 1915 and its public area, the oratory, was named after Gopala Krishna Gokhale.

The early meetings in the oratory were mainly political and often inflammatory, inviting the attention of the British police officers. Every so often, the YMIA would be pulled up by the authorities for allowing more people than was "permissible" to assemble in the Gokhale Hall. With several luminaries in the long list of persons who have addressed gatherings in the Hall, it is natural that capacity was exceeded on several occasions. It was not just political leaders and their fiery speeches that echoed here, but also musical notes of several great carnatic musicians who used to live in north Madras. It was the home of many of north Madras' sabhas - Muthialpet Sabha, Tondaimandalam Sabha - which are non-existent today. Though not much to look at, Gokhale Hall has been suffused with many memories of many great persons from all walks of life.

It is sad that the Young Men now want to knock down this Hall and construct a multi-storeyed office building here. The Madras High Court has stayed those plans for now, but how long can the public hold their interest in this building!

Monday, March 16, 2009

Bright outlook

Caught your eye, didn't it? That's probably one reason why a rash of bright colours has burst out all over Chennai over the past couple of years. It is not just marriage halls (like this one), but even houses and flats that have taken to covering themselves with such in-your-eye colours.

Time was when nuanced shades of white - with a hint of blue, grey or cream - were the standard colours; and then came 'colourwash', contrasting with the traditional whitewash - now you could have the lime mix suffused with green or blue and differentiate the living room from the bedroom without much effort. Over the past couple of decades, as paint technology improved, it has become easier to mix colours to get just that right shade you wanted - and economies of scale did not apply, most likely. So that one wall of the living room was painted in a contrasting colour, inviting attention to the framed prints.

Over the past couple of years, that contrast effect has come out to the streets. In doing so, it has created camps - some believe that turmeric, vermillion or green should be the only colours to be used in painting houses, since they represent auspicious colours. Others pooh-pooh that and go ahead with any bright or fluorescent colour which helps them stand out!

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Celebrating ability

It has been fourteen years of trying to get people to keep an open mind. In 1995, Jayshree Raveendran set up the Ability Foundation to get "...persons with and without disability walk hand-in-hand, work shoulder-to-shoulder and are accepted as equal partners...". It may not have been a novel thought, but the Foundation has been single-minded in its desire to mainstream as many 'ability-challenged' people as it can. EmployABILITY, their annual job fair for differently abled candidates, has been a huge eye-opener to corporates in Chennai. Over a hundred firms have participated in the effort, generating a surge of positive feeling across the organizations.

Another 'show-case' event, if you will, is the annual 'Ability Awards', co-presented by Cavin Kare. It was humbling - and inspiring - to see the efforts of the award winners for 2009. Overcoming loss of a limb, congenital defects or cerebral palsy, the winners have stuck to their chosen vocation with fierce determination. And, more importantly, each one of them is less worried about their own future, but is working to make life brighter for others who are similarly challenged.

The four award winners are at the extreme left (2), right and centre of the picture. To see them and hear them speak was indeed an unforgettable experience!

Saturday, March 14, 2009


The garbage dump at Pallikaranai may be stinking, but that doesn't prevent waterbirds stopping there during their winter migrations.

The black specks on the water are black winged stilts. I had never seen one earlier, and then, one Sunday, I got to see a few thousand of them!

Friday, March 13, 2009

Film factory

As a boy working in his father's general store in Karaikudi, Meiyappan was fascinated by the gramophone records that were brought in from Madras. His fascination led him to start Saraswathi Stores, dedicated entirely to music records, many of which were pressed by the Store itself. Most of the music was from the movies; thinking about it, the native business acumen of the Nattukottai Chettiars came through and Meiyappan decided he could produce the whole feature film rather than buy songs from other producers. Sailing forth on this dream, he found his first three movies - Alli Arjuna (1935), Ratnavali (1936) and Nandakumar (1938) - bombing. Meiyappan's response was to go further upstream; partnering with a couple of his friends, he set up Pragathi Studios in Madras.

The movies from Pragathi, in Tamizh and Kannada, including the country's first dubbed film, Harischandra (made by replacing the original Kannada voices with Tamizh ones), were successful and Meiyappan came to be known by his initials - AVM, for Avichi Meiyappan. Needing more space for his ambitions, but hampered from expanding beyond an office of the AVM Studios in Madras because of the II World War, AVM went back to his native Karaikudi. There, on Devakottai Road, he set up a 60' X 120' shed as AVM Studio's first production floor, in 1945.

Today, the initials AVM can be seen on several properties and buildings around Chennai. Though AVM moved away from producing movies for a while, they have come back strong and along with the Studios, they are buzzing away at the forefront of Tamizh entertainment. The original 60' X 120' shed was dismantled after the war, brought to Madras and reassembled on the third floor of AVM Studios. Since then, the pujas for any AVM Production project are always held on this floor!

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Arriving hungry

Quick, which is the first eatery one sees on coming out from Chennai Central Station? If you answered "Buhari's", you are indeed a true Madrasi! They have been in Chennai since 1951 with their flagship restaurant on Mount Road. Not sure when the Central Buhari came up, but well, it has been around for as long as I can remember. Other hotels may have come up (and some gone, too), but Buhari is the place for that last biryani before getting into the unreserved coach to Jhumritalaiya or wherever!

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Told you!

Not a sign that you'd expect to see in the midst of the city, isn't it? You've got to remember that Chennai is probably the only city in the world that has a national park right in its midst, completely within the city. The campus of the IIT Madras is next to the Guindy National Park and has a large-ish lake within it.

Who knows what other creatures lurk in the lake!

Tuesday, March 10, 2009


The next time you go shopping around Panagal Park (preferably in the daytime), take out a few minutes to go into the Park itself. It may be a leap of faith for many of you, but you can take my word that Chennai's parks are much better maintained these days than they were a few years ago, so going into one is not really the test of courage (or foolishness) that it used to be.

If you walk inside a bit, you will see a clearing where stands a statue, rather reddish in colour, looking unkempt. The birds have had a free run on his turban and the detailing on his sherwani has been rubbed down, but his eyes look out with regal mien, disdainful of you standing under him, peering at the slab on the pedestal and trying to make out the letters on them. Not understanding the Telugu script - or not being able to read it because of the dirt of the ages, you surmise, quite reasonably, that it is the statue of the Raja of Panagal, after who the park is named.

But look closer. Then take a look at this other statue. With the Star of India at his side clearing all doubts, you will recognize this is Sir Pitty Theagaraya Chetty. In the locality that he has lent his name to, of which Panagal Park is but a part, the man's statue could have done with some more care!

Monday, March 9, 2009

Last vestiges

In its heyday, this building was the nerve centre of one of the three largest firms in Madras, businesses which gave impetus to the development of the city. Of the three, Parrys continues to do well, both within the Murugappa Group and as Parryware Roca, while Arbuthnot has moved to Kolkatta as Gillanders Arbuthnot. Binny, however, is almost forgotten after the sale of their textile mills; everyone in Chennai older than 20 would certainly have heard of them, even if they hadn't used any of Binny's products. There was a time when Binny's was the only brand for school uniforms and even more so for the khaki used by scouts or the NCC cadets. The mills which made those clothes are giving way to a township that is proposed to be built on that site.

Today, the most visible side of the building is the one on Armenian Street, with the colonnaded verandah of the first floor. But the arrangement of the working hall on the first floor, combined with a staircase that ends at a door opening to Erabalu Chetty Street indicates that the main entrance was on that side of the building once upon a time.

One hopes that this building, which still houses the offices of Binny Ltd does not suffer the same fate as its brother, the textile mill!

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Learning irrelevance

The name is more a measure of confidence than any grandiosity. The Krishnamurti Foundation of India (KFI) takes forward the belief of Jiddu Krishnamurti that schools must provide a environment to explore larger existential issues in an atmosphere of freedom and responsibility. The first school established by the KFI was in 1931 at Rishi Valley in Andhra Pradesh (close to where Krishnamurti was born); today the KFI runs seven schools, include 'The School' in Chennai. Apart from these, there are four other 'non-foundation' schools which, though not run by the KFI, follow the principles for children's education as laid down by Krishnamurti. Those principles have influenced other schools around the world also.

The School was begun in Krishnamurti's lifetime; the school's website says it is 25 years old, but other sources trace the school's founding date to be sometime in 1973. Set in Damodar Gardens, part of the Theosophical Society's lands, the school appears to be much older than either date would indicate. For the most part, the natural settings of Damodar Gardens have been preserved and maintained. Children in the junior and middle schools - classes 1 to 7 - are placed in mixed age groups and go through the curriculum prescribed by The School. It is only in class 8 that the formal CICSE curriculum is adopted, enabling the students to appear for the ICSE examinations in classes 10 and 12. It is a stated desire of The School to not encourage competition, because they do not recognize any merit in it. With such a seemingly contrarian point of view, The School is not for anyone who is unable to recognize that the holisitic development of an individual is the aim of education.

Indeed, it would take a lot to even admit that one must learn about the "...importance of knowledge and its irrelevance." from a school, let alone from The School!

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Token celebration

Here's another version of the lion capital that we saw atop the pillar at Ashok Nagar a few days ago. Another version not merely because of the change in colour (I think the Ashok Nagar one is by far better than these gilded lions), but also because that one is actually the complete Lion Capital of Sarnath; this, on the other hand is representative of the state emblem of the Republic of India. The inverted lotus, on which the lions are placed, is missing from this one, because that is not part of the State Emblem.

This column was placed at the junction of Radhakrishnan Salai and Kamarajar Salai, right on the Marina, in August 1997. It is possibly the only remaining symbol of time when India celebrated the fiftieth anniversary of its independence. I remember those celebrations as being very low-key, rather muted. Maybe a 5000-year legacy considers 50 years as just the blink of an eye.

The definition of the State Emblem (as seen here) shows only a two dimensional image; of the four lions standing with their backs to each other on the Lion Capital, only three can seen in the 2-D image. This one too has only three lions - or so I believe. I've never bothered to go around it to check if that's really the case!

Friday, March 6, 2009

Unplugged concert

The early birds at Nageshwara Rao Park know better than to raise their voices on the first Sunday of the month. At 6.30 am on that day, a child gets on to the stage area, raised slightly above the ground and keeps the listeners engrossed with his or her performance. Most of the time, it is a solo vocalist, usually accompanied by a mridangam and a violin. There have been group performances also - in the 37 Sundays since this concept took off, more than 200 children have taken to the stage, many of them for their debut performances. That's the whole idea of the 'Kutcheri (Concert) in the Park', nurtured by Sundaram Finance since inception.

Rather, the idea itself belongs to Sundaram Finance. Keeping in mind that the early morning walkers at the park, the company decided not to use mikes or speakers; in a way, that encourages the children, always under 15, some as young as 6, to put their lungs into their performance. It is not a shoo-in, for the company auditions applicants for the stage; it is said that the senior executives of Sundaram Finance enjoy a few hours of good music every month as they select the next kutcheri peformer!

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Teaching trade unionism

Considering that Madras was born of a desire for cheap 'cloathe', it should not be a surprise that the first ever trade union in India was the Madras Textile Labour Union, formed in 1918. Within a very short time, the trade union movement gained popularity and several unions were formed, both in Madras and in other Presidency towns. In 1923, Madras was the venue for the country's first ever May Day Rally, presided over by Comrade Singaravelar, one of the pioneers of the labour movement. There were some firebrand union leaders who came out of Madras, including a certain R.Venkataraman, who went on to become a Union Minister and later the President of India.

The ardour cooled off in the late 1970s, after a rather violent strike by the Simpson and Group Company in 1971. Militant labour went west and the recent history of militant Indian trade unionism is more about Datta Samant and Rajan Nair in Bombay and Pune. Madras became a more peaceable industrial zone, though there were several instances of localised violence. For the past couple of decades, though, there haven't been any really bad spells of industrial unrest.

Is it possible that this institute, set up by the State Bank of India Officers' Association to offer programs on 'Trade Union Effectiveness' has something to do with the more aware union activists in this part of the country?

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Smile, you're on camera!

Chennai is also following the other 'Big Brother' cities by installing trafficams to monitor traffic violations at some choke points in the city. London is probably the grand-daddy of the big brothers, the whole city awash with cameras capturing a huge store of life in the early 21st century. Chennai has begun modestly last year, putting in place 14 cameras - and maybe a few dummy domes - at different points. The results have been good, with fines worth Rs.50,000 being collected every day through trafficam bookings, on an average.

That revenue stream has enthused the city police to go ahead with installing more such eyes on the roads this year. Last year's cameras were rather unobtrusive, sitting on existing poles and crossbars, wherever possible. Now, with the flush of success, they are being positioned rather visibly, like this one where GST Road meets Pazhavanthangal. A few drivers will be frightened into obeying the road-rules, but the majority couldn't care two hoots.

Maybe because they knew that last year, when the cameras were first installed, 3 of the 4 monitors in the central control room were on the blink!

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Day ticket

A few weeks ago, there wasn't even one, and now there are two. First off the blocks was the Tamilnadu Tourism Development Corporation (TTDC), on Feb 20; five days later, the Villupuram division of the Tamilnadu State Transport Corporation (TNSTC) launched their version, though under the TTDC's banner. It must have been inspired by the Open Bus Tours, but they've thankfully stopped short of cutting off the tops of the buses - Chennai is never meant to be an Open Bus location!

TTDC's version is an hourly hop-on-hop-off sevice on the Chennai - Mamallapuram stretch. At Rs.150 for a day ticket, you can spend the whole day at various spots along the ECR. The TNSTC version, though, stays within the city and covers 16 places of interest within Chennai. Priced at Rs.250/- per day, it seems a good way to have a quick look around - even though the look is restricted largely to south Chennai. One hopes these hop-arounds will move to other parts of the city, too!

Monday, March 2, 2009

End of the walk

This was a rather sad way for a 'Turtle Walk' to end; seeing a dead one washed up on the shore. Unfortunately, it is a sight that is becoming far too common. The eastern seaboard of India has nesting grounds for many of the seven known species of the turtle. Listed as 'Vulnerable' on the IUCN's Red List, the Olive Ridley is the most common visitor to the beaches of Chennai. Knowing the popular attractions, the Olive Ridleys have been careful to avoid the Marina, preferring the lesser known and therefore lesser expensive stretchs of the beach.

Trudging through beach sand for around 7 hours, looking for the nests or even for a lighthouse in the neighbourhood is not an ideal way to spend Saturday evening. But having done that, it is something that I would n't have missed. We walked for about 7 hours, from 1230 pm to 0330 and many of the group were disappointed at not having seen the maginicant turtles come up from the sea to lay their eggs, as they have been programmed to do over several generations. It is said that the Olive Ridley comes back to the spot where she was born, to lay her eggs.

In recent years, the turtle populations are faced with several disadvantages: the worst is from mechanized trawlers, whose nets are srong enough to go through the soft flesh of a the turtle's flipper or its neck, even. This one shows all the signs of having been strangulated - extremely sad. The redeeming part of the walk was watching 3 hatchlings struggle to walk for element: life does find a way, many times!

Sunday, March 1, 2009

One-glass building

There are several buildings in the city that appear to have been abandoned half-way into their construction. The hotel that was originally intended to be the Magunta Oberoi is a very visible example, right on Mount Road, but there are several others all over the city. One such is this 10-storey builidng which is also on Mount Road, but does not catch the eye so readily because it is next to the Gemini Flyover and sheltered from view on almost all sides.

Also not so readily apparent is the ownership of this building; one theory is that a former Prime Minister's son had taken up this project with funding from a Chennai based bank but had to pull out when the bank was caught in a scam in the mid '90s. Another theory credits the scam for work on the building being halted, but points to an entertainment group as the owner. A third theory is that some apartments in this building had already been sold to individual owners and the holdup is because of a dispute between some buyers and the seller. For evidence in support of the third theory, they point to that window on the 8th floor - the only one that is covered with a glass window pane.

No, it is not that this apartment is occupied. It is said that the owner has been able to generate some revenue by renting his apartment out for movie shoots - and it has been used for several - where the interiors are re-created for each movie. The glass window pane however seems to be a standard fixture!

Okay, I'm stretching it a bit.... it is 'Theme Day' today and the theme is 'glass'... my best 'glass' photo and story was posted long ago! To see how other City Daily Photobloggers around the world have interpreted the theme, click here.