Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Stop, rain?

Somehow, the rains this year seem to be following a different drummer. Apart from one day last week, when it poured over the city throughout the day, the rains have been behaving more like Singapore than anything else. Sharp showers, pouring down intensely for fifteen minutes, followed by bright sunshine. Makes it rather schizophrenic, at times.

But this was last week. Skies greyer than what they said and the drizzle kept at it right through. Bad enough for the motorcyclists to have to ride in the rain, but worse when they have to stop for the lights. And at the Tidel Park signal, that's a long - and wet - wait!

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Godess' abode

When this building was constructed, there was a proposal to name it after the 'lead founder' of the Sabha it houses. But Chittoor V. Nagaiah, a leading character actor of the 1940s was humble enough to veto such thoughts and insisted that the hall be named after Saraswati, the Goddess of music and learning. Over the years, 'Vani Mahal' has become so recognizable a landmark that it overshadows the Sabha's name in the non-musically inclined Madrasi.

The Sabha's name was itself seems to have been a cheeky gesture at Mylapore; the story goes that Nagaiah was seized with the idea of forming this Sabha after seeing a group of people huddled under a bus-stop, braving the rain to go for a kacheri at Mylapore. Maybe Nagaiah was so fond of where he lived, that he could not imagine the place without a Sabha when there appeared to be so many rasikas; gathering together a few of his influential friends, he led the founding of the Sri Thyaga Brahma Gana Sabha - the name as much paying tribute to one of Carnatic music's holy trinity as reinforcing its roots in Thyagaraya Nagar (which, incidentally, was named after Sir Pitty Theagaraya Chetty).

The Sabha was founded in 1944; in quick time, it became so popular that it had to find its own space, having to move out of the Dakshin Bharat Hindi Prachar Sabha's premises. Thanks to T.A. Rangachari, who sold them 10 grounds on G.N. Chetty Road for a song, the Sabha was able to raise its auditorium in quick time, constructed by V. Ganapathy Iyer. Inaugurated by Sir C.P. Ramaswamy Iyer, Vani Mahal became a much sought after venue - and over time, it has seen many talented performers take their bows. The most famous among those who had their debut on the Vani Mahal stage are Nagesh (though I seem to recall Mohan Raman averring that it was at Gokhale Hall) and Waheeda Rehman.

The original auditorium was knocked down a few years ago and in its place came up three very well equipped halls. But despite that, it is the original building that is honoured today, as Vani Mahal celebrates its 65th anniversary!

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Palace on the road

The railwaymen never tire of putting their railway-ness in your face every chance they get. With a long history and quite a bit of rolling stock having stopped rolling, they have a lot of spare parts and scrap to fabricate such decorations as these. 

This is the entrance to the ICF Guest House at Pilkington Road, Perambur. From the outside, it looks quite swank; guess it must be for the top locos of the Indian Railways!

Monday, November 15, 2010

Temple time

There is a story around how this temple was built by a Pakistani. How true is that story? I haven't heard it from any authentic source, if only because this temple predates the Pakistan nation by a couple of hundred years. Apparently there was someone from Lahore who was the man behind the construction of this temple, but the legend goes that the temple is about 200 years old.

The Bairagi Mutt is itself probably only slightly older. Although there are many shrines inside this complex, but the most prominent one is that of Lord Venkateswara and hence the name. As with quite a few other temples, while it is commonly called Bairagi Mutt, the full name of this temple is "Arulmigu Thiruvengadamudayan Venkatesa Perumal Thirukkoil". 

Bairagi Mutt will do, I guess!

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Connecting tower

How could a palace be split into two? Maybe that was troubling Robert Chisholm, as he viewed the two blocks of the Chepauk Palace, built over a century before Chisholm set his eyes on it. But even with the separation, it would have been a grand sight, two large, low buildings set in a vast area of almost 120 acres, bordered on the east by the beach. On the west, it was stretched to what is today's Bell's Road; the Cooum on the north limited its spread and to the south, Pycroft's Road marked its boundary. 

The Chepauk Palace was built in the 1760s, as a residence for the Nawab of the Carnatic. At that time, it was Mohammed Ali Khan Wallajah, a favourite of the British, who was therefore given the privilege of being housed close to Fort St George. The two buildings that the palace was divided into were the Humayun Mahal and the Khalsa Mahal. To the north, the Humayun Mahal was abutted by the Diwan-e-Khana hall. Until 1855, the Nawabs of the Carnatic lived in the Chepauk Palace; that year, it was taken over by the government, citing the Doctrine of Lapse, when the last Nawab of the Carnatic, Ghulam Mohammed Ghouse, died heirless. In the 1870s, when Chisholm got his hands on these buildings, they were being used as government offices. Chisholm's additions included some rooms and verandahs to Humayun Mahal and a grand entrance with a tall tower rising over it.

That tower is the most visible part of Chepauk Palace these days. When the Ezhilagam and other assorted buildings came up along Rajaji Salai, they blocked the magnificent view of the palace from the beach. Even the tower comes into view only from some angles: with the Chepauk Palace now completely taken over by government offices, the visitors are more concerned about getting their work done than about the heritage of this tower!

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Closed shop

From the looks of it, this building has been locked up for years. And it is probably not going to open anytime soon. The coop it housed also seems to have moved on; in all likelihood, it is operating from a different address these days. Other signs - "Grocery"; "Tailoring" - on the outer walls give it quite an old-time feel and the dirt and dust around the doors confirmed their having remained shut for quite a while. Maybe there is some litigation around this particular building, for there doesn't seem to be any other reason for it to remain unused.

The X-331 Railway Employees Cooperative Stores Ltd appears to be functioning still, like I had said. Evidence is their inclusion - with a contemporary telephone number - in a list of member stores of the Chennai District Co-Operative Union. But then, that's a list which says "Talk Workers" for "Dock Workers" and "Basin Breech" for "Basin Bridge"!


Friday, November 12, 2010

Foreign language

Granted, Komal Exports needs to have its signs in multiple languages. But Runic?

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Premiere show

Just over a year ago, I had written about Madras' second cinema theatre. The first, by all accounts remained untraceable. Now, it appears that the city's first cinema hall is standing, still. The Broadway of the early 20th century was as much a bustling business district as it is a hundred years later. It was on this road that a certain Mrs Klug decided to try her hand at running a movie hall; rather a permanent movie hall. In the early days of motion pictures in India, the pictures as well as their exhibition spaces were both mobile, so the establishment of a fixed venue was in itself a novelty.

Very factually named, "Mrs. Klug's Biosocope" - "The Broadway Bioscope" or "The Bioscope" - opened for business sometime early in 1911. Although the permanency aspect was highlighted only much later, the crowds were eager to take in this new form of entertainment. The leading newspaper of those days - Madras Times - played a large role in establishing the 'permanency' of the exhibition hall, for that is essentially what it was. But was there ever a "Mrs. Klug"? Or was it some genius marketer, who used a nom de screen to convince folks that movies were something so respectable that a married woman could run it single-handedly? Considering that the Bioscope ran 'continuous shows' (something that Chennai has missed ever since Blue Diamond was razed) from 6pm to 11pm every day - last show starting at 9pm - it may well have been a way to assure potential moviegoers that they were getting into a respectable establishment! We may never know that, for Mrs. Klug's last show was sometime in October 1911 and there has been no news of her since.

Many of Chennai's history buffs have been unable to find the exact location of where Mrs. Klug had her Bioscope. A few months ago, Dr. Stephen Hughes, in an article in "The Hindu", points to enough evidence for it to have been operating from the first floor of this building, which is even today home to some long-standing institutions. Now, let us hope the structure does not crumble under the added weight of being the location of India's first ever permanent movie hall!

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Morning hunter

I had always assumed that raptors - birds of prey - were large creatures, their wide wings allowing them to glide up on high. Little did I know, until about a couple of years ago, that one of the most common raptors in this part of the world is the Shikra (Accipiter badius). Although the name is derived from the Hindi (shikra or shikara), it now seems to be largely accepted as the standard. Though some call it the Little Banded Goshawk, the IUCN's Red List indicates its common name in English as Shikra, so that's what it is, for me!

Interestingly, there is another bird species that derives its (scientific) name from the same Hindi root. The Red-Headed Falcon, which is also somewhat common throughout India, was given the scientific name Falco chicquera!

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Famous food

The sign seems to be out to confuse you. Yes, of course that's a sardar welcoming you in, but the board says "Vellore". Check as many times as you like, but you'll not find any evidence of Vellore being anywhere near the land of the five rivers. And yet, that's what the sign goes on to imply. Also, I am sure there are sardars who are pure vegetarians, but I haven't come across one in all these years.

Eliminating the impossibles, this is what I'm left with. Sardar landed up in Vellore many many moons ago. Vellore, in case you didn't know, is a major clearing house for kuska - that is biriyani without pieces of anything. That probably drove home the point that vegetarianism is good business; and so sardar mixed the exotic "Punjabi Dhaba" with the blandness of Vellore cuisine, added in the "Gyan Vaishnav" for good measure and voila! Vellore Punjabi Dhaba became famous.

Actually, it became famous enough that it brought the Vellore Gyan Vaishnav brand to Chennai. Famous enough for the Chennai branch to be inaugurated by Amitabh Bachhan. For all that, it remains fairly rooted to the essence of the dhaba: simple food, quick service, easy on the wallet. No wonder that the sardar from Vellore has hundreds, maybe thousands, of die-hard fans in Chennai!

Monday, November 8, 2010

White man!

Well, I give up. He has lent his name to one of the better-known roads in Chennai (and also to a locality in Choolai), but I haven't been able to get much information about this man. It is said that he was the first Commissioner of the Corporation of Madras from the ICS - that steel frame of the Raj - but even with that lead, there does not seem to be much information available about this man.

Even his statue, in the main corridor of Ripon Building, where he once had his office, has been painted over so many times that his features have become rather difficult to discern. Just like the man himself, the statue also seems to blend into the wall - only the railing stops you from ignoring it altogether. Complete whitewash, I say!

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Latest lighthouse

Somehow, one has always thought of lighthouses as being cylindrical structures. Even though the Doric column which served as Madras' second lighthouse (the first was just a collection of lamps on top the Exchange building in Fort St George) is a dodecagon, it approximated a cylinder enough to be forgiven its twelve sides. The third lighthouse was once again on top of a building that was meant for other purposes; the fourth - and current lighthouse of Chennai, however, has the least number of sides needed for an enclosed structure.

When this lighthouse became operational on January 10, 1977, the range of the beam was increased from 24 miles to 28. At a height of 57m, it is decidedly middle-of-the-range for lighthouse heights (the Jeddah Light, at 133m is supposedly the tallest), so there is nothing particularly great about that. What distinguishes the 'Madras Light' - apart from its triangular building - is that it is the only lighthouse in India (and one of the few in the world) to have an elevator in the building!

For the trivia buffs - the only lighthouse in the USA with an elevator is the one at Sullivan's Island, South Carolina. Interestingly, that is also a triangular building!

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Prancing horse

At first glance it seemed to be a racecar gone off the tracks. The prancing horse logo is so much a part of the famous Ferrari brand that it takes a couple of moments before we can adjust to its presence on the polar opposite of a racecar - and one that has obviously not moved an inch for quite a few years, now. But the 'rampant horse' has been a symbol of many things - products, places, maybe even people - through the ages. It was obvious this one had no connection with fast cars.

In fact, this logo appears to pre-date Enzo Ferrari's firm by a few decades. It was in 1865 that Thomas Aveling and Richard Porter built the first steam engine of their partnership. Having set up the business in Rochester, Kent, Aveling & Porter borrowed both the logo and the motto of that county for themselves. The word "Invicta" (undefeated) was placed under Kent's 'White Horse rampant' to make up the logo of Aveling & Porter, one that had remained more or less unchanged through a few changes in the company's ownership.

Although this one cannot claim any great antiquity, it is still somehow fitting that it lies abandoned in the middle of railway territory. It is believed that Aveling & Porter supplied quite a few of the steam rollers required to clear terrain before rails could be laid. And this machine, standing on Constable Road, Perambur seems to be in sympathy with the buildings of Aveling & Porter, the last of which was brought down earlier this year!

Friday, November 5, 2010

Happy Deepavali!

Leading up to Deepavali, we repeat the same thing every year - "the fireworks seem quieter"; "this is more about shopping" and those famous last words: "I'll go easy on the sweets this year". And then, on the day itself, all is forgotten.

So, here's to the festival of lights. This year, the 'north Indian' and 'south Indian' versions coincide on the same day. Whether it is the triumphant return of Lord Rama to Ayodhya or the celebration of Lord Krishna's victory over Narakasura, Deepavali is the celebration of lights, fireworks, prosperity, sweets.... joy all around.

May this Deepavali open up a new chapter of brightness in all our lives!

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Fish market

On the pavements at Velachery, brisk business is happening of a Sunday morning. It is easy to forget that the city's origins were, in all likelihood, a series of fishing hamlets along this part of the Coromandel coast. The hamlets may have all been connected by the city which sprung up around them, but that has in no way diminished their fondness for fish!

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Seating space

Along the roads near the garrison at St Thomas Mount, the sidewalks are raised fairly high above the road level. Although that makes life difficult for the pedestrians, it must be quite a useful level for anyone sitting on these benches and watching the world go by.

Apart from its vantage-point appearance, the bench is also quite beautiful - wrought iron, from many decades ago, by the looks of it, with a fresh lick of bright yellow paint, makes a nice contrast to both the red of the sidewalk tiles and the green of the trees and shrubs around!

Monday, November 1, 2010

Public Transport

The regular buses of the Metropolitan Transport Corporation (MTC) do have a theoretical limit on their capacity. They can seat 25 and, in theory, there is space for 48 people to stand. Don't forget the driver and the conductor who are included in the total capacity of 75 people in the bus. 

A report from 2009 says that the MTC needs nearly 4,400 buses to meet the demand, but the number of buses on the roads are just 2,990. That was a report for purchasing buses under the JNNURM scheme, on the basis of which 1,000 buses were sanctioned for Chennai last year. Many of them have been inducted into the MTC's fleet, but yet, the crowds continue to struggle to enter the buses. Peak hour occupancy in the buses is probably in the range of 150% - and that probably does not include those hanging on outside!

No, it is not a fascination for buses that sees two pictures of them in succession.... it is just that today is 'Theme Day' for City Daily Photo blogs and the theme for today is Public Transportation. Click here to view thumbnails for all participants

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Volvo, interior

It has been almost three years since these buses were introduced in Chennai, but I haven't had the opportunity to travel on them until a couple of weeks ago. The fare isn't much, when you think about taking an auto the same distance; but stack it up against the normal bus fare and the 300% differential seems enormous. Maybe that's a reason why these aren't as crowded as they could potentially be.

The crew has a differently coloured uniform; with epaulettes, chinese collars and the like. Maybe it is the uniform and the overall ambience, but both driver and conductor seemed to be more slick and businesslike than on the other buses. The conductor was especially taciturn; though the driver was eager to talk, I was reluctant to distract him from the road. Did learn though that the occupancy was a function of the time of day - as the sun climbed in the sky, so too the crowds into the bus. The rains over the few days past seems to have made the Chennai-ites immune to the charms of the Volvo a/c!

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Loane fountain

Well, don't judge the park by the fountain. That the centerpiece of Sriramulu Poonga on Prakasam Road is dry is no reflection on the status of the park itself. Confused? Well, old timers of Madras would probably understand better if I'd used the earlier names - Loane Square Garden on Broadway.

That garden was commissioned by Samuel Joshua Loane, probably as a bulwark against the space becoming messy and unsanitary once again. 'Once again', because sometime around the mid-nineteenth century, Loane had just finished cleaning up Popham's Market on Broadway. Stephen Popham had reportedly envisaged the market - for meat, vegetables and condiments - being spic and span. After his death, it seems to have degenerated considerably, to the extent of a garden being named after its rescuer.

Fast forward to the end of the 20st century; Loane Square Garden is in pretty much the same state that Popham's Market was, a hundred and fifty years earlier. Being used as a parking lot for trucks carting produce to and from Kotwal Chavadi, the Garden was "a public lavatory masquerading as a park and a startling testimonial to the failure of Stephen Popham's most basic idea - sanitation - to take root". Now, it has once again been transformed into an oasis of greenery in what's otherwise a rather grey and dusty district. I'm not very sure about the connection between Potti Sriramulu and this park, which is now named after him, but as with many other places in the city, it continues to be better known by its old name!

Friday, August 27, 2010


Perambur has always been the nerve-centre of the railways in Chennai. True, the Chennai Central and the Chennai Egmore stations are always more in the public eye, but that's only because they were the faces of the railway. Perambur was - and is - where the railway heart throbs.

Large tracts of land in Perambur belongs to the Railways; public access is permitted only to pass through. When you do pass through, you realize that you're in the middle of a huge 'company colony', with differentiated residences for employees at different levels, clubs, playgrounds, and even a trade union office. Trees on both sides of the roads give the whole space a very sylvan feel.

And the roads - not very broad, but never appearing narrow, they're all neatly black-topped for the most part, fitting well with the 'colony' image. Adding to that of-time-gone-by feel are the street names. Almost all of them are English names, honouring railwaymen of long, long ago!

Thursday, August 26, 2010

A saint's prayer

I went up St Thomas Mount for the first time as a child, quite a few moons ago. As I  stood in front of this statue of Christ on the cross - I remember it as being completely white in those days - I was seized with the notion that we were at Golgotha; distances had little meaning and an hour's drive was as likely to take a child up to Mount Calvary as to that of St Thomas.

These days, there are two additional figures forming part of this tableau; while Pope John Paul II's statue is not seen in this picture, Mother Teresa (Blessed Teresa, now, isn't it?), to the right of Jesus, a bit of a way away, is shown in prayer. And it is to her this post is dedicated to, on the 100th anniversary of her birth!

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Not just the mall!

Even an occasional visitor to Chennai can easily identify this as the Spencer's junction. Once upon a long time ago, this was the site of a handsome, redbrick building with a sweeping driveway. Spencer & Co., the original department store of Madras gave way to the current buildings after it was destroyed by a fire. A replica of the original facade can be seen at Phase III of Spencer Plaza, the largest of the buildings in this cluster.

The most visible part of the cluster is the shopping mall. It is quite likely that a large majority of the visitors to the mall do not even register the fact that there is much more to these buildings - in fact, the office space here is more than the area covered by the mall, because, while there are only three floors of the mall, offices are spread out over seven; and then there is the third building in the cluster.

It was only over the past couple of years that I've come to recognize that building as 'Dewa Towers'. And the style of writing those words (you can see it when you click on the photo) seems rather similar to that of the Dubai Electricity and Water Authority - that's another Dewa!

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

End of the line

For now, this is the southern end of Chennai's MRTS line. But it will hold on to that position for only a couple of more years, because work on extending the line to St Thomas Mount - where it will connect with the Beach-Tambaram suburban line - has already begun. And then, Velachery will become just another stop on the MRTS. That's kind of sad, because this station changed the face of Velachery and of the MRTS itself, in many ways.

Though the second phase of the MRTS was to cover the entire stretch from Tirumylai to Velachery, there was a significant pause at Tiruvanmiyur. The original plan called for the tracks, which run above the road level, to come down after Tiruvanmiyur and run along the ground to Velachery. However, with tests showing the soil around Taramani to be softer than required, the tracks remained raised up right through to Velachery. Those tests and the change of plans led to a delay in the last bit of the line being completed; and for some reason, people were reluctant to use even the functioning part, the Tirumylai - Tiruvanmiyur section.

In the first year after this station was inaugurated, the usage of the MRTS almost trebled; though it is slower now, usage is still growing. Surely it will explode once again when the connection to St Thomas Mount is made!

Monday, August 23, 2010

Pugh the Bug

There is going to be yet another round of road re-naming in the city quite soon. The obvious targets in this drive are the 'British' names, which are to be replaced by ones which are more representative of the Chennai-ness of the city, rather than its Madras-ity. Several rounds of such re-naming have taken place earlier, with varying degrees of success. TTK Road still answers to Moubray's Road, but Pasumpon Muthuramalingam Salai does not ring the Chamier's Road bell.

One attempt was made to include the old name in this sign. Sundaram refers to a prayer hall (?) further down the lane, which explains the plaque below the road sign. But "Bugys Road"? (In the Tamizh version above, it easily reads as "Bugs Road"). Well, that's a little bit of weathering and mis-spelling at work. In the early 1800s, the senior partner of the firm Pugh & Breithaupt bought some land on the stretch between Chamier's Road and the Adayar river. When his garden house was built there, he called the place Pugh's Gardens. Naturally (for that time), the road leading to Pugh's Gardens came to be called Pugh's Road. Over a couple of centuries, not only has the road been re-named, but Mr. Joseph Pugh has had the misfortune of his own name being mangled beyond recognition!

Sunday, August 22, 2010

371 and counting!

As Chennai turns 371 today, here's a view from the top of St. Thomas Mount. (Thomas, of course of the 'Doubting Thomas' fame). It is widely believed that St. Thomas spent his last days atop this hillock and was martyred here. Nearly 2000 years ago, he would possibly have been able to clearly see the seashore town of Mylapore where he stayed a while, but today's cloud made it difficult to sight the San Thome Basilica even from this elevation.

On a clear day, one can even see the Bay of Bengal; the Madras Roads, though they were the very devil to navigate, became the lifeline of British trade. Even after all these years, it is striking to find Macaulay's description of his first sighting of Madras - "The effect was very striking, --great, white, masses of buildings scattered amidst a rich profusion of deep dark varnished green. The sun was just about to rise. The town was quite still, and for some time we saw no signs of life" - has changed little!

Happy birthday, Chennai! And we look forward to the next 371!!

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Walking leaf

There is a bunch of insects that is commonly referred to as 'stick insect' or 'leaf insect'. The bunch comprises both these - and the variety in them is considerable. They belong to an order of animals called "Phasmatodea" - meaning 'phantom' and is a reflection of their now-you-see-them-now-you-don't appearance. Not only do they closely resemble leaves or twigs, but they have adapted so much that even their movements are not regular - they swing and jerk along, for all in the world like a leaf blown by the breeze.

One of them took up residence in the bougainvilla on our balcony. It came perilously close to being brushed off as a dead leaf, but luckily, it dropped down and moved its head to and fro, so we let it climb back on to the plant. With small "foliaceous expansions" - leaflike ornamentation -on its joints, it was extremely difficult spotting it once it was back on the plant. Because it was rather lazy, it didn't move around too much and that made it easier to spot day after day. And yet, a few days later, it disappeared completely. I don't think I have seen anything like it earlier and all the checking of pictures on the internet has not thrown up anything similar. They say that the order Phylliidae is constantly being expanded, with newer species coming up all the time. Well, here's one Phasmid from Chennai to add to the list!

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Birds of a feather

This is a fairly recent installation at the traffic signal near Foreshore Estate, one of a series on history and environment, which is expected to complete its roll-out over the next year. (To go with the folk arts / culture series that came up a year or so ago). It is said that the idea for this one came from the fact that, since the restoration of the Adayar Creek was taken up, the bird density in this area has gone up.

This installation shows a trio of sandpipers - only that they seem to be headed off in different directions at the signal!

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Summer retreat

Until John Sullivan discovered it, Ooty (Ootacamund, or Uthagamandalam) was the homeland of the Todas and the Badagas, indigenous people of the Nilagiri Hills. Hearing much about the fabulous beauty of the hills, Sullivan, who was Collector of Coimbatore in the early 19th century, went ahead to find out for himself. What he found there seems to have transformed him completely, for his life from then on seems to have been dedicated to the preservation of the Todas, Badagas and other tribes of these hills.

In 1822, Sullivan built a house for himself in Ooty. It is said that it was the first 'proper' house there. And then, his fellow countrymen came in droves. Many came as planters; for several others, it was the perfect vacation spot, not too far from Madras, the Presidency headquarters, and yet with a climate that was almost 'back home'. There was no army to be defeated, no king to negotiate with, only the Todas and Badagas who seem to have received the newcomers quite warmly, allowing them to corner a lot of the land for their English vegetables and to build their houses. And so it seemed natural that as the summer's heat began to burn up Madras city, the administrators rushed up to the cool of the Nilgiris, officially designating Ooty the Summer Capital of the Madras Presidency, a practice that continued well after Independence, being phased out only in the late 1950s / early 1960s.

The house that Sullivan built still stands. Used as the residence of the Principal of the Government Arts College at Ooty, it is a major landmark; even though several people haven't heard of Sullivan, 'Stone House' is enough for them to give you directions to this residence!

Monday, August 9, 2010

The other end

If you've read an earlier post about Chennai airport, you would have seen the silhouette of what was the earliest passenger terminal of the airport. The aircraft rolled towards that building, turned around and sped off along the runway to take off.

At the other - the southwestern end - it rose over the boundary walls of the airport. Beyond those yellow lines of the wall is the space where the airport will expand into, over the next five years or so. And about time too!

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Catch 'n' throw

What do you do when you live in a slum and don't have space to keep pets? One option of course is to believe that every animal around your house is your own and care for them - much more effort than a single pet, but then, there will be many more people caring, as well.

Seems to be this boy had adopted the pigeon as his own. His friends were not as comfortable running behind it, but this kid was at it, over and over again. He'd run behind the pigeon - which would just hop around wherever it was, waiting for him - grab it and run across to the other side of the road. Didn't matter where the pigeon was, on top of a hut, on the door of a small shrine, on the road; he just followed it to where it was and scooped it up with one hand, very neatly.

And then he ran across the road, and bends, ready to let go in a slingshot action. Several of the passers-by ducked, and began to rumble ominously, thinking the boy was throwing a stone at them, before the rumbles turned into sheepish smiles as they saw the pigeon flying up and across the road!

Saturday, August 7, 2010

The hundred-year fire

It seems to be generally accepted that the first Parsis arrived in Madras sometime in 1795 and that they decided to stay on because the city afforded them many opportunities to turn their hand to business. In any case, Madras of the late 18th century was probably a melting pot of various nationalities and ethnic groups and so the Parsis would not have felt out of place in this great city. For a very long time, however, the Parsis did not have any formal place of worship; the major reason for this seems to be the inablity to find a priest who would settle in Madras. The Dar-e-Meher, or Fire Temple, houses the undying sacred flame that must be stoked five times a day by a priest. Without a priest, there seemed little point in building a temple.

The first permanent priest arrived in 1906. But the Dar-e-Meher itself took a while longer to come up. Parsi fire temples are of varied categories, graded by the sanctity of the fire within. The highest grade, the Atash Behram (Fire of Victory) is built by collecting fires from 16 different sources (caused by lightning, from a cremation, from furnaces operated for trade, from household hearths, and so on) and requires 32 priests to perform all the ceremonies involved in its consecration, which could take over a year to complete. At the other end is the Atash Dadgah, which could even be a lamp or a hearth over which the Yasna liturgy has been recited.

The Jal Phiroj Clubwala Dar-E-Meher is classified as an Atash Adaran (Fire of Fires), which is a combination of fires from four different sources representing four different working groups: priests, soldiers / statesmen, farmers and artisans. Named after the young son of Phiroj Clubwala, a prominent (and philanthropic) Parsi of Madras, the temple is built on land donated by him, upon which the grieving family had had this temple, designed and built by Hormusji Nowroji (another prominent Parsi of Madras) consecrated on August 7, 1910. Over the years, the monument has been the centre of their faith for the Parsis of Chennai and over the past week, they have come out strong in celebrating the centenary of the temple where the fire has been burning continuously for a hundred years, now!

Friday, August 6, 2010

Old and new trees

Looking out from the MRTS coach as it runs parallel to Rajiv Gandhi Salai (earlier called Old Mahabalipuram Road), it is nice to see the recently planted saplings all in a straight line, well trimmed and providing a green border to the road. The median, while needing a little more filling out in its shrubbery, adds to the green motif.

As far as I have been able to make out, the saplings and the shrubbery are all non-native plants, even if they have been around for a while. But what caught the eye was the lonely palm a little away from the margins of the road. It is obviously not part of the planned landscaping, but one that has been on this stretch for a long while. Maybe it was left standing out of respect for its status as the state tree of Tamil Nadu!

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Gated parking

Seeing all those cars zip around George Town, one wonders where they go to rest for the night. For a long while, I was under the impression that the cars only brought the traders into the Town; when the day's work was done, they would go away from these congested enclaves, to their garden houses along the river Adayar to come back refreshed for the next day's work.

Obviously, that is not the case. Many of those conducting their business in George Town live fairly close by, if not in the Town itself. And the cars are normally parked inside the house itself - at least, with the shutters pulled down on the portico, there is nothing between the house and the road. Maybe these are additional cars, or more likely, these cars were housed in the building that used to occupy this space - and they keep coming back to their space out of sheer habit!

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Driving through arches

McDonald's was very late in coming to Chennai. Their first outlet in India was set up as far back as 1996, when they opened their Connaught Place outlet in New Delhi. Their first outlet in Chennai was opened a dozen years later, when they took up space inside the food court at Ascendas, following with the standalone store at Anna Nagar a short while later.

The third outlet was in Velachery. Those who know Chennai from a decade ago would wonder at this - Velachery was at that time a sleepy suburb, where good folks wouldn't think of eating outside their houses, let alone get to a McDonald's at that. But Velachery has changed considerably and even for McDonald, it wasn't enough to just put another outlet there; it had to be a shade above the others in Chennai.

And so it is that Velachery boasts this family restaurant, supposedly the "only Drive-Thru' restaurant" in Chennai. Well, with the Woodlands Drive-In gone, we have to make-do with such substitutes!

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Wandering grinder

At first glance he seemed to be carrying a bicycle - no, a unicycle - on his back. Bent forward by the weight of the frame, he trudged along. A few steps down, he looked up and calculating the optimum angle for his voice to carry through the street, he bellowed, "saana pudikarathu, kaththi saana...".

There weren't many who responded to the call. Even the older folks seem to have forgotten that their knives need sharpening. And this man walked on, untiring, the grindstone-and-wheel arrangement fitted on a wooden frame that he carries on his back, looking up only to repeat his cry, "...saana pudikarathu, kaththi saana!"

Monday, August 2, 2010

A bridge too far

From a conference room on Swami Sivananda Salai - that was Adam's Road, once upon a time - it is a beautiful view of the Chennai shoreline, even if its view to the south is blocked by various buildings. And as with any view of the sea, this one is also so very peaceful and unchanging that it is easy to stand gazing at it and forget time passing by.

Luckily there are a couple of distractions: the Napier Bridge, with its six bows strung across the Cooum, the sandbar blocking the river's mouth as it empties into the Bay of Bengal, the shacks in the foreground, put up to house the labourers working at the new Assembly complex - there is enough to yank the eye away from the ships on the Madras Roads.

Even then, the windows of the conference room had a band of opaque glass running through the bottom quarter. Else, nobody in the room would pay too much attention to what is going on inside - it is far more inviting to pay attention to the outdoors!

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Bright colours

The Olcott Memorial High School merits a separate post for itself, but for today's "Theme Day" post, the colourful wall of its Craft Centre will suffice. The Craft Centre was opened in 1988, adding one more dimension to a school that started in 1894 with the aim of educating "Panchamas" - those of the fifth caste, who at that time were not welcome anywhere.

The intent of the Craft Centre is to provide skill-based education in some crafts such as carpentry, screen printing or pattern making. A few years ago, a student from George Washington University's Art Therapy program (if I'm right, it was Anne Jonas) had worked with the students of the Craft Centre to paint one of the building's walls in bright colours; here they are, still looking pretty vivid!

It is Theme Day over at the City Daily Photo portal; click here to see folks from around the world interpret today's theme. And oh, yes, it is good to be back!

Friday, June 18, 2010

Musiri's house

This is not a house which catches your eye from the street. When it was originally built by Musiri Subramania Iyer, it probably had a large garden in front of the building, and a drive-way winding up to the door from Oliver Road. Musiri was one of the first carnatic musicians to buy a car and was, according to Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer, the one man who bestowed "gauravam" (prestige) on the carnatic musician.

In keeping with his stature, this house has played host to several famous people. Apart from Musiri's contemporaries in the carnatic music firmament, businessmen, lawyers, and civil servants have all passed through its doors. These days, the doors continue to be open for anyone with more than a passing interest in carnatic music; Musiri's grandson has a sort of open house once a month or so, when one doesn't need an invite, but can walk in if interested.

The driveway, if ever there was one, is gone. So has Oliver Road - thanks to Semmangudi's lobbying, it was renamed Musiri Subramanian Salai. Quaintly enough, Subramania Iyer was not from Musiri, but was born at Bommalapalayam; his friend S.Y. Krishnaswami says that Subramania Iyer, when asked about it, is supposed to have replied half in jest, "How can a carnatic musician prefix such a name!"

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Long running stories

Almost from the time it was begun, the blackbuck (Antilope cervicapra) has been the logo of the Madras Naturalists' Society. It has also been the name of its quarterly journal, which has been in publication since 1983. Over the past 27 years, the journal has published articles from both the amateur nature lover to the celebrated naturalist.

Somewhere along the way, Penguin India decided that the archives of the Blackbuck were worth preserving; and so came about the anthology, "Sprint of the Blackbuck", edited by the well-known nature lover S. Theodore Baskaran. The volume was released a week ago by the former governor of West Bengal, Gopalakrishna Gandhi.

Theodore Baskaran's task must have been difficult, as can be seen from the end result: the writings vary in their level of detail and documentation, as can be expected. More importantly, he must have known every one of the contributors to the Blackbuck over all these years and it would have been difficult to explain why one of his friends has not made the final cut!

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Tower lamp

The basic water tower is just a device to make sure water is distributed across a limited area using the hydrostatic pressure of water from up above. There are just a few water towers which have won prizes for design - Kuwait Towers comes to mind - or have become tourist attractions like the House in the Clouds.

Chennai's water towers have been blandly functional, with few exceptions. The water tower at Besant Nagar has some flourishes around its basic cylindrical design, but the one inside the IIT Madras campus is a little more adventurous. One look at it and you are reminded of the lamp which is the centrepiece of the institute's logo!

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

The Eater's Digest - 8

The concept, they say, is to "Eat as you like, pay as you feel". Such a path-breaking concept had to emerge from a non-business mind, and that's exactly where the Annalakshmi vegetarian dining experince came from. Swami Shantananda Saraswati first put this idea into operation at Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, in 1984, before bringing it to Chennai in 1986.

There are no specialized chefs, standardized recipes or secret sauces at Annalakshmi. The food is cooked - and brought to your table - mainly by volunteers who give their time to serve the hungry. When it first opened in Madras, Annalakshmi's patrons were taken aback to find senior civil servants, musicians and other well-known public figures taking their orders and bringing the dishes to their table. That's how it has been in the Annalakshmi restaurants all over the world, across Malaysia, Singapore, Australia or India. It was an experience like no other and then, to top it all, there was no bill at the end of it. Remember, the concept is to "...pay as you feel". Of course, given the philosophy and the ambience, it is quite likely one would end up paying just that little more than the 'Management' would have charged.

I have only admired it from a distance, never having the experience of dining there. Maybe it is the 'vegetarian only' menu, but more likely it is the feeling that I will embarass myself by becoming the first person to underpay at this 'Temple of Service'!

Monday, June 14, 2010

No walking

The Kapaleeshwarar temple tank is a very soothing sight in the early light of day. A sight that's tempting enough to draw the passer-by to get close to the waters and rest a while. But it is also considered a holy tank and access is therefore restricted at points other than the temple's entrance.

An unlocked gate was tempting a few tourists to try and get in, but they were observed very soon - and the gate promptly locked up!

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Painted over

It was originally a relief of St. George and the Dragon. Successive coats of paint over the years have left it a mangled mass, with little of the detail visible. This one is on one of the grilles along the northern verandah of the Ripon Building, which is tucked away from the public and the VIP view.

I went across to that side, trying to find out what the design on the grille was; the same depiction along the main verandah was completely unrecognizable!

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Writing instruments

A shop specializing in pens seems to be a bit of an anachronism, but Gem & Co. is merely one of the more visible such specialist shops in George Town. It has been around for over 80 years, having been established by M.C.Cunnan Chetty in the mid 1920s. In its heyday, Gem & Co. was one of the largest pen companies in south India. Name a brand, and Gem & Co. would have it in stock: Pelikan, Sheafer, Parker - all those brands were carried in pretty large quantities by Gem & Co., thanks to which they still have a large inventory of spare parts for all those pens. Also in that inventory, supposedly, is a significant lode of parts for vintage Mont Blanc pens.

Apart from all these well known brands, Gem & Co. had their in-house brand: the Gama Pen. I believe the brand still exists today, but has fallen in its cachet. Today's Gamas are plastic, steel-nibbed items, probably one very much like another and therefore lacking in individuality. But through the 1940s and '50s, when the brand was new, they had very specific sub-brands. And for its high end brands - the ones that were sold between Rs.50 and Rs.75 in those days - the nibs were made of 14-carat gold, coming with their own usage rating. A number stamped on the nib, e.g., '15', indicated the years of continuous use the nib could be put to.

As if establishing this shop were not claim enough to fame, M.C. Cunnan Chetty has another reason to be remembered by the citizens of Madras. It was he who made the original 'man missing' complaint in a 1952 case which went on to become the deliciously horrifying "Alavandar Murder Case"!

Friday, June 11, 2010


The Copa Mundial is here! Watched South Africa rattle the Mexicans and it is now time for Uruguay -France.....

In the meantime, here's a picture of a couple of the local teams playing at the Jawarlal Nehru Stadium. I'm not sure who is who, but I am sure yellow shirts will win!

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Late bloomers

Well, if you get to this place at around 8 am, this is what you can expect - a general feeling of boredom, with the shopkeepers not too keen to talk to you. That's because most of their work has been done long before you arrived.

The Kamaraj Flower Market is one of the three specialized wholesale markets at Koyambedu, at the city's western border. The pookadai and the Kotwal Chavadi at George Town were relocated to the bigger, better market complex here sometime in 1996, implementing a recommendation from Madras' first master plan of 1975. Of the four blocks at Koyambedu, covering nearly 60 acres, two are for the vegetable market and the balance is shared equally between the fruit and the flower markets. Assuming an even split of visitors, the flower market gets to hose about 25,000 people, most of them traders looking to strike long-term deals on flower offtakes. The bulk of the traffic in this market gets in between 3 am and 6 am, so it is no wonder that these lads are ignoring you!

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Small court

With the sprawling campus of the High Court of Judicature at Madras (to give it its proper title; some parts of Chennai are still Madras!) literally around the corner from this building, few people pay attention to the processes of justice carried out here. Even within the pecking order of the subordinate courts, the Metropolitan Magistrates come pretty low down - in fact they are 17th on the list of Subordinate Courts in Chennai, coming in after the Court of Small Causes. No great legal razzle-dazzle happens here, for the Magistrates Courts deal with the minutiae - affidavits, remand orders, minor warrants and suchlike things.

Moreover, the Metropolitan Magistrates Court at George Town is the smallest collection of these magistrates in the city, with only 5 of the city's 26 MMs operating from here. And yet, this building manages to hold its own, mainly by being quite different from its neighbours on Rajaji Salai. While the buildings of the General Post Office and the State Bank of India's Main Branch are rich with architectural flourishes, this one just sits there as a regular, 3-storied, boxy structure, with just that little kink in its facade.

It still has some vanity; what I had earlier mistaken for patches of white plaster, or bits of handbills stuck to the building, are actually mosaic tiles, forming beautiful patterns, and even going as far as to sport a 'photographic negative' effect along one line on the top floor!

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Myanmar market?

Will keep the history of this landmark shopping area in Chennai for another day. But even the regulars to this stretch of Rajaji Salai will find it difficult to understand why all these shutters are down - but it is a Sunday, after all.

And that's one day of the week when the bustle of Burma Bazaar is far removed. It looks like it is more appropriate to call it Myanmar Market instead, given the slow trading conditions here on a Sunday!

Monday, June 7, 2010

Birthplace of 'Ob-Gyn'

INTACH's guide on Madras' architecture says the buildings are "Laid out in the shape of the female pelvis". Several sorties overhead on Google Maps does not show me any resemblance - no wonder I did not become an architect. There is however another story, of one of the early chiefs describing the building's layout in anatomical terms. Those flights of fancy are understandable, for the Government Hospital for Women and Children, (at first known as Lying-in Hospital) was the first specialised maternity hospital in India (and probably in Asia) and its early superintendents were doubtless eager to link that speciality with everything in sight.

Today, the hospital clocks around 18,000 births every year, but in its first year, it barely reached the three-figure mark. That was in 1844, when the hospital was situated nearer the River Cooum than it currently is. It was only in 1882 that the present buildings were occupied - thanks to the efforts of Sir Arthur Mudge Branfoot, KCIE, who was then a Surgeon of the Madras Medical Service. In 1921, the teaching block came up, named after Maj. Gen. G.G. Giffard, who had presided over the hospital's expansion between 1905 and 1917.

The hospital was also the birthplace of the Obstetric and Gynaecological Society of Southern India - and, in 1936 played host to the first ever national Ob-Gyn Congress, held at the Museum Theatre, just next door. With such an impressive heritage, it should be no surprise that the hospital boasts of a 120% bed-occupancy rate even today!

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Plains tea

Sitting in the Nilgiris, surrounded by a few tea plantations, it is tempting to write about how those bushes have changed the landscape of these hills. But somehow, tea plantations seem to be less of a problem in Ooty than those in Idukki, further southwest, in the neighbouring state of Kerala.

In the thick of those problems are the lands of the Kannan Devan Hills Plantations Company (KDHPC), over a thousand acres of which are to be taken over by the Kerala state government. That company was formed in 2005 when Tata Tea transferred / sold 25 of its estates in those hills to the employees and ex-employees of those estates, handing over roughly 57,000 acres in the process. But the state government claims those lands were never Tata Tea's to give away; the threat of an ordinance a few days ago is the latest in the ongoing tussle.

Looks like this board of M.S.Vel, on Armenian Street, identifying them as the agents for Kannan Devan tea will soon become redundant!