Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Vanakkam, 2009!

Raised hands, with palms joined in greeting - the traditional gesture that goes with saying 'Vanakkam' in Tamil Nadu, (or 'Namaskaram' / 'Namaste' in other parts of India). On the Marina beach, this marble representation of the greeting welcomes the sunrise every day, as it will tomorrow, too - one of the first spots of Chennai city to see the sun rising in the New Year.

Here's wishing everyone around the world a happy, prosperous, peaceful, healthy and fulfilling time in 2009!

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

As old as the hills

This is one business that began as a sort of 'mail-order' trading and then went on to become one of the best known department stores of the Bangalore-Madras circuit. The mail-order part of it was incidental. In the early days of the postal system in India, the postmen were called "runners" - some of them traversed a route so long that the postmen must have had to run nonstop to do it all in one day. One such route was the Mettupalayam-Coonoor-Ooty trip. Sometime at the turn of the 19th century, the 'runner' on this route was Muthusamy Mudaliar. Earlier runners had no dobut fulfilled the requests from the houses on the hillsides to bring butter and other dairy products up from Mettupalayam, but Muthusamy Mudaliar went a step further and opened shop at Charles Villa, Coonoor, in 1905.

With the demand for products like butter being greater from British households (the Indians presumably churned their own), the first plains location for Nilgiri's Dairy Farm was Bangalore, in 1939. By 1945, the store had expanded under Muthusamy's son Chenniappan and was offering a range of products, including ice-creams and confectionery, apart from the flagship dairy and bakery products. With a pasteurising plant in Erode, it was not too difficult to service both Bangalore and Madras, so in the 1960s, Nilgiri's products began to be sold by the Madras Farm Agencies. It would be another two decades before the first full fledged Nilgiri's store was opened in Madras, in 1981.

That store on Radhakrishnan Salai still remains the only Niligiri's run operation in Chennai, along with the Nilgiri's Nest hotel; the other stores in the city are all franchises. Actis, a PE firm took a 51% stake in Niligiri's two years ago to help the chain expand from its current 30-odd stores (in 2006) to about 500 stores by 2011. Not bad for a runner's business-on-the-side!

Monday, December 29, 2008

Riverside park

This is one of the grand ideas of Chennai that has been shaping up for a while. Billed as the first ever eco-tourism project in the state, the core of the idea is to restore the ecological balance of the Adayar creek and estuary area. The river itself has been considerably polluted; in many places, unchecked growth of slums has taken over the river's course, choking it still further. The Adyar Poonga hopes to showcase the potential of the river as a dynamic ecosystem, at least in the 'last mile' of its course.

While that may not be technically correct - the Poonga will be fed by a canal that runs off from the river just where Adyar joins the sea (does that make it a creek?) and will therefore be impacted by the coastal tides, too. In any case, once it is done, the Poonga will have restored this diverse ecosystem, which will in turn motivate similar projects along the Adayar's course, or along other rivers. But the scope of the Poonga is vast, by the standards of conservation projects in Chennai; the first phase, which is the public face of the Poonga, expected to be completed by December 2010, will cover about 58 acres, which is roughly a sixth of the 358 acres around the creek/estuary to be covered under the Ecological Restoration Programme.

For now, all you can see is some very basic information on the flora and fauna of the region; at this time of the year, there are quite a few migratory waterbirds that are nesting on an island just inside. With an opening time of 10 am, the Poonga's promise of visiting a forest and getting back to Chennai by breakfast time seems a tad out of reach just yet!

Sunday, December 28, 2008

The man himself

With so many instant celebrities around these days, the term 'living legend' has been much abused. In the case of Shri S.Rajam, however, it is the most apt description of the man, because any other attempt to describe him only serves to narrow the definition. He is a painter, but more than a painter; a singer, yet more than a singer; composer, writer, teacher, researcher, a man of many parts, each of which would be a fulfilling life by itself. Yet, going into his 90s, Rajam shows no sign of slowing down. The voice may not hold out for a full concert today, but it is still clear enough to hold down the listener. The eyes sparkle with life, with the joy of being; they are sharp enough to discern, without spectacles, the subtle shades that he colours his paintings in. The energy that he radiates will liven up even the most weary pessimist.

With teachers like Ariyakudi Ramanujam Iyer, Papanasam Sivan and Madurai Mani Iyer, Rajam's musical talent blossomed early; at thirteen, he began giving public performances. By the time he finished school, he had not only given several stage performances but had also acted in three movies - the first being 'Seetha Kalyanam', produced by Prabhat Studios of Pune (R.V.Shantaram, one of the founders of Prabhat, was trying to offset the losses incurred by the first Indian colour film, Sairandhri and offered produce a Tamizh film with the same sets and props). Rajam played Rama and his sister Jayalakshmi played the role of Seetha - this casting offended many and they strongly castigated the father, Sundaram Iyer, for allowing his children to play the roles of husband and wife! (Incidentally, that movie also had Sundaram Iyer acting as Janaka, while two more of his children, Saraswathi and Balachander, acted as Urmila and as a child musician in Ravana's court, respectively)

Maybe that was a factor in Rajam moving onto art; he joined the Government of Madras School of Arts and Crafts. With his immense talent, he completed the six year course in four years. He developed his own style, blending his love of music with classical art to give visual form to musical notes, picturing the flow of several ragas and of course, countless portraits of Carnatic music composers and Tamizh poet-saints across the ages. That his work is still very much in demand is evident from the stack of semi-finished paintings on his table!

Listen to Shri Rajam talk about life in those days or watch him sketching in a notebook.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

A picture of the trinity

Everybody knows of the Trinity. No, not the ones of religion, but those of Carnatic music. And if you know of them, I'll bet that even as you read this, you will be seeing them sitting together, Dikshitar with his veena, Thyagarajar and Syama Sastri with their tamburus, the former facing us and the latter showing us his left profile. I'm sure I've won the bet, for that's how most of us, especially those who haven't read up on Carnatic music to any great extent, have known of this trinity. Even on the (separate) postage stamps released to honour these individuals, the images of Muthuswami Dikshitar and Syama Sastri are exactly the same as you'd see on the pictures of the Trinity.

So why is Thyagaraja different? Part of the reason could be due to the growing influence of a versatile gentleman named Rajam. In 1961, when Thyagaraja's stamp was released, he was around 42 years old; while he was well-respected for his music and his art, the latter hadn't reached that stage of universal recognition where everyone knows the painting but has no clue as to the artist! By 1976, when Dikshitar was accorded the honour of a postage stamp, the image was the one that Rajam was also basing his work upon, for that meant quick recognition. In 1985, when the stamp on Syama Sastri was being prepared, Rajam's painting was used as the basis for the stamp (but credit was apparently not given). The story goes that an unknown artist had begun work on a portrait of Sastri, but could only complete it till the neck before composer's death. It was Rajam who gave it a body and, in the 1940s, brought together the three greats when the Music Academy commissioned him to paint the Trinity.

Since then, Rajam has made literally hundreds of the Trinity paintings; last week, when some of us had a chance to visit him at home, he showed us a pile of the same paintings that he was working on, among others. As he sketched an outline for us, it was indeed an honour to see the image of the Trinity coming into shape before our eyes!

Friday, December 26, 2008

Administrative block

The District Collector is arguably the most powerful government official in any district of India. The position was instituted by the British and was in many instances the de-facto ruler of the district; so his (for a long time - the first district collector was appointed sometime in the 1770s, but a woman in that position did not happen until the late 1900s) office not only reflected the awe-inspiring nature of his duties but also the prosperity of the district under his control. Considering that Madras was one of the earliest parts of the country to come under the control of the British, it is reasonable to expect that the Collectorate offices are housed in a building befitting that legacy.

But for some reason, the Madras Collectorate was a more workmanlike office; the first building exclusively for the District Collector of Madras was one that was constructed almost a century earlier; it had been built in 1793 for the use of merchants who could not be accommodated inside Fort St George. It was only after some renovations in 1817, when the Supreme Court of Madras moved to it, that the building was named 'Bentinck's Building'. It continued to house the Presidency High Court, after the Supreme Court of Madras was abolished in 1862. In 1892, after the Courts vacated Bentinck's Building to move to their own complex that the building took on the mantle of the Collectorate. It was used as such until the mid-1980s, when they vacated the building for it to be pulled down. The decision to demolish the building was taken in the mid-1970s, but the vanguard of Chennai's heritage movement managed to stave off the act for well over a decade. Once the Collectorate moved out, the building was literally left to rot. However, it didn't cooperate and after about five years of waiting for it to collapse, the official machinery took on that task itself - at it took them more than a year to do it, such was the solidity of Bentinck's Building. The only part of the old complex they left undisturbed was the last cupola that held the wandering statue of Lord Cornwallis.

In its place came up this rather unimaginative and uninspiring block. Even naming it after Comrade M.Singaravelar, that doyen of India's labour movement, has done little to create any feeling of awe, it just looks like an administrative block!

A picture of Bentinck's building can be seen on the Chennai Collectorate webpage.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Stopped clock

If it hadn't been for a small dial on the map, it would have been easy to go past this clock tower without realizing its existence. Unlike the ones on White's Road or at the end of Radhakrishnan Salai, this one is along the side of the road rather than at an island in the centre. In that aspect, it is more like the one at Doveton, though the latter has its own little island patch. Lacking any such build-up around it, this clock tower stands at the corner of Tiruvottiyur High Road and Sannithi Street, looking rather unkempt and forlorn.

Unkempt it is, alright. The three clock towers that have been written about earlier were all showing the correct time, even if the one at Doveton could have done with a coat of paint. This one seems to have had a recent paint job done on it, but that does not make up for the lack of functionality. Each face shows a different time; before anyone makes a claim that this clock tower shows international times, let me add that the clock has stopped running, too.

All told, the excitement of seeing the dial on the roadmap wore off very quickly. This is not one of the old world clock towers; the foundation stone at its base was in Tamizh, though the letters are indecipherable. From what can be seen, one would guess this tower to be about 30 to 40 years old; with the older ones working fine, age cannot be an excuse for its almost complete neglect!

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

The Eater's Digest - 5

The area around Gemini Circle is teeming with offices. Many of the office complexes here were built at a time when cafeterias in offices was an unheard-of concept. Chances are the employees wouldn't have liked it, too, because they were used to bringing lunch in their tiffin carriers; an all purpose 'lunch room', which doubled up as storage space and many a time as a nice snooze spot was all they asked for, so the multiple storeys of the tiffin carriers could be spread around and maybe a communal lunch had with the colleagues.

As the pace of the workaday increased, lunch from home became a rare luxury; add to that the Parsn Manere coming up as an office complex for small businesses, many of them were just half the size of a lunch room anyway. That's when there was an explosion of lunch options within half-a-kilometre radius of the Gemini Circle. They included roadside vendors, lunch deliveries, dinky little vehicles with candy-stripe awnings that would drive up, park and unfold their wares at lunch time only. Many of those options, especially the step-out-of-office-to-eat ones, died out quickly. Palimar is one of the survivors from that era of the 1980s.

Of course, the food is not what it used to be. Somehow Palimar seemed to be always opening another restaurant somewhere else; those would be good for a while, but would then shut down rather quickly. With so much of attention focussed on the new locations, the quality at the 'original' Palimar has kept on its downward track, more's the pity!

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Are you daft?

Waking up at 4.30 am after a pleasantly mellow Saturday evening does merit the question being asked. With an 85 km drive ahead, and a desire to complete it before 6.30 am, it isn't advisable to sleep for much longer. What's with the drive, you ask? Well, that's how far away the Vedanthangal (does it actually mean "hunter's pause" - vedan + thangal?) bird sanctuary is. It is a 'seasonal sanctuary', if there can be such a term, attracting birds during the northern winter, between October and February. Though 'sanctuary' is a rather grand term - there is just a large lake dotted with barringtonia and a clump of bamboos, with a walkway along its southern shore - Vedanthangal is a historic example of environment protection.

Long years ago, the villagers of Vedanthangal were intrigued by the huge number of birds that visited them year after year, just after the monsoons. Not fully understanding their migratory patterns, the villagers protected them still, for they realized that the water in the tank was enriched by the birds' droppings, thereby providing natural fertilizer for their fields. Thus, when the British arrived at this location in the early 20th century, drawn by abundant quarry for their game shoots, the villagers protested and made sure the hunters didn't return after the first season. Others did, most notably R.S.P.Bates, who pieced together evidence to show that heronries existed in Vedanthangal as far back as 1798. Thanks to their efforts, the area became India's first bird sanctuary in 1895. More recently, some scholars have postulated that Vedanthangal's history dates back thousands of years; let's just say that the villagers have always known and appreciated the role played by their winter visitors.

The southern edge of the lake, as I've said, is a walkway, built on a high bund bordering the lake. At its easternmost end, the bund falls off and you see this - imagine building a wall to keep the waters in the lake!

The birds of Vedanthangal are too beautiful for my dinky camera to do justice to them. Charlie's blog post on Vedanthangal, at, has some great pictures; the ones I did take are on this Picasa page.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Morning light

The morning sun striking the aluminum & glass sheathed building gives it a golden sheen. This building - belonging to Cap Gemini, through its acquisition of Kanbay - has been constructed on a site where there was an old shed going by the name of Goschen Home.

Haven't been able to find any reference to that building anywhere. It used to house the office of the DIG of Police; but that was quite a while earlier, almost 12 years ago. The demolition of Goschen Home does not seem to have troubled anyone in Chennai!

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Tomorrow's recreational space

It is rather difficult to believe that this used to be a decent, tarred road; expecting anyone to believe this stretch of pits and bumps is called Mambalam High Road is asking for the near impossible. Long ago, when the Kodambakkam bridge was yet to be built, Mambalam High Road was a connect from the Periya Gate there to the Chinna Gate at Rangarajapuram. Vehicles would try to beat the system by rushing across to the Chinna Gate, hoping to take advantage of an earlier opening or a later closing of the gate. Ever since the bridge came up, Usman Road took over the function of being the main traffic channel and Mambalam High Road sunk to a low.

Things can only get better for it, one hopes. With a subway under construction at the Chinna Gate, this road will end up being one that just runs along, without taking you anywhere. If it comes to that, I wonder how all this space would be used!

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Graveyard trip

According to legend, old elephants instinctively move to their final resting place when they recognize their time on the planet is running out. At one level it seems to be plausible. After all, if eons of creation have implanted the urge to run upstream to spawn (and then die) - as in salmon - or to come to the same beaches year after year - as in the turtle arribada - the reverse may be true in the case of elephants? Certainly writers like H.Rider Haggard (King Solomon's Mines) and Edgar Rice Burroughs (the Tarzan series) and the Lion King movies (and musical) helped in building up the legend that the gentle giants make their way to a common place to - curl up and die.

Cut to the city life. Where do buses go when their useful life is over? Sure, there must be some wrecking yards somewhere that cut, rip, and tear apart the pipes, cast iron and sheet metal that make up the elephants of the city. The images that come to mind of such yards are all from Hollywood movies. I cannot remember having seen a similar yard anywhere in Chennai. But once the scale is recalibrated, it seems likely they are all over the place. More likely that the scrap dealers go to the condemned buses and reduce them to pieces of metal with just a couple of oxy-acetylene torches, than have all the outdated buses come to one place.

There is probably one place, somewhere near Porur, where I've seen a couple of bus 'skeletons' standing around. Seeing this going in the same general direction, I guess that's where the bus graveyard is. Does anyone know for sure?

Friday, December 19, 2008


It is tempting to think that with Rainwater Harvesting having been mandated for both new constructions as well as for existing buildings, the problem of Chennai's water supply has been adequately addressed. The move has surely helped in improving the water table (apart from adding one more strand to the red tape of seeking an approval to construct a building), but there are still large areas of the city that have to cope with limited availability of clean water for cooking and drinking. It is estimated that Chennai and its suburbs currently need about 1.5 billion litres of water a day, a figure that is expected to touch 2 billion in the next 12 years. The gap between demand and locally produced supply is almost 50%; water from the Krishna river, in Andhra Pradesh has been of immense help in narrowing that gap down. And thanks to the good monsoons of the past few years, the gap is even lesser, now.

At the turn of the millenium however, Chennai was completely dry. The Chennai Metropolitan Water Supply and Sewerage Board (Metrowater) was simply unable to pump water out of the ground. Various ideas were put forward, including proposals for a giant de-salination plant feeding on the Bay of Bengal. Through all that hot air that circulated, the only means of getting water across to the city was the fleet of tankers that were owned or leased by the Metrowater. Traversing the city from their filling points at various locations in the 16 Metrowater zones, the tankers tried to meet the water needs of the city dwellers; but the long lines of colourful plastic pots, queueing up for the tanker to arrive, just did not seem to be shortening. Today, some of those proposals are being, or have been, implemented. The desalination plants are being built, even if on a less grandiose scale than was originally proposed.

But until those plans are implemented, tankers (like the one in the picture, coming out of the Mylapore - Nandanam distribution point) will remain the lifeline to a majority of Chennai's citizens!

Thursday, December 18, 2008

What's that, again

Given the general chaos around the place where bridges are being built, the 'Go Slow' sign is a bit superfluous, one would think.

Unless of course, it is a comment on the nature of the bridge work that's in progress...

Take your pick!

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

The patriarch

Founded in 1928, The Music Academy was conceptualized as an institution to promote the study, practice and performance of Carnatic music around the area of its birth. The idea arose at the All India Music Conference of 1927. Now the All India Music Conference itself began as a sideshow of the Indian National Congress' annual sessions, so when it was Chennai's turn to host the Congress session, S.Sathyamurthy wanted the Music Conference also to be conducted with it. At the end of the Conference, one of the resolutions that were passed was a request to "organise a Music Academy in Madras for the purpose of improving and encouraging Indian Music and to consider the various problems concerning the theory and practice of Indian Music". Probably this was the influence of a paper presented by Mr. Ramachandran, titled "The Need for an Academy of Music".

Formally, The Music Academy came into being on August 18, 1928, when it was inaugurated by CP Ramaswamy Aiyer. Dr. U.Rama Rau was its Founder-President and so, the office of the Academy began functioning out of his dispensary at 323, Thambu Chetty Street. Mandated to hold annual music conferences and other music conferences whenever convenient, the newly formed academy always struggled to find suitable venues. The first few conferences (annual or otherwise) were held at various parts of Chennai: behind the Ripon Building; at 'Funnels', on General Patters Road, at Woodlands, Royapettah, at the University's Senate House and even at Dr. Rama Rau's dispensary. Tired of such itinerant conferences, TT Krishnamachari and Kasturi Srinivasan worked hard to come up with this permanent complex for the Academy, and are remembered through the names of the auditoria in the complex.

Somewhat surprisingly, it took seven years fom the time the foundation stone was laid by Jawaharlal Nehru to the day when Sri Jayachamaraja Wodeyar declared it open. Thankfully, the time taken seems to have been worth it!

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Match the flower

The theme seems to be 'Let them have any colour, as long as it is not black'. Going on the East Coast Road recently, I happened to see several stacks of these kind of flowerpots along the road. Great idea to match these indoor planters with the colours of flowers that grow in them!

Monday, December 15, 2008

Mall ra(n)t-ing

In 1938, Victor Gruen fled his native Austria to escape from the Nazi invasion. Though trained as an architect, he couldn't find enough work in his adopted country, the USA, and found himself working on store designs, which was infra dig for architects in those days. As time went by, he found himself specialising in designing larger and larger shopping spaces. Between 1954 and 1956, he designed two large malls which went on to become the de-facto templates for shopping malls the world over. However, Gruen was apalled by the Frankenstein's monster he had unleashed - only the store part of his design was implemented and the rest of his vision, of the mall as a mini-community, with apartments, medical facilities, lake, etc. was chopped off in pursuit of profits from shopping centres. Having conceptualized the mall as a replication of the shopping district of his native Vienna, he was apalled to find that those districts had given way to shopping malls. He declared himself as being in "severe emotional shock" at the sprawl around his shopping centres and in 1978, two years before his death, said that he refused to pay "alimony for those bastard developments".

Of course, we believe that we learn from our mistakes; maybe we learn from the smaller ones - the malls of today are more airy, spacious-looking (and safer?) than the shopping centres of old where shops were crammed in all shapes and sizes, with merchandise spilling out on to walking area too. The larger mistakes? They're probably too large to be seen with the naked eye. The Chennai City Centre seems to be impressive at first look, with its mish-mash of architectural styles and flourishes. I try to avoid going to it though, because the overpowering feeling is of claustrophobia.

That's not something hundreds of other people feel, obviously. The Chennai City Centre should be thankful for that!

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Sightseeing spot

Of course it should be a natural impulse for first time visitors to desire to see more of Chennai. I however have a gut feeling that many of the visitors who come to the city are either business visitors or those who are passing through Chennai towards Pondicherry or parts of Kerala rather than having an intent of staying in the city itself. And that includes a huge number of domestic tourists who regard Chennai as nothing more than a point to change trains. The rank of Chennai in the list of tourist destinations in India is heightened only because it is a point of entry to a range of locations catering to a variety of tourists.

In a dangerous portent of a self-fulfilling prophecy foretold, the state government has excluded Chennai from the list of cities where tourist facilities are proposed to be augmented. Mr. V. Sriram, the writer, has detailed several reasons why Chennai's wonderful tourist attractions are overlooked - and in doing so, has given enough ideas for entrepreneurs to come up with business plans centered on Chennai tourism. One of the points has to do with lack of information at the airport. It may not be what Mr. Sriram had meant, but for a long while, there was not even sign indicating the direction to take towards the city, at the airport. The sign shown here came up only a few years ago.

Behind the sign is the new flyover, allowing vehicles coming into Chennai from the southern districts to go over the traffic that turns into the airport. That vehicle to the left of the sign stood on the flyover for quite a long while, allowing its passenger the chance to see several aircraft taking off and landing - now, that seems to be a new kind of sight-seeing tourist demographic that could be tapped into!

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Competing colleges

It is a proud - and often debated - contention that south India is the hub of engineering education in the country. While the debate around the quality of engineering research or the funding for higher engineering degrees has some legs to stagger around on, any set of data on the number of 4-year engineering degree graduates will put 'quantity' out of the debate. For sheer numbers, Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu are way ahead; Maharashtra, in 3rd place, graduates less than 60% the number that Tamil Nadu does. Between them, the four southern states account for about 300,000 of the country's 550,000+ engineering graduates.

Tamil Nadu was one of the early states to open up engineering education to the private sector, through self-financing colleges; over the past 25 years, the early colleges have moved up to becoming well respected institutions. The newer ones come in knowing fully well that they have to hit the ground running with decent infrastructure, faculty and support services if they hope to succeed. That's a far cry from the early self-financing colleges, some of which had palm-leaf roofed classrooms and no laboratory infrastructure to speak of. The first batches of students were grateful that they had the opportunity to work towards an engineering degree, that they thought nothing of clambering on to the overloaded public transport system to reach their colleges on the outskirts of Madras.

Today, it is a competitive disadvantage for a college not to have its own transport service for students and faculty - the early morning roads see the buses of several colleges zooming away from the city, full of students catching up on their sleep. Luxury for the students? More an indictment of a public transport infrastructure that hasn't kept up with the changing needs!

Friday, December 12, 2008

Mixed colours?

I'll give you one guess as to what kind of a shop this could be.

Noticed this shop a few days ago, but when I passed by it today, the fallen buntings of some political party showed up a nice contrast of colour with the blue and pink...

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Festival month

In Tamil Nadu especially, Deepavali is not The festival of lights. The reason for Deepavali is completely different, indeed an avatar behind, from the north Indian Deepavali tradition. It takes another month, almost for the south Indian festival of lights to turn up as it does in the month following Aipasi, which is when Deepavali is celebrated. Since the month is Karthigai, the festival of lights, which falls on the full moon day in the month - which is also the day when the star Karthigai is on the ascendent - is simply called Karthigai Deepam (the lamp of Karthigai).

Legend has it that Shiva wanted to put an end to a quarrel between Brahma and Vishnu over who was the more powerful of the two. Distracted by a huge pillar of fire, the two of them travel to opposite ends of the pillar - and realize that this is a pillar of fire without beginning or end, the whole of eternity, the Lord Shiva himself. The lamps lit today symbolize that form of Shiva, which is manifest at Thiruvannamalai, as Arunachalam.

This is legend after all. So it needs a counter legend, too; it was on the full moon day of Karthigai that six babies were found floating on the lotus leaves at Saravana Poigai. Parvathi, who found them, joined them together to create her child, Karthikeyan. Whichever be the legend you choose, the small charad / agal vilakku (earthern lamp) in front of the houses remind you that this is the festival of lights, after all!

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Who's the man?

It is one of the shopping hotspots of Chennai, but how it came by its name remains a mystery. The pavements along Sir Theyagaraya Road are chock-full of anything that you would ever need in life. Someone said of Harrods; "If you ask them for an elephant meat sandwich, they will ask you what kind of bread you would like". The traders of Pondy Bazaar would go further than that, I reckon and offer you the entire range of elephants, from African to the woolly mammoth. Of course, if you were showing off, you'd probably end up with the meat of some local mammal, which may not be the case at Harrods.

Who was the 'Pondy' of the bazaar? Was it a contraction of 'Pandian' the dynasty that ruled over Madurai of yore? Was it because the first traders came from Pondicherry - one version has it that a certain Devaraja Mudaliar from Pondicherry built the first shops on Sir Theyagaraya Road and called it Pondy Bazaar? Or, as a school mate averred, long years ago, is it a corruption of the lingerie that's one of the fastest selling items on the pavement?

Some years ago, the state government declared that the original name of this market - 'bazaar' in Hindi, 'angadi' in Tamil - is 'Soundarapandianar Angadi'. Conveniently, they did not mention what Soundarapandianar's claim to fame is, so I'm guessing he must be some party big shot's ancestor!

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

One bridge and a half

These lions guarding the northern end of Thiru Vi Ka bridge were probably intended to direct people to the new bridge when it was opened in 1973. They have their brothers on the southern end, on the opposite side. That the lions are placed only on the side that traffic enters the bridge is why I think of them as bridge markers, drawing people into the new spur of road, which is what the bridge was 35 years ago.

Today it is the Adyar Bridge; the older Elphinstone bridge just to its east is broken in the middle and cannot even think of holding traffic any longer. It had served the city well, in the 133 years of its life. In 1846, just six years after construction was complete, one of the pillars of the Elphinstone Bridge was swept away by monsoon-fed current of the Adyar. The bridge continued its function without any readily apparent shortcomings.

We wish that the 'new' Thiru Vi Ka bridge remains for at least half the time that its predecessor did!

Monday, December 8, 2008

Famous theatre

It has been around for quite a long while, now. I am sure it pre-dates many of the other cinema halls in the area broadly known as Kodambakkam - an area that includes within its definition almost all the famous movie studios of yesteryear, all those bits and pieces of the industry that grew to be called Kollywood. The halls that came after it are gone or, at best, are in the same state of poor repair that Liberty Theatre is in today.

But in its time it was the lord of the west side of Kodambakkam bridge. It was the landmark; businesses nearby have used its name to further their interests, be it Liberty Park (the hotel) or Liberty Xerox, a photocopy shop tucked away in some recess near the theatre. I know of at least two movies, Jaganmohini and Oru Thalai Raagam that played here for over 25 weeks, in those days when 25 weeks meant 3 (sometimes 4) shows of the same movie, every day, for 25 weeks. Such glory days are well behind it, now. It visibly looks like it can't make the effort to screen a new movie and ekes out an existence by re-running all those hits of decades ago.

I read somewhere once, long ago, that Liberty is the only cinema hall (of good standing) in Asia that projects pictures on to a white wall, rather than onto a screen - don't know how true that was, but it looks like even that wall may be completely sullied, now!

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Well positioned statue

This man came into prominence in early 1984, when the Cholan Roadways Corporation was split and one of the splinter groups was named 'Dheeran Chinnamalai Transport Corporation'. For a while back then, I believed that he had something to do with the Little Mount area in Chennai, because 'Little Mount' is what Chinnamalai translates as. And then, when this statue of the man was installed opposite the Guindy railway station a few years ago, I had reason to recollect that connection with Little Mount, because that's not far away from the Guindy station. Did he actually have something to do with the locality, after all?

Apparently, that's not the case. Born as Theerthagiri, he came by his more popular name because of his bravery (Dheeram) in opposing Hyder Ali's tax collectors. The people of the Kongu region (where he was a local chieftain) rallied behind him, declaring that the King of Mysore now had to cross not only the geographical formations of Sivan Malai and Chenni Malai, but also the human Chinna Malai to get to them. It is a different matter that Theerthagiri went on to side with Hyder's son, Tipu Sultan, to fight against the British. For six years after Tipu's death, Theerthagiri continued to undermine British supremacy in the Kongu region, until he was caught and finally hanged in 1805; like that of a few other local chieftains of the time, his story was also used as a rallying cry against British rule.

The positioning of the statue seems strangely appropriate. Not just because it is close to Little Mount, but also because it is right behind a very high-traffic bus stop - recalling the route of his rise to recognition amidst the '80s generation!

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Secure the airports

Airports all across the country have been on high alert. Chennai's airport has been no exception. A couple of days ago, the police had begun to check vehicles entering the airport area before allowing them to go near the terminal buildings. Now they have restricted vehicles from even coming close to the buildings; passengers are required to get off around 100m away from the buildings and walk into them. There is an advisory that passengers have to get to the airport at least 3 hours ahead of their flight time. That's a big bummer, especially if you're travelling to Bangalore; another two-and-a-half hours on the road and you'll reach Bangalore... that sounds like an easier way to travel!

The last really serious incident at the Chennai airport was 24 years ago, when a bomb planted by Tamil extremists went off at the airport on the night of August 2-3, 1984, killing 30 people. At that time, it was described as 'an accident'; the nascent Tamil militancy in Sri Lanka was looking for ways to harm and this bomb was to be ferried from Madras to Colombo on an Air Lanka flight and was timed to explode at the Colombo airport. One version has it that the flight was delayed and so the bomb went off at Madras; another version has it that the luggage was misrouted to a London flight and then was not allowed on the plane because they couldn't match it to any passenger, so it remained in Madras airport.

Took this photograph because I spotted the tail of an Air India jet. The police checkpoint was just after this point where we turned left. Looking at the photograph later, I was thinking about how trusting we are - even when we are carrying out all the security checks, we trust that anyone trying stunts would come in, take the left turn and move along the normal road. It certainly wouldn't be too much trouble for a madman to drive straight on from this point and maybe smash through that wall itself!

Friday, December 5, 2008

Star light, star bright

Despite all the doom and gloom around, there are still many reasons to celebrate. Noticed the Christmas stars for sale for the first time this season only this evening. All the 'fancy stores' have them, reminding us that the festival season is not over yet.

There were a couple of other shops with brighter stars; missed taking pictures as I passed by, because this one was meant to be. Bright and fancy!

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Enter over, now

Heading back into the city from the airport this morning, we took a different route over the grade separator at Kathipara. This time around, with all the links at Kathipara fully functional, we could actually go over towards Jawaharlal Nehru road, rather than ducking under, as we did six months ago.

Now that all the construction debris is hidden from view, it is a nice sight for all the corporate types to see - a swank interchange, one arm of which leads you to a set of rather techie looking buildings. And all those traffic holdups as you enter the city, they're now a dim memory of the past!

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

First, in a way

The Directors of the British East India Company were clear in their minds about the separation of the Church and the Firm. They were in it to make coin, not save souls and did not vex their minds too much about attending to the spiritual needs of their representatives in the newly created outpost at Madraspatnam. The honour of the first church in the Fort, therefore does not go to this building with the imposing spire. Yet, it has a first to its credit, being the oldest Anglican church east of the Suez.

In the late 17th century, the task of designing buildings often fell to gunners - maybe because they knew how a building could be destroyed, they could design one that could not be. In any case, William Dixon, the Chief Gunner of Fort St George was assigned to build the church. The money? Since the Company had refused to sanction any finances for such frivolity, construction of the church was funded by subscriptions from the 'locals'. Dixon was a gunner who knew his business, for St Mary's Church was consecrated in 1680, with a four-foot thick, dome shaped roof; one that withstood the cannonballs that de Lally threw at it from Parry's Corner during the siege of Madras in 1758. (The spire was added 200 years after the church was built, in 1884)

But that was much later; within a week of its consecration, the church recorded the first marriage, on November 4, 1680. The groom? A certain Elihu Yale, Esq., who is well known as the benefactor of that great academic institution!

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Not the sundal you know

Time was when pushcarts such as these were extremely homogenous. Every one of them had the same basic ingredients: greenpeas, chickpeas, slices of unripe mangoes, grated (or finely chopped) coconut, salt, chilli powder... and then the power of the maker takes over. Whether you took your custom to Balu or to Ramu depended upon how well the man knew your taste, and how he'd balance the salt to be just right for you. Were there pushcarts in those days? Unlikely, you say? Maybe you're right, for the sundal came to its own on the sands of the Marina Beach, which are not the easiest terrain to push a laden cart through.

With more options for an evening out than just the Marina, the options for push-cart-snacking have also grown. Chennai has also become quietly cosmopolitan, no matter what outsiders might say. Here's proof, if you will: the sundal has ceded a fair amount of space to crunch-munch delicacies imported from other parts of India. Jhal mudi on the push carts was just impossible to come by a few years ago, but now, it looks like Chennai has taken to it with a vengeance.

Writing about sundal and jhal mudi has only served to make me drool - I can't think of what to write any more!

Monday, December 1, 2008

Fork in the flyover

It didn't seem like much when it was being built, but the LB Road / Sardar Patel Road flyover has quite eased a significant part of the bottlenecking on those roads.