Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Another one rises

A few weeks ago, the smooth surface of the Jawaharlal Nehru Road was broken up and this barricade came around it. That is the first visible indication of the Chennai Metro project having begun in earnest. Expected to take six years to complete, the project is estimated at over USD 3 billion.

Though they say the first phase - from Teynampet to the airport - will be operational by 2011, there is no sign of any work having begun at either of those ends!

Monday, June 29, 2009

Chennai's finest

It has been almost three years since Chennai's police force was gifted these prowl cars by Hyundai Motors. Until then, the standard vehicle for the police was the Willys Jeep, or something similar. But somehow, the abiding image of cops seems to be one associated with red-white-blue lights, a low sedan with snazzy decals screeching up to the scene of action and the Chennai Metropolitan Police was nowhere in the picture on this one. In fact, with the introduction of these sedans in 2006, the CMP reportedly became the first police department in the country to use sedans.

One hundred of these were provided to the city's police force; 72 were given to the law-and-order wing, 25 to the traffic police and the rest were retained for the chief minister's convoy. They were supposed to be driven by officers of the rank of at least sub-inspector - but I suspect that the novelty having worn off, the sub-inspectors would rather have someone else drive the car these days while they call out the warnings on their hailers!

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Unfit for occupation

Seen on a building on Walajah Road. Yes, it looked pretty bad, and it didn't seem like there were any occupants. But some boards were there, so not sure if they were tenants refusing to vacate, or just those who left in so much of a hurry as to not take their boards with them.

Or is the threat of imminent demolition just a trick to get those tenants out?

Saturday, June 27, 2009


Oh yes, I just have to show off that word - it means "the curve assumed by a cord of uniform density and cross section that is perfectly flexible but not capable of being stretched and that hangs freely from two fixed points". Apparently, the definition for that kind of a curve has also been adapted to describe the Overhead Line Equipment (OHLE) that is used to power trains running on electricity - as the ones on Chennai's suburban lines are.

This is a stretch of the railway tracks just across the road from the airport; it is a rather straight stretch, which is fairly common on the Tambaram - Beach line. The catenaries are hung out from points on the crossbar; the whole arrangement looked like a series of goal posts - was tempted to show them all receeding into the distance, fitting inside each other, but it didn't seem like a good idea to stand in between the tracks trying to get a 'perfect picture', so I just settled for this one.

There was something I noticed then, something that continues to intrigue me: what are those rolls of - wire mesh? I mean the green things tucked inside the crossbar, on its left. It can be seen in every one of the crossbars. Does anyone have any idea what that is for?

Friday, June 26, 2009

Corsican Messina connection

If one were to turn left into Mount Road from Walajah Road, the angle of the junction will bring to view this it-might-have-been-grand-once-upon-a-time kind of building. The location of the building, at the dog-leg where Blackers Road turns off from Mount Road, may not seem to be a great one today, but in the late 19th century, it would certainly catch the eye of anyone going down to St Thomas' Mount from the Fort.

But Giacomo d'Angeli wasn't thinking about location or anything like that when he came to Madras from his native Corsica Messina in 1880. All he wanted was a place to set up his catering service, "Maison Francaise". It was a most likely a novelty intially, a Corsican Messinan 'Mess Contractor' providing catering services under the supervision of a French chef. Business was good enough for d'Angeli to stick to it for over twenty years; he then got a lucky break when Lord Ampthill, governor of Madras from 1900 to 1906 insisted that all his parties would be exclusively catered to by d'Angeli. That break set Giacomo on the road to prosperity; in 1906, he opened the Hotel d'Angeli's in this triangle-shaped building, with its east windows and the first floor verandah looking out on to Mount Road. In time, Hotel d'Angeli's became the place to be in; many innovations were brought to Madras by good old Giacomo - elevators, running hot water, electric fans, cold storage, billiard rooms - all these luxuries brought in patrons by the droves, even after Giacomo sold out the business to the Bosottos sometime in the 1920s 1930.

The Bosottos themselves got out of the hotel business in the 1940s and since then, Hotel d'Angeli's began to go downhill, until it was converted into an office complex - without any major changes - in the late 1960s. Today, a large Bata showroom occupies the ground floor, where the lobby and tea-room used to be. The rest of the building is little cared for and seems to have turned away with a vengeance from its days of glamour.

There does not seem to be any record of what Giacomo d'Angeli did after selling his hotel; he would have been around sixty at that time and no one seems to have any idea of where he went after the Bosottos took over his hotel. But search for "d'Angeli" on Google today and you will find a host of catering-related results in the first page, ranging from Naples, FL, USA to Singapore. Maybe there is something more to the d'Angeli name, after all!

After putting up this post, I was pleasantly surprised to find that Giacomo d'Angeli's great grandson, Jefferies Evans had read it and had pointed out a couple of errors. I have been guilty of not correctling them until now - that's the explanation for the strikethroughs!

Thursday, June 25, 2009


What kind? I have no idea. Just thought they looked good, when I saw them at Neelankarai, just off the East Coast Road. The plant was rather unkempt; but the flowers lift up your spirit with their sheer freshness - what more can you ask for on a hot day, under the blazing sun at Neelankarai!

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Interior, day.

Well, it is not exactly the setting for a play, but it just gives you a sense of what the Museum Theatre looks like inside. It is quite a steep drop from the doors to the stage, giving you a sense of being in an amphitheatre of olden days. A big difference is that the hall is not really semi-circular, but more a deep horseshoe. It was built more for vocal expositions than for theatrics, which is probably why it was okay to have seats at 90-degree angle to the stage. In today's times, someone in that seat would miss out on almost every expression the actors convey, so there are always two wedges of empty seats along the sides.

The 'pit' is not really as well defined as the one in the Music Academy; in fact, it is non-existent, if I'm right. Now that I think about it, I realize I have no idea where the production crew, which would normally be in the pit, sits in this theatre. The space in front of the stage is filled with seats, almost up to the footlights. There are about a hundred seats there and those are the pricey ones; if you've opted for a cheaper ticket, the best thing to do is to rush in when the doors open and take your place somewhere just behind a railing which separates the 'front-benchers' from the rest.

For this event, there were no tickets - it was a quiz competition and everyone was trying hard to get into the front, so as to not miss a single pixel of the questions being projected - and during the break, one member of each team seems to have stayed behind to guard the hard-earned seating!

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Beachside Drive-in

If this photo had been taken a few hours later, it would have been full of people. But at noon, there is really no reason for anyone to be crowding at the gates of Chennai's only drive-in theatre, considering that the first show is seven hours away. With the city's expansion, what was once a difficult-to-reach destination is now close enough for people to actually go and watch a movie out there. Despite that, Prarthana doesn't seem to be getting the bigger movies, having to make do with second-rung films or ones that are on their second wind.

It has been quite a while since I've been to a movie here, but memories of doing so are quite pleasant - except for the scramble to get into the gates. That's a test of patience and it takes a lot to curb roadrage when you see someone cut in front of you after you've crawled for about 20 minutes to cover the last half-kilometre to the gates. Inside, there is enough space; though I don't remember the actual capacity, I'm sure there's enough space for at least 75 cars - that's quite a lot of people, not including the 100 or so who, having come on their two wheelers, can sit at the back.

The complex also has a regular theatre - Aradhana. That's something I didn't know until very recently - haven't heard of anyone going all the way to Prarthana and then deciding not to do the drive-in bit!

Monday, June 22, 2009

Tower garage

It is about 90 feet tall, squarish and stands all by itself a little away from the gopuram of the Kapaleeshwarar temple. And no, it does not have any ramps leading up to it, so it cannot be a multi-level car park, can it?

It is actually the parking spot for a single vehicle. A single vehicle which is used once - or maybe twice - a year. That vehicle is the chariot, the ther which is used to take the main deity in a procession around the temple on the important festival days. This is a common enough practice in many of Tamil Nadu's temples - and the chariots are mostly parked in a thatched shed, close to the temple gates.

At the Kapaleeshwarar temple, the chariot itself has become a venerated item over the years; that is probably the reason why it has been locked up in its own garage, where it can stay away from the eyes - and the hands - of devotees, emerging grandly on the day when it has to show itself off in all its glory!

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Haircut, anyone?

Chennai does have its fair share of high end hair stylists, but the city obviously has enough population to keep a large number of 'hair dressing saloons' in business. Many of these saloons have upgraded themselves - they're air-conditioned, have a variety of scissors (that's big deal, considering most of them used to have just a blunt shear to hack at my schoolboy hair) and offer you full-service; hair colouring to pedicure with all kinds of beautification in between.

I'm old enough to have seen - yet, young enough to have not used :) - the itinerant barbers stropping their razors under trees by the roadsides of suburban Madras. They too, offered full service, with a 'head-massage' rounding off the shave and a haircut that most customers desired. Now, here's a shop that stays true to its roadside heritage - there is no door, just 3 walls blocking off a space by the pavement. The plastic chairs for waiting customers are on the pavement itself, as is the asbestos sunshade over them. All you have to do is to step off the pavement, and plonk right into the barber's chair!

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Menagerie City - 7

These were common sights once upon a time, even in the centre of the city. Cattle would meander through Mount Road, making their way back home from wherever it was they went to graze. But over the past couple of decades, the few bovines that can be seen are the bullocks used as a cheap option for transporting material - typically construction material like bricks, timber, or cement.

The farm hasn't left the city completely yet. This picture was taken less than a couple of kilometres from the entrance to Chennai's international airport. Of course it is in a direction away from the city - into Thirusoolam hill, but it still shows glimpses of the rustic city - how is that for an oxymoron - that Chennai once was!

Friday, June 19, 2009

Roadside fire

Like many of the others on the Old Mahabalipuram Road (now called Rajiv Gandhi Salai), this installation too, does not have any description. This, however, is one of the easier ones to figure out; most of the descriptions - none official, though - call it 'The Flame'.

At the time of its installation, about 3 or 4 years ago, the roadside was rather barren; the white, orange and yellow of 'The Flame' kind of blended with the red-brown dirt of the roadside. But now, with the verge having become quite green, the colours of 'The Flame' sparkle against the green; with a couple of plants having grown tall enough to partially screen it, 'The Flame' plays peek-a-boo with its colours, allowing you to fully see them only from an angle on the road (of course, you can choose to park a bit of a way away and walk down to the patch around it).

Just goes to show that even a little roadside fire can grow on you!

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Above the bunker

It was once the place to hang out, the round tana along the Mount Road. It was really a hub, from where one could change directions if one was so adventurous as to stray off the straight road from the Fort to the Mount. You could head off towards Chindadripet or choose to go to Triplicane - the latter, a settlement that goes back quite a few hundred years and the former a colony created by the early British settlers.

But in those early days of Madras, you didn't hang out at this junction. It was only after the round tana came - providing a little shelter and a drink of water for the footsore traveller - that people began to stop at this place. Later, after the round tana had been pulled down - to confuse the Japanese air raiders - a large parking circle was created in the centre (you can see it in this photo) and that was when the Madras round tana became the meeting spot for the hip crowd.

Today, it is a busy junction - and will become busier once the new secretariat complex is built at the north-eastern corner; maybe at that time, the first pedestrian subway of Madras (a former air-raid bunker), just under the road here, will see much more traffic than it does these days!

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Guarded entrance

What is it about Chennai's museums that get them to display armament outside? True, Chennai does have some kinds of martial traditions, but those do not really define the city. In fact, the armed forces would be fairly low on most people's list when they think about Chennai. And yet, the two major museums in the city are fronted by cannons (or mortars, if you insist).

You might remember one of those cannons outside the Government Museum - and here we have a couple of guns, on either side of the main door to the Fort Museum. There are a couple of other field guns, too, on the verandah. All these were apparently seized from his army after Tipu Sultan was defeated at Srirangapatnam in 1799 - and since Madras was the headquarters in those days, the spoils were brought back - and have remained here since!

Tuesday, June 16, 2009


It is not often you get to see decorative edges on a bus roof, and that's what catches the eye at first. Then, you realize that the entire scheme seems to indicate one of those old houses with a verandah spaced with arches - certainly an unusual design for bus windows!

Monday, June 15, 2009

Car care-free

One of the wisest investments I made when living in the USA was to become a member of the Automobile Association - the $60 that I spent for the annual membership more than paid for itself when I had to have my car jumpstarted (twice), when I was locked out of my car and needed help, with all the maps that I picked up and with the discounts at some of the theme parks. I don't think I had so many benefits when I was a member of the Automobile Association of Southern India (AASI) during the mid 1990s - the only one I remember was a discount on the insurance premium.

But I am sure there are quite a few benefits on offer, besides the insurance premium discount (which still continues), for there is no reason otherwise for the AASI to have almost 25,000 active members. Headquartered in Chennai, the AASI has 12 branches, covering all the four southern states. It was the second such association to be formed in India when it was established in 1911. The first, at Calcutta, had started 7 years earlier - difficult to believe that there were enough cars to form an association in 1904!

Though membership is economical enough, there don't seem to be enough people queuing up to enroll - with about 500,000 cars running in Chennai city alone, the 25,000 membership figure seems to be rather miniscule!

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Unheard of road?

The nationalistic (parochial?) fervour of the 1970s saw several roads being renamed. In many cases, the old names continue to be used, with the younger generations still being able to associate the old name with the new one. The older names will die out, surely, but some are sticking on for much longer than others.

One name that seems to have vanished completely is that of Brodie Road - now known as Ramakrishna Mutt Road. It was this sign that reminded me of where Brodie's Road had disappeared to - funnily enough, I haven't heard even any of the old-timers calling it by this name, ever!

Saturday, June 13, 2009

What the Dickens!

It has been there for a long, long time, but somehow I haven't found myself being able to walk in through those doors. Maybe it was because the first time I noticed it was way back, over 20 years ago, just after I had read Charles Dickens' "Old Curiosity Shop" for the first time. If you remember, that was a rather poignant tale; and I had all those associations in my mind.

Good to see that the shop still survives, and doing well, by all accounts. Must get over my childhood prejudices and go in there someday soon!

Friday, June 12, 2009

Grand Alliance

In 1901, V.Kuppuswamy Iyer was probably buzzing with ideas about what he wanted to do; that's one explanation for the description of the firm he founded - The Alliance Company. As you can see, the sign (well, you may need to click on it for a larger picture) says, "Publishers, Booksellers, Etc". Today, we don't know what else Kuppuswamy Iyer had in mind, but the firm has been thriving in the first two parts of its description. Considering that they publish only Tamizh titles, it is really an amazing feat, to have kept it going for well over a century, now.

Alliance was caught up - maybe even thought up - in the fervour of the independence movement of the early 20th century. The Indian National Congress' annual conferences were always covered by The Alliance Company through special editions. When they released the Tamizh translations of Netaji's books "Youth's Dream" and "Straight Path", the British government banned them and that probably added to the firm's credibility. To celebrate their first 40 years, the firm brought out an anthology of short stories - 40 of them - under the title "Kadhai Kovai", in 1942; in the same vein, they brought out another anthology to celebrate their centenary - 100 stories by 100 writers, this time.

For all that, their best selling book is one named "Indhumadha Ubakkiyaanam", a collection of stories from Hindu mythology, aimed at providing moral instruction for children. According to the firm, this title, compiled by A.Krishnaswami, has been continuously in print since 1908 - indeed, it is the first name in the list of titles on the firm's (absolutely to-the-point) website!

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Off the rails

As a child, it was difficult for me to understand the concept of a railway office being in a place where there are no rail tracks at all. I refused to believe that this building housed a booking office of the Southern Railway, despite the large sign that said so. Even though this was a convenient option to book tickets from, I don't remember my father ever using it; in the days before computers, these 'city booking offices' would only have a limited quota of tickets they could sell - and to where we wanted to go, the quota would only be one-and-a-quarter or some such meaningless number.

I'm not sure when this office shut down, but it seems to bear out my childhood theory that you can't have a railway office too far away from the tracks!

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Butterfly. Sure.

At first glance, I thought it was a moth, for it had that slightly fuzzy look that I have always associated with moths. But I quickly learnt it was a butterfly - a Peacock Pansy (Junonia almana) to be precise.

It was totally concentrating on soaking up the early morning sun, I guess, because it did not mind me standing over it to take pictures. Guess I just got lucky!

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Paper picture?

Well, this doesn't have any specific connect to Madras, or to Chennai, but the sign was intriguing. I thought I knew a fair bit about the brands connected with photography, but 'Forte' was a new one on me. Judging from the font and the nature of the sign, I assumed the brand is something that probably died out in the 1960/70s and Mount Photo continues to display this sign because they are too lazy to take it down.

But no! Forte started life as the Hungarian subsidiary of Kodak, way back in 1922 and continued to show signs of life into the 21st century. But as a manufacturer of speciality photo paper - large format black & white seems to have been their flagship product - in a rapidly digitizing age, they probably could not find enough aficiandos to keep themselves afloat; the British Journal of Photography reported the demise of Forte in their January 2007 newsletter. (Forte's website is also defunct, now).

Still, there are a few stockists who continue to supply the last bits of Forte paper to those exacting photographers who will use no other - like this one in Canada, for instance. Could it be that Mount Photo is also one of those rarity distributors?

PS: While digging for information about Forte, I came across this interesting clip on 'How Film is Made' - worth a look, if you have about 20 minutes to spare.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Colourless beings

The bhootaganas (Siva's attendants) are normally found at the corner walls of Siva's temples - the old ones, especially. Mostly, they are little cared for and they sit, with the grime and dust of the ages wearing away their beings, like this one at the Tiruvottiyur Thyagarajar temple.

Rarely does one find a colourful gana, like this one here!

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Towering exams!

So, you have got into the power transmission business - or the mobile telephony business - or into some business where you have a need to install several towers to ensure your services reach your customers. How can you be sure that your towers will last the distance? Have no fear, because Chennai can give you an answer to that.

It was strange to see what looked like a construction crane standing on one of the hillsides at Thirusoolam. Despite its recent popularity, Thirusoolam is not a choice spot for constructing a high-rise; for one, the airport is too close by to allow any high rise to come up on these hills. So what were these cranes doing up here?

But you, the power transmitter - or mobile telephony provider - know that the crane is only part of the equipment available at the Tower Testing and Research Station (TTRS). Falling under the Structural Engineering Centre, the TTRS at Thirusoolam is a versatile outfit. Apart from simulations for testing pre-specified towers, the TTRS also carries out full-scale prototype testing for tower manufacturers (and users) and can handle almost all kinds of towers, for a variety of load conditions. The crane is of course used to set up the test equipmnet!

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Simpson to Nano

There doesn't seem to be any authentic information about how this building came to be called by its present name - Gove Building. The man behind its origins was George Underhill Cuddon, who upon arriving in India in 1891, joined service with Simpson & Co. as an assistant. Quite rapidly, Cuddon grew to become the manager of the business and then on to partner, before becoming the sole proprietor. It was he who set out the plans for this building in 1914 and though he died before it was completed in 1916, his plans were more or less faithfully adhered to. A book about commerce in southern India, published around 1920, describes this building as 'ornate'; in the decades since, it has only appeared to be more so. That book also talks about the building being of 'green and white stone'; most likely that the granite frontage was streaked with green, which has probably been dulled over the years.

At first glance it seems to be a hotch-potch - granite on the ground floor, brick on the first; a square tower with a pyramidal roof at the northern end, but an octagonal (almost circular) one at the southern end. But all of that is deliberate, apparently very much in keeping with Cuddon's vision - which also included 18-foot plate glass windows in front, special door, shutters and sun-blinds imported from England and Italian marble floors.

Also in line with Cuddon's vision, it continued to house one of the best automobile showrooms in the city, that of Simpson's, until 1943, when it changed hands. Thiruvengadasamy Mudaliar acquired it for the showroom of his dealership, VST Motors; through the years, the building has been lovingly and carefully maintained. Even if you are walking in to look at the newest car, you cannot but feel a sense of reverence for the history of this magnificent showroom, which still remains faithful to the vision of George Cuddon!

Friday, June 5, 2009

Old and new

Raheja Towers is less than a decade old - though it is on Mount Road, the facade was not very visible from the road, so it was almost as if it was staying aloof from the rest of the businesses on Mount Road.

Not any longer. The old shops and buildings which had blocked the passer-by's view of the glass-fronted building are being pulled down. Now I understand what someone told me a few years ago - "Do they think they are the BMW Headquarters or something?" Not a patch on it, of course!

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Bargain books

Time was, if you wanted to get some foreign magazines, you headed out to the pavements of Mount Road. Between the twenty or so pavement bookshops, you could be sure of getting an armful of the ones you wanted. Somehow, I believe that there was little piracy in those days and the books that were sold at these shops were always second-hand originals.

These days, though, there are more pirated books than second-hand ones. Everyone seems to want 'new' books - little do they realize that there is a great deal of romance in much-thumbed books, even in the ones where the previous owner has been careful enough not to make any markings or even dog-ears. All the glossy pirated books displayed has taken away the charm of shopping at the pavement. And one no longer wants to sneak a peek inside those magazines, anyway!

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Big man little man

An old photo, taken when work on the Kathipara grade separator was still going on; didn't notice the person behind Nehru's statue earlier - somehow it seems to underline how towering JN's presence had been. The statue itself was quite an eye-catcher at the roundabout. But now, the Big Man is stuck somewhere amidst the whorls of the flyover and nobody notices it these days... or do you?

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

White, black and red

No matter how many sleek cars come out, the Ambassador seems to have a completely impregnable niche as the car of choice for all officialdom in the country. Though Hindustan Motors has a manufacturing facility in Chennai, the Ambassador is built at their plant in Uttarpara, West Bengal. The first ever car to be mass-manufactured in India, the Ambassador was originally based on the Morris Oxford, but has had a few changes (that's right, just a few) in its design since the first Ambassador rolled out in 1948.

I am sure in much of the country's hinterland, the white Ambassador continues to be an enduring symbol of the government; and even within that, there would be categories, I guess - white Ambassador with pitch-dark windows would indicate a senior official, while one that includes a red beacon would probably be the pinnacle of babu-dom. On the streets of Chennai though, this is just another car, trying to use the extra fittings to get past the traffic faster!

Monday, June 1, 2009

In feet or metres?

Alright; I'm cheating, here. I would like to take part in the 'Theme Day', being celebrated all over the world by the CDP community, but I didn't bother to check on what the Theme for June 1 was, until last evening. By then, it was too late to find something that would stick very closely to the theme, so I decided to interpret it my way.

From atop Thirusoolam hill, one can see a few lakes formed by water collecting in the craters where granite has been quarried away. Many of these lakes are shallow, but there are a few which are really deep. Looking from the top of the hill at one such lake - I was told it is one of the deeper ones - I was thinking about the difference in height between the bottom of the lake and the top of the hill; though there is no official record, I would estimate it as being around 150 to 200 metres. Now, that is a fair distance - somewhere between 500 and 650 feet!