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 " 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!

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Combined temple

Of the Hindu pantheon's trinity, it is very rare, almost impossible, to find a temple to Brahma, the creator. And given a very marked division between those owing allegiance to Vishnu and those favouring Siva, it was very difficult to find a temple that allowed one to worship both these deities at the same time.
The earliest such temple in Chennai is in T.Nagar, close to the bus terminus. In fact, for a long time, it used to be the only such temple. Somewhere along the way, it became more economically viable for temples outside India to include all possible deities; temples at Lanham, MD, Livermore, CA and at several other places were all 'dual purpose' institutions. With that, there was probably more tolerance to such temples in India as well - Chennai itself now has at least three, if not more!

Friday, June 4, 2010

Old school

There isn't much that you need to say about a school that has been around for nearly 300 years, is there? If it is the St. George's School, there certainly is, because it is a very early instance of the Raj's 'Jewel in the Crown' giving back to the island. The school started from very humble beginnings; as a place for teaching military orphans, as well as soldiers' children, within St. Mary's Church in Fort St. George. Towards the end of the 18th century, it had grown to become the Madras Military Male Orphans' Asylum. In 1793, Rev. Dr. Andrew Bell, who was then in charge of the Asylum, persuaded the authorities to part with the premises of what used to be the Egmore Redoubt.

It was in this institution that Dr. Bell developed what became known as the Madras System of Education - essentially a mechanism where the senior students helped in teaching the junior classes - and formed the basis for today's 'teaching assistants'. The institution itself moved from the Egmore Redoubt, merging with the Female Orphans Asylum, which had by then occupied Conway Gardens (Conway of the "Soldiers' Friend" renown) on Poonamallee High Road. That move gave the Asylums vast premises and in 1954, they took upon themselves their current avatar as St. George's School & Orphanage.

Very few of the people entering its gates - the school grounds are a popular venue for large fairs, including the Book Fair - spare a glance for this sign and fewer yet are aware of how this school had contributed to a revolution in teaching in the Great Britain of the 1800s!

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Old terminal

It was on October 15, 1932 that the first commercial airline service began in India. Tata Sons had created its Aviation Department in July that year and it was JRD Tata himself who flew the first mail service, from Karachi to Bombay, landing on a grass strip at Juhu. That's pretty common knowledge. What is lesser known is that Bombay was merely a wayside stop on the journey; the de Havilland Puss Moth JRD flew was scheduled to take the mail from Karachi (now in Pakistan), all the way to Madras. The second leg, Bombay to Madras via Bellary, was piloted by Neville Vincent, an ex-RAF pilot and probably the nucleus of Tata's aviation foray. So it was that Madras added another first to its record, even if it was at the tail end of the schedule.

But many years before that, Madras was ahead by quite a nose. Giacomo d'Angelis, the Messinian hotelier of Madras, made the first ever flight in Asia. That was on March 10, 1910, when he flew an airplane of his own design, with the engine built by E & A Levetus & Co and Simpsons. That first flight was at Pallavaram, quite close to where Chennai's airport is today. Much, much later, Madras was again at the tail, being the final destination of Air India's first flight, from Bombay via Belgaum, in 1954.

For all those early records, and its current status as India's third busiest airport (after Mumbai and Delhi), Chennai airport still has a rather old-world charm to it. Not for it the miles of moving around the terminal buildings or not knowing which gate your flight is at. All that might change once the current modernisation effort is complete; however, that effort will surely spare this original terminal building which is now being used as the cargo complex!

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Celebrating a century

Now that school leaving exam results are out, there will be a lot of activity around this building. Almost since the time it was established, in 1857, the University of Madras has been both a teaching and an affiliating university; in the latter capacity, it had under its fold all the engineering colleges that blossomed in Madras and the districts around during the 1980s. In 2001, it ceded its primacy in engineering education by transferring all those colleges to the Anna University and repositioning itself more as a research university.

When the University celebrated its centenary, it felt the need for a larger space than what was available in its Senate House, which, though spacious, had been taken over entirely by various administrative departments, leaving little space for grand ceremony. (Not to mention the feeling that the Senate House was too old for the modern age). And so came this building, the University Centenary Auditorium, with state of the art facilities; in the early 1960s, air-conditioning was quite rare and for a building such as this one, acoustical aesthetics were even rarer. On both these counts, a fair amount of thought went into the design. (The acoustics were written up as a research paper and published in 1968 by the Journal of Acoustic Society of America).

Even today, the UCA stays at the top of the list of choices for large functions; besides university convocations, the auditorium has hosted public shows, seminars, corporate functions and even movie awards in its 3,250-seater space!

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Had a bite?

There was a sister sign to this one, extolling all the virtues of this antidote for scorpion 'bite'. This medicine only uses scorpions as a prop for striking up a conversation, for there is nothing it can't solve, World Peace included.

It is the Theme Day over at the CityDailyPhoto portal; I was thinking I should have saved up the one warning you about the lady of the house or the other one, about "Conditions Apply". This sign can't hold a candle to them in terms of mysteriousness, being very open and straightforward about what's on offer. Yet, it is a unique enough sign to qualify for the Theme Day!

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