Thursday, July 31, 2014

Old building

With the nationalization of the life insurance business, the LIC of India became a monopoly. With that also came the assets of several of the life insurance companies that were doing business in India - almost 250 of them. 

Many of those companies had long histories. Among the oldest was the Oriental Life Insurance Company of Calcutta, which had been started in Calcutta in 1818. With its nationalisation, their buildings were also taken over by the LIC. That's how this lovely building, at the corner of Armenian Street and Errabalu Chetty Street came to have that sign in front, looking quite out of place with the rest of the facade. 

It is often held up as an example of Art Deco in Madras; of course it is from that period, the 1920s, but somehow I think the architect / builder slipped in some Jaipuri-Jaina touches as well. The jalli of the uppermost balcony is, in my mind a giveaway - what do you think?

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Ships at rest

When you are stuck for ideas, Chennai has a great solution. Go to the beach. Since it is not the sand there that clears your mind, I went to another place by the sea.

The Port of Chennai is 139 years old this year, going by the foundation stone. Or maybe even older, if you take into account previous attempts at building a harbour on this unforgiving seashore. Whichever way, it has seen it all.

Wonder if anyone has made any watercolours of it!

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Memorial to a poet

The Bharathi Ilakkiya Mandram is one of the innumerable groups that celebrate the life and works of Mahakavi Subramania Bharathi. Bharathi was one of modern India's greatest poets, a firebrand nationalist who considered prejudices as great an enemy as the British. His poems were therefore as much exhortations against the imperial rule as they were against social practices which marginalized women. 

Born at Ettayapuram, educated at Tirunelveli, widely travelled across India, Bharathi's involvement with the freedom movement was in the company of the more strident nationalists like Tilak and Chidambaram Pillai. That brought the British police on him and he moved to Pondicherry, then under French occupation. He came back to British India in 1918, was arrested and imprisoned. Though he was released within a couple of weeks, he had to sign an undertaking that he would show his works to the DIG of police before publishing them. Obviously, this cramped his style considerably and the stress led to his health breaking down.

His last years were spent in Triplicane. Living in a house near the Parthasarathy temple, he regularly visited there, and got into the habit of feeding Lavanya, the temple elephant. One day, in a spirit of playfulness, Lavanya knocked him down; already frail, this blow was quite debilitating to the poet. He survived for a few more months, house-bound. After he died in 1921, he was never forgotten, but rarely celebrated, either, for a long time. The owners of the house he lived in at Triplicane, were loath to turn it into any kind of memorial. It was only in 1993 that the Bharathi Ilakkiya Mandram succeeded in having the government take over the building and turn it into the Mahakavi Subramania Bharathi Memorial House, making it one more memorial to the poet in his home state.  Among the many pieces of memorabilia here is a two line letter, blessing the opening of the memorial at his birthplace in 1947, from Mahatma Gandhi - written in Tamizh!

Monday, July 28, 2014

What's new?

It is not fair to expect a 'Tea House' to be open in the morning, which is when this picture was taken. The Novelty Tea House is not a pretentious newcomer to the world of eating out in Chennai; it is an establishment that is being run by the third generation in the business currently. 

Chandrakant Moolchand Shah was probably frustrated trying to find some north Indian snacks in the early '50s. He channeled that frustration into setting up a stall. There seem to have been no grand plans initially; it was just a 'tea stall', but clearly, the desire was to be different, hence 'Novelty'. Sowcarpet, where the first stall was, welcomed it. Over 50 years, the stall grew into a 'House', but remained within the north Madras area. It was only over the last 4 or 5 years that they have opened out to other parts of the city.

This one on Radhakrishnan Salai is, I believe, the most recent of the three locations. When open, it is usually chock-a-block with those itching to have a dahi-poori or four with their cuppa tea, or maybe a faluda. Once inside, it is easy to imagine you are away from Chennai - there is so much of Hindi in the air that English and Tamizh sound intrusive. But that is only to be expected at an establishment which claims to have introduced the pav-bhaji to Madras!

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Big man

We have seen this man before. Here. He sits in the middle of the Peoples' Park, lording it over the grounds. This is the statue of Diwan Bahadur R. Subbayya Naidu, CIE who was Commissioner of the Corporation of Madras between 1937-40. 

Though there is not much that I have been able to find about his tenure. He seems to have been a civil servant dedicated to the Empire rather than to the people. An announcement in the Straits Times of Singapore on January 21, 1937, informs us that Subbayya Naidu was a former Agent of the Government of India in British Malaya - he certainly did get around. 

Until 2008, this statue, like the others in the park was all uniformly white. Whoever came up with this colour scheme probably thought of this man as a blue-blooded sahib!

Saturday, July 26, 2014

School in the middle

As one of the earliest planned settlements of the city of Madras, during the 1730s, the designers of Chintadripet had thought of several amenities, including deities from the "old" city of Madras, for the convenience of its residents. However, they do not seem to have paid much attention to education - in the formal sense, as we know it now. It is not as if such schools were unknown; the 'Madras System of Education' was exported back to England from St George's School in the century before Chintadripet was a gleam on the banks of the Cooum. 

The oldest school in the Chintadripet areas is the 170 year old Chintadripet Higher Secondary School. This one in the picture is of a much more recent vintage. In the late 1940s, there was a need to expand one of the existing schools run by the Kalyanam Chetty family (who had funded it). It was then that Rao Bahadur Ganapathi Pillai, a Councillor of the Corporation of Madras, came forward and offered his property to house the school. He had only one condition: that the building should never be demolished. 

The construction of the times being quite solid, the building remains in fairly good condition. Even though it is crowded by its neighbours, the Chintadripet Middle School continues to run from this building - named "Ganapathi Buildings" after its benefactor!

Friday, July 25, 2014

Headgear man

It is sunny in Chennai and these fans would come in handy to beat the heat. And you don't have to always fan yourself; they can protect you from the sun as well!

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Old and new

A curious blend of architectural styles on Radhakrishnan Salai. Which one do you think looks better?

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

River and sea

That's another view of the Adyar river going out into the Bay of Bengal. You can see the green expanse of the Theosophical Society on the south bank, and with a bit of imagination, the 'broken bridge' across the mouth of the river.

That spit of land in the middle of the estuary has a few office buildings, a hotel, an apartment complex, and a building that starred in Mission Impossible:4. Can you spot it?

No prizes for guessing where I am! 

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Dealers' associaton

In 1926, a few businessmen involved in the motor vehicles trade in Madras decided that they needed to get together to make common cause. The lead was taken by Sir Alexander MacDougall of Simpson's, the leading automaker of the time in the city. With him were H.E. Gow of George Oakes, F.G. Luker of Addisons, F.D. Growchery of Fiat and Kabardhars (Senior and Junior) of Patel & Company. Their founding day was April 23rd and they named their association the Madras Motor Vehicle and Motor Cycle Importers Association.

Within three years, they had to change their name. Motor Vehicles and Allied Merchants Association represented a broader spectrum of businesses than just vehicle importers. In 1938, they were registered as a joint stock company, Motor Vehicles and Allied Industries Association. As the apex body of the automobile trade - including the ancillary ecosystems - the MVAIA has been recognized as a consultative body by the state and central governments. 

In 1964, the MVAIA went a step ahead and became one of the co-founders of the Federation of Automobile Dealers Associations (FADA). The FADA seems to be quite active, going by their website. The MVAIA does carry out a lot of activities, but it is quite difficult to find specific details about them. Now that is not surprising, given that even their headquarters is so nondescript!

Monday, July 21, 2014

The lady's gardens

Entering the People's Park through its southern gate, you get to see this statue - of Venus, is it? - behaving as if you are an unexpected visitor. It is quite a rarity, for it is not usual to see a bare-breasted sculpture in Chennai, outside of a few temples, in such a public location. Is this the lady of what was once called My Ladye's Garden? Most likely not, for this statue, and a few others around this park were probably set up in the 1930s, at least 70 years after the park was opened to the public. The impetus for this park was provided by Sir Charles Trevelyan, Governor of Madras between 1859-60, who was clear that the middle class of Madras needed a large, open space for recreation and entertainment. 

My Ladye's Garden was only one part of the People's Park; the entire park covered nearly 120 acres of space. A dozen lakes dotted the park, with boating facilities in at least one of them. Madras' first zoo, which was located on the grounds of the museum, moved here, taking up a sizeable chunk of the grounds. The zoo expanded over the years, adding a cheetah here, a few deer there, a couple of tigers and so on. Until it moved to the Aringar Anna Zoological Park in the mid 1980s, this was where Madras' citizens would come to see wild animals. 

Over the years, the People's Park has been nibbled away. Space for the Victoria Public Hall was allocated. The Ripon Building took up a section. The South Indian Athletic Association was given space for a pavilion and grounds. The Moore Market was accommodated. The Railways expanded, and chewed up some more space. Lily Pond Complex, that replaced Moore Market took up its share. And then the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium came up, along with the indoor sports complex, reducing the People's Park to the My Ladye's Garden. Go too quickly on Sydenham's Road and you might miss the gate to the park. While it still remains a large - and well used - lung for this part of the city, it is certainly a comedown for the feature that defined the area, which continues to be known as Park Town!

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Bad accident

On a Sunday morning, you don't want to bump into a motorcycle with your car. Even if you do, it might be better to choose an ordinary biker than a traffic policeman. If you still had to, you could choose a better spot than near Saravana Bhavan on Radhakrishnan Salai, where over 20 traffic policemen had gathered for their morning cuppa.

Certainly a bad Sunday morning for the car driver!

Saturday, July 19, 2014

The other one

Set back a little from the road, this is not really an eye-catching property. Forty years ago, when it opened for business, it would probably have been, if only because it was one of the few multi-storeyed buildings on this stretch. It opened in 1975; it seems to have stayed in the '70s even today. The staff are long-timers, and the hotel clock hasn't bothered to keep pace with the hectic life of today. It is therefore something of an anachronism on this stretch. 

But Hotel Maris has a lot of things going for it. The rooms are still in the '70s sizes, which means the guests have a lot of space going for them. The service is reasonable, even if it is not fast. The food is - well, you may not have too many choices in the hotel itself, but with its location, you can step out, across or round the corner for a wide range of choices. That's the big plus for this hotel - its location. It is convenient for folks wanting to go to the American Consulate for their visa interviews, or for those coming in for the music season, and maybe even for those who come in to Chennai looking to get their daughters into Stella Maris, just about half-a-kilometre away.

But the Maris-es are different. The hotel's website acknowledges its neighbour, but disclaims any inspiration for its name. The college is named for the 'Star of the Seas'; the hotel, on the other hand, has a different reason for the name. It was set up, and continues to be owned by the Maris Group, which has its headquarters in Trichy. And that group was named after its founder, Mariapillai!

Friday, July 18, 2014

Early schooling

In 1857, Lady Sybilla Harris, wife of Lord Harris, the Governor of Madras, made a donation of £1,500 to start a school exclusively for Muslims. The recipient of this donation was the Church Missions Society; a seemingly odd decision, but it somehow went through initially. However, it ran into rough weather soon. Lord Harris declared the the "...Christian cause shall no longer be kept in the background, but put forth before the people...". That was proof enough of its proselytic intent and several Muslim and Hindu residents petitioned the Secretary of State for India in London, Lord Stanley, asking for the school to be closed.

That petition did not result in any action. The school, named Harris High School for Muslims, continued to function in Triplicane. But the locals went ahead and ostracised the students and their families. A fatwa was issued to excommunicate the school's supporters. Somehow the school struggled on. The arrival of Edward Sell as the school's principal in 1865 probably cooled tempers for a bit. Sell was only 26, but already had a reputation for his Islamic scholarship and was able to steer the school through until 1881, when he stepped down. 

For several years after that, it seemed to be more an issue of egos; the CMS continued to struggle with running the school. It was only in the 1920s that they began thinking about closing it down. It was then that the Muslim Educational Association of South India (MEASI) stepped in and took over the management of the school. The first thing they did was to rename it. Unlike its contemporary in Royapettah, the Muslim Higher Secondary School in Triplicane makes sure it has nothing to remember its founders by!

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Upside down world

One of Chennai's wondrous sights is actually a pretty commonplace activity. If you stand on the Thiru-Vi-Ka bridge at dusk, you will be treated to a sight of bats - a few thousand of them - setting off on their nightly forage. Not many people see it, because it is peak hour for humans also, rushing across the bridge at the end of the workday. The bats, of course are just starting their 'day', and they fan out in all directions but east. 

More properly, they are the Indian Flying Foxes (Pteropus giganteus), also known as the Fruit Bat. Almost all of them come out of the grounds of the Theosophical Society, which is at the southern end of the bridge. Inside the grounds, the ficus, tamarind and other trees provide plenty of roosting space for these bats. They hang upside down, in large colonies and fill the air around the trees with their incessant chattering. 

So the next time you go walking inside the Theosophical Society's gardens, do not assume the sound you hear is of running water. Look up. Check out all those black patches on the trees. And of an evening, watch those black patches take flight. It is certainly a spectacular sight!

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Look again

No,  this is not a timeline or a wall. It is just a part of the social media spilling out on to the roads. Sydenhams Road, to be specific. 

Can any social media outfit match the range of merchandise offered by this shop?

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Egg offering

The way in which the name of this temple in Mylapore is spoken conjures up a rather awkward image of its principal deity. The fast paced description of this as "முண்டகண்ணி அம்மன்" (mundakanni amman) indicates eyes in a headless form; the actual name "முண்டகக்கண்ணி அம்மன்" (mundakakanni amman) conveys more elegance, of the lotus-eyed one. That is only one of the oddities about this temple to the Goddess in the form of Saraswati. 

For starters, the temple's main deity is "svyambhu", having appeared spontaneously over 1,300 years ago. Of course, there is little evidence to support this belief, but it is agreed that it has been around for a few generations here. The sanctum is covered with a thatched roof, as it is believed that it is the best way for the Goddess to remain cool, being surrounded by natural materials. A banyan tree grows right behind the sanctum, adding to the cool of the temple. 

The banyan is also home to the nagadevatha, the snake Goddess. Devotees coming to worship Saraswati are also advised to propitiate the snakes. To this end, one can get a puja package that includes an egg - something that is taboo at almost every other temple. The egg, and milk, are offered to the snake Goddess along with flowers for the main deity!

Monday, July 14, 2014

Legend of the pole

To the east of the St Thomas Basilica, just as the ground drops off to the beach, stands this wooden pole. Legend has it that this is a splinter of a colossal tree that fell across the Adyar river, causing a flood in the neighbourhood. The king (yes, this legend goes back a couple of millennia) tried sending his elephants and mahouts to move the log; no success. It was then that the wandering holy man threw his girdle around the tree trunk and yanked it out to the shore. That was St Thomas and the log has now whittled down to this pole. 

It is a nice story, but there is no way to authenticate it. The legend of Thomas is an article of faith and this wooden pole is going the same way. A more plausible explanation of this wooden structure is that it is all that remains of a flag pole from the time that the Portuguese occupied the town of San Thome. The town's fortifications extended to the beach and this flag pole would have stood on the eastern bastion. 

In 2004, when the tsunami struck the Marina, the waters did not rise up to where the pole stood. There can be many explanations for that (significantly, the pole is at a reasonably high elevation from the shore and the tsunami fizzed out at this spot), but there is only one that the faithful believe - that this pole was the only factor that stood between San Thome and the tsunami!

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Holy hillock

If the Portuguese had called St Thomas Mount "El Grande Monti", it is reasonable to assume that there must have been an "El Pouca Monti" as well, somewhere. You don't have to search too hard for it, because the English equivalent of that phrase has been translated into Tamizh as well. Little Mount, or சின்னமலை, was what it is called, and it is on the wrong side of the river Adyar from St Thomas Mount. 

But the Little Mount is also associated with St Thomas, perhaps even more strongly than the larger one is. It was in a grotto in this little hillock by the river that Thomas Didymus took refuge in, when the shores of Meliapore became too warm for him, figuratively. The entrance to the grotto is now ensconced in the church you see in the centre. Built by the Portuguese in 1551, it is known as the Blessed Sacrament Chapel. In 1711, an adjunct was constructed; When the 19th century of St Thomas' martyrdom was observed in 1971, the adjunct shrine was expanded and modified into a church by itself, called the Church of Our Lady of Health. 

There are several legends of Thomas around this place. The grotto has a tiny exit on the other side, besides which there appears an imprint of a palm, which is believed to be St. Thomas'. A hop-step away from that exit, on a flat piece of rock, is a large, foot-shaped discolouration, which is believed to be a footprint of the saint. There is also the 'bleeding cross', said to have been carved in the rock by Thomas, and, where he smote the rock with his stick, there appeared a spring; that trickle of water continues to run today and is considered to have curative powers. With so much of myth around it, no wonder this place needs to be honoured with two churches, rather than just one!

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Chariot procession

Many translations of such events refer to them as "Car" festivals. Yes, it is a vehicle no doubt, but I prefer to translate தேர் as 'chariot' rather than a pedestrian 'car'. This one is part of the Bhramotsavam of Sri Narasimha Swamy at Triplicane's Parthasarathy Swamy Temple. On the seventh day of the Bhramotsavam, the decorated chariot is taken around the streets encircling the temple, pulled by devotees

Ahead of the chariot is the phalanx of mamas, in traditional Iyengar garb, reciting verses from the நாலாயிரத் திவ்வியப் பிரபந்தம் (Nalayira divya prabandham, four thousand divine codices). Ahead of them, maamis rush to put the final flourishes on their kolams before the கோஷ்டி reaches their doorstep. 

It is a formidable sight, with the chariot being pulled at what can be considered break-back speed trying to catch up with the chanting crowd, while devotees prostrate before the கோஷ்டி or before the chariot, falling down and getting up at speed, without getting in the way of others. In times gone by, this procession would probably have taken half-a-day, stopping at several points along their short way. Today, it was over in a relative flash, within 90 minutes or so; that must have been a very rapid recitation of the divya prabandham!

Friday, July 11, 2014

Market model

In the evening of May 30, 1985, the city of Madras heard about a fire near the Central Station. By the next morning, the fire, supposedly set off by an electrical fault, had completely gutted an 85-year old icon of the city. More than 20 fire engines, including Simon Snorkel, had battled the blaze, but the combination of paper, cloth, vinyl and plastic made sure that the building was beyond salvage. Thus ended Moore Market, the go-to place for old books, records, clothes, pet supplies, exotic meats and pretty much everything that anyone in Madras might have a fancy for. 

In the closing years of the 19th century, an organized market for groceries, meats and other items was a dire need for the city's European (and westernized) residents. An earlier market, on Popham's Broadway, had been long marked down as being unsanitary, but no concrete action on an alternate had been taken. Enter Sir George Montgomerie John Moore, who had taken over as President of the Corporation of Madras in 1886. Though he had begun addressing this requirement in the early days of his term, the selection of a suitable site - which turned out to be a corner of the Peoples' Park near the Central Station - and clearing it up (there was a thriving Gujili Bajaar (okay, Guzili Bazaar), a grey market of second-hand, counterfeit and purloined goods operating there) took a while and it was only in 1898 that the foundation stone was laid.

Sir George was clear that apart from its functional requirements, the new market should aesthetically blend its architecture with its neighbours, Central Station to the east and Victoria Public Hall to the west. The architect chosen was R.E.Ellis and the market was built by A. Subramania Iyer. In 1890, the Governor of Madras, Sir Arthur Havelock opened the Moore Market for trade. Over the course of the 20th century, the Moore Market served the needs of a variety of Madras' citizenry, until other shopping options came up in the 1970s and 80s. Yet, Moore Market held on. The bookshops were a bibliophile's paradise and many other things beside. With that fire on a summer night, a part of Madras' soul was extinguished. 

There are many claimants to the name today. The Allikulam (அல்லி குளம் - Lily Pond) complex tries to pass off as today's Moore Market. There is a digital version somewhere. The Railways call their office complex (built where the market stood) the "Moore Market Complex (MMC)". But the original building can be seen in this faithful replica, right in the middle of the parking complex outside the Railways' MMC. The model is quite exquisite, but the way it is neglected forces one to thinking that it might meet the same fate as its original!

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Special agency school

In May 1872, Lord Hobart took over as Governor of Madras. Lady Hobart and he were convinced that the best way for impoverished Muslim families to improve their lot was to accept Western education. To this end, Lord Hobart established the 'special agency' system, whereby schools were to be established especially for Muslims. Spurred by the new Governor's enthusiasm, a school for girls was set up at Royapettah. The enthusiasm was infectious and within a short time, the school had outgrown its first location and had to encroach on to the grounds nearby. 

Humayun Jah Bahadur, a descendent of Tipu Sultan, came forward and gave over Shah Sawar Jung Bagh, his property on Whites Road to house the school. Lady Hobart herself chipped in with a personal donation of Rs.18,000 to the school. Her support for this institution would have helped it take great strides ahead; unfortunately, that was not to be. Lord Hobart died quite suddenly in 1875 and his widow had to return to England.

The school went ahead, however. Having started off as a primary school, it was very quickly raised to high school status. Hindustani and Tamizh were added to the curriculum, in addition to Urdu and English. Well into the 20th century, around 1945, these premises were home to a women's college, with 75% of seats reserved for Muslim women. Though the college was shifted out (and its administration changed hands) later, the school still functions from its Whites Road premises. Run by the state government, the Lord and Lady who helped set it up are remembered in its name - the Government Hobart Higher Secondary School for Muslim Girls!

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Cricket, lovely cricket

Today, India start their 5-test series in England. In keeping with that, here is a glimpse into the M.A.Chidambaram stadium at Chepauk, seen as the MRTS train passes it. 

Keeping fingers crossed on the Indian team wresting the Pataudi Trophy back from England!

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

New building

That's the new building of the Madras Medical College. Construction was completed last year and it was then waiting for its classrooms to be furnished. Surely all of that would have been done - I hope it is ready to see students at least in the new academic year coming up.

Do you remember what was here earlier? This!

Monday, July 7, 2014

Local mosque

Surely there is a more formal name for this mosque than just calling it Periamet Mosque. That's the locality where it is and so that is what it is called. Set up by leather traders sometime in the mid-19th century, the mosque has gone through a couple of rounds of restoration. 

Best is that you don't try to address it by its formal name, even if there is one. Chances are, nobody will know what you are talking about!

Sunday, July 6, 2014


The People's Park certainly has a lot of space for people to sit and enjoy the greenery. If you click on the picture (or open it in a separate tab), you will notice a half-kneeling gentleman, bare torso, tiara, twirled moustache and all. That was probably the way they sat in the royal gardens of a long time ago.

And then there is the man in the blue suit, sitting on cushioned chair, appearing to be a person of some importance. (He was that, but more about him in a later post). And then, there is the seat for us, the aam aadmi, the wrought-iron bench that we will have to share with our friends. 

We can also choose to sit on one of the several steps that are found at various spots around the park; best of all, we could sit on the grass of a pleasant afternoon!

Saturday, July 5, 2014

Hooded snake cannonball

This is the flower of the Cannonball tree (Couroupita guianensis), with the stamen stem curving over itself to resemble a serpent's hood. The curve also protects the fertile stamens (at the base) while showing off the fodder staminodes to their best advantage. That's how it attracts the pollinators - mainly carpenter bees.  

The fruit - which gives the tree its name - is a large, round, woody ball. It takes anything from 12 to 18 months for the fruit to be fully ripe. In that time, it makes for a wonderful sight, with several of the cannonballs hanging to the main trunk. The ripe fruit falls off and bursts open, releasing 300 seeds on the average. Small animals take over the task of dispersing them. 

The shape of the flower gives it the local name nagalingam, the snake flower. it is not a tree that is common in private gardens. Most of the specimens are found in public gardens or in temple courtyards. This one is a little bit of both - the gardens of the Theosophical Society!

Friday, July 4, 2014

Double action

This needs two photographs, because I cannot otherwise explain this. Even now, with the pictorial evidence, I can only prove that it is so, without any pointers to the what or why of it. Or for that matter, how is it that a narrow street starts off as 'Labon Lane' and within a couple of hundred metres, adds one letter and substitutes another, before ending up as 'Lapond Lane'. 

This lane is in Chintadripet, where we have seen the office of the Anti-Vice Squad earlier. And it emerges into Laban Street, at one end of which is the Chintadripet Police Station. These clues lead one to look for a Laban / Labon / Lapond among the police officers of Madras. That search is also more or less futile, but we go a step further knowing that there was indeed a Lafond (or, as Google Maps says, Laffond) who was a Deputy Commissioner of Police in the early 1860s. 

But there is not much more that is known of him. And so, we are still stuck with those questions of 'what did he do' or 'why this man'. It will be very interesting if someone comes up with the story of a Labon now!

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Small beginning

Kalakshetra was founded in 1936, in part as an extension of the founders' belief that Theosophy should be extended through an academy for training students in traditional arts. With all the founders belonging to the Theosophical Society at Adyar, it was the easiest thing for them to have the academy function out of the Society's premises. One of the members of the academy, Pandit Subramania Sastri, suggested the name "Kalakshetra", meaning "Holy place of the Arts". 

The academy grew. Rukmini Devi Arundale, the prime mover behind the academy, had personally trained many of the initial batches of students and continued to drive the courses at the academy for many years. In 1951, the academy began developing its own premises at Thiruvanmiyur, a short distance away from the Theosophical Society. Fittingly, the development started with the planting of a sapling from the great banyan of the Theosophical Society in the newly acquired land.

The land expanded to nearly 100 acres. The sapling has grown into a large tree. The academy has grown to become the Kalakshetra Foundation, bringing into its fold five distinct institutions - the College of Fine Arts, the Craft Education and Research Centre, the Besant Arundale Theosophical Senior Secondary and High Schools and the Besant Cultural Centre Hostel. In 1993, the Foundation was taken over by the Government of India and declared an institution of National Importance. Here's to the institution growing further and spreading wide, like the sapling seems to be doing!

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

No flying

You may be a Rolls-Royce. But if you are in Chennai, you could end up having to find a parking space tucked behind a water-tanker. 

No way I would park one like that - and I am sure you wouldn't, either!

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Chennai branch

The halwa from Tirunelveli's Iruttukadai (Dark shop) is famous enough to merit its own geographical indicator, but then it is only one of the many shops in that town making and selling the eponymous sweet. There is no official account as to how the halwa originated. One version has it that the zamindar of Chokkampatti, when on a trip to Kasi, was bowled over by the taste of the halwa there. He hired some cooks - they were Rajputs, incidentally - to take over the kitchen at the Chokkampatti palace. A couple of generations later (probably), someone from the family thought of selling the halwa in Tirunelveli. 

The credit for actually selling the halwa in Tirunelveli goes to a lady named Lakshmi, who went around selling it door to door. Seeing the demand generated by her, Jegan Singh opened up the first exclusive halwa shop there. That was in 1882. And he spawned the cult of the Tirunelveli halwa. No one is sure about the number of shops in that city which sell the Tirunelveli halwa, but for a long while, it was not distributed beyond the city. We in Chennai would have to wait for a friend to bring it from its origins - and then, when it was distributed, there would be barely enough of it to stem the drooling.

But not any more. The halwais of Tirunelveli have spread out geographically. Many shops in Chennai stock the product, delivered fresh every day. But there are only a few which have set up a branch office in the city. Leading them, of course, is the originator of the halwa. Jegan Singh's store, Sri Lakshmi Vilas - named for the lady who began the selling - will give you the stuff from their exclusive outlet in West Mambalam. And it is not just any old Tirunelveli halwa; this one comes with the added descriptor, "Lala alva", declaring the authenticity of its lineage!