Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Going down, going up

Subway: It was originally a way for pedestrians to get across to the other side of the road, but is now the term for any passage that goes below another. 

The Americans prefer to use underpass - their 'subway' being either the underground train systems, or the sandwich chain!

Monday, January 30, 2017


A stride that is familiar around the world. 

It is the 68th anniversary of his passing away, a "Martyrs' Day". I believe India has several of those - honouring the many who gave their lives to the cause of India's freedom. 

Part of the ceremonies on this day was to have the entire country pause for two minutes at 11 am, in memory of this man, and to the cause he served. I am not sure how many even remembered the significance of this date!

Sunday, January 29, 2017


Just outside the gate of the erstwhile Madras Mint - now the Government Press - is this shrine of sorts. The autorickshaw drivers from the stand nearby must be the ones taking care of it. Fresh flowers,  an awning to keep the rain out... and maybe a box for collecting the donations. If you click on the picture you will see that the iconography covers Christian, Muslim and Hindu symbols. 

Such syncretism is much required in these times... maybe the clock under the awning could be synchronised as well!

Saturday, January 28, 2017

Palace of sorts

Quick, tell me the name of any royal dynasty that had its seat in Madras? You may find it difficult, and that is all right, because Madras was never a royal capital. But with its importance as the seat of administration during the British era, there were several royals who picked up property in the city and maintained a kind of 'camp-palace' here. There was also the Nawab of Arcot, who had moved entirely to Madras, but by that time, he was tightly controlled by the British, so he could never be counted as having ruled Madras. 

The Nawab's residence was however the one that was called a 'Palace' - the Chepauk Palace, with its Khalsa Mahal and Humayun Mahal. The other royal residences went by more prosaic names, like Cochin House. The Travancore royals stayed at Ramalayam in Adyar - though it was called the Travancore Palace, I don't think that name was ever used formally.

But the only Palace Road that existed in Madras was in Santhome. That was thanks to the camp residence of the Wodeyars of Mysore. In keeping with their allegiance to Chamundi Devi, this residence was known as Chamundeswari Bagh. It wasn't very grand, from what I understand, and yet, the road leading to it came to be called the Palace Road. Today, Chamundeswari Bagh houses the Russian Consulate, having passed through the hands of AMM Murugappa Chettiar, who acquired it from the Wodeyars along the way. Palace Road has subsequently become Papanasam Sivan Salai - and there's a story in its own right there!

Friday, January 27, 2017


The rains have been quite patchy this year; cyclone Vardah was an anomaly, one that gave the city more wind than water. The threat of the city going dry within a few weeks, if not days, appears very real. There was a bit of cloud today, and promise of showers over the weekend. If that happens, it would be a Godsend.

You might take a look at the Kapaleeswarar temple tank and wonder what the fuss is all about. If there is so much water here, the ground water levels must be pretty good - that sounds logical. But this tank has been nurtured carefully - in the early 2000s, when rainwater harvesting was made mandatory, the tank was re-done with a little bit of thought. The normally sandy bed of the tank was laid over with a foot-and-a-half of clayey soil, which has helped in retaining the water much better.

If you click on the picture and blow it up, you will notice that the lower steps of the mandapam are bare. We can probably breath a bit easier when they get covered up with water!

Thursday, January 26, 2017

Republic day

Sixty-seven years ago, it was on this day that India formally declared itself to be a republic, with the constitution that had been adopted exactly two months before coming into force. The choice of this date is significant; between 1930, when the Indian National Congress 'officially' promulgated India's independence and 1947, when the country was actually granted independence (and Dominion status), January 26 was celebrated as Purna Swaraj Divas. With the Constitution of India coming into effect in 1950, the monarch of Britain ceased to be the Head of State and that power transferred to the President of IndiaThat structure is replicated in each state of the Union of India. Part VI of the Constitution deals with the States, with Article 153 creating the position of Governor and Article 154 invests in him the executive power of the State, with a Council of Ministers to "aid and advise" the Governor. The position is something of an anomaly in that the people of the state have little say in who their Governor should be; a person is appointed to hold that post at the pleasure of the President of India. 

Tamil Nadu has been without a full-time Governor since August 31, 2016; the Governor of Maharashtra holds this position as an additional charge. It is not the first time this has happened, but on both the earlier occasions, it was the Governor of Andhra Pradesh who also played the role of Tamil Nadu's Governor. The first such was when Krishan Kant took charge for 55 days and the next was C. Rangarajan, who had a longer stint of six-and-a-half months. On neither occasion, however, did Tamil Nadu have to deviate from the practice of the Governor taking the salute at the State's Republic Day parade - it came very close to that in 1997, but Krishan Kant handed over charge to Fatima Beevi on January 25, ensuring that protocol was intact. This year has been the first time in Tamil Nadu that the Chief Minister takes the salute. 

What does all this have to do with the picture for the day? Not much, really. Except that I had seen two former Governors of West Bengal at The Hindu's LitForLife a few days ago; that got me thinking about why there has been such tardiness at finding a Governor for Tamil Nadu. Not that I have any answers for it, of course!

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

One way to enter

Some of the street names in the city sound downright ridiculous. Why would there be a Lake View Road in West Mambalam, or a Tank Bund Road in Nungambakkam, when there is no sight of any waterbody from either of these streets? Ah, you will say, but there was one, once. And you are correct. The Long Tank was filled in during the early years of the 20th century. In fact, some remnants of it existed until the 1960s (if not into the 1970s), so that is somewhat recent memory. 

But what about taxes on walls or gates for elephants? The story of the wall is quite easily told. Madras - which in the latter half of the 18th century meant the expanse to the north and a bit to the west of Fort St George - was coveted by forces who actively hassled the British, chief of who were the French, and Tipu Sultan of Mysore. To provide a measure of protection to the city, the British decided to build a wall around the city. The northern sector went off well enough, but the Company's plan to levy a tax on the citizens to pay for the western stretch ran into opposition and so the wall remained unfinished on that side. 

It is all very well to build a wall to try and keep people out, but there will always be a need to get in, too. Madras had such needs at seven places; one such, along the western wall, was called Elephant Gate. It is tempting to assume that this was a grand entrance through which caparisoned pachyderms lumbered in procession into the city, walking down the Elephant Gate Road; and that was what I had done. But Love's "Vestiges of Old Madras" indicates that this gate led to an Elephant Garden - now, what could that have been for?

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Royal college

Imagine it is sometime in the first decade of the 20th century. You are in your newly acquired motor-car (let us say it is registered as MC-2), driving eastward on the Edward Elliot's Road, taking the left turn at the Marina (the name Kamarajar Salai is a few decades away) on your way to the Fort St George. On your right, the lovely Bay of Bengal bringing back memories of Palermo; on the left - well, there is not much to see on the left. On the turn is the house that was built many years ago by Col. Francis Capper - and now a hotel owned by a native, who calls it Capper's House; after that, a few more houses - Beach House, belonging to Justice S. Subramania Iyer, Pentland House, Stone House and Jeypore House - before you catch sight of the Chepauk Palace.

Fast forward to the mid-1920s. You can still catch glimpses of those houses, but you are surprised to learn they are no longer residences. You are told that in 1914, the Government had taken over Capper's House to establish the city's first college for ladies - the Women's College - guided by the Founder-Principal Miss Dorothy de la Hey, admitting 37 ladies in its first batch which began in July 1914. Miss de la Hey, in the early days of her tenure (which lasted until 1936) ensured the college would have enough space for expansion by acquiring all the neighbouring houses - it would have helped that the college had taken on the name of Queen Mary in 1917.

Fast forward to the first years of the 21st century. The State Government has declared that the Queen Mary's College is to be relocated, the buildings demolished, and a new Secretariat complex is to be built there. Mass protests from Chennai's citizens and alumni of the QMC ensure that the Government backtracks. Much later, the buildings are accorded heritage status - but not before most of them have been degraded so badly that they are unsafe for occupation. Capper's House had actually crumbled. The new building that came up to replace it was named Kalaingar Maligai, now shortened as Kalai Maligai. There was some attempt to have elements of the colonial bungalow replicated in the design of the new building, but I am sure the dome on that building was inspired by a Buddhist stupa rather than Queen Mary's tiara!

Monday, January 23, 2017

Room for worship

When the British - Andrew Cogan and Francis Day - set up the 'factory' on the site where Fort St George stands today, catechisms and prayer books were very far from their thoughts. The Portuguese merchants, further south near Mylapore, already had their San Thome. When some of those merchants moved to the new settlement, they needed a place for their worship. The British allowed them to build their own church, St Andrew's, which has disappeared over the decades. 

Later, the British built their own church, St. Mary's, which continues to be in use today as the 'oldest Anglican church east of the Suez'. There are records of a Church Street, which is supposed to run from just outside St. Mary's to the fort's southern glacis. Maybe that was the road taken by the residents in the fort - the merchants and their families - to access the church. 

Most of the buildings on Church Street are in disrepair today. But among the ones that still stand, is this one with a sign over the door saying "St Marys Church Room"!

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Bird unseen

I have this old chestnut for the day of the Chennai Bird Race, when I go back to give in my log sheet to the volunteers manning the desks. I tell them that my team saw a few ostriches, and they start, because they haven't heard of the Post Graduate Research Institute in Animal Sciences at Kattupakkam, about 17 km from Tambaram. 

This year, I did not use that, mainly because my team did not see any of these ostriches. We did go to the PGRIAS, but we were intent on improving our bird count and so did not spend any time going over to watch the ostriches at their research area. Of course, the Bird Races do not accept any sighting of captive birds, so the ostriches were never going to add any heft to the count.

So, the picture here is from a few weeks ago. Without spending time on the ostriches, our team managed to top the 100-species mark for the first time this year!

Saturday, January 21, 2017

Eat like a bird

Tomorrow is the 10th edition of the Chennai Bird Race. About 50 teams, of 4 members each, have registered for the race. The idea is to spend the whole day, from 6am to 6pm, birding in and around Chennai - the boundaries are not very sharply defined, but broadly, it stretches from Pulicat in the north to Vedanthangal in the south. It is not necessary to cover the entire stretch; you can choose to stick to just a couple of spots within the city as well. The main thing is to spot as many of the 260-odd bird species of Chennai as you can.

The teams had to collect their log books today. The teams have to come in and sign up, pick up their log books, meet fellow birders and get into the excitement of tomorrow. What better place to do it than this restaurant - Spoonbill - on TTK Road.

It helps that the person who runs this is a member of the MNS - and she will also be participating in the bird race tomorrow!

Friday, January 20, 2017


All roads leading to and from the Marina Beach were packed with all kinds of traffic. Including a whole lot of pedestrian traffic, all of who were either going to protest, or protesting on their way back.

For the past two days, the protests have continued. The protesters have been at it, without any visible central leadership, or organizing body. Their demand is simple. Un-ban jallikattu, that macho sport of bull-taming, which the Supreme Court of India had banned in 2014. The regional and national political parties have been unsuccessful in convincing the Court to overturn the ban, and have not followed up on seasonal promises to protect the sport through legislation. Hence, the protesters do not want any politician to be seen with them, or to even occupy common ground at the protests.

And those protests have been happening at various places around the city - especially where youth gather: the IT corridor, colleges (and to a much lesser extent, schools), and of course the Marina. Did I say "around the city"? It is around the whole state, and their simple demand is right here, on the back of this autorickshaw!

Thursday, January 19, 2017


Going east on Kutchery Road, you might be surprised by a pair of lions sitting atop gate posts. They may have appeared regal at some time, but now they are crowded out by overgrown peepul shrubs, to the extent that the name on the gate post is part obscured. If you get close, you can make out that the name of the manse is Farhat Bagh. 

The twin of this gate post carries the name of its owner: V. Ramadas. It also announces his qualifications: B.A., B.L. If that does not convince you, he has added his professional title: Vakil. That title broadly applies to any lawyer, but Vemavarapu Ramdas Pantulu was a specialist in realty and land rights. He also dabbled in politics, and was one of the featured speakers at the 'First Andhra Conference' in 1913. In the Second Conference the next year, the Farhat Bagh vakil seconded a resolution to carve out the Telugu-speaking areas of the Madras Presidency into a separate province. In that he foreshadowed the Madras Manade movement; he seems to have faded out of politics after that, but reappears as a leading light of the cooperative movement, holding office as President of Indian Co-operative Banks Association between 1927 and 1944. In 1935, he also became the Founding Editor of the Indian Cooperative Review

He had given over his library and a "...part of home in Mylapore..." to the Institute of Co-operative Research and Service to continue his work. Whether that home was Farhat Bagh, or some other, is a question I am unable to answer right now. There were no signs to indicate any cooperation happening there; but maybe it is just that I cannot recognize those signs!

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Wedding hall

Passing this building, one would think it was a house. In some kind of jumbled fashion, it seems to have started as a residence for one family, to which appendages were built when a branch of the family needed their space. 

But no. Chhajer Bhavan on Avvai Shanmugham Salai is just one more of the marriage halls of Chennai. This set of buildings has over 20 rooms and according to the Chhajers, can accommodate 70 people. But the more surprising thing about it is the claim that the main hall has space for over 500 people to sit. 

Must try and get inside soon to find out how the claustrophobia is taken off one's shoulders!

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Small shop, big deity

According to mythology, Lord Parasurama had to behead his mother on his father's command. Though she was brought back to life immediately after that, the severed head gave rise to the iconography of the representation of Shakti as Renuka. 

In keeping with that tradition, the temple of Renuka Parameshwari depicts the main deity as only the head. There is however, the full-bodied version as well, and also the icons of Kasi Visalakshi along with her consort. 

This temple does not go back very far in history; most accounts talk of it as being just a couple of centuries old. During that period, it has acquired a name that it is more commonly known by - Chinnakadai Mariamman - that I was surprised to find it has more formal name!

Monday, January 16, 2017

Narrow outlook

Yes. That is truly how Kutchery Lane opens into the North Mada Street of the Kapaleeswarar Temple. But as one gets out from this narrowest of lanes, all it takes to get into the temple is to cross the street. That small gopuram is over a door to the temple's administrative office. That door does not open for you or me, it is quite possibly an entrance for only the most privileged of the temple's staff and/or devotees.

For a long while, that was the entrance through with the temple's designated devadasi, would enter the temple. She was an integral part of the temple's rituals, and was accorded a high status in the temple's hierarchy. But over the years, the position of the devadasi was stigmatised, and there were likely enough people within the temple administration who were politicking to cut the devadasis down to size.

It was not just at this temple; all over the Madras Presidency and across India, the desire to abolish the devadasi system led to the passage of legislation such as the Madras Devadasis (Prevention of Dedication) Act in 1947. With that law in their hands, the puritan faction of the temple administrators walked out through the office door, into the Kutchery Lane, to the ex-officio residence of the last of Kapaleeswar devadasis and unceremoniously threw her out into the street. And so ended a tradition, one that gave much of today's Bharatanatyam dance, in obscurity and penury. Would it have been any different had the passage been much broader?

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Old boys

It took almost two centuries for this "old-boys' club" to come up. The survey school that began in 1794 grew to become the College of Engineering, Guindy, of today. It was only in 1993, however, that some of the alumni decided that they needed a club that is both exclusive and global. Global, because the earliest alumni were not the natives, and also because over time, the native alumni have gone on to be stars around the world.

Exclusive because it is meant for the alumni of the core colleges of the Anna University - the CoEG, of course, as also the Alagappa Chettiar College of Technology, Madras Institute of Technology and the School of Architecture and Planning. That may sound like a lot of institutions, but it must be remembered that the Anna University has over a hundred colleges under it. 

The Alumni Club - it does not have to specify what the alumni are of - has the facilities you would expect of any such club: meeting rooms, auditoria, restaurants, library, sports facilities. All of this spread out over a complex on the southern bank of the river Adyar, accessed only through the posh Boat Club area. But hey, an institution whose alumni have gone on to be social reformers, politicians (in India and other countries), cricketers, movie stars should get to do a bit of posh once in a while!

Saturday, January 14, 2017

Book wall

The Hindu's "LitForLife 2017" kicked off today at the Sir Mutha Venkata Subba Rao Concert Hall. It was quite a full house today, with Dr. Shashi Tharoor on stage; after his session, a large chunk of the crowd followed him outside, to the author pavilion where he was signing copies of his latest book. 

On the way back after getting the autograph, spotted this book wall. Couldn't help thinking it would have been better with people - kids, especially - standing up close and reading these. And then, we saw that there were spaces at the Hall where you could sit down and read, and in fact, swap books for the day. 

That's nice - look forward to being back there tomorrow!

Friday, January 13, 2017


Sometimes, when you get in early for a weekend movie at the Madras Race Club, you get a wide range of seating options. 

Although, with the way these tables are oriented vis-a-vis the screen, at least one person at each table must decide the movie is not worth watching. Maybe there is an opportunity here to design a movie-watching-on-club-lawn table!

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Monk in the city

Like many other great personages, this man shed his mortal coils before he turned forty. Born this day in 1863, Vivekananda took "Hinduism" to the centre stage at the Parliament of the World's Religions in Chicago in 1893. It took Vivekananda nearly four years after that speech to return to his native land; he arrived at Colombo on January 15, 1897 and then, traversing the route from Pamban to Madras, arriving in the city on January 20. Though he lectured at Colombo and several other stops on the way, Madras was the focus of this return trip.

The place that he stayed in was then known as Castle Kernan, or alternately the Ice House. It was not meant to be a residence, but then, it was spacious, on the Marina, and could accommodate the hundreds of visitors who wanted to meet this monk seemed to have strengthened their belief in themselves. The Madras Reception Committee said, in its welcome address, "...we come to offer you the love of our hearts and to give expression to our feeling of thankfulness for the services which you, by the grace of God, have been able to render to the great cause of Truth by proclaiming India's ancient and lofty religious ideals." So tumultuous was that reception that Vivekananda's words could not be heard by many of the nearly 10,000 strong crowd that attended. Their consolation was that they could look forward to a few more opportunities to listen to him over the next few days in their city. 

Vivekananda stayed in Madras for nine days. The enthusiasm which he generated was reason enough for an enterprising publisher from the city to put together a volume of his lectures. And somewhere in those lectures, he exhorted the young men of the city to build their strength, for a life of religiosity needed a strong body. He said, "First of all, our young men must be strong. Religion will come afterwards. Be strong, my young friends; that is my advice to you. You will be nearer to Heaven through football than through the study of the Gita." Wonder which of those approaches have gained popularity now!

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Peacock dance

Dusk falls at the Kapaleeswarar Temple. The temple gopuram is outlined with lights, which is not unusual. But what is unusual is the stage in front, and the dancers. 

We are back at the Mylapore Festival and on the last day of the festival, we caught a version of the mayilattam; the dance of the peacocks, the birds the place is named after!

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Pass me the card

We have seen cheaters at card games, but not like this. Bridging the real and the make-believe, the 3D gallery at the VGP Amusement Complex makes for an interesting half-hour or so of viewing. All the works here - mostly paintings, but there are a few other installations, as well - are fashioned as trompe l'oeils. Paintings that seem to be more than what they are have been around for quite a few centuries, but they continue to intrigue and amaze us. 

The trick at this gallery is to make sure you become part of the exhibits. Without the real life interaction, they are quite bland. But almost always there is a crowd milling around; even if you are not amused by the pictures, the reaction of visiting children will certainly leave you with a smile. 

Every picture tricks the eye, to twist something that René Magritte might have said. And it is interesting that the Magritte Museum is itself something of a trompe l'oeil!

Monday, January 9, 2017

Royal board

This must have been one of the original signs erected when a part of Madras was renamed Raja Annamalaipuram, after the passing away of the first Raja of Chettinad. That title was given to him by the British, in 1929, in addition to the knighthood that was awarded to him six years earlier.

In gazette notification announcing his knighthood, he is addressed as "Diwan Bahadur Sathappa Chettiar Ramanathan Chettiar Muthiah Chettiar Annamalai Chettiar Avargal, Banker, Madras". Even de-duping the Chettiars in that leaves a lot of letters to be written; replacing the "Diwan Bahadur" with "Raja" helped, but even then, it would have been quite a task to find a board indicating the name of this locality had anyone insisted on the full title! 

Sunday, January 8, 2017

Dedicated service

Quick, who was the first woman sheriff of Madras? For all I know, she may have been the only woman sheriff of Chennai ever. That is Padma Vibhushan Mary Clubwala Jadhav, one of the city's most revered social workers and an early member of the Guild of Service, which is arguably the country's oldest voluntary service organization. She was born in Ooty in 1909 and died in Mumbai (then Bombay) in 1975. The years in between were mostly spent in Madras, where she became the moving spirit and the visible face of the Guild of Service. 

By the time of India's independence, the Guild of Service was an organisation of formidable repute: Rajendra Prasad, India's first President also became the Guild's Patron-in-Chief; over the years, that almost became an ex-officio position. As she tried to move social work from being "time-pass" into a structured, systematic activity. As much as the Guild opened up areas such as refugee rehabilitation, care for the destitute, foundling homes and such like, Mary Clubwala Jadhav also emphasised the need for a feeder system. That was how the Madras School of Social Work came to be established. 

Recognition came regularly; in 1935 she was appointed Honorary Presidency Magistrate for Madras, responsible for the Juvenile Court, a position that she held for the rest of her life, being re-appointed 15 times. In 1946, the Government of Madras nominated her to the Legislative Council, which they did again in 1952 and in 1954. In 1956, she was appointed the Sheriff of Madras, thereby becoming the first woman Sheriff of the city, to go with the honour of having been the first woman to be Honorary Presidency Magistrate. When she received that position, in 1935, she was but 26 years old. But that should not be surprising; though the Guild of Service was founded by Mrs Waller (the wife of Bishop Waller), it is said that Mary "joined hands with her" in starting it. The Guild dates its origin to 1923; it is unlikely that a 14-year old could be instrumental in its inception. Even so, given her dedication to the Guild, it is no wonder that she went on to receive the MBE from the British; the Padma Vibhushan came much later, in 1975, the same year that she passed away - still in service!

Saturday, January 7, 2017

Forlorn museum

When one think of museums in Chennai, the first one to come to mind has to be the Government Museum at Egmore, with its fabled bronze gallery. And then, you might recall that there is a museum within Fort St George. If you are a fan of the railways, then you would probably put the Rail Museum at the top of your list. And you may somewhere, in the back of your mind, imagine that there might be some specialised museums, such as those for Ramanujan, or Vivekananda. 

A museum for the Public Works Department may not even make your list. But there is one such, inside the PWD Estate in Chepauk. It is a library-and-museum rolled into one, and commemorates the 150th anniversary of the PWD. That dates the museum to 2008, for it was in 1858 that Lord Dalhousie, the Governor General, consolidated various departments into a single PWD in each of the Presidencies. In Madras, it meant the coming together of three major departments: the Maramath department (works relating to irrigation, buildings, waterways, smaller roads and bridges), the Trunk Roads department and the Engineering department. The remit of the Madras Presidency's PWD spread over Tamil Nadu, Malabar, Andhra and into today's Odisha.

Considering that extent, it is surprising that the PWD has been able to fit in 150 years of its history into this rather small, hexagonal building; maybe they haven't been able to get all that organized enough, which may be the reason why this library-museum is almost unknown. There is little indication of the museum hours; that bundled up figure at the top of the steps may be able to guide us, but for the moment, it is unconcerned with our presence!

Friday, January 6, 2017

Unexpected boating

If you happen to talk about old Madras to someone who was around during the 1960s and 1970s, they would most probably have a story to tell about how they went boating in the Cooum in those days. Heck, I would spin a tale too, about how I used to see the boathouses along the river, with boats tied up, waiting for a good bunch of people to gather before being taken out for a spin. But somehow, I haven't had, or heard, of any boats on the Adyar river.

It has been a very long time since a boat has been seen on any of Chennai's waterways. Looking out from one of the office buildings in MRC Nagar, overlooking the northward curve of the Adyar river, I noticed what seemed to be a right regular ferry service. On the eastern bank, a spit of land almost fords the river. But it still leaves the river too broad (and likely too deep) to walk across, while also being too narrow to contemplate a kind of permanent connecting structure.

The ferry service - more like a skiff, with a couple of planks thrown together and supported by a crossbeam - can handle only 2 or 3 passengers at a time. But hey, the crossing can be done in less than a minute, and so there not going to be many complaints from those waiting!

Thursday, January 5, 2017

Not a ghost

The Vaishnavaite tradition of south India recognises twelve azhwars as being the foremost of Vishnu's devotees. The earliest of them are believed to have lived in the fourth millennium BCE. The azhwars expressed their devotion mainly through poetry; because most of their verses gained popularity during the Bhakti movements of the 7th and 8th centure CE, it is easier to defend the proposition that they lived during that time and not, as legend would have it, almost 5,000 years earlier.

Because there were only twelve azhwars, it is slightly easier to memorise their names, especially when there are sixythree nayanmars on the Shaivite side of the divide. Even so, in trying to mug up those azhwar names, there was a hurdle; not that they were difficult to remember, but the names would bring to mind other, frightening associations. The second and third azhwars were Bhoodathazhwar and Peyyazhwar, both names being synonymous with ghosts and so were accorded even more respect, and at a different level.

Through all that, the idea of the azhwars were remote, that they were not only temporally but also spatially in a different zone. It was something of a shock to see this gate, leading to a shrine, in the busy Arundale Street in Mylapore. The sign on it says "The site of Peyyazhwar's avatar", indicating his birthplace. But the approach and the shrine, appearing to be largely ignored, indicate Peyyazhwar's presence here in a rather ghostly fashion!

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Mutual benefit

We have seen a couple of institutions similar to The Triplicane Permanent Fund Limited earlier - in Mylapore and in Purasawalkam. Those are much older; in fact, the TPFL is still in its 'nervous nineties', having been set up only in 1926. It is not even the oldest in Triplicane; that place would probably go to the SMSO Permanent Nidhi Ltd, which is in its 136th year. And that is much bigger in terms of its book size as well.

The TPFL is a very modest institution - its business volume would have been less than Rs.100 crores in the last year. Though it has only six branches, they are well distributed across the city; and hopefully, they would cover all the existing members of the fund. Intra-city migration would have seen a large number of Triplicane-ites moving to other parts of Chennai, but will continue to remain members of this mutual-benefit society.

And that is also the reason why this firm, despite being headquartered in Triplicane, does not have anyone from that locality in its management team!

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

The Eater's Digest - 11

It has been quite a few posts since the last Eater's Digest came up - and because there was a craving for beef last evening, this one had to be today's post. A generation ago, Kalpaka on TTK Road was the place to go for beef - especially the Syrian Beef Fry, as it used to be called. Funnily enough, that name never evoked any association with the middle east, but the very mention called to mind the flavours of Kerala. That's where the Kalpaka Beef Fry was born, from the Syrian Christian kitchens of that state.

Kalpaka was of course a Malayali kitchen. That meant Kerala porottas and aapams for sure, with a bunch of dishes that you could find in pretty much any restaurant. But what was impossible to replicate was the peppery-coconutty combination of the gravies, which has been the signature taste of the Malabar coast. And in the 1990s it was possible on occasion to smuggle in some nice Old Monk to go with the food; the tradition of Malayalees being able to hold their drink was never contradicted at Kalpaka. 

These days, you cannot get the Syrian Beef Fry at Kalpaka. The price of political correctness, possibly, has led to the dish appearing as Kalpaka Beef Fry. Must go back to try it, so reassure myself that 20-odd years cannot change the taste of that signature dish from the Suriani kitchens. If you would like to try that for yourself, this may be a good place to start!

Monday, January 2, 2017

Dance bars

All those air-conditioning units sticking out from this building seem to corroborate the claim on the board; yes, see, we indeed have air-conditioning, can't you see us all hanging out together at the A/C Bar? Although there are about 3,000 bars attached to the TASMAC outlets across the state, there are only about 600 of them that are air-conditioned. So that is certainly an attraction for patrons to visit this bar. 

But there was a time when no additional words was necessary for patrons to know what "PALS" had to offer. There were few places in the city where one could go to watch cabaret dances. Hotels such as Oceanic or Savera were at the high-end of this scale, but there were others as well, those which did not advertise their shows. Therefore, it was left to the school-boy's (or even college-goer's) imagination to visualise the dances at Pals, or Hotel Arun - the most popular names of that sector.

Today, there are no dance bars in Chennai. Oceanic's buildings have been pulled down. Savera shows no trace of ever having had dances on the premises. Hotel Arun has been built over by the Ampa Skywalk. Other bars have all had their names replaced with TASMAC authorised serial numbers. Maybe even this one does not have a name to it, for the TASMAC board just says 834. But the sign above it certainly recalls a part of Madras that has sadly disappeared, and Chennai has never ever known!

Sunday, January 1, 2017


It is New Year's Day and I'm going to break with the tradition of posting the 'Photo of the Year'* today; I'm going further, to talk about someone who was not merely a dwijan by heritage, but a trijan (if there is such a term), by having had two re-births his career, one that defined his life. That career was born in 1904-5 when a boy of nine performed at a Srikrishna Temple in Palakkad. As the boy grew to adolescence, the voice that had captivated his listeners must have broken in a way that threatened his singing career; there is little detail on how he got past that setback and was re-born into his singing life. Maybe that was how he developed a resonant voice, so striking that he was on occasion referred to as "bronze-voiced". 

More serious was the second occasion. That bronze voice, now belonging to a seasoned and respected singer, was in full flow at a concert; at the end, its owner realised that he had lost it. And he then had to endure six months of suspense, during which period various remedies were tried; finally, the voice came back - thanks to the intervention of Sri Guruvayoorappan, his favourite deity. That was his third life, the one in which every paisa that he made from his concerts went directly to the Srikrishna Temple at Guruvayoor. It is beyond today's imagination to think of performing the Udayasthamana Puja there (bookings are no longer being taken because the current list runs for about forty years or something) even once, but he was able to do it sixty-one times. 

Much of his recognition came from Madras; it was here, from this house on (then) Palace Road, Santhome, that he taught his disciples. Many of them are famous in their own right - P. Leela, the Jaya-Vijaya twins, TV Gopalakrishnan and KJ Yesudas. It was from the thinnai of this house that their careers began. The house itself was given to him by TG Krishna Iyer, a friend who had composed 155 kritis, collectively known as Lalitha Dasar Krithigal. In October of 1974, he went back to perform at Poozhikunnu Srikrishna Temple at Ottapalam, where he had, 70 years ago, had his debut. After that performance, he just slipped off his mortal coils while performing his sandhyavandanam - going the way he always wished to. Srikrishna was kind to him; and why wouldn't he be, for Chembai Vaidyanatha Bhagavatar was as close to a saint as any mortal can ever aspire to be!

*The community of City Daily Photographers celebrates Theme Day every month. Go over to this site to see the best pictures from around the world!