Monday, August 20, 2007

Storyteller recalls first city of modern India

Sundays are usually reserved for getting up late, with breakfast not served earlier than 10 am in many houses, and then, of course, catching up with newspapers and lazing around. This Sunday was different, though. Lined up were a couple of heritage walks, a trip to a Stone Age cave away from the city, and Chennai historian S. Muthiah’s talk at the TAG Centre.

R.T. Chari’s breakfast meetings at the TAG Centre, held on the last Sunday of every month, are quite popular and well attended. Mr Chari follows a strict regimen – if the invitee does not respond to the invitation a second time, by phone or email, there will be no more invitations coming his or her way. Perhaps Mr Chari wishes to introduce the R.S.V.P. culture among Chennaiites. I was thus knocked out from his mailing list months ago and was pleasantly surprised to receive an invitation for Mr Muthiah’s talk.

It’s hard work arranging speakers for any function, and to get one speak on an interesting aspect of Indian culture, month after month, even more difficult. S.R. Madhu manages this function very well. He painstakingly prepares a resume of the speaker and formally introduces the speaker at such meetings. I understand that Mr Madhu does a great job of this at the Rotary meetings as well (Rotary Club of Madras South). This time, he went one step further to get views about Mr Muthiah from a few who knew him reasonably well, me included. That was one way to present a different take on the grand old man; after all, who among Chennai’s Who’s Who does not really know about the storyteller who’s written more than half a dozen books on the city?

Well, the morning certainly belonged to S. Muthiah. It was, as Mr Madhu mentioned, one of his finest presentations. He divided his presentation into two parts: one on the history as such, and the other pictorial, with some startling images of a Madras many in the audience never knew existed. From “no man’s sand”, Fort St. George, grandiosely named so in 1639, grew into what Mr Muthiah always calls “the first city of modern India.” To understand that better, you will do well to read some of his books on Madras, starting with Madras Rediscovered.

Mr Muthiah’s presentation helped us all understand how badly heritage buildings, even natural heritage, are looked after and cared for. Chennai does not have a Heritage Act, like Mumbai does. So, as he points out, there is no way really to contest the pulling down of a heritage structure. A lot of ‘restoration’ that does take place, however, is not classical or appropriate restoration. While the Moore Market was knocked down, buildings like the Bharat Insurance Building stand in a state of utter neglect and disrepair. And will our generation ever see the Buckingham Canal as it was years ago – with water flowing and masula boats ferrying people and goods from Andhra Pradesh to Kerala? I wonder!

Can we, citizens of Madras that is Chennai, at least try and get Fort St. George on the World Heritage Site list? Doesn’t the place truly deserve it? Wasn’t it from where the British took roots as traders first, and where the foundations of modern Madras, nay India, were laid? Let’s strive for that recognition then, shall we?

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