Sunday, August 28, 2011

Yet another unsung hero (A. Ananda Kumar)

Probably the youngest hero of Madras Week was A. Ananda Kumar who exhibited his paintings at the C.P. Ramaswami Aiyar Foundation. Kumar graduated this year from the Government College of Fine Arts, Chennai and is the first degree holder in Fine Arts from his village Koralpakkam in Thiruvannamalai District.

When I visited the g Vennirul Art Gallery there was no visitor. The lights were off and somebody came to switch them on as I entered. The sad part in some of these exhibitions is that there are hardly enough people interested in coming to see what’s on offer.

Whether it’s the C.P. Ramaswami Aiyar Foundation or the Gallery Sri Parvati or other galleries, it all looks good for the record, to have exhibits during Madras Week, but in reality, except for the inaugural if there is one, you will hardly find people coming. Lakshmi Venkataraman, who runs Gallery Sri Parvati, has echoed my view many times. She should know. Her gallery, done up fairly well, in the centre of the city, in Alwarpet, does not attract many visitors during Madras Week.

So, I had the whole Vennirul Art Gallery to myself and spent some time looking at the exhibits before an officer from the Foundation trooped in, probably signaling that my time was up.

Outside I was pleasantly surprised to see Ananda Kumar immersed in what he does best – paint. As he wielded his brush, his eyes were focused on an old building on the campus, probably one that might have been the residence of Sir C.P. Ramaswami Aiyar.

Pictures show some of Kumar’s work – the flow of the Cooum against a backdrop of heritage buildings, of St Andrew’s Church and Victoria Public Hall, and of the Mylapore Temple tank. I managed a picture of Kumar even as he was providing final touches to his painting of the building that formed the background.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

A flavour of early 20th Century Madras

Last year, Nanditha Krishna of the C. P. Ramaswami Aiyar Foundation had organised during Madras Week an exhibition on Fort St. George. The exhibition included aquatints, etchings and engravings from private collections, maps and sketches.

This year, she had two exhibitions running – one, a display of paintings by A. Ananda Kumar and the other, a display of some splendid photographs taken by the late M. K. Rangaswamy Aiyangar – of Madras and its environment in the beginning of the last century.

Let’s look at Aiyangar’s pictures first. M. K. Rangaswamy Aiyangar was a prolific writer and photographer. Born in 1886 in Srivilliputhur, he was a scholar of art, culture, religion and music, having written many articles on the subjects in leading dailies like The Hindu, Indian Express and the weeklies and magazines of his times. He authored several books, among which Thyagaraja Thatvam and Mahabalipuram – A Guide Book with illustrations of photographs taken by him are noteworthy.

Aiyangar was an eminent photographer and, according to Nanditha, will be remembered for his famous photographs of the early 20th century Madras and Tamil Nadu, especially the temples. Tirumala to Tillai, his famous exhibition of pictures, was held in Madras, Tirunelveli and Kalahasti in Andhra Pradesh.

Aiyangar’s son, the late R. Madhavan, who retired from The Hindu, gifted his father’s collection of negatives and prints to the C. P. Ramaswami Aiyar Foundation library.

Here are a few of Rangaswamy Aiyangar’s pictures: a long-shot view of some of the pictures of monuments, of the Sri Thyagarajar Temple in Thiruvottriyur, of a person feeding vultures in Thirukkalukundram, of the Sangu Thirtham Tank there, and of the St Thomas Church on the Little Mount.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Other unsung heroes (John Moses, Winston Henry, Venkatesh)

It appears kerosene was first imported to Madras by Best & Company in 1879. It was sold in tins by the brand names Chester and Monkey. Kerosene lamps were also sold on carts till the late 1970s. With the import of kerosene from abroad, lamps from England, Germany, Hungary, France, Japan and the United States followed. According to John Moses, who had an astonishing display of lamps at the Padma Seshadri School in KK Nagar, the lamp industry was highly competitive in these countries – in producing lamps, wicks, chimneys and globes. Most of the lamps then were made of brass, glass and porcelain.

Moses and Winston Henry (who helps put up aquariums and aviaries), narrated at length their passion for collecting anything old. Moses said his collection of old lamps, watches, pens and cycles was so large that there was hardly enough space at his home in Kilpauk to keep them. “My family just manages to tolerate me,” he said.

Winston said just about the same thing. The passageways in his house are lined with large containers filled with old books. He had brought along the 1870 edition of Francis Buchanan’s ‘Journey from Madras through the countries of Mysore, Canara and Malabar’, published by Higginbotham and Company, Madras. The pages were almost falling apart and the years had taken its toll – but you were taken to another world just by grasping the book.

Together, Moses and Winston made a difference to the exhibition at the school. They also took pains in describing the displays to all those who seemed interested to know and learn more.

Another participant who needs special mention was Venkatesh, a peon at the Padma Seshadri School. He has been an avid collector of coins and has always sought an outlet to exhibit them. Two years ago, he came up with a similar display. School duties have not blunted his enthusiasm to pursue his hobby. His is an example many should follow.

And these are the people who make Madras Week what it is. They toil hard all day long, expect little publicity, prefer to keep a low profile, are happy with even the smallest word of appreciation, and treat every person with dignity.

Pictures show Moses before his prized collection, Winston going about his job of explaining to visitors, Francis Buchanan’s book, a coloured illustration on one of the pages of the book, and Venkatesh beaming before his collection.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

An unsung hero: S.A. Govindaraju

The Madras Heritage Lovers Forum put up a wonderful show at the Padma Seshadri School in KK Nagar. Most of the members are past 50, with consultant architect D.H. Rao, who organised and ‘choreographed’ the entire show, well past 70. More than anything, it was rare commitment on display, a passion for a city and its heritage.

The forum is made up of Rao, V. Prabhakar, Winston Henry, S.A. Govindaraju, who has an amazing collection of old books and magazines, John Moses, Lazer, Roland Nelson and Hemant Chopra. Some of them were there throughout at the three-day event, standing for the most part in a hall without the air-conditioning system turned on.

Govindaraju is 80 years old but his passion for old books and magazines hasn’t diminished a bit. He has been collecting them for more than four decades and has over 5000 books and 10000 magazines, paper clippings and advertisements. A retired labour law consultant, he runs a small garage where he sells these books. What is remarkable is that he is able to identify each of the books just by the look of them – the author and publisher’s names, even the date of publication.

Govindaraju has books on law, philosophy, literature, history, wildlife, poetry, encyclopedias and books on film stars and politicians. He has a large collection of R.K. Laxman’s cartoons as well.

Every day, he spends his time in the garage (Rare Books, R.A. Puram, 2nd Main Road) with his collection, waiting for people with a similar passion, a passion that is hard to find these days.

Pictures show some of the material on display – Manohar Devadoss’s exquisite s pen-and-ink drawings; Govindaraju’s books; and one (Madras – Chennai Pattinam) of several fascinating articles by Nanditha Krishna (director of the C.P. Ramaswami Aiyar Foundation) that had appeared in The Illustrated Weekly of India in the 1970s.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

More spontaneity, energy needed

After seven years of playing the catalyst role in putting events together in some places, I get the feeling that a lot of it is not as spontaneous as it would seem to be. We’ve had two press conferences – one in June to announce broadly the celebration, and the second a week ahead of Madras Week, to drive home the specifics. What if we, the catalysts or coordinators, did not convene the press meets – would we then have had as many ‘celebrations’ of the city or events that are there now? My answer is ‘no’.

People, whether they be individuals, heading schools, colleges or institutions have to be pushed a bit to get events off the starting block. There’s only one school that seems to have earmarked Madras Day and Madras Week in the school calendar. So, why is the spontaneity missing? Does love of one’s city not amount to too much, or doesn’t heritage and allied subjects not rank high at all? I would say heritage does not rank high in a person’s list of priorities.

So, how do we get more people to celebrate the founding of a city? To the best of my knowledge, Chennai is perhaps the only city in India to have such a weeklong celebration bracketing its birthday. There are no straightforward answers to the question as much as there is no short-term solution. The best way is to instill the idea in the minds of schoolchildren from all schools so that when they grow up, they realise the value of protecting and conserving the heritage of the place where they spent their growing years.

The other point is that over the years we’ve been having the same people speaking at various forums. Of course, it’s a pleasure to listen to city historians S. Muthiah and Randor Guy and V. Sriram but we need many others who can speak or make presentations on a variety of other subjects connected to the city. Where are the Tamil speakers? Gnanai Sankaran, Badri Seshadri or Ashokamitran are fairly good speakers and people will come to hear them, but they, and I’m sure there are many more like them, are not part of the week’s celebrations this year. What I’m trying to say is that often it is the same message that goes out, from the same speakers. I think some of the older speakers must make way for new and younger ones.

Overall, it’s schoolchildren who are benefiting the most, from participating in quiz contests, essay and drawing competitions, in exhibitions, and by listening to speakers. The three-day exhibition of Madras memorabilia, put together by the Chennai Heritage Lovers Forum headed by the indefatigable D.H. Rao, at the Padma Seshadri School in KK Nagar was a success, with students from many neighbouring schools coming to have a look.

However, a rather disappointing note was struck at the Jaigopal Garodia School in Anna Nagar, when Chandrachoodan Gopalakrishnan failed to live up to expectations and rather than showing some of the hundreds of pictures he must have taken during his ‘photowalks’, decided to get teachers of the school to demonstrate how they took history classes. His larger message was to get schoolchildren out of the classrooms, a message that we have often heard, and the point was not lost. But if he had enough pictures to show or stories to tell it might have made up for something, but it wasn’t to be.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

May we have a Heritage Act, please?

It is the joint request by the coordinators of the Madras Week on behalf of the people of Chennai on the day of Press conference, Aug. 19, 2011.
If passed, the act will have not just the heritage of Madras protected, but of the whole of the state.
As the banner with a request to pass the Heritage Act is unfurled, about 40 signatures on the spot filled the sheets of the campaign.

Through the Madras week from Aug. 21 to 28, we would like people support the campaign by signing the request.
If you are at a talk or taking part in a walk or a spectator at a show organised for the Madras Day, please read the leaflets kept at these venues to know why we need a Heritage Act and if you too love your heritage to be in tact for the next generation, do say it with your signature.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

The Chennai Monolgues

Two theatre fests. Presented by two rival newspapers.
I chose the 'One on One' monologues by a Mumbai group, kicked by the themes they handled - everything contemporary, wry and humorous.

My vote went to the bit on the Worli-Forli Sealink of Mumbai. The actor, a lamp post ( or was he part of the Link beam) sharing all that he saw and heard down below. From fancy plans to local goondagiri to fights in the Assembly on a name for this facility.

And I thought - why don't our writers here produce monologues on our city - its people, its hijinks and its autos, potholes and garbage agency whose patron lives in South America.

Did I hear some one say - do you think actors would have the nerve to stage them?

Winners of the Tee show

We invited artist and theatreperson Pravin to judge the 50 plus entries for the Madras Tee Design Contest.
Pravin was locked up in his Adyar studio burning the midnight oil to prepare for his first art exhibition in Bengaluru ( you must have read about his works showing sleeping Madras dogs lying near still Madras cattamarans with jet black Madras crows hovering over the two.)
Pravin took time but signed off before moving on.

We should have the designs submitted by the top winner and the two who get special mention posted on the web site soon. Perhaps, post 5 other designs that were short listed.

The plan is to invite the winner to use his design or a bettered one for the Tee for 2012.

We still have a few Chennai Tees of previous avatars on sale. We shouldnt have ordered for XXL in this age of fitness!

Will to do the Villu-paatu

I spoke about collaborations that make Madras Day in my weekly Jottings column last week. And referred to the Yellow Buss - Besant Theosophical Society school in the Adyar area,

This morning we were invited to sit through the first big rehearsal of the BTS group - 20 kids in uniform, two music teachers and gurus and colleagues of the students. This was to be their first go at the villu, their first before jaded mikes and an audience of 27.

They did reasonably well - telling the story of this city the way they perceived it with a dash about Annie Besant, the banyan tree inside TS and all.

This is a wonderful collaboration and we hope to invite the group to the Multi Media Contest finale in Luz on Aug 23.
If time permits they may take this show around.
My colleague Revathi intends to collect the copy of the lyrics and have it posted here so that future groups can partake of this production.

Its the Act . . .

So I am wondering if a Anna Hazare-kind of campaign can be driven to get a Heritage Act for our state.
Because this is perhaps the most important element of this year's Madras Day celebration.

The campaign will be launched at the press conference on Friday afternoon.
There is an appeal to the Chief Minister and we are hoping to have at least 1000 signatories in the week that follows.

Volunteers plan to set up a table in some public spaces across the city.
And we hope to launch a e-petition too so that you can sign from home.

If you have ideas on how you can help drive this campaign, do let us know.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Madras through the eyes of children

Walking with a camera on the road is fun.
The kids in your home always grab your camera to capture some unusual sights without waiting to compose, look at angles and aperture. They are instant captures.
When I thought of a photowalk exclusively for kids last year through YOCee, I wasn't sure if the kids would walk at least half a kilometer. But what we saw and experienced was completely different. They walked two kilometers just enjoying and shooting the scenes. They forgot to break for their snacks and water!
This encouraged us to continue the photowalks this year too.

N. Ramaswamy, who is a regular walker at the Chennai Photowalks was game to accompany the kids last year for the Madras Day and extended his support this year too.
The five kids who walked along north Madras roads from Royapuram Railway station to Srinivasa Ramanujan museum on Somu Chetty 4th lane had real fun. The fire temple and the cycle rickshaws and a Goshala, a home for cows . . . they saw a "different city" in their words.
For the larger group on Sunday's walks, there were two big attractions in the walk along Greenways Road. The Brodies Castle and the Krishnamurti Foundation of India (KFI) - Vasant Vihar.
The kids looked at the board 'P.S. Kumarasamy Raja Salai' and the 'Greenways Road' on the name boards of the shops. Puzzled.
Dr. Aravind, the outreach programme coordinator at the KFI took time off to guide the group inside the campus. He spoke about the flora and fauna of the campus, helped them identify the trees and the insects, bugs and butterflies!
The best pictures will be on display soon. Do keep visiting the Madras Day website for daily updates.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Technology institutes host walks inside their campuses

Two major technology institutions are throwing open their campuses for a walk inside.

The Alumni Association of the College of Engineering Guindy is conducting a walk on Aug. 20, 2011.
David Michaelangelo says that the walk covers the sights and stories surrounding the the primary seat of Technical education in Tamil Nadu.
They invite the public who know the present Anna University to explore their institution which was started in 1794.

Prof. Ajit Kumar Kolar, Chairman, Centre for Continuing Education, IIT Madras called us end of August last year and was disappointed that his institution couldn't take part in the city's celebration. He made it up this year
He hosts a guided visit to the IITM Heritage Centre within the campus which depicts the early history through 600 photographs arranged on 80 panels and a nature walk inside the campus led by their Nature Club 'Prakrithi'.

These academic institutions add pride to the city. Who wouldn't want to go to these campuses? Here is a chance during the Madras Week. Do explore if you find time.