Saturday, August 31, 2013

Madras Week 2013: Stars who made a difference

As we have been seeing the past few years, Madras Week this year (August 18-25), too, soon became Madras Fortnight and eventually almost a Madras Month, with more than 100 programmes/ events/ across the city.

This year was particularly memorable for my good friend Harry MacLure, comic book illustrator, cartoonist and graphic designer. His film, Going Away, was screened to packed houses at the Press Institute of India and the Madras Club. The film is set in an Anglo-Indian milieu in the Madras of old. It’s about a fictional Anglo-Indian family coming to terms with the possibility of emigration to Australia and having to leave loved ones behind in India. The Anglo-Indians – A 500-Year History, a book that is a must-buy for all those with more than a passing interest in history, authored by S. Muthiah and Harry, was released at the Hotel President in front of more than 400 people.

One of the high points at the Press Institute (there wasn’t even space to squat on the floor) was when Nityanand Jayaraman made a brilliant presentation backed by a lot of perspective on Chennai’s vanishing wetlands, natural events and disasters. Development is all fine, he said, but not at the cost of destroying Nature or by upsetting its laws. His presentation was finely complemented by some magnificent pictures (mostly depressing in the second part) taken by Shaju John, freelance photojournalist who has worked with several reputable publications.

I finally breathed a huge sigh of relief when the final programme at the institute went off without a hitch. Moderating the catchy subject, Madras – the good, bad and ugly, was S. Muthiah. All the speakers did a fairly good job as the discussions weaved through (mainly through the prism of newspapers in Chennai) the various issues and aspects confronting journalism today - paid news, corporate ownership of newspapers, credibility, citizen journalism, advertising and the commercial, as well as the quality of the fare on offer.

However, for me, the star during the four days of programmes at the Press institute was Kadambari Badami, an active member of Transparent Chennai who spoke about envisioning a pedestrian-friendly and ‘walkable’ city, through participatory planning, public-government partnerships, citizen empowerment, and the Nanganallur and KK Nagar projects. She made an impassioned plea in the end to the youngsters in the audience and elsewhere to do their bit for the city and make it more livable, even going as far as admonishing them with, “Shame on all of you!” It was probably her frustration coming out in the end, finding little support for her initiative from people her age. More power to her.

But there was even a brighter star that lit the horizon during Madras Week around Thiruverkkadu Road, Seneerkuppam. The Pupil Saveetha Eco Schoolwas making a debut in the celebrations. And what a debut! The school organised weeklong programmes that it collectively styled Madras Memoirs. There were a series of inter-school and intra-school events and competitions that highlighted the transition of the city from Madrasapattinam to Chennai. Reflections showcased exhibits from a bygone era - a gramophone, telephones, a hand-woven sari, miniature brass items and vehicles, photographs, old coins, old documents  and postage stamps.

It was nostalgia for many visitors as they had a close look at the pictures that adorned the walls. Another hall had charts, models and photographs that the students had collected over a period. Overall, the event helped them learn more about the city and also gave them a sense of belonging, a sense of pride that they live in a city steeped in history. Madras is after all the first city of Modern India.

The person who made all this possible at The Pupil, almost single-handedly, was Dolly Mohan, who does not like the arc lights and is happy working quietly in the shadows. But it was from those shadows that the brightest spark this Madras Week emerged.  Not only did the school host the weeklong programmes, it also opened up the events to cluster and neighbourhood schools.

Dolly says she initially dreaded taking up the onerous task but as she got into the groove she began enjoying being a part of the old and the new. She’s been in Chennai for more than two decades but, like many, she was ignorant about how the city had evolved and grown. Now having been entrusted with the responsibility of organising the events at the school, she researched hard and found a magical path leading to the past. In the process she rediscovered a small part of the rich legacy of Madrasapattinam. She knew it all amounted to only scratching the surface but she had made a great start. “The quiz, the photographs, the relics – everything added on to my personal knowledge of Madrasapatinam. Wish we had a time machine that would take us back into those days when life was so peaceful compared to the frenetic one we lead today,” she says.

Being a lover of history, I can empathise with what Dolly feels and says. As a catalyst/ coordinator of Madras Day/Week celebrations, it’s people like Dolly who make you feel proud, who motivate you to ‘go for it’ one more time… More power to her, too.

The pictures, and there are many of them, can be seen at The Pupil Website (

Monday, July 29, 2013

A Sunday breakfast with Rotarians, and a slice of heritage

Sundays are usually lazy days, at least that is how you feel in the early part of the morning. So, you don’t expect a packed attendance at a Rotary breakfast meeting. There were hardly 15 Rotarians when I arrived in time for breakfast – idli, vada, pongal, sambar, coffee – about 8.30 am. But in the half hour following, the number doubled and by the time the hosts draped a ponnadai around my shoulders it was house-full.

The members were made up of a motley group comprising advocates, professors, builders, teachers, businessmen, students and others. I was introduced by an elderly member and I noticed she had taken pains to scribble two full pages, adding copiously to an email I had sent her about my background. In the event she made several errors, but on occasions such as it is best to let them pass.

A sumptuous breakfast is unlikely to keep you awake for long when you are seated comfortably and as it turned out there were a couple of heads suddenly dropping on shoulders and then springing back to attention. But these occurrences were momentary and by and large the audience was wide awake. That was enough motivation as I launched into the romance of old – of Andrew Cogan, Francis Day and Beri Thimmappa, of Madraspattnam, Chennapattnam and George Town, of St Mary’s Church in the Fort, the oldest British building in Madras, and of some of the early institutions established by governors like Elihu Yale.

And then, about how during the height of Queen Victoria’s reign, the Indo-Saracenic style of architecture was considered the form best suited to convey imperial majesty in the Indian empire, and about the genius of Robert Chisholm, Henry Irwin, and Paul Benfield before them.

About Senate Hall, its classic restoration and sad present state, about Bharat Insurance Buildingor Kardyl Building built for WE Smith, pharmacists, a classic example of neglect, and about the fate that awaits the Royapuram Railway Station, the oldest in India after the one at Bori Bunder was long gone. Even as Mumbai’s VT and the Niligiri Mountain Railway are preserved as heritage structures.

About the Metro Rail continuing to create a stir in the city on a regular basis – with CSI Wesley Church the latest, and earlier with a building in the Teachers Training College campus in Saidapet, with P. Orr & Sons before that, and many other smaller instances.

About the need for a comprehensive Heritage Act without which buildings will continue to be razed. Like a 164-year-old church in Coimbatore was, and how part of the Rangammal Palace in Maduraiwas.

I thought I’d get into the details about Khalas Mahal (the one bright spark now) and the ChepaukPalace when I noticed the elderly lady who introduced me nodding her head gently. My time was up and the Rotarians wanted to say their goodbyes and leave. They had given me an hour (much more than the allotted or usual time given to speakers) and now they wanted to catch up on fellowship. For a Sunday morning it wasn't so bad after all, I thought.