Saturday, January 31, 2009

Indo-German effort

In the fervour of the post-independence era, each of the 5 (at that time) IITs was set up with help from a different soverign nation. It so happened that Madras got the benefit of West Germany's bounty. As a result, here's a road sign that acknowledges the linkage.

Stretching it a bit, I'm willing to bet that Chennai is the only city in India that has so many streets named after foreign cities / localities: Delhi might have its share of personalities, but Chennai, I'm sure is ahead by a long shot - everyone knows Ho Chi Minh of the Delhi Marg, but who remembers the Orme in Orme's Road of Madras?

Bonn, of course, is different. Within the gates of the IIT Madras, going down Bonn Avenue has a charm that can't be replicated anywhere else!

Friday, January 30, 2009

Spotlight on Gandhi

Okay, so today is one of the days when this statue is dusted, washed, garlanded and generally decked out for people to come by and pay their respects. Maybe it was not a good idea to declare the day of the Mahatma's assassination as Martyrs' Day; the entire focus remains on the leader alone and memories of all the other freedom fighters, especially the thousands of nameless and faceless patriots, are pushed to the margins. On this day, almost everyone vies to demonstrate their faith in the Mahatma, and at prime time, too. There are the fringe elements, who would use the attention to either denounce the Man, or to publicise their pet cause. The police have wisely declared that any kind of gathering around the statue for more than a few minutes is prohibited and on days like this there is a small posse sitting in the shade of the statue to make sure there is no mischief afoot.

The statue itself was one of the earliest on the Marina, if not the first. Created by the versatile Devi Prasad Roy Chowdhury, it depicts Gandhi marching to Dandi to begin the Salt Satyagraha. The wide Marina in the background provides a calm counterpoint to the purposeful stride of this statue; surely, one of the more common images of Gandhi, say, spinning his charka calmly would have blended with the serenity of the beach and might even have been lost in it. The stride to the north is again symbolic; he is aiming for Fort St George, the fount of British rule in India. Even in bronze, he seems to be charging to throw them off again.

Maybe it was a good idea to declare January 30 as Martyrs' Day, after all. Any day so chosen would have been some lesser light's birthday; and then that bunch of supporters would have played up his contributions. Gandhiji can afford to share the limelight on this day - if only people would allow him to!

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Theatre time

It is a rather strange amalgam that can be found within the grounds of the Government Museum Complex at Egmore. Of course, there is good reason to place the Art Gallery and the Museum together. But why would anyone want to throw a library into the mix? And having done that, to further spice it up by having a theatre included? Surely, there are good answers to these; in the meantime, we will take another look at a building that despite not being the first theatre in Chennai, is the city's premier stage today.

The Museum Theatre was inaugurated in 1896, but has its roots in the late 18th century Public Assembly Rooms which were functioning on the same site as far back as 1789. Theatrical entertainment in those days were on the lines of Greek plays; tragedies, possibly not unlike the family tear-jerker TV soaps of today. By 1830, however, the Rooms were hardly used and the Government stepped in to purchase them, in order to house the Collector's cutcherry (no, it has nothing to do with dicing fruit, but indicates a concert!). With a few additions, that building grew into the Museum Theatre of today.

Watching a play here is quite an experience. Firstly, one needs to get in quickly or risk being condemned to the side - wing - seats from where the stage can be viewed only at a 70-degree angle. Of course, the option of buying pricier tickets and taking one's place in the rectangle just in front of the stage is always open. Another reason for leaping and charging into the theatre (apart from one's interest in drama) is that the seats are not numbered, so it is first-come-first-served. The acoustics are excellent and the stage is well proportioned and provided for; it is said that the roof over the stage has grooves through which cannonballs were rolled to simulate the effect of thunder - that must have shaken the audience in their seats! Together with the ambience, one will leave with the senses sated.

The experience does not end there, if one was watching the last show of the day. As the audience comes out, it notices that the lights all over the museum complex are switched off; the museum security has locked the complex down for the night and it is now an eerie challenge to get to the vehicle and find that solitary gate through which the outside world can be accessed!

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Life, in couplets

Inside every bus in Chennai - maybe throughout the state itself - is painted one of Tiruvalluvar's couplets. Having said that, it must also be added quickly that there is still some confusion over who this man was. The largely accepted version is that he lived in the 1st century BC, approximately 30 years before the birth of Christ. It is likely that he was born in or near Mylapore, but moved to the city of Madurai because the Pandian kings were great patrons of the fine arts, and a poet could not but be thrilled by the jocund company he was sure to find there. It is possible that his move to Madurai was occasioned by the need to give his magnum opus a much wider audience.

And the Kural (Voice) that he wrote has been the defining work of Tiruvalluvar; over time, the prefix Thiru, denoting sanctity, has been added to the work. It is as close as the predominantly atheist political partymen of Tamilnadu can get to the word of God; indeed, Thirukkural has been variously called 'Poiyyamozhi' (the word that does not lie) and Deiva Nool (God's book). Valluvar wrote about almost every aspect of the human condition, breaking it up into Aram (virtue), Porul (wealth) and Inbam (pleasure). With 10 couplets in each chapter, Tiruvalluvar gives over 38 chapters to Aram, 70 to Porul and 25 to Inbam. With 1330 couplets, it is quite easy to find a kural to describe any situation a person would find himself in, even today. And so the Thirukkural is used extensively; the couplets have been quoted in every opening and budget speech of the Tamilnadu Legislative Assembly and whenever the Union Finance Minister has been from Tamil Nadu, during the Union Budget also. Valluvar's birth year is also considered the start of the current era in the Tamzh calenders.

With so much riding on him, it is not surprising that he has been given a bigger, exclusive memorial space in Chennai, away from the hustle and bustle of the Marina!

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Justice leader

Any talk about non-Brahmin movements in south India would usually place EV Ramasamy as being at the forefront of the movement. Periyar, as EVR was known, was certainly a tall leader of the non-Brahmin (and later, Dravidian) movement, but in the politics of eroding Brahmin domination, Sir Pitty Theagaraya Chetty was a generation ahead of him. The South Indian Liberal Federation was founded by Sir Theagaraya and Dr. T.M.Nair in 1917 as a body to actively promote the representation of non-Brahmins in civic and political bodies of the time. The Federation brought out a newspaper titled 'Justice', with Dr. Nair as its editor, and thus came to be known as the 'Justice Party'. Dr. Nair continued to serve as the editor until he died in 1919, involving himself in editorial and advocacy matters, leaving Sir Theagaraya Chetty to look after the organizational and political affairs.

Sir Theagaraya thus became the first President of the Justice Party, a post he held until his death in 1925. He had entered politics quite early, and served as a member of the Corporation of Madras from 1882 until 1923. As the head of the Justice Party, he led it to a thumping victory in the Presidency elections of 1920. When invited to form the government, he listened to an inner voice which told him that he was too old and his health too frail for him to be an effective Chief Minister. In any case, he was at that time the non-official President of the Corporation of Madras, the first person to hold this post. Through all this, his struggle was aimed at bringing down Brahmin domination, rather than that of the British. He must have been a staunch supporter of Britain's continued rule of India, for he was one of those awarded the title 'Knight Commander of the Order of the Star of India'.

This statue, in front of Ripon Building, does not show the 'Star of India' unlike another statue of Sir Theagaraya Chetty. But then, the latter is inside the Panagal Park, bang in the middle of the locality that is named after him!

Monday, January 26, 2009

The mall that wasn't

For an old timer - a Madrasi - if I dare say it, of my generation, there was only one mall to hang out in during school years. Spencer's was for the oldies and was too forbidding to even contemplate 'hanging out'. So it was this place; by the standards of today's malls, Fountain Plaza would be declared a danger zone and contemporary mall designers would not hesitate to lay into anyone who insists on calling Fountain Plaza a 'mall'. However, nothing they say or do can deny Fountain Plaza (FP)'s place in Chennai's shopping history. It was the place to go for those who were too pretentious - or too far away - to visit Ranganathan Street for its bargains. FP had three long rows, with shops on either side, all of them opening out into an open air eatery: food court, if you will. While the first two rows were given over to rather reasonably sized outlets, the 'side street' was far narrower and the shops resembled rat-holes more than sales counters.

FP had its own charm. Madras has always been accused, rather unfairly, of being a city where no one understands Hindi. Anyone who has shopped at FP will not bear witness for such claims. That was one of the places in Chennai where Tamizh seemed to be a foreign language; and so it was exotic, to shop for north Indian fashions, gaze at the Hindi movie posters and video casettes and finally treat oneself to a 'chaat item' at Ajnabee. If you were not the shopping type, you could just walk into Jimmy's and clunk down 50p coin after 50p coin trying to outlast the Space Invaders, win at Race Car or any other such arcade game as took your fancy. In short, it was Ranganathan Street in Hindi, with a dash of the US of A thrown in at random.

On a recent Sunday, FP seemed a ghost of what it was a generation ago. Most shops had changed - and worse, were closed on Sunday. The eatery was empty. A couple of cars rolled into the parking lot, and rolled out again, bemused drivers trying to find a place that they passed by twenty years ago!

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Quieter music

After all the energetic music of yesterday, a quieter music for today. The organ at St Mary's Church, in Fort St George. More explanations will be filled in later!

Spent the whole day taking part in the Chennai Bird Race 2009; therefore this post is being written in pieces! What follows was written a while after posting the photo!

The church was completed in 1680, and it got its first organ seven years later. I am not sure if it is 'early' or 'late' for a church to get an organ seven years after its opening, but it was more by accident than by design that St. Mary's came by its first organ. In 1687, Curtana, an East Indiaman under Capt. Anthony Weltden was lying in the Madras Roads, in all likelihood on the way to the port of Mergui in Siam to deliver a message from King James II, ordering all Englishmen in the Siamese service to leave at once, ahead of military action against Siam. The Curtana must have had in its cargo a chuch organ, which was of little use in the martial mission it was undertaking. Capt. Walden offered to sell it to the Fort Council for 70 pagodas; the Council, recognizing that the organ was worth much more, decided to buy it for St. Mary's Church. It was a good bargain, for the instrument was well used - and probably well loved by the congregation, too, for the French took it away with them to Pondicherry after they occupied Fort St George in 1746 and Sir Eyre Coote went to the trouble of bringing it back to Madras in 1761 after defeating the French at Vandavasi.

It appears that St Mary's did not have an organ in the interim. The Curtana's organ was probably badly damaged during its transits to and from Pondicherry, so there was much back and forth between Madras and England on the matter of procuring a new organ, paying for the cost of the organ and for its shipping - the churchwardens were willing to pay the £300 price for the organ, but wanted the government to arrange for free passage for an organist to come to Madras. It is assumed that the government let this request remain in limbo and thus there was no organ playing in Madras for a long while. It was in 1859 that the church got its next organ, donated by Sir Adam Hay, in memory of his son, Capt. John Hay. Towards the end of the 19th century, the church commissioned William Hill & Son, of London to build an organ; and so, in 1894 the first organ, made exclusively for it was installed at St. Mary's.

That one has now lasted for 114 years; it has obviously had several restorations, the most recent one was by Cristopher Gray, completed in 2007. It is said that when Dr. Richard Marlow, Fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge played at the re-inauguration of the organ in 2007, St. Mary's Church was packed like never before!

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Energetic music

Even with an extremely limited knowledge about music and its forms, I would still argue that a definition of folk music must be something approximating a spontaneous harmony of related noises which would be completely jarring by themselves. I like that, because it is broad enough to include any set of noises that makes sense (even if only to a few people) and by forewarning the listener to the possibility of discordant notes, forces her to appreciate harmony when it occurs. Most of all, it is the invitation it holds out to anyone who is willing to join in, which brings out the true folksiness. No compositions, not too much of practice, no set-pieces, the rythyms unfold in some swarm-intelligence-like fashion, each performer taking his cue from the next, twisting and turning, volume and tempo changing with the mood of the performers, or more likely the enthusiasm of the audience.

Paraiyattam is one of the oldest form of music/dance out of Tamil Nadu; spontanity is a given; the original instrument, the parai was very basic; a bit of cowhide stretched over a circular wooden frame. Supposedly, only neem wood is to be used in its making and the frame shouldn't have more than three pieces. Two wooden sticks, one short and thick, the other - preferably of bamboo - long and thin are used to beat on the parai, which is normally hung over the shoulder. It may have originated as a noise-making mechanism used by village night-watchmen to scare wild animals away from fields; but over the centuries the instrument has evolved even while the music remains pretty much the same.

If it is during festival times, even the folks of the city would be tempted to join in to the drum beats - as seen from this picture of a paraiyattam street performance during the Chennai Sangamam!

Click here for a 3 minute clip of the stage performance; click here for a stylized rendering, in a recent hit song!

Friday, January 23, 2009

Bazaar man

Any visitor to Chennai desirous of shopping is well advised to visit Pondy Bazaar, a never-failing stretch that will meet all desires - within reason and budget, of course. And so the visitor ventures into that stretch, to be immersed in the sights, sounds - and smells - of the variety of products available. It is highly unlikely that the hawkers in Pondy Bazaar would be caught short of a customer's requirement. The origins of the name, however, are subject to constant debate. One version avers that Pondy Bazaar is so called because the first shops on Sir Theyagaraja Road were built by Devaraja Mudaliar from Pondicherry.

In 1992, the then Chief Minister of Tamilnadu unveiled a statue at the western end of Sir Theyagaraja Road, to kick off the centenary celebrations of the first Nadar to enter the Madras Legislature. The scion of a planter family from Kodaikkanal, WPA Soundarapandian was only 27 when he was nominated to the Madaras Legislative Council in 1920 by the Justice Party. He was by all accounts a success as a leader of the Nadars, but some schisms within the community saw him losing ground later, as the Nadars switched their alliance to the Congress, rather than stay with the Justice Party, after India's independence.

Along with the unveiling of the statue came the official re-naming of of the shopping area as Soundarapandianar Angadi; a name that has probably caused some curiosity, but hasn't lent itself to widespread usage. If you want stuff in Chennai, you will still have to visit Pondy Bazaar!

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Recreation area

I'd said earlier that with the hoardings gone, more of the city's greenery has become visible. Since then I've realized that it is not just the removal of the hoardings, but also some serious, sustained work on the city parks which has kept Chennai's green from fading away. Over the past four years or so, the Corporation of Chennai has been going green with a vengeance. Many, if not all the parks in and around the city have been taken back from the shady citizens who used to be the only users. With several spots of paint, several shrubs, plants and even saplings, these parks have been made much more attractive for the law abiding citizens to frequent.

It's not just in the dormat parks; green borders have been created along the margins of a few city roads, where there was earlier space for dumping garbage. These areas have been cleared of the rubbish and fenced off. It is a pleasant surprise to suddenly come across a patch of green by the road, so one forgives the rather haphazard distribution of such green margins, preferring rather to hope that they will remain there for ages.

Even though the Thiru Vi Ka Park in Shenoy Nagar has not been accorded the status of a 'major park' by the Corporation, it is still large enough for a few badminton games to happen simultaneously!

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Relic of The Seven Years' War

As one of the earliest possessions of the British in the Orient, Madras served as a base camp for several military manoeuvres; mainly within the peninsula, but every once in a while, across the seas into Ceylon, Burma, Malaya or even beyond. Once such trans-oceanic adventure happened as a part of the Seven Years' War; though the main cause of the war was Austria's desire to get back Silesia from Prussia, the European powers - especially the British - were quick to figure out that it was as important to establish ascendancy in the colonies as well as on the continent. That belief saw a lot of imporance being attached to theatres in North America and in Asia.

In Asia, almost of the action was centred in India. Battles at Palashi (Plassey, 1757) and Vandavasi (Wandiwash, 1761), were the most significant of these, reducing France's capabilities and establishing the British as the leading power in India. With the victory at Vandavasi still fresh, the British troops were itching for more action and they got it when a fleet under Admiral Samuel Cornish and a 3000-strong land force under Colonel William Draper were ordered to take Manila, in the Philippines, then under Spanish rule. The troops reached Manila after almost two months at sea and yet managed to land unopposed at Manila Bay, within a few kilometres of the city. The Governor of Manila, who was apprently unaware of the course of the war in Europe was taken aback when called upon to surrender; under-estimating the strength of the attacking force he chose to fight with his 2000-strong garrison. Despite the fatigues of the sea-journey, Draper's forces overran Manila within 10 days and the Governor surrendered, offering a payment of £ 4 million as ransom for the city. It is not clear if this amount was ever paid, but Manila remained under British occupation for over a year before being returned to Spain under the 1763 Treaty of Paris, which ended the Seven Years' War.

Draper returned to India, with William Pitt the Elder referring to him as "Manila's gallant conqueror". But Draper felt he had been denied his just rewards from that conquest; his claims made him an object of mockery. Maybe he brought back this cannon - and a few others, today seen at the Government Museum, Chennai - as part of his victory spoils, but maybe they were confiscated from him when he got back to Madras!

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Silk shop

These days, it is easy to forget that Madras came into being because of cloth and weaving. A strong argument that Francis Day made for setting up a 'factory' at (what was to become) Fort St George was "excellent long Cloath and better cheape by 20 per cent than anywhere else" could be had from close by; and among the earliest settlements (if not actually the first one) that were made by the founders was a colony of weavers, out to the west of Fort St George. That colony, originally called chinna thari pettai (the place of small looms) is what is called Chindadripet today.

These days, it is not the long 'cloath' that visitors to Chennai want to take back with them, but something much less coarse and more elegant. Being just 70-odd kilometers away, the silk weavers of Kanchipuram had long ago hitched their star to Madras, at least for selling their products. In 1911/12, when King George V visited Madras, the weavers of Kanchipuram chose a certain Nalli Chinnasami Chetty to present the king a specially woven Kanchipuram Silk Saree. Chinnasami Chetty crafted a special border for this saree, naming it the 'Durbar Pet' (Coronation Border), because the King was visiting India for that reason. It is likely that Chinnasami Chetty was a trend-setter among the Kanchi weavers, for he was also one of the early adopters of chemical dyes manufactured by Geigy.

Keeping with that spirit of experimentation, Chinnasami was one of the first weavers to set up a sales outlet in Madras, eighty years ago. This store at Panagal Park came up much later, in 1951. But when a visitor to Chennai wants to go silk saree shopping, this is the place that he (yes, even 'he') or she thinks of. Nalli is no longer the only weaver to have an outlet in Madras; but with everyone else setting up their stores within shouting distance of this one, Nalli's pre-eminence in the silk saree business is pretty obvious!

Monday, January 19, 2009

The Eater's Digest - 6

When it first started off in Chennai a few years ago, it had the 'Madurai' tag to it and was called 'Madurai Murugan Idli', following in the footsteps of the all-time famous Madurai Muniyandi Vilas. The similarity ends there. Murugan is all about tiffin items, whereas Muniyandi is all about heavy duty food; where Murugan is completely vegetarian, Muniyandi cannot be appeased without meat; and now, where Murugan has sought to play down the Madurai connection and become part of the Chennai mainstream, Muniyandi will never think of stooping to such levels. Maybe Murugan Idli is more Madras than Madurai these days. Their website lists five locations in Chennai and only three in Madurai.

Anyone walking into Murugan Idli expecting several varieties of idli is bound to be disappointed. They only have the regular soft idli, but several varieties of vadas, dosas and uthappams. Dreams of Kanchipuram idli, rava idli, ghee idli, idli upma, or even the miniature '14 idlis' are missing completely. There is idli and then there are the other tiffin items. It wouldn't be so bad if there was some level of consistency to the texture and the taste of the idli; sometimes it is hot to the point of being sticky and at other times it just melts in one's mouth. About inter-location variances, the less said the better. There is always a niggling doubt if all the outlets are run by the same management - except for the steel receptacles to hold the flimsy plastic water cups in place, there is little else that's common to them.

But when they get it right (and they very often do), the idli is just ambrosia. That's when one understands that all the others are just pretenders, there can only be one idli, as some of the purists say!

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Sangamam highlight

A friend had his Facebook status message last Wednesday saying that he was "...surprised at the number of perisus out on Venktanarayana Road at 1 am". That's saying a lot about the pull of the Chennai Sangamam, or at least those events where people were part of the festival itself. Last Tuesday was when the Sangamam lived up to its tagline of being a 'street festival'. It does take a leap of faith - and several deep breaths - before shutting off traffic from a road such as Venkatanarayana Road; that it was the start of the Pongal holiday definitely helped.

It was certainly a wonderful evening; the performances at Natesan Park were only part of the show, because much more was happening on the road itself. The performers went up and down the road, allowing onlookers to join in and shake a leg to the karagam or the paraiyattam, or to pace the beats of the panchavadhyam if they so wished. And then, all along one side of the road were the food counters. Chefs from almost every hotel in the city worth its name - the Park and Chola Sheratons, Taj Coromandel, The Park, Radisson, GRT, Raintree - and several from other parts of the state, were dishing out various cuisines of Tamil Nadu, both current and historical. Some of the more exotic - or at least exotic-sounding - stuff (like jil jil jigardanda) was sold out within a couple of hours.

The street fest lasted until about 2 am; of course the street was brilliantly lit and packed for most of the time from 7 pm till well past midnight. And yes, it was not just the youngsters, but also the perisus (big ones, literally, but indicating the senior-citizen category) who were rocking this street party!

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Gardens by the river

In the late 18th century, there was a proposal to plant a hedge to mark the limits of the city of Madras. Even though the proposal did not come to fruition, enough work was done on it to leave behind a record of the city's limits as they were in 1775. In those years, much of the city's development was to the north of Fort St George, because the larger trading posts of the British East India Company were in that direction. The northern boundaries were therefore regularly surveyed and updated, but to the south, the spread of the city was designated by rather arbitrary lines. It must have been natural for traders, with their newly earned wealth, to look for spacious real estate to the southern ends of the city, rather than to the crowded areas of 'White' and 'Black' Towns to the north of the Fort. The river Adayar thus became a natural boundary for real estate development by the nouveau riche of the 18th century; the 'hedge survey' of 1775 formalized the status of the Adayar river as the southern boundary of Madras city.

Right at the edge came up spacious garden houses. One of these was built by George Augustus Underwood, a former colonel in the Madras Corps of Engineers. Underwood had gone on to become a trader after leaving the services of the East India Company and had done very well for himself. His family however, was not too keen on the romance of the East and so after his death, the wonderful garden house he built, with steps leading to the Adayar river (maybe there was a boat house there, too), passed on to his creditors. In time, Underwood Gardens came into the possession of the Presidency Bank of Madras, when the bank was formed in 1843. In 1921, the Presidency Banks of Madras, Bengal and Bombay were amalgamated to form the Imperial Bank, which later became the State Bank of India (SBI).

Many of the neighbouring garden houses have been razed; Underwood Gardens still remains, as the residence of SBI's Chief General Manager (South Zone). Parts of the grounds have been given over to other goverment agencies and there is talk that Underwood Gardens is also due for 'modernization' - hopefully it will be done without destroying the old world charm of this garden house!

Friday, January 16, 2009

Chariot in town

Temple chariots have a long history in India. The most well known is the chariot procession of Lord Jagannath at Puri, even though many who use the word 'juggernaut' may not readily connect the word to the temple chariot. It was therefore natural for Ganapathi Sthapati to look to such chariots for inspiration when he was given the task of designing a memorial for Tiruvalluvar, a great poet-saint of Tamil Nadu. His chariot of choice was from within the state, from the town of Tiruvarur, where the chariot festival has been conducted annually for hundreds of years.

The chariot is but at an end of Valluvar Kottam, as the memorial is called. A life size statue of Tiruvalluvar sits in the 101-ft tall chariot and looks to the east, over the roof of a large hall. The hall itself has a capacity to seat about 4000 people, though it is not used for such sit-down performances. The pillars around the periphery of the hall carry verses from Tirukkural, Valluvar's tour-de-force which sets out tenets for virtuous living.

Somehow, Valluvar Kottam has not been able to make it to many of 'must-see-places-in-Chennai' lists. Even in those that it does appear, it just has a passing mention, almost as if hoping "well, it is so large, there must be something to it". Having been around for 32 years, it has become one more of those everyone knows where it is, but no one has been there kind of places. That's a pity, because there is no other monument in the city that can rival the sheer size of Valluvar Kottam!

Thursday, January 15, 2009

You've been booked!

The Chennai Book Fair is an annual event that is now in its 32nd edition. Since 1977, it has been run by the BAPASI - the Booksellers And Publishers Association of South India. In its first year, it was held in December and somewhere down the road, the fair was shifted to the Jan/Feb time frame, because December was almost exclusively given over to the 'music season'. Over the past few years, the number of visitors to the fair has exploded; in 1977, there were 22 stalls - 20 for English and 2 for Tamizh - and about 27,000 people visited them. In its 32nd year, there are about 600 stalls -the majority of them Tamizh publishers - and BAPASI expects about a million visitors during the ten days of the fair.

Maybe it is the effect of the global meltdown and the Satyam imbroglio; the number of computer or IT related titles seems to have dropped drastically. And yet, there are about 500,000 titles on display, not including the non-book stuff like audiobooks, CDs, etc. which are also available. The crowd of course is fairly thick, which means one cannot dart from side to side unlike the chamois of the Alps (to paraphrase Wodehouse), but must be content to go with the flow. But that's something the Chennai book lover has learnt to live with at the book fair over the past three or four years; folks these days do multiple trips - surely no one can browse through 600 stalls in just a day or two.

Seeing all this, the National Book Trust (NBT) must be chafing at its lack of staying power. The NBT does run the largest book fair in the country, the New Delhi World Book Fair (last year's show had 23 countries, over 2500 stalls and over 1.5 million titles on display), but they must be miffed at not having stayed the course at Chennai, after organizing the first ever Book Fair in Madras as early as 1970!

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

If it is Pongal in Chennai...

Well, once upon a long time ago, it used to be " must be the Chepauk test!". Though only 9 of the 20 official tests played at the Chepauk from 1934 to 1988 - and none of the 10 tests since - have been held between January 11 and January 18, many believe it is a tradition that Chepauk has 'always' hosted a test match during the second week of January. The weather is good - a nip in the air, cool mornings, bright sunshine, gentle breeze - everything that makes for a glorious day of cricket. And of course, with at least 3 consecutive days - Pongal, Tiruvalluvar Day and Uzhavar Tirunaal (Farmers Day) - usually being declared government holidays, chances of a good 'gate' are pretty high for any event that happens during this time, because the city dwellers would be looking for any kind of entertainment during these days.

That's because Pongal is a festival of the villages, one that celebrates the first harvest of a new season. Beginning on the last day of Margazhi, the festival goes on to the third day of Thai. The first day, Bhogi, is for cleaning up; the second - the actual Thai Pongal - to worship nature, especially the sun; the third, Mattu Pongal, to celebrate the livestock that made the harvest possible. The last day, Kaanum Pongal, is set aside to visit friends and relatives and to exchange the bounties of the harvest. What does the city dweller have to do with many of these? Cleaning up during Bhogi and propitiating the Gods on Pongal day can be done, but the rest? So the city dweller must be entertained, while the villages celebrate.

For the past couple of years, entertainment has been the Chennai Sangamam, a street festival during Pongal, showcasing traditional music, dances and cultural performances. Run by Tamil Maiyam, it has become quite popular in just 3 years of its existence, thanks to the generous support provided by the state government. Hopefully the Sangamam will transcend political divides and continue to be a grand event in the years to come!

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Blood must circulate

By one estimate, India needs about 10 million units (1 unit = 450 ml) of blood for transfusion every year; considering that the USA uses up around 14 million units annually, the figure for India is possibly much higher. Most of the requirement in the USA is met through voluntary collections, but in India, they contribute less than 50%. Though the figure for Tamil Nadu is higher, at 82%, voluntary blood donation is still something that many people have misconceptions about: they are therefore rather apprehensive about going to a blood bank to donate blood.

Across Chennai, there are about 40 blood banks, government run and private, that together collect about a quarter of a million units of blood annually. Even allowing for weekends and bank holidays, that's roughly 25 units every day at each blood bank; in a city of about 7 million people, less than 5% donate blood in a year. With the demand for blood far outstripping supply, it is a challenge to encourage blood donation. To make it easy for potential donors, several agencies have created mobile blood banks to go around the city, taking the message of blood donation to the people. The pattern is more or less the same - a multimedia show about how blood donation is useful and even healthy for the donor, register the volunteers, do a basic screen and collect a unit of blood. The vehicles must get each day's collection back to the bank, because they only have the collection and storage facilities on board. The high-tech work of screening and storing the blood still happens at centralised locations.

The shape and the overall look of this collection vehicle of the Lions Blood Bank is probably intended to give the process a completely high tech feel!

If you were looking for blood banks in Chennai, this site has useful information

Monday, January 12, 2009

Let there be light

Street lamps have been around in Madras for more than 200 years. The early lamps were oil-fed, and the luminaires had to be designed in a way that allowed the wick to burn steadily, braving the prevailing winds if not stormy conditions. That must have been a large consideration when the lamps were first installed in 1785, because most of Madras' elite lived near the Marina - or at least close enough for the strong sea-breeze causing lamps to go out, if not properly protected.

For the first 75 years or so after their introduction, there were only 200 functioning street lamps in Madras city. But in the next 50 years, as the city grew, the number of street lamps increased over 30-fold. When the first electric lamps were introducted in Madras in 1910, there were 6,500 oil lamps all over the city. One can imagine that it would have led to a certain amount of hue and cry, with the City Lamplighters' Union (had it existed) protesting the new technology depriving members of their livelihood. Maybe the lamplighters were told that even though they needn't use their long-poled wicks to light the street lamps, they still had a job to do in maintaining the new electric lamps, too. For a long while, therefore even electric lamp-posts (like the one in the picture) continued to have the crossbars as a rest for the lamplighter's ladder.

Today, the Corporation of Chennai spends Rs.1.6 crores every month to maintain the 120,007 street lights all over the city (that's what they say!). That number includes lamps like this one, inside the Independence Day Park, which appears to be there more for reasons of antiquity than its functionality!

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Love all!

Chennai has had a reasonably strong presence on the sports map of India. As with many other areas of human endeavor, sports in Chennai is also fairly eclectic; cricket does rule the roost, but there have been stars in motor racing, squash, carrom and table tennis, besides. While many of Chennai's star sportspersons have been relatively unknown (mainly because their disciplines haven't been able to compete with cricket), the city's tennis legacy is truly legendary. From Ramanathan Krishnan who was the first Indian to get to the Wimbledon semi-finals, his son Ramesh, Vijay Amritraj who was the 'A' in the 1970s ABC of tennis ('B' and 'C' being Borg and Connors), to Mahesh Bhupathi, tennis and Chennai has been a winning combination for decades.

With that kind of a heritage, it was natural that the first ever ATP tour event in India was hosted by Chennai (or was it still Madras, then?) in 1996. With ITC as the title sponsor, it was known as the Gold Flake Open for the first 6 years; in 2002, the Tata Group took over the title sponsorship and the event was known as the Tata Open until 2005, when a consortium of title sponsors with the Government of Tamil Nadu supporting them took over the event sponsorship for 5 years. Since then, it has been called the Chennai Open; it is part of the ATP World Tour 250 Series, so called because the champion gets 250 rankings points. It is a tournament that Rafael Nadal hasn't been able to win - he came in second last year, the only time he played - and one that has also humbled players like Boris Becker (in 1997) and Yevgeny Kafelnikov (in 2000). But it has also been a happy hunting ground for top 10 players like Patrick Rafter (in 1998) and Carlos Moya (the only one to successfully defend his Chennai Open title, in 2005).

Moya was defeated in the quarter-finals this year, beaten 6-4, 5-7, 6-4 by Somdev Devvarman. The latter went on to become the first Indian to reach the final of the Chennai Open. He didn't win it, though, losing 4-6, 6-7(3) to Marin Cilic a short while ago. Hopefully, Somdev's run this year will inspire a new sponsor (or set of sponsors) to make sure the only ATP tournament in India continues to stay in Chennai for a while longer!

Saturday, January 10, 2009

All the King's men

If you've been reading this regularly - or if you know your Chennai history - you will remember that the French under LaBourdonnais had captured Fort St George in 1746. In 1749, the French diplomats swapped Madras for Cape Breton, but the French garrison continued their attempts to capture Madras. Until LaBourdonnais, the British had not taken the French threat seriously, but after having been handed back Fort St George, they were in no mood to repeat their mistake and began to reinforce the battlements around.

At the same time, they began to expand the military force that was stationed in the Fort. Earlier intended as a trading location, the Fort now began to take on the nature of a military-commercial enterprise. With a greater number of soldiers coming in, there was a need to billet them properly; it was not possible for the houses in the Fort to be given over to them, nor was it feasible to build new houses for all of them. The solution was this: a vast building, covering over 10,000 square metres. The first to use it was the King's Regiment and so it came to be known as the King's Barracks, even though there is nothing regal about the building. Extremely plain and functional, it served its purpose of soldiers' housing for two centuries.

Today, it is still used by the army, largely as the canteen and cafeteria. Some of the living quarters are also in use, but large parts of the building are in poor repair and unfit for occupation.

Friday, January 9, 2009

Not again!

Barely six months after the last fuel scarcity scare, the next one has struck. Thanks to simultaneous strikes - by truckers, demanding reduction of the price of diesel, among other things, and by officers of the public sector oil companies demanding higher pay - and other things - the country has been teetering on the verge of a shut-down. 'Conservative' Chennai seems to have been less inconvenienced than other cities, not because of any favours shown to it, but because sensible responses have kicked in early. Many office goers have either switched to public transport or have been car-pooling over the past couple of days. Some rationing of petrol had kicked in even on Wednesday.

It appears that the oil-officers' strike will end later tonight; the army is reportedly on standby to step in with the logistics of fuel distribution. But until it happens, we're all left scratching our heads!

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Pay your way

In the early- and mid-80s, one went to 'Mahabs' through the road that got out of the city just after Tiruvanmiyur. It had no name in particular, it was just the best way to go to Mahabalipuram, or Mamallapuram as it was getting to be known as. Tiruvanmiyur was as far as the city reached, and once past the Marudeeswarar Temple, it was fun to go past all those little fishing - or trading - villages along the coast: Kotivakkam, Palavakkam, Neelankarai, Injambakkam, Uthandi, Muthukadu and Kovalam, on to Mahabalipuram. It was a nice route to go through, even if the road itself wasn't much more than a series of village-to-village tar strips and it became popular enough for the 'proper' road to Mahabalipuram came to be called the Old Mahabalipuram Road (OMR, now recently renamed Rajiv Gandhi Salai). With popularity came traffic and the village roads were not equipped to handle the volumes; even buses to Pondicherry forsook the OMR for the drive by the beaches. By the mid-90s, there was hardly any road left.

It was in 1998 that the whole stretch from Chennai to Cuddalore, through Pondicherry, was taken under the newly set up Tamil Nadu Road Development Company Ltd (TNRDC) and named the East Coast Road (ECR). The TNRDC probably did not worry about upkeep of the road when it first built it; it was only in 2000 that they were given the mandate of maintaining the road also. Even in the intervening two years, the ECR had degenerated, simply because nobody had cared about its upkeep. After another year of repairs and upgradations, the TNRDC began its toll collections on the ECR from March 24, 2002.

I haven't heard too many cribs about the toll rates, mainly because 2-wheelers are exempt from the toll. Of course, if you are only going to the Ragas Dental College, which is just on the other side of this toll plaza, you would certainly crib about paying Rs.45 for a return trip of about 200 metres!

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

A hollow memorial

If it hadn't been for the Mahatma, Babasaheb Ambedkar could have been the undisputed voice of the downtrodden. He was for creating separate electorates for the 'untouchables', a move that Gandhi opposed vehemently. The British, sensing an opportunity to splinter the freedom movement, went ahead and announced the creation of such electorates. The Congress however managed to bring Ambedkar around to accepting 'reserved seats'. Despite such run-ins with the senior members of the Congress, Ambedkar was appointed by independent India's first government to Chair the Constitution Drafting Committee - a task that he completed with a great deal of distinction.

This Mani Mandapam, or memorial, to Dr. Ambedkar was inaugurated in June 2000. It remains empty most of the time, with little inside the dome besides a few photographs of Ambedkar with some of his contemporary reformist leaders in Tamil Nadu. There is nothing inside which brings out the breadth of the man's thoughts and actions. In that sense, it is less of a memorial but more of a meeting place, where those who claim his legacy come to hold forth a few times every year.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Flying tiger

Nothing very Chennai specific about this one; this butterfly is known as the Plain Tiger (Danaus chrysippus) or the Common Tiger through most of Asia; it is also fairly widespread through most of Africa. The Africans, having never seen tigers, call it the African Monarch.

Even though it is quite common - or rather, because it is - the Plain Tiger was the model for one of the oldest artistic representations of a butterfly. That was about 3500 years ago, in Thebes, as part of the detail on a fresco in the tomb of Nebamun (you can see the painting here - click on the image on the bottom left and then click on the man's kilt to magnify). Torben Larsen, a renowned entomologist, writes in his book 'Butterflies of Egypt', " is somewhat ironic that the oldest painting of a butterfly should be from Egypt, one of the poorest habitats for butterflies anywhere in the world".

In Chennai, though, this butterfly is quite common; maybe the 3500 year association with humans is the reason why this one in the Adyar Poonga allowed me to get really close to take a picture!

Monday, January 5, 2009

Stranded containers

Though the first marine container landed in India in 1973 at the Cochin Port, the first container terminals took some time to come into being. Until 1988, the Indian Railways had the maximum experience in container shipment operations, so when the Container Corporation of India (ConCor) was established, almost all its employees were drawn from the Railways. The railways had by then set up a few inland container depots, but full fledged container terminals came into being only after ConCor was set up. The Chennai Container Terminal's website claims that it is the oldest container terminal in India: there is not enough data to back up this claim, but there doesn't seem to be any counter claim either.

The Chennai Container Terminal is located inside the Port of Chennai itself and since 2001, has been managed by DP World (the original licence was awarded to P&O Ports, which was taken over by DP World in 2006). Business - as measured by throughput - has grown almost threefold over the past 6 years; oddly enough, this measure is only approximate, for the volume of cargo in containers is measured by a something called Twenty-foot Equivalent Units (TEUs). A standard TEU is the capacity equivalent of a 20' x 8' container, without considering the height, which could either be 4'3" or 9'; and then there is the 45' long container, which is considered as equivalent to 2 TEUs!

Whatever the actual volume may be, the containers at the Chennai Container Terminal began piling up portside during the last week of 2008. The container truck operators, who had to move these to the forwarding and transhipment stations at Tondiarpet and from there to other parts of India, mostly by the northbound roads from Chennai, refused to do so until the roads of North Chennai were relaid!

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Beautified lamps

The Marina has periodically gone through beautification drives; the current drive is one of the more comprehensive efforts, involving cleaning up the beach and providing amenities for beach-goers. One of the side effects has been that the completely out of place deer have been removed (and that by itself adds to the beauty of the beach). The drive was supposed to be completed by the end of January 2009; there has been some frentic activity of late, so at least someone is trying.

The change of the street lights along Kamarajar Salai is also part of the beautification, it would appear. Maybe they'll get around to the other side of the road in a few days, but until then, the mismatched lamps offer a differnt kind of symmetry!

Saturday, January 3, 2009

For public good

For more than 25 years now, the state government has been dictating liquor preferences of the people of Tamil Nadu. Before 1983, the state had been tinkering with prohibition, moving back and forth from total bans to partial restrictions. In fact, during the 1970s, Tamil Nadu and Gujarat were the only states in India that had had total prohibition; Gujarat, as Mahatma Gandhi's homestate, still continues to drink under a cloak. Tamil Nadu was burdened by the legacy of the Mahatma's daughter-in-law's father (is there an English equivalent for sammandhi?), Rajaji who railed against the evils of drink. It took someone with the stature of a demi-god to lift prohibition and that too with a tear-filled request to mothers in the state to forgive him for doing so.

So came into being on May 17, 1983, the Tamilnadu State Marketing Corporation (TASMAC) as the exclusive wholesale supplier of liquor - other than the indigenous toddy and arrack - across the state. Since then, the whole system of procurement of liquor has been carried out inside a black box; most of the purchase is from in-state production facilities, 6 for spirits and 3 for beer. In 2003, TASMAC went a step further and took over the entire retail distribution network also, and shops with their bright signages gave way to these government green boards. The idea was to ensure there is no revenue leakage from 'above-MRP sales'; though the website gives the pricelist, the markup of a rupee or two is still made at the retail end. The TASMAC website also says that certain products are "procured through import from other states" - and therein lies the nub: everyone cribs about those import processes not being transparent, fair and equitable. The result - a thriving grey market, catering to those who want brands of their choice, rather than what comes to hand as the retailer puts out an arm to the shelves.

There are also very many who are perfectly happy with the retailer's choice for their 'cuttings' of a morning to help them get through the day; though the official timings are from 10 am to 11 pm, many of the shops open as early as 6 o'clock. This one, though seems to be one that follows the official timings!

Friday, January 2, 2009

Reclaiming the land

About fifteen years ago, a friend and I were sitting late into the night on the beach - rather, on a ledge of sand that passed for a beach - at Tiruvottiyur. After a while, we noticed that the soil of the ledge under us was crumbling; the coastline of India, as my friend put it, was changing before our eyes! Within a year of that evening, the sea had gobbled up about 300 metres of beach, caved in part of the Ennore Expressway and then washed off another 100 metres or so of the land on the other side of the road. Though sea erosion had for long been a problem in North Madras, this rapid re-drawing of the coastline hastened action to stop further loss of the land.

Residents of Tiruvottiyur have always contended that it was the construction of the Jawahar Dock at the Port of Madras in 1964 that marked the beginning of their woes and that it was exacerbated by the Bharati Dock coming up in 1970. It is likely that these docks contributed to a minor change in the pattern of sea-currents and their effects. Normally, the currents would change their direction roughly every half-year therby alternating between erosion and accretion along the beaches. With a localised disturbance around the port, the effects were imbalanced along the coast to the north, resulting in the erosion. One estimate has it that almost 350 acres of land in Tiruvottiyur - another says 2800 acres along the Royapuram-Tiruvottiyur stretch - has been lost since 1970.

Since the late '70s, there have been several recommendations and some action on protecting the shoreline. Boulders along the shore, rubble-mound seawalls and several other measures have been tried, modified and tried again. The one measure that seems to have had reasonable success is the construction of groynes - there are 9 of them, of varying lengths, along the coast from Royapuram to Ennore. This is the second one (the first can also been seen in the distance), just north of Royapuram Fishing Harbour. All told, the groynes have helped to reclaim about 20 acres of land since they were built in 2004 - there's a long way to go before the sea gives up all that it has taken!

Thursday, January 1, 2009

All the best!

In these times of sabre-rattling, it is worth considering that war might impose quiet, but peace has to come from within.

The theme for today is 'Best photo of 2008'; for quality of photography, this one is among my worst, but finding a statue of the Buddha in the OTA was a startling moment.

To Peace! And a very happy New Year to everyone!!

The best of the best from other City-Daily-Photobloggers can be seen by clicking here.