Thursday, October 29, 2009

Mysterious obelisk

I have no idea what this is here for. It does not appear to have been properly finished, either. An 1895 picture of the Napier Bridge shows an obelisk at the north-eastern end of the bridge, but that looks like a pretty much completed structure. Maybe it was knocked down at some point, and an apology of a replacement was made.

But why am I thinking obelisks today? There is no connection between those indomitable Gauls who turn 50 today and the city of Chennai, save for the three years that Madras was under French rule. Yet, on behalf of all the Asterix / Obelix fans of Chennai, Bon Anniversaire!

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Keep your cool

It is the end of October and the rains aren't here yet. Worse, the heat remains terrible. Iced drinks continue to do brisk business. Though there are all kinds of refrigeration equipment and cold storage options available these days, the demand for readymade-ice continues to hold steady. This person, delivering a 5-kg block to a fruit juice centre is part of a reasonably big industry which is mostly ignored by the general public.

The city's demand for 'block-ice' is large enough to sustain several ice factories; the exact number can only be a matter of conjecture, for there are many run clandestinely, providing smaller sizes than the industrial norms of 50-kg and 140-kg blocks. What we see on the streets are obviously far smaller, with a 50-kg block probably taking care of the needs of about 10 to 20 'juice centres'. These blocks typically come from the factories of south Chennai, for they are the ones catering to demand from hotels, clubs, hospitals and the like. The ice factories of north Chennai on the other hand deal almost exclusively with the fishing industry: both seagoing and land-based. Boats that go out to sea carry on them 5 tonnes of ice for a week-long trip; the chilling plants on shore need large volumes of ice while they process the daily catch. By one estimate, the city consumes over 100 tonnes of 'industrial ice' every month.

Wonder where they will get all the water they need, if the rains continue to stay away!

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

"Jaambajaar Jaggu theriyuma,...."

Where the character came from is not really known, but given the Madrasi's penchant for alliteration, Jaambajaar Jaggu is more likely a legendary figment of imagination. I'm not sure if kids these days have any local personification of a bumbling villain, but Jaggu was it for quite a lot of people from the '60s through to the '80s. The first time he came on the scene was probably in the movie "Bommalattam", with Manorama singing "Vaa vadhiyare vootande / nee varankatti naan vidamatten / Jaambajjaa Jaggu / naan Saidapettai kokku" to Cho Ramaswamy (here's the song from the movie).

Then came Cho's stage play "Madras by Night". Cho makes his entrance asking the question "Jaambajaar Jaggu theriyuma unakku, Jaambajaar Jaggu?" ("Do you know Jaambajaar Jaggu?"). Cho plays a police constable in Madras of the '60s, forever dropping names of rowdies that he has encountered (here's a clip: Jaggu's name drops in the 2nd minute). With that, the name took off and though no one has ever seen him to this day, Jaggu continues to be a menace-laden character, appearing most recently as the villain in the children's book "Trash", published in 2001.

So, when I see the Zambazar Police Station, it is difficult for me to think of anything else but a police constable in the '60s, wearing starched khaki shorts ("...with pockets large enough to hide a monkey", as a school teacher once said), trying to show off - no matter that Zam Bazar has much more than Jaggu to offer us!

Monday, October 26, 2009

Visually separated

Quite close to the 'old townhouses' of Mylapore is this building, which is actually quite distinct from the structures around it. It must have been a twin house at sometime, with one side being quite the mirror image of the other. Interestingly, both sides have space for commercial activity, though my guess is that those were originally meant to be enclosed car-parking spaces.

All other things being equal, the shops provide the distinction between the two residences. On the right is Joseph Store, a general store offering all kinds of provisions; on the left is Sri Vinayaka Auto Works. Maybe the residents thought this differentiation wasn't good enough, so they painted their portions - including the grills and bannisters - in different colours!

Sunday, October 25, 2009

New flier spotted

By me, that is. A visit to Adyar Poonga yesterday added two more butterflies to my list. This is one of them - the Lime Butterfly (Papilio demoleus). Although it is described as the most common of the 'Swallowtail' butterflies, I am fairly sure there weren't too many of these in Chennai until a few days, maybe a few weeks, ago. And then, suddenly, they seemed to be everywhere around.

One explanation is that they are migrating from the hills to the plains. Maybe they are moving to avoid the cold, maybe to find food. The movements of butterflies seem to be more mysterious than those of birds and much more difficult to study. Yet, almost anyone in Chennai with even a casual interest in nature would have (and several have, indeed) observed the more-than-usual number of butterflies this season. In some places - by the Thiru Vi Ka bridge, for instance - the air is thick with these and other butterflies; birds swoop and swerve, trying to catch them. If more motorists were nature enthusiasts, traffic on the bridge would have come to a standstill!

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Waiting for the train

Inside Chennai Central. As the passengers wait for their rake to come in, the 'licenced porter' uses the break to take a quick nap in the aisle. Everyone will burst into action the moment a coach is sighted in the distance!

Friday, October 23, 2009

Images on the roadside

After having all the hoardings on Chennai's streets removed, the next step for the Corporation of Chennai was to clear posters and graffiti from all the public walls in Chennai. Though the hoardings came down more than 18 months ago, there was a long gap before the next step was implemented (guess the elections had something to do with it). Effective August 1 of this year, all random art and pastings on flyover and subway walls have been banned. The ban also extends to any public walls on Mount Road.

Bringing the hoardings down signalled the end of the huge, originally hand-painted but recently digitally-crafted cinema advertisements which were very much part of Chennai. And now, the bare walls would take away another slice of kitschy art: political graffiti. The limited set of colours used by earlier political artists (colours of the parties flags) had given way to bright, multicoloured works a while ago. It was felt that bare walls would make the stretch of road seem dull, so the Corporation kind of let loose a set of artists on those walls. The first stretch to be done was a stretch near the YMCA, Nandanam.

With a variety of themes - buildings and structures of Tamil Nadu, sculptures and cultural heritage being a few - and a good dose of imaginary imagery thrown in, the paintings seem rather unconnected, if one spends the time to look at them. But for the most part, one is whizzing by in a hurry to get someplace and the overall effect is that a riot of colour is passing one by!

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Fork in the road

Maybe that's a shop in the building at the end of the road, with its wooden doors still shut below an awning which appears to be falling under the weight of the previous night's rain. Mundagakanni Amman Koil Street, from where this photo was taken, veers off to the right; the spur on the left is Nattu Subbarayan Street.

This is in Mylapore, very much part of Old Madras and yet, quite different from the streets of George Town. Indeed, these areas were populated much before George Town was. Predominantly revolving around religious activity, these bustle on these streets had God, rather than Mammon, in mind. These are streets where a new face is spotted quickly, and the residents wonder what the stranger is doing, walking their paths. Of course, they are not all that insular, what with many vehicles trying to take a quicker route to their destination through these back roads. But the pedestrian still invites curious glances.

Many of the buildings are over half-a-century old, but several have been refurbished and expanded to keep pace with modern day requirements. The building on the corner, however, seems to be just the way it always was!

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Grateful for other reasons?

This defunct fountain in front of the Victoria Public Hall proclaims the city's gratitude to a former governor not once but three times, going by the plaques on each of the three faces of the centrepiece. Sir Charles Edward Trevelyan, who is so honoured, was the Governor of Madras for just a short while, from March 1859 to May 1860. Even in that short stint, he did enough for him to be held dear by the citizens of Madras.

For starters, he made land ownership easier, bringing in reforms that allowed freehold titles to be bought. He is also credited with conceptualizing the People's Park; a 116-acre garden spread which had over 5 miles of road inside it, meandering around 11 ponds, a bandstand, tennis courts, a public bath and a very basic zoo. It is for this that he is remembered: the plaques say " whom Madras is indebted for The Peoples Park".

But there's a lot more that Trevelyan needs to be remembered for. When he was governor of Madras, his council and he disagreed with a proposal for taxation drawn up by the Financial Member of the Legislative Council for India. And he made his disagreement public, by sending an open telegram to Calcutta and later, by releasing (or allowing the release of) the minutes of a Council meeting where the opposition was recorded. Though he was censured and recalled to England for this action, he was vindicated and returned to India in 1862 as the Financial Member! In the interim, he crafted the principles which guided the creation of the Indian Civil Service. With so much to his credit, one guesses that the city's gratitude stemmed from something more than Trevelyan's civic sensibility!

Tuesday, October 20, 2009


A long time ago, one would look down into the forecourt of the Hotel Arun, when passing it on Poonamallee High Road. The first thing that the developers did after taking over the property was to raise it up to the road level. During the process, they also blocked part of the Cooum's bed; an act that sparked off some tensions and delayed progress on the mall they were developing.

It has now been almost a month since the first phase of the Ampa Skywalk has been opened; after nearly 4 years of waiting, folks are probably waiting for all the shops, the multiplex screens and the food court to come up before passing judgement on whether this is good enough to be a hip hangout. Big attraction - a walkway inside the mall, 80 feet above ground, which you will have to cross to watch movies at the PVR Cinemas (which I believe are yet to open).

It hasn't yet become so popular as to cause traffic pile-ups. Or did I pass by at the wrong time of the day?

Monday, October 19, 2009

River mouth

At its northern end, just after the MGR and the Anna Memorials, the mouth of the Cooum marks the 'public' limit of the Marina Beach. Not that the public flock to see the river meeting the Bay of Bengal. It is rather dull, but that is only to be expected. The Cooum, at the end of its 65 km run, is weighed down by all the muck that has been poured into it (mostly along its last 16 km within Chennai city) and is barely moving along, more sludge than water.

For maybe just a couple of days in the year, the waters of the Cooum would be racing to the Bay of Bengal. That happens when (and if) the storm water drains do their job during the monsoons. There are 16 canals which collect the runoff from those drains and pour it into the Cooum (and to the other waterways of Chennai - the Adayar River and the Otteri Nullah), en route to the Bay of Bengal. Works well in theory; but with Chennai being quite a flat city, any blockage of the drains will cause the city to flood up.

One of the largest potential blockage points has been the silting - and sedimenting - of the Cooum's mouth. Though it is sometimes cleared up during the monsoon by the sea, most of the time, the waves deposit sediments which clog up the mouth. October is normally the month when the authorities clear up the mouth - and other passages. Let's hope they do it well enough for us to have a flood-less monsoon!

Sunday, October 18, 2009

And the crackers burst on!

It was most likely the scene in every street this morning: a few indefatigable souls making sure that no one forgets it is the morning after Deepavali. As the years go by, the number of such souls seems to be going down.

Time was when Deepavali was a morning event in Chennai; kids would leap out of bed at some unearthly, dark hour of the morning and try to find that thin line between taking long enough over the ganga snanam to satisfy the elders, without taking so much time that the neighbouring children become the first to set off the crackers. By some near-divine coordination, almost every household would be ready for the fire-crackers at around the same time, and folks would greet each other with "Yenna, sir, ganga snanam aacha? Happy Deepavali!".

But the sound of the crackers has become politically incorrect. The lights of the fireworks have become more attractive. Deepavali seems to have become more of an evening festival, at least publicly. I'm sure there are enough households that continue to keep the ganga snanam tradition going, even if slightly more privately than before!

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Music maker

The harmonium is so closely identified with both Carnatic and Hindustani music that it is difficult to believe it is an import, coming to India in the mid-19th century via Christian missionaries. Somewhere in the early 20th century, it was seen as an instrument of colonialism and there were some attempts to stop Indian musicians using it in their performances. Because of its utilitarian nature, the harmonium survived those attempts.

Probably getting the whole issue confused, John Foulds, who was head of the Indian Broadcasting Company (All India Radio's predecessor)'s Western music section in the 1930s wrote that since the harmonium is incapable of producing microtones and because it cannot be adjusted mid-performance, it is inappropriate for Indian music. A few years later, Lionel Felden, Controller of Broadcasting for the IBC banned the harmonium from the IBC's studios in March 1940. It was only in 1971 that the ban was repealed, but the harmonium player continues to be accorded a secondary status - solo performances are not allowed on AIR even today, apparently.

But no musician can do without one. Even in this age of the 'electronic sruti box', harmonium makers like Kannan here continue to hand-craft instruments for students and maestros!

Monday, October 12, 2009

Iron - not so old

The locomotive at the southern end of this building looks much bigger than its counterpart at the other end. However, this one does not seem to have the rambling history of the other one and seems to have served on just one sector, running between Bangalore and Bangarpet for all the 25 years it was in service. The Bangarpet-Bangalore line was put in place, in stages, by the Maharaja of Mysore as far back as 1918. Yelahanka, 16 km from Bangalore was at that time the homing shed for the locomotives working on this line.

This ZP-4 locomotive, manufactured by the Nippon Sharyo Seizo Kaisha in 1950 entered service on the Bangarpet-Bangalore line only in 1955. In 1980, the Bangalore-Yelahanka line was dismantled for gauge conversion. With that, this locomotive saw the end of its service and it was brought over to Madras, to be plinthed in front of the Southern Railway headquarters.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Pen No.11

For as long as I can remember, this reptile has been in this enclosure, the Pen No.11 of the Madras Crocodile Bank Trust (MCBT). He apparently wasn't much when he was found on the grounds of the Central Leather Research Institute (CLRI); he only weighed in at around 15kg, as a 5-year old. That wasn't really much, for a salt water crocodile (Crocodylus porosus), a species that can reportedly grow up to 25 feet and weigh over a ton in the wild. In the 34 years since he was found at the CLRI, this croc has grown over 40-fold. Currently measuring close to 17 feet from the tip of his nose to the last scute of his tail, he weighs over 600 kg. And that, when he eats only twice a month, on the first and the third Sundays. The rest of the time, he mostly lazes around, showing off his figure to awed visitors. Some of them - the older ones, especially - find him too pacific to merit a name which had terrorized them on screen: Jaws. Jaws III, to be precise.

But don't be fooled into thinking you can jump in and dance around in the pen. Jaws III is a mean chappie. Believed to be the biggest ever captive salt water crocodile, he has been giving folks at the MCBT a peculiar headache. They just haven't been able to find a female large enough for him to mate with. Two attempts in recent years met with horrific results: Jaws III just grabbed the little lady by her waist, tossed her into the air and chomped her down. Probably the keepers didn't realise what had happened, because they brought in another lady, who met with the same fate. The third attempt wasn't a complete disaster, for there was a mesh separating them. Business did not result, in any event.

C. porosus live to a hundred, in the wild. In captivity, they can potentially live for longer. Jaws III still has time to find the love of his life. Know anyone?

Saturday, October 10, 2009

The stage

Rukmini Devi Arundale faced a great deal of opposition in her efforts to re-interpret Bharatanatyam; one of the arguments was that the dance form had become so bawdy, which is why it was rooted out from the very temples, where it was born. Rukmini Devi's intent was that the dance "...should create the temple atmosphere on stage...", as she searched for a design which would meet that intent.

The result was the Koothambalam in the Kalakshetra complex. Designed and built with the help of D.Appukuttan Nair, who had also built the Koothambalam at Kerala Kalamandalm, the building can accommodate 750 - of which 50 will have to sit on the floor directly in front of the stage. The stage itself is raised only a foot-and-a-half from the rest of the floor, allowing the audience to clearly observe the footwork of the dancers. The building has walls of wooden slats, which allows the breeze to blow through, along with sounds from the outside.

This is a view of the Koothambalam - also called the Bharata Kalakshetra Auditorium - from the rear. The front is graced by Rukmini Devi's statue - and her spirit certainly pervades every rafter of the Koothambalam!

Friday, October 9, 2009

Valet parking

Went out for lunch last month to a new restaurant just across the road from where we stay. We walked, but my son insisted that he would cycle down. And yes, he did get his vehicle valet-parked!

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Rest in peace

Somehow, this view of the Nungambakkam burial-and-cremation ground seemed rather serene. I seem to remember that whenever I looked out at this from the train, there was some smoke coming out of the chimney; this was the first time in a long while that the crematorium seemed to be at rest.

This is one of the bruial grounds run by the Corporation of Chennai. Their website lists the other 34, as also 38 private ones. From what little I know about the procedures, the place where the death certificate is issued determines which one of the Corporation's grounds can be used. There is possibly no such restriction for the private ones, but many of them are denominational and therefore, well, private. There are 4 crematoria maintained by the Corporation which do not have any geographical restrictions; these are the electric crematoria at Anna Nagar, Kannamapet and Besant Nagar and the gasified one at Washermanpet.

The draft Master Plan for Chennai's development had proposed to convert at least 20 of the existing crematoria to gasified ones. That will no doubt reduce the amount of firewood used for the purpose. It will also do away with the smoke from the chimneys - maybe this one has been modified already!

Wednesday, October 7, 2009


What's a festival without some decorations? Sure, there are a whole lot of 'ready-made', re-usable stuff available, but they somehow lack the charm of the just-made thoranams. One is used to seeing them fashioned from mango leaves - they'd last for days, the slightly thick leaves changing from their dark green to brownish, just before they are replaced by a new bunch of the festoons.

But for a change, here are thoranams made from tender leaves of the coconut palm - the kurutholai. The fronds are taken down before they are fully grown, so as to take full advantage of their flexibility. These are just one of the many designs that the kurutholai can be made into (here is another), but being tender, the festoons don't last for more than a day!

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Bridge beyond

Muttukadu; more details in a while...

Monday, October 5, 2009

Government office

Kuralagam building; more details in a while...

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Old townhouses

Old houses in Mylapore; more details in a while...

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Little sapling

At Kalakshetra; more details in a while...

Friday, October 2, 2009

Vazhga, Gandhi mahan

The Gandhi Mandapam, on the Mahatma's 140th birthday. More details in a while...

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Light on marble

The Jain Temple on Mint Street, Sowcarpet. More details in a while...