Came across this on Monday, could not resist sharing this superbly written piece by Maami. Thank you!
My love for the city surfaced again when I read it. Had to share it on my blog!
A Queen by the Sea
She was once dismissed as a, “withered beldame brooding on ancient fame’’ by Kipling. It was a cruel verdict, considering the gracious city of boulevards, garden houses and genteel folk, Chennai, served the British well. Mrs Kinderly, an unknown English traveller in the 18th Century, has left behind a record saying, `Madras is without exception the prettiest place I ever saw’. We, to be sure, like the lady better.
Nearly 360 years old, Chennai was founded when the East India Company purchased land to build a factory in 1639. The Portuguese discovered surrounding villages in 1522, when they colonised Santhome. Settlements around Chennai are said to be 2000 years old.
Chennai, until 1996, was known as Madras, and its name is a subject of conjecture. It could have been named after the wealthy Portuguese family, the Madeiros, that lived in Santhome; or as another theory goes, the name of a fishing village headman Mada rasan (parishioner in Tamil) whose village fell in the stretch the Company bought. As for Chennai, a Darmala vassal of the then ruling Vijayanagar kingdom sold the land to the British and requested that the area be named after his father Chennappa Nayak, hence the old usage Chenna pattinam. The metropolis is divided by the two east flowing rivers of Cooum and the Adayar that are nothing more than filthy gutters today.
Chennai was then a cluster of fishing villages and pockets of it were famed for peacocks and lily ponds, of churches of every faith and it boasted of a diligent local population that were keen sea farers, merchants and maritime traders and Chennai produced hard to imitate hand woven cloth called , ‘the Madras’. The Greeks had been here as early as 140 A.D., and Arab merchants chalked out the Coromandel shore-line route in 11th Century A.D., The English arrived last on the scene by the 17th Century and stayed the longest.
The East India Company’s agent, Francis Day, wanted a stretch of Chennai’s shoreline to set up a factory. The choice of the location was dictated by thrift. Day recorded that the location would yield, `excellent long cloath and better cheape by 20 per cent than anywhere else’. According to Chennai historian S. Muthiah’s research, ancient unfounded rumours went that Day had a mistress tucked away on the beachfront and hence was keen to settle on Chennai’s shores!
Any which way, on July 1639, Day’s chief agent, Andrew Cogan purchased a `no-man’s sand’ from the Darmala brothers, the then Nayak of the Vijayanagar empire. The area was called Chenna pattinam (city of Chenna) in the vernacular after Chennappa Nayak whose land was converted as a permanent trading outpost to set up a factory for textile production. The settlement comprised weavers, dyers and washers to produce calico long cloth. The English used Chennai to lay the foundations of the Raj whose capital would be Calcutta, founded by Job Charnock, whose children were baptised in 1690 at St. Mary’s Church in Chennai.
Over time, the Company built upon the area and merged the neighbouring villages from various rulers of India. The story of Madras or Chennai really emerged from that time. The seeds for banking services in India, as also a fine number of churches, western mode of education, library systems, technical institutions, western type hospitals and the Indian army were all laid in Chennai.
Quiet and sedate, Chennai has left her imprint on many significant men when they brushed past the city’s shores. He was but 19, when Robert Clive, landed in Chennai as the Company’s writer in1744. Clive, who led the charge against Bengal and Plassey, attempted suicide twice in Chennai, married and lived in Chennai at Clive House. Colonel Alcott and Madam Blavatsky set up the headquarters of the Madras Theosophical Society in 1878 in Chennai. British pop singer Engelbert Humperdink was born here as was former English cricket captainNasser Hussain who’s extended family lives on in Chennai.The city’s past does not lack literary examples either. Ask Joseph Conrad who sailed in a ship that anchored at Chennai in 1883 or Somerset Maugham who went through the city in 1930 to visit a neighbouring ashram.
The British turned this hot baking place into boulevards and garden houses and also introduced the famous Indo Saracenic architecture to the country. That’s a bit hard to believe today, because Chennai has an ugly skyline like many Indian metropolises, thanks to awful billboards and giant hoardings selling cars, phones, jewels, saris, underwear, and not to forget cut outs of larger than life politicians and gaudy film hoardings.
To take in the landscape beauty of Chennai, it needs a keen eye to spot the many concealed elegant garden houses, its vernacular architecture, edifices, its churches tucked away in many corners of the city, arresting temples and the splendid beachfront or the Marina, flanked by some fine architecture and vestiges of buildings whose characters beg a recall of their past histories. That’s why, at kinder moments, Chennai was fondly called the Queen of the Coromandel, for being the British Empire’s Gateway to India. Post Independence it continued to be called Madras Presidency and included a multilingual province encompassing present day Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, even border areas of Maharashtra and Kerala. Following the division of states on linguistic basis in 1956, it became Madras state and in 1968 it became the capital Madras city of the state of Tamil Nadu, the fourth largest metropolis of India.
Often called an overgrown village, Chennai remains a metropolis with modern amenities and facilities, spanking malls and swishy restaurants, but sits on a bedrock of orthodoxy, tradition and culture. Its nobel laureates, S.Chandrashekar and C.V.Raman and the maths genius S.Ramanujam are remembered in Chennai more as homespun pious sons of the soil. The novelist RK Narayan remains Chennai’s most famous literary son.
It prides itself on being a cultured and educated people but there’s room for plenty of nativity in Chennai. Here, slums reverberate with their own back street music- the gaana and the `Madras Tamil’ lingo is a hybrid of English and twisted Tamil words and bits of Hindi too. If its classical music and dance remain elitist, its kitschy film world and political firmament has thrown up some of the most unique and unorthodox personalities. At times, Chennai seems like an anachronism of a metropolis.
Chennai’s foundations were laid in Fort St. George and it remains the area where the seat of power, the government of Tamil Nadu, is located. While the British built the high walls of the Fort, the area outside it was the settlement of weavers and dyers. In colonial parlance it was called the `Black Town’ of the natives and the locals then called it `Gentu town’ referring to the predominantly Telugu population then. The fort was named Fort St. George since it was completed on St George’s Day in 1640.
George Town is the busiest place in Chennai, teeming with people and there is nothing touristy about the place. It’s the industrial hub for wholesale produce, vegetables, textile and leather, stationery, machinery goods. Since the 18th Century, English business houses like Parry’s and Binny, Best and Crompton set up shop here and Parry’s Corner today is a human sea of businesses including the Madras Stock Exchange, head quarters of multinational bank offices and other trades.
A stone’s throw from this corner is Burma Buzaar, a row of shops that formerly used to sell goods from Rangoon in Burma where a considerable Tamil population made its monies. The joke went that you could even buy your mother in Burma Bazaar, provided she came imported and smuggled, though the building was burned down a long time ago.
India’s legal systems struck roots in the Madras High Court complex and the Supreme Court was established here in 1800. It stands opposite the Parry’s Corner. It is an imposing building in brick red, a fine example of Indo Saracenic architecture with its long corridors, vaulted ceilings and stained glass. A decorated Doric column stands near the High Court’s tallest minaret that was originally a lighthouse and its minute wooden fretwork, slender columns, arches and Italian tile patterns and stained glass are lost in the bustle and chaos of courtroom dramas. Popham’s Broadway, now known as Prakasam Salai, off George Town, has a cluster of some interesting buildings, including Tucker’s Church, a Wesleyan chapel and Anderson’s Church.Today George Town’s beauty and historicity lies buried in the cacophony of commerce and the Fort St.George complex remains predominantly out of bounds for visitors due to security reasons.
The Forgotten Heritage
The Western entrance of Fort St.George leads to Poonamalee High Road, and remains a busy thoroughfare. It was the area where the country’s most important civic amenities buildings came up on this stretch in late 19th and early 20th Centuries.
A trip down the rattling traffic of Poonamalee High Road is not a pleasant feeling but patience will showcase the grandiose structures that are now subsumed in overuse, neglect and crowds. One such is the Grecian classicism of the Victoria Memorial Hall, built in 1860 to commemorate the British success in the Sepoy Mutiny by George Winscom. It’s impossible to go near this once beautiful structure as it has been reduced to a crumbling place for bargain and discount sales. Less heartless is the state of the Southern Railway headquarters built in 1922 that blends European and Dravidian styles. Its façade mixes granite, red brick and domes and pillared cupolas and in the inside, ceiling vaults and stained glass domes. Touristy habits like strolling down the place is not admitted, given the nature of the offices in this building. The Gothic style Madras Central Station is a brick red structure with a tall clock tower and pyramid-like towers and roofs in contrasting white. It was designed by George Hardinge in 1873 with later additions chipped in by Robert Chishlom.
North of Poonamalee High Road stands the Ripon Building, that is the office of the Chennai Corporation. It is a stunning example of neo classical architecture. Painted bone white, its arcades, porches and slender columns gleam in the heartless Chennai sun. Built in 1913, it was the first corporation outside of Europe and named after Lord Ripon who instituted government reforms. This one’s a real marvel to behold. Most of these heritage buildings on Poonamallee are busy offices and given the bustle it’s neigh impossible to stop by to take in their beauty.
Mount Road, the artery of Chennai was built in 1795, for facilitating the movement of troops and to serve as a link road between the two nodes in the city- Fort St. George where the British worked, and St.Thomas Mount where the garden houses and residences were located. When it came up in 1825, it was a grand tree lined avenue. Running a length of 13 kms, it begins from Fort St. George at the north with promenades parallel to the road, to connect the commercial length of the road, beginning with the offices of The Hindu. Mount Road was once the mall area for the British. Today commercial complexes and corporate houses and Chennai’s media houses dot the road.
A visit at the Tamil Nadu crafts showroom of Poompuhar situated along the line of Higginbothams is well worth it, with its collection of Chola bronzes, granite statues and craft items. As you approach down the road, stands the biggest mall of them all, the Spencers, once a majestic red building, said to have burned down to give way to the existing pink sandstone façade. It’s a mall rat’s delight. Cheek by jowl to Spencer’s Mall is the VTI (Victoria Technical Institute) a great showroom for craft work, brass items, south Indian artefacts, sandalwood items, woodcuts from Salem, and lovely lace embroidered table cloths, doilies and other dainty stuff.
Mylapore Kapaleeswarar Temple
Much before Madras, there was Mylapore. The Greek traveller Ptolemy mentioned the village of Mylapore as Mylarphon in 140 A.D. Portuguese luciads sang of the city of Mealipor in 1527. The Pallava kings of the 15th Century were known as Mylai kavalar, (The protectors of Mylai). Tiruvalluvar, the patron saint of the Tamils, stayed in Mylapore in 1 Century B.C.
S.Suresh in Temples of Madras City-Sacred Spaces in an Urban Context says that unlike other metros Chennai has, “an unusually large number of temples” with even the British actively encouraging temple building in the city during their time. Mylapore’s landmark is the Kapaleeswarar koil and its theppakulam or temple tank. It is evident that this area has borne history and it retains a quaint rustic charm and the bustle of a village square.
The Kapaleeswarar temple is originally said to have stood on the seashore in the 15th Century when the area served as a port of the Pallavas and was rebuilt by the Vijayanagar kings in the 16th Century. It is still debated whether the temple was rebuilt after being eroded by the sea or after damage inflicted by the Portuguese. In the 17th Century, the French fortified it. The Kapaleeswarar temple tank in Mylapore was built on the land gifted by the 18th Century Carnatic nawabs and as a thanksgiving to that gesture, Muslims are permitted to pray at the tank on Moharram.
Mylapore was also called `Mayura Sabda Pattinam’ (the city of the peacock’s call), perhaps because the area had many peacocks. In fact the sthala purana or legend of the Kapaleeswarar temple has it that once the Goddess Parvati paid scant attention to what Lord Siva was saying because She was distracted by the beauty of a wandering peacock. An irritated Siva banished Her to earth where the Goddess took the form of a peahen to worship a lingam under a Punnai maram (mast wood tree). The tree and the tiny shrine with a black stone sculpture of a peahen with a flower in its beak praying to a lingam can be found in the praharam or outer courtyard of the temple.Its beautiful 63 bronze idols of the Nayanmars are placed at the perimetre of the courtyard.
The four roads that form a perimetre around the temple square are called mada veethis or (Mutt Streets). All along the edges of the streets are rows of shops selling cheap plastic toys, gold and silver jewellery, temple jewellery and puja items. On the months leading to the Arupathimoovar festivities of the Kapaleeswarar temple, (March) the pavements are taken over by a surfeit of ethnic clay doll wares. Vegetables, music halls, and even shops selling Nu-Belle bras, you can find them all here. Walking through this perimetre is a walk back in time and you can take in the Madras terrace roofs of the few 19th Century houses and their quaint vernacular architecture if you look past the mess of modern commercial establishments. The temple’s famous Arupathimoovar festival (the temple chariot procession of the 63 Saivite nayanmars or saints) is held regularly every year for ten days in March-April.
Lily Ponds and Cricket Greens
Before the British tongue called it Triplicane, when they purchased this village in 1676 from the Sultan of Golconda, this area was called Tiru alli keni (the sacred lily tank) adjoining the Parthasarathy temple. Located at a tangent from South beach Road that leads to Santhome and Mylapore, the Parthasarathy Kovil held the grip on the culture emanating from Triplicane.
From the temple and its surrounds emerge interesting legends and tales including the tragic one about rebel poet and nationalist Subramania Bharathi who is said to have been tossed by the temple elephant before his death; and the sickly end of another resident- maths genius S.Ramanujam. Anthropologist Ramchandra Guha observes in The Unhurried City, `The social life of the Madras locality of Triplicane revolves around two venerable institutions: the Parthasarathy temple and the Chepauk cricket ground’. From Triplicane emerged the famous line of Iyengar cricketers including M.J.Gopalan, C.R.Rangachari, G.Parthasarathi, W.V Raman and S.Venkataraghavan. The Chepauk Cricket Ground stands betwixt Triplicane and Wallajah Road, as though cementing this connection.
The Parthasarathy Temple bears inscriptions that the temple was built by king Dantivarman Pallava (796-847 A.D.) and was expanded by Vijayanagar rule in the 16th Century. Swami Vivekananda who lived in Triplicane for a brief period is recorded on the temple walls in 1893 as having said that he `lived in Triplicane and understood egalitarianism after praying at Sri Parthasarathy temple’.
A Church for the Faithful
Due to the early infiltration of Christianity into South India and with the arrival of the Portuguese, the Dutch, French, Nestorian Christians and Armernians in Tamil Nadu, Chennai’s 500 years of church architecture offers variety. Most of the churches in Chennai are made of brick, easy and affordable materials in the city, and given a `Madras mirror-work’(lime plaster) finishing. The two prominent clusters of churches in Chennai can be found in the George Town area and the Santhome locality. The best time to visit the churches is on Sunday mornings when the mass will be on and the churches are alive with scent and prayer songs.
A Princely Heritage
Chennai came under Mohammaden influence with villages of Triplicane coming under the Golconda rulers in the 17th Century. The historic Wallajah Mosque or the Big Mosque stands north of the Triplicane High Road and was built in 1795 by the Nawab of Wallajah. It was meant for the Muslim population that moved from Arcot to Triplicane. The Big Mosque is a grand edifice and comes as a pleasant surprise from the congested lanes and bylanes of Triplicane. The mirhb is surrounded by a lengthy prayer hall and a corridor supported by columns. While the dome and the structure is built of grey granite, its two tall minarets are made of Madras-style brick and lime wash.
Once upon a time, a thousand lights burned from little lamps lit in the mosque situated at the corner that leads from Mount Road to Peters Road. Spread over three acres, it was built by the Nawab Wallajah’s family sometime in 1810 to facilitate the Shias to congregate during Moharram. The Thousand Lights Mosque was rebuilt once in 1936 and some more additions were made in 1981. It boasts of 64 small minarets and has a library, a burial ground apart from prayer halls.
One of the arresting places on Pycrofts Road that leads to Triplicane is the Amir Mahal. Its resident, Eighth Prince of Arcot, to use the cliché well, is a charming Prince if there was one in Chennai. Originally from the lineage of the Nabobs of Carnatic, the British changed their title to the Prince of Arcot after they annexed Carnatic in 1801, and endowed the title with special privileges. The palace built in 1798 originally housed the Royapettah police quarters. The palace is out of bounds for tourists, but the Prince and the family throw tea parties and hold special festivities on occasions of Milad ul Nabi and Ramazan where members of all communities are invited to participate in the festivities.
Amir mahal was named thus after local poets often calling Nawab Wallajah as `Amir’. It is located in a sprawling campus of eucalyptus, coconut and other tropical trees and the palace is a red façade and is a curious mix of Islamic and Western architecture. With a rectangular base housing the durbar hall and a grand staircase the building also has domes and arches.
Chepauk Palace is located on the corner of Wallajah Road leading to the Marina, before the Chepauk Cricket Grounds, dating back to 1768. It looks bright with a lick of red colour, a vibrant contrast to the blue of the sky and sea around it. Often called Nawab’s Octagon, it was built upon with two new blocks added to it by Paul Benfield in 1768 and Robert Chisholm built some additional structures to the adjoining Humayun Mahal in 1871.The two storey rectangular structure with turrets, balconies, with a Madras terrace set off with tiny turrets has nothing left of the royalty associated with it today and is engulfed by boring government offices. The Khalsa Mahal, an additional wing of the Palace building has an interesting history. It was a bathing place for the Nawab and gunshots were fired to announce to the city that the royal bathing and toiletries were on!
On the Waterfront
If you are in love and in Chennai, head for the Marina. No skinny dipping please, we are Chennaiites. The beach is the sanctuary for lovers who duck softly behind the catamarans (wooden boats) parked on the sands. Given the population burst, it’s a difficult task today.But amour knows no bounds?
A morning walk on the Marina means a brush with Chennai’s famous citizens. The evenings are the prerogatives of the couples, and families and folks who need a cooling down. The `Marina procedure’ is to mark a good spot on the beach to plonk down, preferably by the numerous spray-swept and sun bleached catamarans, for a bit of shade and privacy. The chilli bhajji and bhel puri push carts, ice-cream vendors and bobbing balloons and merry-go-rounds for children are new additions for simple pleasures. The original Marina snack is the sundal (a crunchy chick pea salad, tossed in coconut and chillies with a tangy lime dressing) that a ubiquitous army of sundal pasangal (lads) will offer you for a price in paper cones. The sundal payan, a killjoy for mating couples, has been immortalised in the comic strips of Chennai’s famous cartoonist, Madan.
The newer beaches in the last one decade have moved south to Elliot’s Beach in Besant Nagar, extreme south of Chennai. Elliot’s Beach has small and trendy eating joints that sell pizzas, dosai, tandoori and Chinese chow dotted around it. There are innumerable private beaches along the East Coast Road leading to Mahabalipuram, outside of Chennai too.
But Chennai’s pride is the Marina, the second longest shoreline in the world. It owes its name and present layout to Mountstuart Grant-Duff, Governor of Madras in 1884 who ordered the work for constructing an Italianate promenade on the beach and as an ode to his Sicilian inspiration, named it the Marina. Public platforms for political meetings or tombstones for the departed political leaders mar the beach’s beauty. Unlike any other beachfront, the Marina is studded with various statues including Gandhi’s labour statue, Subramania Bharathiyar and other Tamil patron saints and political leaders and is a litter zone by unkind visitors.
An impressive row of Indo Saracenic buildings stand opposite the entire 4 km stretch of the Marina. Indo Saracenic is the original hybrid form of architecture developed by the British while in Chennai, combining Classical structural forms and Hindu and Byzantine elements. The man given credit for this is Robert Fellowes Chisholm, who founded the School of Industrial Art that is called the Madras College of Fine Arts at Poonamalee today.
Chennai’s first Masonic temple is an elegant rectangular all white structure, with columns and wide balconies and arches built sometime in the 19th Century, a handiwork of Chishlom. It faces the Marina and is the Tamil Nadu police headquarters and hence inaccessible for tourists.
The Senate House within the 125 year-old-Madras University campus was built in 1879 and is considered Chishlom’s best. Its façade is held up by four towers with curved domes on top, set off with intricate carvings in white that have small Hindu dancing figures atop columns and small turrets run along the square connecting the towers. The Public Works Department built in 1965 with its red and white Chishlom signature design and its grand wooden staircase is an arresting building like the Presidency College completed in 1965.
An interesting stop along the Marina is the Ice House, now called Vivekananda House. It’s a circular building in yolk yellow. Built in 1842, it was used to store huge blocks of ice imported from America. With the Madras Port nearby, it was easy to bring the ice here. After the company closed down, it is now the property of the Ramakrishna Mutt which has turned the place into a memorial hall for Swami Vivekananda with some framed prints of Vivekandanda who visited the Ice House in 1897.
At the end of this stretch is the vast campus of the Madras University constructed in 1913. Though it is not a Chishlom structure, its architects Reid and Booth and Somasundaram had built a structure that was not discordant with the rest of the constructions.
Across the River
Just cross the bridge across the Adayar River, and on the left is the sprawling green headquarters of the Theosophical Society, founded in 1878. Called Besant Gardens it became the place for theosophists after its founding members, Madame Blavatsky and Col.Olcott settled here. The headquarters building was built in 1882 and its 270 acres of wooded verdant surrounds was called Huddlestone Gardens. It remains a silent green oasis. The area also has the Blavatsky Bungalow and Olcott House. Many of the houses in the area are old colonial garden houses and are still preserved as residences or offices of the Society. There are shrines and chapels of all faiths located across the woods. The Library has some rare manuscripts.
The Theosophical Society’s best-known symbol is the Adayar Banyan tree that is 400 years old with nearly 1000 roots within the complex. It’s said to symbolise the universal brotherhood credo of the theosophists.
A visitor to Fort St.George is likely to be ushered to the northern side of the state secretariat where the fort museum stands, given that the rest of the area of the fort is meant for government businesses. The museum is located in a building that was an Officer’s mess and a warehouse where lottery draws and auctions of the British regiments were held. It became the Fort St. George Museum in 1948.The museum’s exhibits include a large number of antiquities. Arms, uniforms, ammunition, daggers, swords, fragments of shells fired at Madras during World War I, porcelain from Worcester and Persia are on showcase. A palaquain used by the Nawab of Arcot is prominently displayed here. On the first floor is the picture gallery and there are many prints of paintings done by various European visitors and the Company’s officers of sights and scenes set in south India. Canons captured by the British in important battles are lined along the ramparts of the Museum.
Situated on Pantheon Road in Egmore, the Government Museum Complex is a large campus. It has four main buildings including the Museum theatre, the Connemara Library and the National Art Gallery and the Madras Museum.
The Connemara Library was designed by Henry Irwin, and it has a collection of books that go back to 1861 that came all the way from England and is a veritable storehouse of rare books on a variety of subjects. First time visitors can take a day’s pass to enter the library.
The Museum Theatre is set to resemble Italianate architecture and has a circle of seats around the stage that gives it an intimate feel and harks back to the gas light era. It remains closed on days when there are no shows but you can take in the beauty of its semi circular façade in red and white with cornices and columns and arches.
The Other Festival, an alternate festival of contemporary and experimental dance and theatre is held each year in the first week of December at the Museum Theatre.
The National Art Gallery is a stunning piece of architecture to begin with. Unlike any other in Chennai, it is a combination of Mughal and Rajasthani architecture and was designed by Henry Irwin and was known as Victoria Memorial hall. The foyer area on the ground floor has sculptures and the first floor has a rare collection of Mughal paintings and Tanjores and a wonderful collection of Ravi Varma paintings.
The Madras Museum has two wings in separate buildings that house a large collection of sculptures, bronzes, from early Chola, Pallava, Vijayanagar periods to the time of the East Indian Company. Its bronze gallery has statues of Tamil saints and also a stunning `Cosmic Nataraja’ set on a rotating platform.
Two decades ago,Tamil author Sujatha wrote a short story, Bharathiyar veedu (the house of Bharathiyar) that lamented the neglect of the poet’s memorabilia. In 1993, Chennai decided to remember its famous poet and made his house into a museum, Bharatiyar Ilam. The records in the museum tell that Bharatiyar came to Chennai after being released from Cuddalore jail and lived in this house in Triplicane at the fag end of his life. On 12 September, 1921 he died peacefully in his sleep on the first floor in an ante room. The museum records all these details. House no 83, Tulasinga Perumal Koil Street now known as Bharathiyar Salai in Triplicane is behind the Parthasarathy temple.
Dakshinachitra, is a heritage site that gives a whole new insight into vernacular architecture of a bygone period of southern India. It is a heritage museum that transports the visitor through the four distinct regional traditions of south India and is located on the East Coast Road. Dakshinachitra has recreated the homes and villages of another time from the past across a sprawling 10-acre site to showcase the lives, livelihoods, crafts and folk traditions of the region’s past in a three dimensional fashion that is both authentic and aesthetic.
A Shrine for Dance
Kalakshetra means a temple of arts. You will come close to believing it after entering the Kalakshetra campus in Tiruvanmiyur, on the edge of Chennai. Sounds of the tattukazhi (tap stick) and stomping feet, strains from a practising violin, the thump of mridagam will tease the ears when a visitor walks around the school’s green campus on the seashore. Pristine aesthetics. Founded in 1936, by Rukmini Devi and her husband George Arundale, the school is an institution that has left an indelible mark on the history of dance in Tamil Nadu, after Rukmini Devi revived it as the bharatanatyam as is known today. The Kalakshetra school offers bharatanatyam, Carnatic music, painting, veena, violin and mridangam and also language classes in Telugu and Sanskrit. The Art Festival is held for 10 days in the last week of December with traditional compositions of Rukmini Devi being performed by the students of Kalakshetra.
Rukmini Devi Museum in the campus hosts a personal collection. It showcases her dance jewellery collection from chunky golden anklets and armlets to her bronze, copper, silver household articles and artefacts that were in vogue in the early 20th Century. It has a painting wing that has her personal collection of Nandalal Boses, Chungtais, and Tibetan thanka paintings she had collected during the travels in her lifetime. The Weaver’s Centre located in a compound outside the gates of Kalakshetra is for nifty buys. It weaves saris with Rukmini Devi’s crafted designs, vegetable dyed tablecloths, pouches and books on the history of saris and crafts.
A Song and Dance
Chennai breaks into a medley of song and dance to bring the year down. It’s called “Kutchery Season”, religiously held each year from November to February end. It’s Chennai’s finest hour.
Chennai’s kutchery heritage is however a young tradition dating to the British times. With Christmas falling in December, the British would close offices and leave on holidays. Correspondingly the locals who worked in British concerns had time on their hands, and with the weather cooperating, they decided to hold their music performances at venues in George Town, the then centre for power and moneyed lobby in the 18th Century. From Muthuswami Dikshitar, Sama Sastri to Thyagaraja, the saints of Carnatic music have landed in Chennai to compose music at one time or the other.
The Bride Goes Shopping
It is said a day’s shopping in the 18th Century former garden area of T.Nagar is enough to secure all the wedding needs for a harried bride’s family. This bustling and busy area is a single stop for silks and jewellery. The cacophony is yours to endure.
To Eat!To Eat!
Time was then, some 40 years ago, when eating out was considered a sin and fit for bachelors who couldn’t lift a spoon in Madras. But Chennai has suddenly woken up to the joys of multi cuisine. From the functional and easy on the pocket eateries (these always win in Chennai) to the fancy speciality cuisine including Japanese, Mexican, Italian, there’s plenty for the palette.
The die hard Madrasi street joints are the Military Hotels, often grubby, but said to serve authentic non vegetarian fare like chicken and mutton in Madras curry. Most popular are the large vegetarian chains that serve food on the go.
Chennai has a sweet tooth and is fastidious about it. It’s particular about the quality of the milk, ghee, servings and most of all, hygiene, before a sweet shop passes the test and families condescend to order in bulk for festivities and for weddings and tiffin.
While Kolkata rests on its cultural pride, Delhi on its historical importance and Mumbai on its cosmopolitanism, Chennai, like a well endowed and worldly queen remains steadfast, following a pace of her own, allowing a quality of life according to individual tastes.