The Mylapore Festival – 2007
Note: Apologies for having delayed posting this so long … but Darth Real Life delivered a stinging – er- blow. And I am posting my version of the Mylapore Festival now.
Decades ago, the streets around Mylapore’s famed Kapali Temple would have seen huge and intricate arisi-maavu kolams lining the straggling lanes. Narrow byways would have witnessed women clad in the traditional madisaar sarees walking sedately to the temple in the evenings, carrying fruits and flowers. The temple tank would be filled with devotees, intent on performing rites and rituals, or simply chatting on the banks of the tank, enjoying the evening sun. Shops and vendors would flock around to this centre of city, confident of getting an excellent price for their wares; this was where the city congregated after all. It was, within the constraints of that time and age, the place to see and to be seen. Wealth poured into this centre of learning and culture. Music Sabhas were situated within a kilometre radius of the Temple … and Mylapore was the epicenter of everything that defined the best of Madras.
On January 4th, 2007, Mylapore became, once more, the Mylapore it been in those early years – its lanes filled with tradition, music and art.
Certain landmarks, like the evergreen Karpagambal Mess still stood proud, completing the historic landscape. People flocked in and around the temple, the tank overflowed with devotees and tourist who threw pori to shoals of plump fish that gaped above the water. Foreigners strolled around with their cameras, eye widely taking in the sights. The organizers set about the stalls; peddlers arrange merry-go-rounds at street-corners… and when evening arrived, the area exploded into a rambunctious carnival.
“How many of us have seen a kolam outside a house and just walked over it… or grumbled about being forced to go to music classes when you were young? These traditions are an inherent part of us and it’s probably because of this that we take their existence for granted.
The Sundaram Finance Mylapore Festival is a celebration of this heritage and tradition. The festival focuses on creating awareness about Mylapore and its rich culture among residents and others. By providing a platform for the common man to exhibit his/her talents, the events try to keep age-old customs and traditions alive …” say the organizers, the Sundaram Finance Group.
The four Mada veethis hugging the ancient temple each played host to different arts and traditions comprising the festival. One street was lined by stalls set by the publishing house, Kizhkku Pathippagam who had displayed books along the fence lining the temple tank. The evening sun shone dimly through the sloth banners, gleaming through the bars and onto the books. Next to the stall, a blue banner lined the fences, and a diligent volunteer was hammering rows and rows of photographs of the events already taking place, while interested passers-by, walking by swiftly, slowed down and stopped entirely, captivated by the array of ancient photos – which include pictures of a very young Hemamalini – and photos of succeeding generations and decades. It’s a pictorial representation of the evolution of Mylapore itself.
You keep walking along the road, and reach the end of the Mada Veethi. Outside, once you cross the archway that proclaims the Mylapore Festival, the city follows the usual Mylapore routine: rickshaw and cycles tinkle along the roads pedestrians squeeze by after office hours and harried home-makers and office-goers alike stop by the pavement to stock on their quota of vegetables. In a way, though divorced of the gala proceedings inside, this too, is quintessential Mylapore. Remnants of an older lifestyle still linger, like wisps of steam escaping from within closed vessels.
4th January 2007 saw the onset of the festival as early as 6.30 in the morning with concerts in the Nageswara Rao Park, where young performers took a bow in front of the musical public. But it was at 5.30 PM that events proper started – in deference to the office-goers who would get time to converge at the venue only after this hour. While folk shows held the floor at the Park, Nadaswaram concerts and dances by school children caught everyone’s attention in the Kapali Temple. Classical dance performances by the Sanskriti Group was held in front of the 16-pillared mandapam of the Temple, followed by “Jambavati Kalyanam” – a Yakshgana Dance Drama by The Children’s Yakshagana Mandali, SVS High School, Agumbe, Karnataka.
The second day kicked off with a Music Heritage Walk conducted by V Sriram in the brisk Margazhi morning. The morning concerts flew by, and soon huge makeshift stages graced the front part of the temple, with programs by Tamil Nadu’s ethnic art forms presenting performances for the edification of the floating population. Karakattam, Oyilattam and Mayilattam were performed in the ambience of the original street performance: in the company of glaring lights, and the dancers performed onstage, encouraged by the viewers’ enthusiastic shouts. Female dancers wearing aquamarine sarees glittering in the lamps blew fire out of their mouths, threw knives accurately on targets and performed acrobatic feats that delighted the audience. Backstage, you could see players waiting to perform as they wore their bright make-up, or peeked out anxiously at the public. A great number of people surged from one end of the temple to another, stopping by briefly to watch goings-on. Some sections of the public sat quite still, and you could see from their slightly uncomfortable expressions that they didn’t quite know what to make of such theatrics … but once they got the hang of it, they went along with the flow of things. Under the benevolent gaze of a huge cutout of a young girl in a bright green pavadai-chattai. Whether this too was a part of the celebrations or a daily affair, couldn’t be distinguished.
Towards another side, on Ponnambalam Street raged a great deal of noise, particularly with the young population. This was the Traditional Games stall, with various old games like pallankuzhi and thaayakkatam being played out with great fanfare. Bright lights gleamed across the tables where stall members acted as guides, with their vast repertoire of games. Over to the sides, merry-go-rounds jangled with little children seated on the whizzing animals, shrieking with delight, while careful parents bought pink or yellow cotton candy from vendors.
Over to Pichu Pillai to the right stretched a long street that housed the Arts Section. Here were bright banners of cloth stretched out across the large walls of the once hoary agrahaaram houses, some of which are still occupied. Students from the Stella Maris College spread their wares open at around 5.00 PM, and began colourful workshops: some had mehendi workshops going on with students drawing designs at a fast rate, while others sold colourful bead necklaces and bracelets.
Others sat behind them, industriously threading necklaces.
At one end sat an artist, drawing likenesses of people for Rs 20 a piece. [Why do people who pose look like they’re having a coronary thrombosis … or worse, constipation? Sorry, but they look so stiff and tight-lipped that you can hardly wonder. Must be the effect of an eager audience watching every twitch of their eyebrow.]
This, I couldn’t resist:
And a student doodling mehendi on someone’s palm. They finished at top speed, in consideration of the long que that straggled all over the street. The light was failing fast, though.
So crowded were the streets, bursting at the seams with traffic that auto-drivers, trying to maneuver their way down the streets looked extraordinarily puzzled with the hustle and bustle. Still, it only provided them more opportunities to swerve dexterously around the streets: proof that they remain uncontested when it comes to weaving through Chennai’s roads. There was a speech scheduled by architect Kalpana, of the Senate House Restoration Fame treated her audience to a speech at 5 PM, on how to renovate and maintain old houses: a specialty of hers. I wish I could have attended this, but I couldn’t. On the other handm, I’d already been to her presentation during the Madras Week celebrations.
6th January saw the weekend arrive – and with it, a fresh slew of contests and programmes designed to fill the afternoons as well. A Mylapore Mada Veethis Walk, beginning at the Kapali Temple’s Ther had a group of children taking in the sights, in the crisp early morning air. Saturday saw the beginning of the famous Mylapore Kolam Contests. The North Mada Street was cut off from regular traffic, while enthusiastic women and children tucked in their sarees and salwars, readied themselves with kolam powder and began to fill out the large squares allotted for that purposes. As Show Organizer Vincent D’Souza of the Mylapore Times flitted round and about with his team, looking into last minute details [talked to him for a few minutes but I could see the desperation in his eyes to get back to his job, so I promised I would come back and nag him later.], the audience crowded around. Within minutes, beautiful, intricate kolams began to take shape on the road: some were small well-crafted chikki-mukki kolams, while others followed the familiar dotted lines format. Passers-by had a great time walking past, admiring the show. [I did, at any rate, leaning precariously on a tourist bus whose driver looked infuriated enough to knock me and all the kolam drawing maamis in the street. Half the joy is in knowing this irritation and … feasting on it. Heh.]
Meantime, by 4.30 PM, the Kokkalikattai show had begun, in front of the Kapali Temple, as a band of performers, wearing enormous stilts started on a rhythmic beat. As the beat rose and fell, kindling something almost primal within the listeners, and the dancers tap-tap-tapped away, increasing the frantic pace, people began to trickle in to watch the performance. When the final drum-beat died away, it was time for the evening’s round of street-theatre, by the Nalamdana Group, and later a Vintage film music concert by the St. Louis Orchestra of Blind.
In the meantime, there were parallel events going on in the other streets: creative workshops for children, art contests, puppetry and mask-making going on in the Park, while the Karpagam Hotel Pinnal Workshops, and cookery contests that tested the might ad main of the best cooks around: how did you make the best of leftover idlis and the best sambhar? And then there was Randor Guy, Chennai’s very own historian whose speech on “Milestones in South Indian Cinema: 75 years” was scheduled. [I couldn’t make this either.]
And if you were wandering around the Mada Veedhis, you would have seen the Kokkalikattai troupe prance through them all, treating the hosts as well as the guests with impromptu performances they went dancing through choked lanes.
Beggars – unfortunately, a mainstay of the scene, were quick to utilize this opportunity to make a quick buck and you had to keep a very wary eye on the raggedly crowd that wove around the temple environs. On the other hand, you couldn’t really help but notice and have a sort of grudging respect for their professionalism: one particular exponent of the art was busy drawing a huge white naamam on his forehead preparatory to the day’s “work” … but stopped briefly to beg, and when he understood that he would get nothing, went back to drawing a naamam and discussing with his crony: the best way of investment of funds. I kid you not.
The last day, 7th January, proved to be a sort of grand finale of proceedings: with the crows now aware of what was happening, everyone could take the time to linger at whatever they liked best. Today too, there were kolam contests, the stilt shows … and the evening, a konnakkol contest in front of the Temple. The evening brought a therukkoothu drama for a couple of hours. The population floated and gazed dreamily at everything, getting a taste of what vintage Mylapore once was. This was a drop of Tamil Nadu’s essence … and as such, a part of the Chennai tableau.
Admittedly, it was all a bit chaotic; people whizzing by everyhwre … and the traffic! Gods, what it must have cost the organizers to keep it flowing, I can’t guess. That it must have been a monumental task was obvious. What puzzled me in particular was the large number of cars that kept being parked right in front of the 16 -pillared mandapam, proving to be a nuisance to the people seated there. I’m sure the organizers had set some kind of rule about not parking there … but there was obviously a mix-up, as people kept getting up and sitting down and had the (dubious) adventure of seeing if a car would actually mow them down before it sped past. Of course, the streets are as narrow as a track, and that compounded the whole issue.
When you go back home in the evenings, the sights and sounds stay with you. A glimpse of what it must have been, decades ago. When kokkalikattai and oyilattam and thayakattai were once the staple diet of entertainment of the residents of Mylapore sitting on their front thinnai; discussing the latest drama performed. In an age when the TV and the Internet had not even made an appearance … these beguiled hours of endless boredom, stirred your imagination, and stayed with you right until the end – unlike the most scintillating stage shows of modernized today. And you have heard, haven’t you, that survival is the true test of endurance?
“Witness the neighbourhood in all its glory and most importantly a chance to introspect and take pride in who we are,” say the Mylapore Festival Organizers.