Memories of Madras Week
Took me a while to get my thoughts in order about all the events I had attended/heard about, and give a precis of what exactly happened during Madras Week 2007. Most events were interesting, some were repeats, while a few were outstanding. Be warned, you’re in for a long post.
In the beginning, it was a gathering of a few like-minded friends who cared a great deal about the city. Then, it grew to a series of meetings. More came to know of what transpired during these sessions, and signaled their interest to join. In 2006, it exploded into existence as one of the most happening occasions – and now it is the premier event of Chennai, eclipsing all else in August to the point of exclusion, with more than 60 events happening all over the city, put together by a number of organizations and Chennai-lovers. Le Madras Week, 2007.
This year, celebration started as early as the first and second week of August – but the celebrations proper began, as always, with a bang at the Taj Connemara on the 19 th of August, with Gowri Ramnarayan’s talk on musicians of Madras. Growing up in an atmosphere soaked in music, thanks to her family’s ties with the Kalakshetra and M S Subbulakshmi, it was a fitting beginning to this city of artists. Meanwhile, celebrations kicked off in style simultaneously, at the Gallery Sri Parvathi, where British-born numismatist Rod Hudson exhibited his coin collection dated circa the 1800s, with gleaming pagodas and panams throwing the spotlight on what ruled the roost of Madras Presidency citizens. Displayed, also, were scenes shot of Chennai – precise, clear pictures of what the city’s all about. Also to be found were wife Gita’s works, mainly centered on women.
The city’s colleges and schools were not far behind in showing their appreciation of Madras Week – for example, as a part of the Madras Day Celebrations, a group of 20 post-graduate students from the Department of History, Presidency College, Chennai, undertook a train journey which started from Thiru Mayilai to Beach Station by MRTS on 22nd August, 2007, enjoying the sights, sounds, and history of Madras; students of the MOP Vaishnav College in Nungambakkam came up with a painting competition, an elocution contest, and research-based presentations on the city, for the Madras Week. The T-shirt Design contests, the brainchild of the Madras Day organizers walked away from last year’s pretty kolam to piping hot coffee, showing another facet of Chennai.
20th August saw lifestyle journalist Geetha Doctor speaking at length about Eating Out in the City; humourous discussions on Buhari’s cockroaches, wrestler King Kong’s enormous breakfasts and Café Coffee Day’s feasts followed, with the evening’s tea calculated to send everyone present into a tizzy of gastronomic activity. Also hip and happening was a marvelous performance of thudumbhu aattam, presented by Spring Into Reading, an English-activity centre in KK Nagar, and an enchanting storytelling session by Nandini Sridhar, Anbu and Shankar – the latter two are mime artists.
21st saw Joachim Bautze, who teaches Indian Art history at the South Asia Institute, University of Heiledberg, speak about the German ship Emden’s effect on the city of Madras at the Goethe Institut, formerly the Max Mueller Bhavan – Bautze also spoke on the Photographers Wiele and Klein, on 23 rd August, to an eager audience, describing the photographers’ foray into all sort of artistic pursuits from engraving to postcard production.
22nd August, The Madras Day, breezed through with a talk by K R A Narasiah, who once served in the Indian navy and later joined the Merchant Navy. The writer of his own autobiographical work, Kadalodi, his speech on Srinivasa Ramanujan, mathematician extraordinaire, held at the Chamiers received a vote of approval from listeners. The Postal Department also released a special cover, commemorating the Madras Day.
A slew of exhibitions on rare photographs, documents dating from the establishing of Fort St George, coins, currency, and postal cards were set up at as many venues as possible, with eager Madras aficionados pitching. The Madras Week Exhibition at the Centenary Hall, Government Museum was one such. An eager S B Raja Seetharaman made sure every visitor saw postcards released for every landmark occasion, promissory notes of the Asiatic Bank, while veteran collector of rare books, S A Govindaraju displayed ancient books on cinema, textbooks, and tram tickets – which were truly a wonder to behold.
No one who knows Madras will be ignorant of Randor Guy, the speaker who has the talent of keeping audiences spellbound. And spellbound they were on 24 th August, at his remarkable memory and the zeal with which he spoke at length about Two Murders in Madras – the Lakshmikanthan Case, and the Alavandhar Kolai Vazhakku (the latter was later made into a successful television serial). The same day saw the PRSI’s Chennai Chapter host a presentation at the Accord Metropolitan on Early Imprints in Madras, by G Sundar, Roja Muttiah Research Library’s Director. Interesting tidbits about the city’s earliest Tamil magazine, booklets and verses on Madras’s High Court, Toddy shops and colleges, had to be seen, to be believed. Not to mention old images of yesteryear magazines such as Cinema Ulagam, Sudesamittran, etc. Oru Paisa Thamizhan, is perhaps my favourite.
Meantime, parallel events at the Gallery Sri Parvathi saw publisher Badri Seshadri speak about street cricket, and his memories of the national game of India. Walking in with a bat, he took the viewers on a ride through memories of childhood games in the streets in Nagapattinam. Cricket, according to him, would live on forever in the Indian psyche, and therefore, an indispensable part of Chennai as well.
25th August, though, saw a different sort of event: a completely packed venue at the Chamiers, where historian-entrepreneur V Sriram treated an awestruck audience to a learned discourse on the devadasis of Madras. An excellent slideshow presentation, coupled with tasty tidbits on the Madras of the day, with dubashes ruling the land, wealthy, learned devadasis holding sway over temples, and their subsequent, rather pathetic decline, made sure that no one noticed the time fly past – even the ones with aching feet. I think I’ll have to do a humoungous post on this alone, for there were so many minute details and every one of them seemed worthy of capturing. Like tasty tidbits on the lives of stalwarts such as Veenai Dhanammal, Coimbatore Thaayi, and Banglalore Nagarthnammal’s fiery character.
Heritage walks held during the weekend, one tracing the trail of devadasis of Chennai, while another was through the Fort St George, spiced up the activities, by giving Chennai-ites a chance to see images of past fading into the present.
The last day of the Madras Week celebrations, the 26th August, finished with a grand finale: television and film actor Mohan Raman spoke on Madras, as a backdrop to Tamil cinema, sprinkled with interesting anecdotes, both from his own vast experience, and the works of Randor Guy, Theodore Bhaskaran, and others. Intriguing film clips followed, with movies such as Sabapathy, En Manaivi and Kadhalikka Neramillai shown. To last year’s visitors to Randor Guy’s own talk, some pieces were repetitions – but heck, it’s cinema, and cinema’s never boring. Especially the golden oldies.
It was with a rather bittersweet air that the audience dispersed, at the end of the week long experience of nostalgia, pride and wonder – but the way things are looking up, it’ll be a month-long thiruvizha by next year. What I’ve mentioned above is just a little bit of all the events that happened. And though Chennai’s often dubbed ‘dead’ – it couldn’t have been more alive, now. In the words of (even if you don’t want to know) Vicky Beckham, it was “totally major!”
Until 2008, then.