Sunday, October 25, 2015

August 29, 2015: Heritage walk - "The city and its cinema - A tour of the L. V. Prasad studios" by Venkatesh Chakravarthy

It was a pleasant homecoming as I returned to the familiar lanes of Saligrammam for a walk on "The City and its Cinema" by Venkatesh Chakravarthy, Regional Director of L. V. Prasad Film & T V Academy. There weren't any familiar faces however, to  my dismay (except for, of course, the shirtless one). But the programme was very interesting (I wonder why it had been called a walk. Much of the "walk" was actually spent in the the Prasad Film and T V Academy where a documentary film on L. V. Prasad was screened following by a presentation on the history of the Madras film industry).But there were quite a few new things to learn. I was, for example, astonished when told that Arunachalam was actually a film studio nearby. Was Arunachalam Road named after Arunachalam Studios?  Mr. Chakravarthy also described in vivid detail how in the late 1970s directors and film crews craved to go to rural areas to do outdoor shootings    He called this phenomenon "the rural exodus". But there were a few mistakes, too. A snapshot from the controversial bed scene from the 1937 film Ambikapathy was shown and wrongly captioned as "Kannagi [1942]".  Mr. Chakravarthy also repeats the outdated, and now considered improbable, theory that the word "Kodambakkam" was derived from the Urdu "Ghoda Bagh", meaning "stable for horses". But the presentation went far beyond my expectations. And our hosts were gracious enough to take a group photo as a souvenir  and send the same through mail so that we might have something more than just memories to cherish.

Group photo of the participants in the L. V. Prasad studios walk. I had difficulty trying to cramp in so that my face appeared.


August 24, 2015: Panel discussion on "Madras nalla Madras" between S. Muthiah, Stephen Roman and Arun Krishnamurthy at the British Council

My first visit to the British Council to attend a skit followed by a debate. The main events of Madras Week having ended yesterday, it was today very much like the lull after the storm. I went to work as usual and left early, catching the bus to Thousand Lights. From Thousand Lights, I had to walk more than a kilometre through the narrow Rangoon Street to get to the British Council entrance. The heavy security struck me odd; after all what was the need for such high security at a building that wasn't of any strategic importance, its only important function being to teach natives  good English.  

At the British Council, we were directed to the library. The library was a vast spacious building much of which was empty.  At a corner of the room were arranged the chairs and it was apparent that the function was to be held here. The function began with an introduction by the British Council staff followed by a small skit by Mr. Arun Krishnamurthy of the Environmental Foundation of India and his team. Employing wordplay involving Tamil film songs, Arun explained in an innovative way how it was necessary to keep our surroundings clean.  Next, Mr. S. Muthiah was asked to speak on the culture and traditions of Chennai. Mr. Muthiah began a description of Chennai's culture by alluding to a traditional maami  who could switch easily from a short skirt at a club to a madisar in a wedding function. I was shocked at Mr. Muthiah's caustic humour - references to a particular community could have been avoided. But Mr. Muthiah was sincere in his love for the city and its traditional yet open-minded people and made a passionate appeal to the youth of the city to step forth to guard its cultural heritage. The same point was also repeated by Mr. Stephen Roman, Regional Director of the British Council for South Asia and Mr. Arun Krishnamurthy, who exemplified the youth of the city that Mr. Muthiah was speaking about.  Mr. Roman preached that any initiative to conserve the historical heritage of a city should come from its people and only then will it be successful. He cited many examples of such cities whose heritage was rescued by its people -  tales drawn from his vast experience of serving in different parts of the globe. The cities who stories he recounted were Sarajevo, Koenigsburg aka Kaliningrad and his hometown of Coventry. Next when asked which part of Madras city they loved the most, Arun Krishnamurthy listed the beaches while Roman spoke appreciatingly of the calm, serene spaces of the Theosophical Society and St. Thomas Mount (It is for similar reasons that the Theosophical Society's gardens remain a favourite of mine).  Mr. Muthiah had, of course, fond memories of Chepauk and the Marina  but in present-day Chennai he couldn't recall any.

Following the discussion, there was a question-and-answer session. One Ms. Sameera, a student of history from the Stella Maris College spoke of the need to protect the archaeological heritage of the city. She quoted the example of Sriperumbudur where she says, lies a palaeolithic settlement. Though there is an ASI board put up at the place, little has been done for its conservation. I cannot but agree more. When the function came to an end, I pointed out that there is a similar Stone Age settlement and stone circles in Kundrathur hill craving for attention. Soon afterwards, we were invited to have refreshments. I checked my watch and it was already late. So, I hurriedly finished "high tea" which consisted of sandwich and a sweet tiffin - all typically British, and some tea. To avoid travelling in our crowded buses, I walked to Egmore and from there, took the train. As I look back, there wasn't much of an enthusiasm that evening but Madras Week was passe and this was to be the British Council's last event as well.


                                                           The British Council Library




 Ms. Bhama introducing the panelists



 Streetplay by Mr. Arun Krishnamurthy of the Environmental Foundation of India (EFI) and team



Mr. S. Muthiah speaking on the culture and traditions of Madras


Panel discussion between Mr. Roman, Mr. Muthiah and Mr Arun


August 23, 2015: Madras Day events at the Luz House

Attended Madras Day events at Luz House (the family home of the Buchi Babu Naidu family). The venue was the only let down- there weren't enough fans so ventilation was poor and the hosts, in my experience, weren't so helpful.  But suffering such minor inconveniences was worth when you consider what a terrific night it was. And author and translator Mr. Venkatesh added flavour to the wonderful evening by chipping in interesting bits of trivia. Another disappointment was that I couldn't take good pictures of the events as the display in my mobile had shattered. But then, the absence of pictures was in the end a blessing in disguise as it added to the mystique of a magical night.

The evening began with a talk on  the difficulties of translation with authors Padma Narayanan and Kalyan Raman that lasted from 4.45 PM to about 6 PM. The conversation, as I can understand, was quite useful but the speakers could have made it more interesting for the audience (perhaps, with a bit of humour) many of whom appeared lulled to sleep. The point which they repeatedly stressed upon was that it was not possible to justifiably render each and every vernacular phrase in English. This I wholeheartedly agree with. One extreme viewpoint was that making a translation was even more cumbersome than writing an original work. So, the authors sat down and set out to carry out a lousy late afternoon discussion on the nuances of translating vernacular works. The question and answer session was a bit more lively. There was a suggestion that writers should trans-content and not simply translate or transliterate in order to provide faithful translations.   A particular lady in the crowd objected to the translation of keywords related to food items and opined that words like idly, sambhar, spaghetti, etc. should be  used as in the original. If the readers do not known the meaning of those words let them look into a dictionary, she opined. This was particularly my view, too. Of course when I first read Sidney Sheldon I found his works deeply entrenched in the culture and traditions of the places they were set in.   And finally, the guy in the cut baniyan who is a regular at such functions stood and summarily demanded of the two authors to stop making any translations in the future if they cannot do justice to it.  

After the conversation came to an end, we had a tea break after which Dr. Swarnamalya's programme "Dancing in the parlour"  commenced. During this litle break, Ms. Vidhya Singh, a scion of the Vizianagaram royal family made an emotionally-charged speech about Madras and her connect with it.  Many a time during the course of her short one-minute-or-so speech I felt that she was going overboard with her Madras flattery.  Frankly speaking, I feel Madras is truly a great city with a number of firsts to its credit and ahead of many other comparable cities in the subcontinent in a number of aspects but when someone tries to evoke a London, Switzerland or a New York of a typically dirty Indian city, it falls flat on the face. If you ask me, yeah, it was surely a great city but like all Indian cities, it is surely deteriorating with a growing population, increasingly rude people and motorists with scant respect for traffic rules, corrupt police officers, dug-out roads, long pending infrastructure projects and the kind - the same problems which cities across India face. So please don't talk of practising tennis, golf or horse riding at the Club - such glittery tales have no connection, whatsoever, with the life the growing middle-class leads.

The superbly choreographed dance performances of erstwhile actress Dr. Swarnamalya kept us tied to our seats for the next two hours.  Her expertise was keenly visible in screenplay and dialogue delivery. I could not but gape in awe at her versatility as she churned out Tamil, English and Telugu dialogues with equal fluency. And what of the generous amounts of research done. Many of the parts she played and dances she danced had allusions to real people and real performances in history. Starting with a typical Indian sadir, Swarnamalya and her group presented an improvised dance with very European gestures. Then, suddenly, the fuse blew off. As kerosene lkamps in the heritage home were lit to compensate for the poor visibility, we felt ourself transported to another age and taking the places of the exalted nobility of 19th century Madras. Perhaps, it must have been quite impressive back then.  (I sometimes even doubt if the fuse was purposely removed to make it look more real) Next, Swarnamalya rendered a multilingual javali composed by the Tamil poet Sivaramayya from Karur. (The javali was made in a mix of four languages - Tamil, Telugu, English and Kannada).   Following the javali, Swarnamalya and her group danced to the tunes of "Sarasa sarvabhauma jarjinama bhupa", the Sanskrit version of the British monarchical anthem "God Save the King" composed by Pillai Narasimha Rao Naidu during the Delhi durbar of 1911. Next in her repertoire was a Parsi kavadi cindu  - a dance-drama played by two young girls from her group described as her "disciples". It was clearly an awe inspiring performance by all the members of her group and their performance provided us with many moments to cherish. Perhaps, it could easily be explained that most of the ideas were plucked out from Davesh Soneji's book "Unfinished Gestures: Devadasis, Memory, and Modernity in South India" but even with ideas in hand, it would have still been a very difficult task to conceptualize them into a dance performance.

After the dance performance by Swarnamalya and her group came to an end at about 7. 15 PM, we had a break that lasted till eight. I had a look around the house which carried framed pictures and photographs from a supposedly glorious past. The ground floor was littered with cuttings from The Illustrated London News (mostly news clippings from The Mutiny). I wonder why we need an exhibition for such public domain newspaper stuff (that too, an UK-based newspaper) that is easily available on the internet. The first floor had something of genuine value though members of the household weren't too keen to perpetuate their knowledge either . A gentleman in one of the photographs bore an uncanny resemblance to Douglas Jardine of Bodyline reputation but the snobbishness of Buchi Babu Naidu clan really put me down. I wonder why the Buchi Babu Naidu family was interested in having this exhibition if they don't want photographs of their photographs taken or people knowing about them. I can understand privacy concerns if they were contemporary portraits but these people died long ago.

As the long break between performances came to an end, we had The Folk Repertory group walk onto the stage to perform their "Chennaiyin Gnanaratham". A melting pot of boisterous folk tunes and biographical snippets from Bharatiyar's life, Gnanaratham was a class apart - all credit to The Folk Repertory team for coming up with this novel idea and to Mr. Kannan Kumar for unconventionally rendering Bharatiyar songs to folk music. Bharatiyar's life story was interestingly narrated in the form of a play that was played in parts with folk performances sandwiched between. Another novelty in the play was the introduction of characters who reflected the culture and lifestyle of the places Bharathiyar lived in at different stages of his life. For example, integrated seamlessly into the play was a Triplicane rowdy speaking the Madras lingo always muttering anecdotes from Bharatiyar's life. Hats off all the dancers - V. Chandrasekaran, Sharadha Chandrasekar whom I understand are in their fifties but they had the passion and agility of twenty-year olds. Hats off also to the narrators - Rajagopalan Venkataraman, Vallabha Srinivasan and Ananya Mahadevan. The performance culminated in an interesting climax when Mr. Balasubramanian Natarajan came on the stage and told the interesting story of the disappearance and accidental discovery of the Bharat Matha statue that the Mandyam brothers created sometime in the early 20th century. With Mr. Balasubramanian's story, the curtains drew to a close. It was a fitting finale to Madras Week, though the celebrations themselves weren't over and would continue into early September. 

The functions came to an end at about 8.45 and I left a few minutes later. Was truly mesmerized and it took sometime for the effects to wean off. So that was it - Madras Week ends now though celebrations will still continue.


Classical dancer, scholar  and erstwhile actress Dr. Swarnamalya during the "Dancing in the Parlour" programme with the Rangamandira team






 This particular gesture in the dance - the salute was originally introduced for an European guest.



 A Parsi "kavadi chindu" on a railway journey from Madras to Kolar


Chennaiyin Gnanaratham - folk dance performance on Bharathiyar's songs


Chennaiyin Gnanaratham

August 21, 2015: Talk on "Photography on glass - When photography came to Madras" by D. Krishnan and S. Muthiah at the Press Institute of India

Attended a beautiful presentation on "Photography on glass - When photography came to Madras" by Mr. D. Krishnan, photo editor for The Hindu and the great Mr. S. Muthiah at the Press Institute of India in Tharamani. Mr. Muthiah didn't look his age and observers would have sworn that he was twenty or thirty years younger.  With his characteristic verve and impeccable English, Mr. Muthiah made it a treat for listeners. Met a few fellow members from the Madras Naturalists Society at the lecture, including General Secretary, Mr. K. V. Sudhakar.

Mr. Muthiah began with a short biography of Harry Miller who, according to Mr. Muthiah, had the largest collection of glass negatives on Madras. The negatives dating from 1880 to 1930 were acquired by Mr. D. Krishnan who catalogued it with the  assistance of Mr. Muthiah.

Mr. Krishnan then took over and explained about the collection. It was interesting to note how the negatives have been painstakingly preserved at room temperature in small handmade paper covers which were in turn placed in boxes made of acid free material all of which were as old as the negatives themselves. That such an ingenious method were used to preserved these negatives a hundred years ago is ironical, especially when we don't use any such methods today.

Mr. Krishnan also gave a brief history of photography before making way for Mr. Muthiah. Krishnan described how the camera obscura had been used for ages with the earliest references going back to the 13th century AD. Leonardo Da Vinci was one of the early scientists to have described it. The subject was asked to sit in a closed room and a camera obscura was placed in its walls,. This camera obscura produced an inverted portrait of the subject at the opposite end. An artist would then paint the subject's portait based on the likeness generated by the camera obscura. The first permanent photograph was taken by Niepce in 1826. It required a seven-hour long exposure. Mr. Krishnan also described many of the early processes used such as the daguerrotype, calotype, wet colloidon and gelatin processes. Almost all the plates in  Harry Miller's collection, Mr. Krishnan explained, were either wet colloidon or gelatin.

Mr. Muthiah, then, gave a brief account of the history of photography in Madras. The first photographer to chronicle Madras, Mr. Muthiah said, was Alexander Hunter who in 1850, founded the Madras School of Arts. In the 1850s, the Government appointed three photographers - Linneaus Tripe, Captain Lyon and W. W. Hooper to photograph people and places in the Madras Presidency. They explored the length and breadth of South India to fulfill their mission. The early photographers, Mr. Muthiah said, were the artistic successors of early 19th century landscape painters such as the Daniells and much of their work was of a similar nature.  Linneaus Tripe was a captain in the British army who carried out an official photographic expedition in Burma before moving to Madras Presidency in 1857 as official photographer to the Madras government. His assistant Iyyasamy appears to have taken many photographs of his own in the process becoming the earliest recorded Indian photographer in the Presidency. Hooper captured the Madras Famine of 1877-78, one of his most important photographs being that of rice bags brought by ships lying on the sea shore in Madras. Bourne and Shepherd arrived on the scene shortly later and to the west, they remained the most prolific photographers of India for most of the 19th century.  But their impact upon the growth of photography in Madras was minimal as they focussed more upon the imperial winter and summer capitals of Calcutta and Shimla. The Madras Almanac for the year 1858 lists four photographers, two among them - Maselamoney and Davasigawmoney being Indians. The arrival of Nicholas & Co on the scene however changed things forever. The Nicholas brothers - John and James arrived in 1857 and 1858 respectively and set up Nicholas Bros. in the latter year. In 1864, it became Nicholas Brothers and Co. when their brother-in-law John Parting joined them. But it reverted to its original name of Nicholas Bros. when Parting resigned from the venture in 1865. It became Nicholas and Curths when a Herman Curths joined the venture in 1868. When Curths left in 1873, they settled for Nicholas and Co. once and for all. Nicholas and Co. declined and eventually disappeared in the early 1900s. One of their greatest discoveries would be A. T. W. Penn, who came to India at the age of sixteen and joined the firm in the mid-1860s. He remained their best photographer for a long time and many of those pictures copyrighted to Nicholas Bros. were probably Penn's creations. There exists only one known photograph of Penn and that portrays Penn at his guitar along with Misquith of the music shop, Misquith and Co. Penn left Nicholas and Co. in 1875 and started his own company but he remained always on  friendly terms with the Nicholases. Mr. Muthiah ended the Nicholas' story with a tragic afterword - James Nicholas and his wife Ellen had a daughter who died suddenly aged three due to poisoning. The child's ayah Mary was suspect and subsequently arrested. She was convicted by a local court and given capital punishment. But Mary appealed to the Supreme Court at Calcutta and a retrial was subsqeuently held. This retrial completely exonerated Mary and ruled the child's death as an accident caused by swallowing of harmful photographic chemicals that James kept at home. So, it was the negligence of James Nicholas and not the ayah's  malicious intentions that had caused the child's death. However, within six months of her release, Mary too had passed away. The circumstances surrounding her sudden and mysterious death remain unknown.

From the 1880s, the Nicholas Bros. faced stiff competition from Wiele and Klein, a German firm which specialized in picture postcards. Wiele and Klein employed a fellow German, Michael Peyerl who they admitted in  the 1920s as a partner.

The firm changed hands after the Second World War but retained its name with fluctuating fortunes till a studio fire in 1987 delivered the final blow. Come 1930s and the biggest names of the period were G. K. Vale and Vasan Studios both of whom specialized in wedding photography. Though they did a few landscapes too, photographing landscapes had by then become out of fashion.

After Mr. Muthiah's enthusiasm-filled and information-packed lecture came to an end, there was a short question and answer session. And I had a readymade question to ask. When was the first colour photograph taken in Madras! The first true colour video shot in India as we know was made during the Delhi Durbar of 1911. Were there colour photographs and videographs of Madras that were as old?
But Mr. Muthiah left it to Mr. Krishnan to answer my question. Mr. Krishnan said that he had absolutely no idea when the first colour photograph in Madras was taken but the sports sections of The Hindu started to  switch over to colour in the 1960s. Mr. Muthiah recalled with childlike enthusiasm how while working on a book on the Chettiar community, he came across scores of hand-tinted photographs from the 19th and early 20th centuries. Mr. Muthiah concluded the presentation by recalling memories of a visit by a National Geographic Magazine team to his native Sri Lanka. The photographers, Mr. Muthiah revealed, took great pain to click photographs of people and places in the then Ceylon, fishermen, beaches, etc - thousands of them, in fact, but in the end, selected barely a handful of those to be published in the Nat Geo. Thus, Nat Geo must have built a reputation for quality and perfection.

Thus, an interesting lecture came to a conclusion.  I might have left out many points as I simply can't remember them in the absence of any notes. But this description would have given a fair idea.

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Mr. D. Krishnan of The Hindu giving an introduction to the history of photography 


 Mr. S. Muthiah begins his "The Story of Photography in Madras"


Klein and his equipment in the Nilgiri Hills

 Dr. Alexander Hunter - founder of the Government School of Fine Arts.


 Rice bags lying on Madras beach (W. W. Hooper, 1877)

 Catalogue of the Nicholas Bros., 1866


 The pier, Nicholas and Curths, 1872.


Mowbray's road sometime before 1881 (Nicholas & Co)

A. T. W. Penn (right) with his friend Misquith (left)


Stephen's Church, Ooty, A. T. W. Penn

Saturday, October 24, 2015

August 20, 2015: Talk on "Media and advertising in Chennai - A fascinating history" by R. V. Rajan at the Press Institute of India

Attended presentation and lecture on Media and Advertising in Chennai - A fascinating history by R. V. Rajan. Was late and present for barely fifteen minutes of the lecture. Seems by then, Mr. Rajan had already given a detailed presentation on the history of the advertising and approaching the fag end of his speech. When I walked in, he was playing a few advertisement videos from the 1990s and lamenting how the aarrival of retail jewellery stores has affected advertisement ethics and quality. He gave the reason for this downtrend as the  choice of amateurs by these retailers instead of professional advertisement agencies. But fortunately, we were given complimentary copies of books by R. V. Rajan that seemed to contain all the matter.

 
According to Mr. Rajan, newspapers right from the beginning carried elaborate advertisements in the form of classifieds. The Madras Almanac of 1851 carried details of births, deaths, thefts, auctions and public announcements. The first advertising agency in Madras city was founded by P. S. Mani Iyer in 1939. Mani Iyer canvassed for advertisements for The Hindu and Swadesamitran and in return, got a 25% commission from them. Advertising in newspapers underwent a radical change in the early 1930s with the advent of line drawings and half-tone prints. But perhaps the leading advertisement professional of that era was R. K. Swami who started as manager with J. Walter Thomson in 1955 and continued well into the 1970s.  Starting R. K. Swamy and Associates in 1973, in five years, he had transformed it into one of India's ten best advertisement agencies.

During this time, radio was also a popular medium for advertising.
Radio Ceylon was in particular, a pioneer in this field. During the 1970s and 80s, most of the advertisements in Tamil were dubbed from Hindi and English. When colour television started to become popular in India during the 1982 Asian Games, J. S. Films started by Jayendra Pachapakesan, a  copy writer and film producer and the well-known cinematographer, P. C. Sreeram, took off. Their advertisements became popular nationwide. Some of the popular names that emerged from ad films during this period where the famous cinematographer and film director, Rajiv Menon and the Academy award winning music director A. R. Rahman.

With the turn of the 21st century, came the age of the internet and the MNCs. Advertisements changed their focus and priorities once again. Mr. Rajan, however, doesn't seem too amused by the turn of events. While he ended the presentation with a note of regret, we left the presentation with not much to regret about.  

August 19,2015: Talk on "Archaeological and numismatic evidence of trade in the Indian Ocean" by Dr. Osmund Boppearchi at the C. P. Ramaswami Aiyar Foundation

Attended lecture on "Archaeological and numismatic evidence of trade in the Indian Ocean" by Dr. Osmund Boppearchi. Reached the venue late thanks to a traffic jam at the DLF IT Park but fortunately not much of the lecture had been missed.  The lecture started with a brief introduction by Ms. Nanditha Krishna followed by feclicitation of the guests, Mr. Boppearchi, Mr. T. Satyamurthy of REACH and Mr. R. Krishnamurthy, President of the Tamil Nadu Numismatics Association.

Dr. Boppearchi then took over. He might have bored many by reading mechanically from a prepared document. Perhaps, I feel, it could have been made a lot more interesting by the usage of lay terms.

The chance discovery of a shipwrech at Godavaya on the south-east coast of Sri Lanka by fishermen R. P. Sunil and B. G. Preminda in 2003, Dr. Boppearchi said,  led to detailed excavation of the site starting in 2012.  The excavations have till now yielded plenty of pottery and coins. One particular artifact of interest was a piece of pottery with the holy Nandipada, Srivatsa and fish motifs. The shipwreck has been carbon-dated to between the 2nd and 1st centuries BC- the oldest of any kind in the Indian Ocean.  

After a giving a brief sketch of the fabulous archaeological discovery, Dr. Boppearchi switched topic and gave a detailed description of South Indian influences in Sri Lanka. There was a continuous exchange of goods and ideas between South India and Sri Lanka starting from the early centuries BC. The earliest art of Sri Lanka drew inspiration from the Andhras. Sinhalese Buddhist iconography, for example, was based on samples found in Nagarjunakonda. The liaisons continued in later times too. The Sinhalese prince Manavarma lived at the court of Narsimhavarman I Mamalla who constructed the rock-cut temples at Mamallapuram. The lion motifs which were a dominating feature of Pallava art was borrowed by the Sinhalese.  Starting from the 10th century AD, Sri Lanka was conquered in stages by the Cholas. The Cholas built a  new capital at Polonnaruwa where they constructed a number of Hindu temples. For centuries, the Sinhalese sculptors and painters portrayed Hindu gods postured in characteristic Chola style next to that of the Buddha. The Buddhist particsed in Sri Lanka was different in variety than those practised elsewehre in the world, Dr. Boppearchi said. Many Indian, especially Tamil gods formed part of the Buddhist pantheon and many such rituals formed a  part of their regular worship that would be considered heretical by orthodox Buddhist cults.  One of the gods that formed a part of their pantheon, for example, was Vishnu who was worshipped as Upulvan derived from  Uppalavanna, Sinhalese for the "water lily-coloured" Could it possibly be the derivation for Oppilla-appan in mthe Oppilliappan shrine! Why not!

With his comfortable familiarity with South India, Boppearchi expertly plucks out specimens from the remotest corners of Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh. The lecture, in the end, was a fitting ode to the syncretism between Hinduism and the form of Buddhism practised in Sri Lanka

Having passed the deadline, Boppearchi's speech was making it late for me. So when he concluded at about 8.15 PM, I left, opting to forego the Q&A session. Before leaving, I had a look at the C. P. R. foundation's interesting collection of old photographs and portraits.





August 17, 2015: Talk on "Tamil cinema and the devadasi tradition" by Theodore S. Baskaran at the Roja Muthiah Research Library

Attended lecture on "Tamil cinema and the Devadasi tradition" by eminent Tamil film historian and wildlife conservationist Theodore S. Baskaran. The lecture started with an introduction by S. Muthiah who spoke of Theodore Baskaran, his multifaceted accomplishments and heaped lavish praises on his first book "The Message Bearers" which he rated as a must-read. Mr. Baskaran then took over and gave a fascinating, thoroughly professional and stats-filled narrative of the early history of Tamil cinema and how the Devadasi community the Isai Vellalars were omnipresent in the early days of the industry.

The first Tamil movie, Kichaka Vadham, Mr. Baskaran said, released in 1916 while the first talkie Kalidas released in 1931. The silent era, therefore, lasted 15 years. This was a time when there wasn't much creativity in the industry. By contrast, stage plays were facing unprecedented growth in their fan-following. The reason for this, Mr. Baskaran said, was the Devadasi Abolition Act of 1924. As devadasis could no longer perform in temples, they joined drama companies where their singing talents became indispensable.  Some of them such as Balamani and Kamalambal even had their own drama companies. However, still in a drama troupe, the script-writer or vadhiyar was the most important. When movies began talking in the early 1930s, there was a huge demand for artistes who could sing. This triggered an exodus of devadasis to the film industry. K. R. Saradambal was one of the earliest to make the transition. Scores of singers, dancers and musicians from the community followed in her footsteps ancd some put firm roots in the film industry.Take for example, the family of S. P. L. Dhanalakshmi that had lasted in the film industry for three generations. Kumbakonam, Mr. Baskaran said, emerged as one of the principal centres of the devadasi community. And plenty of plays were staged here. 

The reason why devadasis were so successful in films, Mr. Baskaran explained, was due to the fact that while Hollywood films had evolved from the silent to the talking phases, Indian movies hadn't.  In Hollywood, movies had assumed an identity of their own independent from stageplays even during the silent phase while Indian movies, even during the talkie phase, were simply  filmized versions of popular mythological dramas. (I would object to such a viewpoint. Many of the earliest talkies made in Hollywood were barely revues or filmized stageplays with songs and the kind). And as lesser importance was given to acting than dancing and singing, devadasis shone.

Mr. Baskaran also listed some of the greatest stars of early Tamil cinema. The greatest was, undoubtedly, M. S. Subbulakshmi. Another was the first "dream girl" of Tamil cinema, T. R. Rajakumari. Others such as N. C. Vasanthakokilam and M. L. Vasanthakumari established themselves primarily as singers. K. S. krishnamurthy was another doyen from the community who ventured into film direction. Along with the devadasis, Mr. Baskaran also told the story of the vocalists and musicians who made it big. Some nattuvanars from the Isai Vellalar community worked as dance teachers and choreographers in Tamil films. The most successful among them was V. S. Muthuswami Pillai who worked in movies such as Malai Kallan.

Beofre Mr. Baskaran ended his lecture, he showed us short clippings from movies of the 1930s and 1940s. While the marriage concert by P. A. Periyanayaki from the movie Sabhapathy was shown, it was surprising why Mr. Baskaran had left out the short Bharatanatyam dance performance by R. Padma from the same movie.  It was also interesting to note that P. A. Periyanayaki and R. Padma were related by marriage (Padma's son was married to Periyanayaki's daughter). Padma's daughter Sai formed part of the Sai-Subbulakshmi duo that acted in a few films in the 1950s. Another movie from which clippings were beamed was the 1942 Aryamala which starred M. S. Sarojini. A few short clippings from movies of the 1950s were shown before Mr. Baskaran wound up the lecture with a clip from Boys (2003) to illustrate how much dance in movies had evolved.



August 16, 2015: Tree walk - "Paarkum Marangal Ellaam" at Kotturpuram Tree Park by Nizhal Foundation

Attended Tree Walk - Parkkum Marangal Ellaam organized by Nizhal Foundation at 4.30 PM. The walk was good and two volunteers from Nizhal, Ms. Ranjani, a school teacher and Mr. Gajendran, a college student, identified each tree and explained their uses and cited references in Sangam literature.  So, having spent much of the week visiting old dilapidated buildings and listening to lectures on sepulchres from the Stone Age, it was a different sort of heritage for me - Chennai's rich indigenous plant wealth. I have never known that such an extensive and well-maintained park existed on the fringes of the Adyar River (I don't know if the Adyar Eco Park had so many species of indigenous plants - it was more suited to bird-watching, I guess). It was a wonderful intitiative by Nizhal and I never knew that Sangam Age works provided such deep insights into the flora of ancient Tamizhakam. I shall jot down here as much as I can remember. I can give no assurances upon the veracity of my account or its completeness.

The entrance to the Kotturpuram Tree Park, also known as Riverview Avenue Park





Narrators Mr. Gajendran (in yellow shirt) and Ms. Ranjani (in green dress) along with volunteers from the Nizhal Foundation.



Punnai or the alexandrian laurel (Calophyllum inophyllum) is the sthala vruksham in the Kapaleeswarar Temple, Mylapore and
Thiruvidandhai. The leaves, bark, flower and fruits of the tree have medicinal uses. It is endemic to the Neythal areas.


The Ashoka tree (saraca asoka), the narrators said,  is believed to be the tree under which the Buddha was born. There are found in large numbers in the island of Sri Lanka. Ashoka trees often grow to great sizes and occupy large spaces, our hosts explained,  that it is difficult to contain within the small space available in a park. 






The Magizham tree (Mimusops elengi) gets its name because its flowers have a pleasing odour. The tree is also known as bullet wood as its fruits are shaped like bullets. The fruit is edible and sweet to taste.




The Vengai tree (Pterocarpus indicus) is intimately associated with the worship of the Hindu god Murugan. When Valli's brothers and father came to meet him, Murugan transformed himself into a Vengai tree.


The Neer Marudhu or Arjuna Tree (Terminalia arjuna) is a tree which is endemic to the Marudham areas.





The Veppalai is a tree which is endemic to the Palai or desert areas. Its prevalence in dry barren lands is attributed to its low water requirement. Veppalai flowers are white in colour and during dispersal, mimic snowfall. The fruits of the plant appear like tongs of a blacksmith.







The flowers of the Nocchi plant (Vitex Negundu). The Nocchi tree has medicinal uses. It has sets of five leaves arranged around a single stem. The flowers are purple in colour.



The Iluppai tree (Madhura longifolia), also called Iruppai and Mahua, bears flowers which are sweet to taste. They were often used as a substitute for sugar and  used by tribals in manufacture of a kind of local toddy. The leaves resemble those of  mango and the tree itself resembles a mango tree. However, the leaves are more softer and lighter than the thick and heavy ones of the mango. The tree is highly venerated and protected by India's forest tribes.




The walk ended with a passionate appeal from the organizers for the proliferation of local tree varieties. We were requested to assist by volunteering on weekends in shramdaans at the Kotturpuram Tree Park or lend a hand in the creation of the planned garden of herbal medicine nearby. Nizhal also promised their expertise and assistance if we wished to developed parks in our areas or conduct tree walks.


August 15, 2015: Talk on "History and heritage of the Coovum River" by R. Venketesh and T. R. Shaswath at the Madras Literary Society

Attended presentation on "History and heritage of the Coovum River" by Mr. R. Venketesh​  and Mr. T. R. Shaswath. It was trivia-filled as the team which has been researching the Coovum River and its banks for some years now finally briefed us on the result of their investigations. Mr. Ramakrishnan listed the firsts that have taken place on the banks of the Coovum. The first airplane flight (1910), the first medical certificate to be issued by a hospital,  the second oldest hospital in India (next to Calcutta's GH by only four days), the first Indian to write a will, one of the oldest universities, the oldest library in India are the ones which I remember. In the midst of the interesting trivia, Mr. Ramakrishnan spoke of temples on the Coovum banks. Would you not be surprised if someone tells you that the town of Koyambedu had a Ramayana connection and that atleast one popular legend connected it with the birth of Kusha, the younger son of Rama and Sita. Yes, Koyambedu was Kushanagar (Another legend gives the place of Kusha's birth as the town of Kasur, in present-day Pakistan near the Indian border. There are many other candidates as well all vying for a share of pilgrim traffic). But then, there are many places on the Coovum with divine associations. Many of these temples did not have priests, Mr. Ramakrishna said and devotees had to unlock the gates and minister to their needs themselves. It was interesting to learn that there is a Koova Purana in the Skanda Purana under the Sanathkumara Samhita.


August 15, 2015: Heritage walk - "Mylapore and the Freedom Movement" by V. Sriram

Had a memorable Independence Day with the Mylapore walk led by Sriram Venkatakrishnan​.   We began at the Srinivasa Gandhi Nilayam at Ambujammal Street where ashes of Mahatma Gandhi are kept. At the entrance to the building was a huge portrait of Ambujammal. Ambujammal, the daughter of S. Srinivasa Iyengar CIE, a leading advocate and politician, was a freedom fighter who was awarded the Padma Shri by the Indian government in 1964. Next Mr. Sriram led us to Murray's Gate Road   , where singing star K. B. Sundarambal once resided. The house was a gift from media magnate K. Srinivasan of The Hindu. Mr. Sriram narrated interesting anecdotes from the lives of Sundarambal and her husband, S. G. Kittappa including the fact that Kittappa auctioned off his fountain pen once for a princely sum. The amount so earned was deposited in the coffers of the Indian National Congress. But their love story was by no means a dream tale - a pity that Kittappa died young. Mr. Sriram also narrated how Gandhi visited the twenty-something widow and convinced her to return to public life and fight for independence.

Next in our itinerary, was The Grove, the residence of Sir C. P. Ramaswami Iyer, one of those enigmatic personalities who lend colour to the history of the freedom struggle and Partition. Born with a  silver spoon in his mouth. Sir C. P. excelled in his studies and chosen profession. By 1920, he had established his reputation as one of the leading lawyers in the country. Among his briefs was the Krishnamurti-Nityananda custody case against Annie Besant also called the Besant v Narayaniah trial which became a sensation in the country. While Sir C. P. successfully fought on behalf of Narayaniah for the custody of his two sons, he reconciled with Besant shortly afterwards and lent vociferous support to her Home Rule Movement. When the British government decreed that it would be illegal for Besant's newspaper New India to function from any building whatsoever, Sir C. P. bought the newspaper and allowed the press to function from underneath a tree in The Grove, his family residence.  It was a great experience to meet the acclaimed scholar and great grand-daughter of Sir C. P., Dr. Nanditha Krishna who resides in a building within the property. We did visit that building, too, and at its entrance came across a tablet commemorating the birth centenary of Sir C. P.

Then Mr. Sriram took us to Luz Church Road for the most interesting part of the walk. It was the story of two remarkable, independent-minded women - Ambujammal and Durgabai Deshmukh. The first  building Mr. Sriram took us to was Amjad Bagh, once a residence of the Nawab of Arcot which was later occupied by British government officials and finally ended in the hands of S. Srinivasa Iyengar. Srinivasa Iyengar was a highly successful lawyer who served as Advocate general of the Madras Presidency from 1916 to 1920. In the later years of his life, he was also a very successful politician leading the Swarajya Party to a majority in the Madras Legislative Council in the 1926 elections. Srinivasa Iyengar was married to one of the many daughters of Sir V. Bhashyam Aiyangar, one of half-a-dozen famous Vembakkams and the first Indian to act as Advocate General of Madras. Mr. Sriram then listed other famous Vembakkam lawyers, V. C. Desikachari, V. C. Gopalratnam, etc. The life of one of the Vembakkams (though not a lawyer), V. Ramiengar, would make interesting reading in itself. Until recently, there used to be opposite to the Amjad Bagh the residence of C. V. Ananthasubramaniam, once Chief Justice of Cochin state. But the house has been demolished recently probably to make way for a series of flats. Today, C. V. Ananthasubramaniam is remembered for  framing that famous ordinance which banned the singing or publication of any song written by the nationalistic poet, Subrahmanya Bharathi. The prohibition of Bharathi's songs back then, I can imagine, must have produced a Streisand effect enhancing their popularity and prestige even more. 

Now coming back to Ambujammal, born into one of the most affluent families in the city, both Ambujammal and her husband Desikachari (who was from a humbler background) felt themselves surrounded by a gilded cage. Whilst the situation had a strong adverse effect on Desikachari's mental health, upon Ambujammal the impact was more mild and physical. And then came Gandhi on a visit. The visit that lasted barely a week changed Ambujammal forever. She renounced all the luxury and comfort and plunged into the freedom struggle spending time in jail on a few occasions. When Ambujammal returned after serving a particularly long prison term, Srinivasa Iyengar surprising welcomed her back into the household. Whatever be his attitude toiwards Gandhi and the Civil Disobedience movement, Srinivasa Iyengar was still an ardent nationalist - the discoverer of Kamaraj as well as "Pasumpon" U. Muthuramalinga Thevar. However, fate was not to be as good to Srinivasa Iyengar and his descendants as they had been to the nation.  Srinivasa Iyengar's grandson died in a lightning strike and his son Parthasarathy renouned family and pleasures and became a sanyasi taking the name Anbananda.

Next comes the epic tale of Durgabai Deshmukh, portions of which seem too improbable to be believed. Born in 1906 or 1907 in Cocanada (as Kakinada was known back then), Durgabai was married off at an early age. But she despaired of her married life and compelled her husband to marry again, even  finding a wife for him and conducting their marriage herself. Now these appear fine ingredients for a feature film (or one of those wierd soaps you come across on TV).  Freed of her family bonds, Durgabai started with social reform and gradually entered the freedom movement. Once when Gandhi insisted upon a  donation of Rs. 500 from each visitor who came to see him, Durgabai went on a collection spree  and accumulated a sum of Rs. 8,000 for all the inmates of the destitute women's ashram that she ran. Durgabai was later elected to the Madras legislature and remarried on the advice of Jawaharlal Nehru. Her husband this time was the eminent civil servant Sir C. D. Deshmukh, the third Governor and the first Indian Governor of the Reserve Bank of India.  In regard to appearance they were poles apart, Durgabai being considered far less attractive than her partner. But in temperament, they were extremely compatible and proved to be an ideal pair. Towards the end of her life, when Durgabai had lost her eyesight, she typically remarked that as long as Chintaman Deshmukh was there by her side she had nothing to fear. They would die within few years of the other, Durgabai predeceasing her partner.  Today, there are few relics of Durgabai in the city, one the street named after her and the other, the Andhra Mahila Sabha that she helped establish. And it was as a part of the history of the Andhra Mahila Sabha that Mr. Sriram narrated her story.

Also in our itinerary was Ekamra Nivas, the house of Sir Alladi Krishnaswami Iyer. Alladi, Mr. Sriram explained, was by far the longest serving Advocate General of Tamil Nadu. In his younger days, he was known to be a studyholic and he established a reputation for expertise in legal matters. Mr. Sriram compared Alladi with Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer while equating Alladi's predecessor T. R. Venkatarama Sastri to Ariyakudi Ramanuja Iyengar. While Ariyakudi was smooth and polished, Mr. Sriram remarked, Semmangudi was crude though far more knowledgable. 

Another famous Mylapore house was Shree Bagh owned by freedom fighter and Telugu language activist Kasinadhuri Nageswara Rao, the editor of Andhra Prabha who founded the herbal balm Amrutanjan. In this house was penned the Shree Bagh Agreement which for the first time proposed the establishment of a separate Andhra State with its borders clearly delineated. But before it came to Rao's hands, Shree Bagh was the property of P. R. Sundaram Iyer, another legal luminary. Sundaram Iyer and his contemporary V. Krishnaswami Iyer, Mr. Sriram remarked, were the Siamese twins in the legal profession. Both were born at about the same time, studied together, graduated at the same time and practised at the same time. Both would die young, probably due to overwork. Krishnaswami Iyer shared a love-hate relationship with the great Tamil nationalist poet Subrahmanya Bharathi. While he funded some of Bharathiar's early publications, towards the end, he became a imperialist icon  hated by militant nationalists and ironically, his protege Subrahmanya Bharathi. When Krishnaswami was appointed judge, Bharathi was openly critical of the appointment.

The last leg of our walk took us to Ranade Hall. Named after M. G. Ranade, the hall was founded in 1905 as a part of the South Indian National Association. In the 1950s, the Srinivasa Sastri Hall named after V. S. Srinivasa Sastri was constructed on the first floor of Ranade Hall. Sastri hall was the venue for many Carnatic concerts and according to Mr. Sriram, the hall had a profound influence on the history of Carnatic music. From the edge of North Mada Street, Mr. Sriram pointed out the house of Diwan Bahadur R. Raghunatha Rao that lay across the road. A cousin of Sir T. Madhava Rao and a former Diwan of Indore, Mr. Sriram said, Raghunatha Rao's house was the place were a prominent meeting of seventeen eminent people of South India, most of them members of the Madras Mahajana Sabha, were held in 1884 to discuss the need for a pan-Indian body. These were the seeds of ideas from which germinated the Indian National Congress, an year later. The house no longer exists and a highrise had been built at the spot - an indicator of how much regard we have for our heritage.

This is a brief synopsis of a 2 hour narrative. Words simply don't do justice - you should be a part of the walk to see places and hear things first hand. Thanks to Mr. Rajagopalan Venkataraman for providing hints - dots that made it easy for me to connect. And thanks to Mr. Sriram for enriching our knowledge. And it was a privilege to actually have members of Sir Madhava Rao's family and Krishnaswami Iyer's around.

 Srinivasa-Gandhi Nilayam


 Portrait of Ambujammal


 Inside the Srinivasa-Gandhi Nilayam


K. B. Sundarambal's house since demolished and replaced with modern buildings
 

 Plaque erected by Dr. Hidyathullah, the then Governor of Tamil Nadu, in 1980 during Sir C. P.'s centenary commemorating the tree underneath which the press of "New India" functioned during Annie Besant's incarceration.


Ranade Library (ground floor) and the Srinivasa Sastri Hall (first floor)

August 14, 2015: Talk on "Ceramics and Celts - Stone Age settlements in Chennai" by Dr. S. Suresh at the Roja Muthiah Research Library

Attended lecture on "Ceramics and Celts - Stone Age settlements in Chennai" by Dr. S. Suresh of the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI). Dr. Suresh started with the recent history of Chennai and journeyed back in time to the Stone ages. Dr. Suresh praised Chennai in the broadest terms as a metropolis of great antiquity and continuous habitation which had settlements of nearly every age.  The first breakthough, Dr. Suresh, explained was made on 23 May 1863 when the antiquarian Robert Bruce Foote discovered a handheld stone axe near Pallavaram. Suresh surprised us by revealing that the axe was found very close to the railway track.  The discovery was highly publicized and the artifacts made their way to the Government Museum at Egmore. This was the discovery which made Madras one of the oldest inhabited sites in India with its earliest habitations going back to about 500,000 BC even before the time of Neanderthals. Next important discovery came during the early 1920s when the ICS officer L. A. Cammiade (I wrote an article on him for Wikipedia a few days back. While Collector of Tirunelveli, he was also the discoverer of the Tamil Brahmi inscription at Marungaltalai in 1906, only the second of its kind to be discovered) along with a colleague Mr. King discovered artifacts in Chetpet along the Poonamallee High Road and a trial dig revealed ring wells confirming human habitation in ancient times. A detailed excavation revealed the presence of a Stone Age habitation along Poonamallee High Road. However, the artifacts discovered have been lost to posterity as most of them have probably been shipped to the United Kingdom where they were lost. (According to one theory, the artifacts were kept in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London but this is yet to be verified).  Another major event was the discovery of pottery and sarcophagus in the garden of an European resident Prudhomme in Halls Road, Kilpauk in 1932. This was followed by extensive excavations by T. G. Aravamudhan of the Madras Museum which lasted months. In the end, they found plenty of artifacts, among them being a sarcophagus and a idol of a figure rudely resembling the Hindu god Shiva. The settlement was dated to about 4000 BC. Since then, Dr. Suresh said, no excavations have been carried out in Madras city limits.  But sporadic discoveries have been made, often by accident, and the occasional treasure trove unearthed. Among them could be grouped the discovery of Roman coins at Mambalam and a Pallava coin in Thiruvanmiyur. But Dr. Suresh did not mention a word about the 1950s when there was a craze for palaeohistory brought by Sir Mortimer Wheeler and some of his proteges like V. D. Krishnaswami and K. V. Soundararajan unearthed a number of Stone Age sites in Tamil Nadu, manu of them being in the then Chingleput district (the present-day Tiruvallur and Kanchipuram districts).  

Once Dr. Suresh completed his lecture, there was a short speech by Mr. Sait, a businessman who spoke about his lineage and his grandfather Cassim Sait's extensive collection of invitations. An then, the exhibition "History through Invitations" was inaugurated by Prof. Francis Nye of the University of Chicago. Most of the invitations dated to the 1940s and were imporant personages of the period such as Lord Hope, Governor of Madras, Archibald Edward Nye, the last British governor of Madras, M. A. Jinnah, from Governors and Chief Ministers of Madras, one from Governor-General Rajaji and some for religious gatherings and parties. The name Sait does ring a bell (Ebrahim Sait!!!) And then there was one Abbas Khaleeli (were they of Iranian descent). I wrote a word of appreciation on the guestbook before leaving for home. Was quite useful and memorable.