As Chennai recovers, an ode to the spirit of Madras, in poetry, song and cinema

Over the decades, various artistes in their own way have immortalized Madras.
As Chennai recovers, an ode to the spirit of Madras, in poetry, song and cinema
As Chennai recovers, an ode to the spirit of Madras, in poetry, song and cinema
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For many of us, who love reeling in nostalgia for no apparent reason, we still call the city Madras and call the capital of Maharashtra as Bombay. We have no reasons to justify so. We love Madras and many things about the place. The warmth of the people, the ancient culture, the beauty of early morning Kolams decorating every household, the golden voice of M S Subbulakshmi’s Suprabhatam that rings in the air before sunrise, the fragrance of jasmine flowers, the aroma of south Indian filter coffee and this list is endless. It sounds like a collection of clichés about the city, but none of these can be ignored. Try finding another metropolis in India with the same characteristics and you will know.

Over the decades, various artistes in their own way have immortalized Madras. Some have written flattering poems and few others not so. The famous writer Rudyard Kipling wrote:

Clive kissed me on the mouth and eyes and brow,

Wonderful kisses, so that I became

Crowned above Queens--a withered beldame now,

Brooding on ancient fame.

In 1942, rumours went around that the Japanese would invade Madras. Evacuation orders were given and people of the city had to flee. The same year, AV Meyappan produced the film  ‘En Manaivi’. The comedy film was a hit, but what was more attractive were the songs. In one particular song sequence, the famous ‘Lux Soap Beauty’, R Padma dances to lyrics describing the wonders of new technology in Madras of 1942. In the song she refers to a magic pole. Singing “Sayangalanerathiley samudrakarai orathiley maayamana kambam onnu manushan pola paduthaiah!”(In the evening, near the sea shore, a mysterious pole sings like a man!). Today one wonders what this was about. But in the 1940’s, near the Madras High Court Beach that disappeared during the 1950s due to the expansion of the Madras Port, near the waters, was a metal pole with loudspeakers atop blaring radio programmes during the evening hours. Naïve, rustic folks wondered where the music was coming from! This charming song also has several other references to old Madras.

This way several other film songs and directors have shown the city in their works. In poetry, especially in Tamil and English language, one finds several wonderful poems about the city. Vijay Nambisan, the famous poet wrote ‘Madras Central’, now considered a modern classic. The poem went to win many awards including the best poem at the national poetry competition in 1988.

“The black train pulls in at the platform,

Hissing into silence like hot steel in water.

Tell the porters not to be so precipitate-

It is good, after a desperate journey,

To rest a moment with your perils upon you.

The long rails recline into a distance

Where tomorrow will come before I know it.

I cannot be in two places at once:

That is axiomatic. Come, we will go and drink

A filthy cup of tea in a filthy restaurant.


It is difficult to relax. But my head spins

Slower and slower as the journey recedes.

I do not think I shall smoke a cigarette now.

Time enough for that. Let me make sure first

For the hundredth time, that everything’s complete.


My wallet’s in my pocket; the white nylon bag

With the papers safe in its lining-fine;

The book and my notes are in the outside pocket;

The brown case is here with all its straps secure.

I have everything I began the journey with,


And also a memory of my setting out

When I was confused, so confused. Terrifying

To think we have such power to alter our states,

Order comings and goings: know where we’re not wanted

And carry our unwantedness somewhere else.”

Dancer and poet Chandralekha and Carnatic Composer Papanasam Sivan

How can one not mention Carnatic music and Madras together? If you took Hindustani classical music, you cannot say with the same kind of confidence that it belongs to Delhi, Bombay or Calcutta. But Madras takes great ownership on Carnatic music. Scores of Sabhas have propagated Carnatic classical music for decades now. The city was and has been a home to many legends from the Carnatic music world. Papanasam Sivan who composed many songs, also wrote about the city’s favourite god, Lord Shiva worshipped as Kapaleeshwara in Mylapore, in his songs. Listen to the legendary Madurai Mani Iyer Sivan’s composition in honour of Kapaleeshwara.

In another composition dedicated to the same Kapaleeshwara of Mylapore ‘Nambi Kettavar Evvarayya’, Sivan asks ‘Who has gone bad after believing you’. Listen to it sung by Nityashree Mahadevan :

The city has been the heartland of Carnatic classical music and dance, particularly Bharatanatyam. Several dancers from outside made Madras their home. Chandralekha, who learnt and performed Bharatanatyam for the earlier part of her life, became a pioneering contemporary dancer later. She settled down in Madras till her demise. The monsoons in Madras were never this fierce as we are seeing them now. Chandralekha writes about it in her book ‘Rainbows On The Roadside – Montages Of Madras’. Describing a rain and the domestic life in Madras, here is an excerpt:

“The rains came

and the first smell of earth,

harmony of all things fragrant

city soil,

hot and thirsty

stirred and heaved.

On the roads everywhere

puddles filled with sky.

And out came children



fiercely ecstatic

they leapt in the air

black and bare

their skinny bodies wildly elemental

in the muddy puddles

but men

they looked at the sky and sighed

no sun, meant no work.

And women kept watch

at the roof, at the floor

as the drops fell fast.

They set tins and pans

and pots and buckets

all over the floor

to contain the leaking sky,

the leaking roof

but water seeped from under, usurping all.

All clothes were drenched

walls went damp

huddled they sat

and shivered

the firewood was wet

it wouldn’t burn

the lungs were tired

breath grew short

from blowing

in the pouring rain.”

Poets Vijay Nambisan, Arundhati Subramaniam and Abdul Hameed aka Manushya Puthiran

S Abdul Hameed, who writes poems under the pen name ‘Manushya Puthiran’ in his poem ‘Tamil Life’ speaks of yet another facet of the city. How life isn’t so complicated here.

“The doorbells

don’t work

but no one goes away.

These one-and-a-half years

with no latch on the bathroom door

have endangered

no one’s privacy.

The broken leg of this chair

will not insult a guest,

only slightly imbalance him.

I have been travelling

in this god-protected city

in a vehicle without brakes

for a week.

That pain

at the base of the stomach,

somewhere to the left,

comes often these days.

If I sleep at a particular angle for a while

I can manage.

There is a lot

to be set right


Even so,


is Tamil life.”

Last but not the least, contemporary poet Arundhati Subramaniam writes an ode to the city in her wonderful poem titled ‘Madras’.

“I was neither born nor bred here.

But I know this city

ofcasuarina and tart mango slices,

gritty with salt and chilli

and the truant sands of the Marina,

the powdered grey jowls of film heroes,


my mother’s sari, hectic with moonlight,

still crackling with the voltage

of an MD Ramanathan concert,


the flickering spice route of tamarind and onion

from Mylapore homes on summer evenings,

the vast opera of the Bay of Bengal,

flambéed with sun,

and a language as intimate as the taste

of sarsaparilla pickle, the recipe lost,

the sour cadences as comforting

as home.

It’s no use.

Cities ratify

their connections with you

when you’re looking the other way,


annexing you

through summer holidays,

through osmotic memories

of your father’s glib

lie to a kindergarten teacher

(‘My mother is the fair one’),


and the taste of coffee one day in Lucca

suddenly awakening an old prescription –

Peabury, Plantation A

and fifty grams of chicory

from the fragrant shop near the Kapaleeshwara temple.


City that creeps up on me

just when I’m about to affirm

world citizenship.”

The city has been an inspiration to so many artistes through the decades. Even as Madras or now Chennai is struggling back to life from the worst natural disaster it has seen in a century, those of us who love the city stand by her. Even in the face of such a disaster, the people of the city have shown great courage. Support has poured in from all corners. Temples, mosques and churches have opened doors for everyone to provide food and shelter, showing how the rich secular fabric of the city stood strong in times of crisis.

Soon the world famous Margazhi season will begin. We know Madras will spring back to life. Songs of the Tamil poet saint Andal will ring in an air of auspiciousness and the Sabhas of the city will echo with Carnatic music. In this hour of grief, we stand by Madras. We remember her history, legacy and contribution to enriching our lives and times.

(Veejay Sai is an award-winning writer, editor and a culture critic. He writes extensively on Indian performing arts, cultural history, food and philosophy. He lives in New Delhi and can be reached at

Images courtesy : Krishnamurthy, Raghunathan, D. Ananth

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