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
hot and thirsty
stirred and heaved.
On the roads everywhere
puddles filled with sky.
And out came children
they leapt in the air
black and bare
their skinny bodies wildly elemental
in the muddy puddles
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
the firewood was wet
it wouldn’t burn
the lungs were tired
breath grew short
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.
but no one goes away.
These one-and-a-half years
with no latch on the bathroom door
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.
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
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
It’s no use.
their connections with you
when you’re looking the other way,
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
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 firstname.lastname@example.org)
Images courtesy : Krishnamurthy, Raghunathan, D. Ananth