The Tamil film industry has popularised the language immensely, but it is still primarily associated with Chennai's working class, particularly in the northern parts of the city.

Madras Bashai The history and evolution of the citys unique dialect
news Language Saturday, June 29, 2019 - 16:46

“Dei, bēimāni”

While these words are Tamil, they are instantly identifiable as belonging to a very specific part of the Tamil sphere - the city of Chennai, formerly Madras. Despite belonging to such a specific geographical area, this dialect has gone on to become famous throughout the Tamil speaking world through the considerable cultural sway of Kollywood, the Tamil film industry, headquartered in Chennai.

This specific dialect of Tamil is popularly referred to as Madras bashai, literally “Madras language” in Tamil. Unique to the city, its origins are tied to the history of the city’s diverse demographic landscape. It is primarily associated with Chennai’s working classes, particularly in north Chennai (where the name “Madras” is still common, despite the name change).

Film historian Mohan V Raman even draws comparisons between London’s Cockney dialect and Madras bashai.

Although film has been the primary lens through which the dialect is viewed, the fact remains that Madras bashai only developed as it did thanks to the social conditions present in colonial era Madras. Looking at its linguistic character closer can help us understand the dialect’s history better.

Linguistic communities in Madras

The history of Madras bashai’s origins is essentially a history of the diversity of Madras.

Colonial era Madras was a melting pot of ethnic communities, and by extension, languages. While Tamil has been the city’s dominant language for at least 150 years, Telugu and Dakhni Urdu have also had a major presence in the city, with over 30% of Madras’ population speaking either language at the dawn of the 20th century, as recorded in the 1901 Census. Madras was a little under 60% Tamil speaking according to the 1891 Census. The remainder was made up by linguistic minorities.

This should not be too surprising, as Chennai is located near the linguistic border between Tamil and Telugu. The Nawabs of Arcot were Urdu speaking, as was their court, and Dakhni speaking Muslims form a presence in northern Tamil Nadu, in contrast to coastal Tamil Nadu’s Tamil speaking Muslim communities. The large presence of both communities in early British Madras is recorded at length in Glyn Barlow’s ‘The Story Of Madras,’ published in 1921.

In addition, north Madras is also home to a large Hindi speaking Marwadi speaking community, adding yet another element to the mix.

Language politics post independence, particularly since the linguistic reorganisation of states in 1956 has solidified the city’s Tamil character, and migration from other parts of Tamil Nadu brought in more Tamil speaking populations to the city. Today, over 75% of Chennai is natively Tamil speaking.

However, the traditional presence of various linguistic communities in the city meant that Tamil speakers were historically in close contact with these other languages, as is only natural. Local Tamil speakers picked up words from these languages, adding them to their own. 

In fact, most of Madras Bashai’s distinctively Madras vocabulary comes from these external sources - Hindi-Urdu, Telugu, English.  All these influences were added to the existing Tamil dialect of the region to create what we now know and recognise as Madras bashai.

A key - yet overlooked - element of this mix was the influence of English, given that Madras was the capital of Madras Presidency and was home to Anglo Indians and British settlers. Surprisingly, English was the mother tongue of 3% of the city’s population in 1901. 

Although English has now penetrated Indian languages on a much more extensive scale today, it would still have been alien, “exotic” to the average Indian in those days. The Tamil speakers of Madras incorporated English words in their speech from what they heard around them back then, many of these terms modified in both form and meaning to represent new contexts.

Examples of Madras Bashai

Duḍḍu (“money”) and nainā (“father”) are two common Madras bashai words that are taken from Telugu. Galīju (“dirty”), bējār (“problem, annoyance”), bemaani (“idiot”) are all Urdu words, originally from Persian. Words like OC (“free”, from a British era abbreviation meaning “on company expense”) come from English. All these words show some modification of the original meaning. 

The most notable example of this is in what is one of the most fascinating words in the dialect - gānā, from Hindi gānā. 

While gānā in Hindi is the generic word for song - any song - in Madras bashai it takes upon a more specific meaning. Gānā pāṭṭu (usually spelled “gaana”) refers to a particular genre of urban folk music native to north Madras, with lyrics generally in Madras bashai. An example of something similar would be “salsa” in English, originally from Spanish. While in English it refers to a specific type of spicy, vegetable based condiment, in Spanish it is merely a generic word for “sauce”.

Like the dialect itself, gaana has been widely spread through the medium of film, winning itself many admirers across the Tamil sphere.

A very interesting feature of the dialect is the frequent usage of ‘y’ instead of the ‘zh’ sound of Standard Tamil. While in most spoken Tamil dialects, ‘zh’ has become a retroflex (“hard”) l sound, the Tamil dialects of northern Tamil Nadu prefer replacing it with ‘y,’ something even the pioneering Dravidian linguist Robert Caldwell noted in his seminal work, ‘A Comparative Grammar of the Dravidian or South Indian Family of Languages,’ published in 1856.

A good example of this can be seen in this famous song from the movie Panama Pasama (1968), where Standard Tamil pazham (“fruit”) becomes payam.

Madras Bashai in popular culture

Given how distinctive the dialect is, and how important it is in everyday life in Chennai, it’s unsurprising that Madras bashai increasingly made its way into popular culture, in its various forms and expressions.

Madras bashai has become a mainstay of Tamil cinema, particularly in films set in north Madras, including the recent Vada Chennai (lit. “North Chennai”). Shortly around the time of the film’s release, its music director Santosh Narayanan tweeted, asking fans to share their favorite north Madras slang words.

Film historians credit yesteryear actor Chandrababu for being the first one to prominently use and popularise the dialect in movies, way back in the 1950s. In the theater circuit, the playwright and writer Cho Ramaswamy is generally credited with being the first to use the dialect in plays. Its usage has continued in movies since then, up till modern times.

Modern Kollywood movies have used the dialect to great effect, especially in movies set in the north Madras region, including Vada Chennai, Maari, Vedalam, and more. Gaana songs, with their lyrics in Madras bashai, have become increasingly popular in Kollywood, giving the dialect even more presence through the genre. Lyricists familiar with the dialect write these songs, to give them an authentic local flavor.

However, at the same time, is also the question of this usage of Madras bashai leading to stereotypes of both the dialect itself and the people who speak it, something director Pa Ranjith acknowledged and tried to overcome in his movie, Madras.

What’s interesting here is how songs and movies have allowed a much greater degree of creative expression to take place in this dialect, and in the process bringing it to a much larger audience across the Tamil speaking world than merely its own speaker base in Chennai itself.

Low prestige and academic neglect

Unfortunately, many descriptions of Madras bashai one finds refer to it as a corrupt form of Tamil, or something along those lines. This perception is obviously linked to the low prestige that the dialect carries, most likely reinforced by its close association with Chennai’s working classes. Such statements cannot be read without acknowledging the inherent classism within them and should be taken with a pinch of salt - the dialect is as legitimate as any other dialect of Tamil. 

It could also be linked to the traditional aversion to borrowing from other languages in Tamil, a byproduct of the very strong undercurrents of linguistic purism that exist in Tamil literary culture. Madras bashai is indebted to a tradition borrowing and of language contact with at least three other languages, a tradition that can be difficult to reconcile with this otherwise overwhelming literary preference for purism.

Given this, it is also no surprise that next to no academic work has been done on Madras bashai in English. Spoken dialects of Tamil have received considerably less attention than Standard Tamil and Classical Tamil in general, and this neglect can easily be viewed as part of that larger trend. Most writings on Madras bashai use, as mentioned earlier, the lens of film, but as we’ve seen, the dialect can tell us a whole lot more about Chennai than just its film industry.

Madras bashai may not be used for literary purposes, but given how intimately its emergence and growth are tied to the history of the city of its birth, it deserves further study from a social perspective. Despite its low prestige and its ties to a specific geographical context, the Tamil film industry has managed to make Tamil speakers across various dialects familiar with Madras bashai, and indeed delight in it.

Karthik Malli is a Bengaluru-based communications professional with a keen interest in language, history, and travel. He tweets at @SandalBurn, and posts on Indian languages at @TianChengWen.

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