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Vol. XXXI No. 8, August 1-15, 2021

Chennai through the lens of my life – II

by Sitalakshmi K.R.

(Continued from last fortnight)

Mount Road had more to offer too, in its continuous experience of shops, curiosities, crafts and books. I have spent many an hour there, browsing books on the pavements in the interstices of the loftier buildings. As a kind of High Street/ Main Street, Mount Road has continually nourished urban cultural and recreational life as evident from the plethora of buildings from different periods — the old Spencer’s, Agurchand Mansion, Higginbothams, Safire Theatre. But all these were not my first experiences of Mount Road.

They were its multi-storeyed modernist architecture which I registered in the EVR Periyar State Housing Board, Defence Quarters and SIET buildings. All of these are around the CIT Nagar, Nandanam area where I moved to from my eighth standard. The logo formed by the letters CIT on buildings is imprinted in memory much before I knew what it stood for, the City Improvement Trust. CIT was established around the time of Indian Independence to develop and improve many aspects of urbanism in Chennai. CIT Nagar Nandanam had a model house road with samples of every type of housing, including the beginnings of modern multi-living, later to evolve into the apartment type. Later, housing came under the purview of the State Housing Board and the offices for these formed the reason for building the new structures. Modernist multi-storeyed buildings of the 1960s in Chennai responded to climate in different ways from colonial buildings. Ventilation was maximised through the slab type and fins shielded from the sun. However influence from universal ideas caused inconsistency, especially with respect to orientation. Some of the early buildings were of the International Style, exemplified in the most iconic modernist building in Chennai, the LIC. I visited LIC first to buy architecture stationery from Perumal Chetty, a shop in its ground floor which was a veritable feast before the age of liberalisation! This shop and others along it are shaded by a long cantilevered slab. However above this, the LIC soars as a sleek, slim, sheer, unshaded glass and concrete mass.

Modern architecture began to pervade in all building types from the 1960s and even took whimsical, sculptural turns with folds and angles. Interesting new forms were showcased through the temporary pavilions for the World Fair at Anna Nagar in 1968. These are well documented in the Tamil movies of the time, even meriting their own song! The many slum improvement and clearance projects too born out of a political-social narrative were found deserving of footage, epitomising progressive change. Movies are as much art as they are history of places. Maniratnam in particular has captured the spirit of urbanity of 1980s Chennai- the culturally rich Egmore area with its museum, theatre and library, the street-like shopping in Fountain Plaza with its vehicular ramp. Fountain Plaza was an early transition from bazaar to shopping cum office complex and there were other such forays in the Nungambakkam High Road area too. Personally for me, as a school goer, this upscale neighbourhood had offered a contrast in lifestyle. Later, I abstracted these buildings as ubiquitous and generic commercial complexes that began to dot the urbanscape from the 1980s.

A few of the other areas that I was familiar with were Luz, Nageshwara Rao Park near which a relative stayed, Santhome Cathedral area where there is a school I had been assigned to write my tenth standard board exams in, and like everybody else, the Marina Beach. The historicity of the pre-colonial cores of Mylapore and Triplicane though became known to me only through my architectural education. As I studied them, I felt that such concentrated cultural nuclei with timeless patterns offer an oasis, a locus in the transient world of global nomadic life. At the level of the neighbourhood, old row houses get new uses, continue to have inhabitants, mostly the elderly, or are kept locked until sold/ rebuilt/ demolished. Yet, at regional scale, these cores continue to serve as anchors to a vast populace in search of particularity and meaning. The vitality manifest in the religious, cultural and related commercial daily activities as well as in the seasonal festivals, the visual presence of the gopurams, vimanas and tanks of the temples, the domes and sounds of prayer of the mosques, all these bless the street life with a sense of belonging somewhere, somehow. The diverse approaches to the divine express secularism here truly as presences rather than absences. However, contemporary discourse of inequity has also made us wonder today about the relativity and selectivity of meaning inherent in such historic places. Further, ways of life have changed almost irrevocably at the scale of human civilisation. And all these have led us on to once again to look for new ways of rooting.

In this complex and multi layered landscape, polarised too in some ways, interesting juxtapositions have occurred naturally or are being created consciously. The new inputs include special economic zones, information technology boom, educational and medical tourism, travel as new leisure, cosmopolitan cuisine and cultural cauldrons, substantial migrant population, continuing slums and continuing improvements to them, gated communities in the suburbs. The last is where I reside now, having shifted further south from Velachery, my previous place of stay. I have come to discover that a gated community, despite the bad press for it including from me towards its negative urbanism, is still a way through which humans try to coexist. While it is a theoretically debatable and excluding solution, in the absence of fundamental redirections, such mechanisms continue to spring. Shopping malls today have become indoor and outdoor event spaces and markets replacing traditional nuclei. Glass box office buildings are mediated by roadside tea kadais which have now rebooted to become trendier with new funky nomenclature. The individual pulses of life still exist hand in hand with the aggregated world that we are entering into as the next phase of human evolution.

And in this continued yet transforming spirit, the simultaneous presence of the individual and the collective, the unplanned and the planned, the historic and the contemporary, the informal and the formal, the symbolic and the generic, lies the success story of Chennai and its inhabitants. A cliché maybe, but none the less, true. A truth reinforced and reiterated every day by the citizens of Madras that is Chennai. Because while there may be problems, there is still hope. The story has not ended, the narratives continue, including my own. I am excited to see what the future holds for this endearing and resilient city.


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