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Vol. XXXI No.7, July 16-31, 2021

Chennai through the lens of my life – I

by Sitalakshmi K.R.


The United India Insurance building.

‘Before the British, there was no Madras’, said S. Muthiah, the prolific historian of Chennai. However, 18th and 19th Century Chennai has been explained by researcher Susan Nield as ‘an amalgam’ of colonial urban and suburban areas, Indian town centres such as Mylapore and suburban villages of agrarian Tondaimandalam. While it is indeed interesting to delve into how the city came to be, for Chennai’s denizens, its rich layers and diversity offer rewarding experiences on their own accord. Each individual life is intertwined with the city’s multiple geographies and histories. From these subjective trajectories, coalescing into collective phenomena, is generated the objective truth of the city. An inanimate entity having an animate presence, lent limit, character, particularity and patterns through the most visible presence of all, its architecture and urbanism.

This rich backdrop, this canvas, not a tabula rasa, but a palimpsest, is actually both setting and player, as the streets and buildings have played an active part in its inhabitants’ lives. For me, personal experiences of the city serendipitously came together when its architecture chose itself to become the topic of my fascination and research. And I could, over and above all the academic ways of knowing and concluding, tie backwards from the present towards the past, engaging the vivid, eidetic memories from childhood, of what it meant to be a Chennaite.

My earliest memory of places is of East Tambaram when I came to live in Chennai as a two year old. My house as one of three narrow units in a row, the raindrops clinging to the horizontal iron grill of the wood framed entrance door refracting the world outside, the bifurcated staircase in school that offered surprise and excitement- such experiences were the beginnings of my poetics of space, as Gaston Bachelard articulates. East Tambaram houses the Airforce Station and the Madras Christian College, and it was to study the architecture of the latter that I revisited the area. The MCC had much earlier origins, but in the 1930s it shifted to this leafy new campus, its buildings a quiet amalgam of the Classical, the Colonial and the Modern. Education is one of realms in which Madras has excelled right from the beginning and with strong physical presence. Also in Tambaram is another campus that I came to know only through my research, the 1980s SOS Children’s Village. This is a sensitively designed group of buildings with unique spaces and simple materials by various architects, a direction that falls under the category of being modern and contextual at the same time.

Tambaram had begun as an ancient village, as had Mambalam to whose vicinity T.Nagar I shifted to from my fourth standard. T.Nagar came up in the 1930s as one of the earliest modernist layouts with plotted housing and amenities. It is based on Beaux Arts town planning principles, but of course, I did not know it then. All I knew was the pleasant daily walk to and fro from home to school along one of its axes, the tree-lined Venkatnarayana Road, under the shade of the ‘thoonga moonji maram’ as we used to call it, the raintree/ Samanea Saman from far off lands. This road has the Natesan Park with a playground opposite forming a curved layout and the same arrangement is mirrored in the Jeeva Park with a playground opposite on G.N. Chetty Road. These roads flank the main axis, the Theayagaraja Road, better known as Pondy Bazaar, terminating in Panagal Park. The electrification of the railway line from Tambaram to Mambalam and the subsequent use of the line by residents from Tambaram to shop in Pondy Bazaar gradually transformed Ranganathan Street from residential to shopping. The continuous row of two storeyed shops on Pondy Bazaar, its vegetable, fruit and flower market, the houses with stepped Art Deco motif, concrete jalis, planning based on the colonial bungalow but to a smaller scale- all these are past images overlapping finely and imperceptibly with present knowledge.

Shopping at city scale led one to the core of Chennai- George Town, or Parry’s corner as it is more popularly known, where for centuries commerce and living have mixed without conflict and with vibrancy. I remember a visit there one Diwali eve to buy crackers at throwaway prices in the last hours before the festival. My mind’s eye still has a snapshot memory of a solid, stately and aesthetically pleasing building that I have now come to know as the Art Deco-Modernist United India Insurance building. Studying architecture took us to Anderson Street, to select and buy from a variety of boards and papers at wholesale rate. I slowly came to know that every street had its designated trade, spectacles on Broadway, architectural hardware on Govindappa Street. Diverse such buildings and streets in grid iron George Town give it its unique character – the architecture looming solidly in the background while the streets give permeability, hosting the lives, within and without, of people from different origins drawn towards the myriad economic opportunities. The stately Classical, the complex Indo-Saracenic, the stylish Art Deco- all these manifest the continuing and transforming patterns of justice, governance, trade and commerce, education. Tying all this, in a literally overarching way, is the low tropical sky with its intense sunlight that raises the heat and saturates the shadows.

As a Chennaite, or despite it, I love the heat and sun. For the colonisers, it was a challenge and they built deep verandahs and arcades. They also brought the Classical as nostalgia from their home countries into the external layer, which was then taken up by the colonised as a form of ambiguous social and cultural modernity. In the stately buildings for governance, the Classical brought stability and authority, even well into early 20th century. The pristine white Ripon building is one such, and popular lore goes that Lord Ripon after whom it is named was lauded as ‘Ripon Engal Appan’. The Indo-Saracenic evolved differently, rising from the need to ‘know India in order to rule India’ after Crown rule in 1857. Addressing public needs of justice, banking, transport and education, it was manifest as exposed brick, domes, arches, grand interior spaces, decorative motifs by local craftsmen. Today, some view colonial buildings as symbolising oppression, while to others who use them without knowing the subtext, they underscore the pulse of historic city life. Never mind that the clock tower may have evolved to remind the locals about time, Chennai Central and its vast concourse spanned by beautiful iron and steel structures never fail to welcome back the weary traveller!

A different kind of cultural modernity was unambiguously offered from the 1930s in the trendy, lavish, aesthetic and materially rich Art Deco. Cuboidal white geometrical masses sometimes in steps, multi-storeys, concrete, cantilever, recessed openings, flamboyant motifs like chevron and sunburst, curved corners especially at street junctions, circular windows, wave forms, repetitive vertical openings, nautical themes – all these were expressed in the gorgeous cinemas, hotels, houses, bank and insurance buildings. One such cinema is the Casino which we college goers used to haunt once for its latest English movies and ambience. Casino is off Mount Road, the spine of the city, which had modernist cinema halls and which brought the larger-than-life world of stars closer to the common man/woman through distinct banner art.

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 structure. 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 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.

(To be continued next fortnight)

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  1. Rajan Padiachi South Africa says:

    Thanks , such beautiful great memories

  2. Viswanath says:

    Love the way you narrate! Helped me visualise Chennai all over again!!

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