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Vol. XXXIII No. 10, September 1-15, 2023

Madras Week lectures, in a nutshell

-- by Lashman Premi, Sujata Tarakesan and Varsha V

The Madras Week lectures organised by Madras Musings saw many stories emerge from the community. From sports and photography to literature, cinema and business, this year’s Madras Week talks had it all and was attended by crowds that were both lively and appreciative. We thank those who joined us for the events and are providing below a brief snapshot of each for readers who were missed.

This year’s lecture series began with much laughter and joy at The Park, Anna Salai. Jayaraman Raghunathan delivered a talk titled Glimpses of Devan’s Madras, wonderfully describing the city of days gone by as seen in the comics and published works of writer Devan. Devan, formally known as Tiruvidaimarudur R. Mahadevan, was the Editor of Ananda Vikatan in his time. His books, Jayaraman revealed, were published posthumously through great effort on the part of writer Charukesi, and featured characters that were delightful in their relatability – even the villains, as Jayaraman put it, are ‘happy fellows’ whose failings fell in the direction of greed rather than true malice. The talk brought forth a few nuggets of history, too, such as the British indignance that followed Devan’s comic about the 1943 Madras Harbour Bombing during World War II – Ananda Vikatan reportedly ended up inviting a Rs. 500 fine from a piqued administration. In all, it was a rather jolly evening.

The second lecture took place at Amethyst Café, where Arun Vasu of Surf Turf shared the inspiring story of how the sport sparked change in the small village community at Kovalam. Fresh from the glow of hosting a series of international surfing events, Arun – incidentally the current President of the Surfing Federation of India – had started Surf Turf with the aim of providing an alternative livelihood for fishermen. The initiative began with a handful of people – Murthy, Appu and Palani, to name a few – and a small place was rented out in the village with 10 boards. The public response was amazing, and the team invested in their own place a few years later. Arun revealed that all Surf Turf proceeds go back to the village as a CSR initiative. The team also helps keep the beach clean and sponsors the education of a few children in the village. They have also executed sewage projects for a few streets and run regular lifesaving programs for the fishing community. Arun left the audience excited about the city’s future on the surfing map.

The third lecture was Dr. Chithra Madhavan’s talk, Pictures from the Past as seen through the lens of M.K. Rangaswami Iyengar. Held at Chamiers Café, Dr. Chithra provided a veritable feast for the eyes, for the talk was based on her new coffee table book, Snapshots from a Bygone Era: A Century of Images. MKR had captured stunning photographs at a time when the technology was quite limited – there was scant variety in cameras and lenses as well as films and chemicals. The art of photography was not as accessible to the layman as it is today. He got his first camera (glass plate) through happenstance. MKR had been working as a tutor to the scions of a Zamindari family when a British photographer was engaged to click a family portrait; on his return to England, the photographer sold his camera to him, along with helpful instructions on its usage. Thus began MKR’s passion for photography. He went on to travel across South India to fuel his passion, capturing remarkable photographs that preserved the essence of the moment.

The fourth lecture at Savera Hotel saw Raju Easwaran presenting a talk in collaboration with Cinema Rendezvous, titled Bringing Kodak to Madras. Sharing the stage was Shylaja Chetlur, an actor, filmmaker and entrepreneur, who introduced the speaker introduction. Raju Easwaran, the son of ‘Kodak’ Easwaran, has donned multiple hats including those of a cinematographer and producer. He enthralled the audience as he told the story of ‘the film reel’ in Tamil cinema, that began with black and white film before moving onto hand-coloured films, Gevacolour and Technicolour. He also spoke of the applications of three basic filters – red, blue and green – as well as Orwo films and the momentous entry of Eastman Kodak colour. He highlighted challenges faced by yesteryear film makers, such as the handling of heavy camera equipment and their complex maintenance, and how Kodak’s entry changed the entire filming scene. Raju kept the audience engaged and the session ended with an animated Q&A session.

The fifth lecture was a talk from Sriram V. at The Residency Towers titled Put Me Among the Pincodes. With a large number of enthusiasts turning up for the session, there was only standing room left in a densely packed hall. In his talk, Sriram spoke of his experiences while studying the city’s pincodes and their history. “This has been a happy journey on localities,” he said. The city’s first post office, Sriram revealed, was at Fort St. George, and the post was brought to city shores from ships. The captains would sometimes forget to offload the mail, subjecting correspondences to an unexpected round trip before finally reaching their destinations. Sriram also spoke of the significance of the Madras Chamber of Commerce and Industry and the Madras Trade Association – two powerful bodies of the time – and how the Madras Harbour came to be. The concept of PINcodes (Postal Identification Numbers) in India came about as late as 1972 and were created based on the Zone, Subzone, Sorting District and Post Office. PINs were allotted as the city expanded, and since the growth was rather haphazard, the numbering of pincodes were not always logical – Teynampet, for instance, was allotted 18 while Tiruvottiyur and Adyar were allotted 19 and 20 respectively. “I was dreaming pincodes in my sleep,” remarked Sriram at one point, and the audience believed him.

The sixth lecture was focused on cinema. At the GRT, T. Nagar, Mohan V. Raman was in conversation with Smt Devasena Sridhar, Kum. Sachchu and Chitralaya Gopu on the topic Kathalikka Neramillai – 60 years later. Mohan delved into his earliest memory of arguably everyone’s favourite Tamil film. He had first watched it in the theatre as a young boy. “Director Sridhar had a penchant for the Marina Beach,” he said, and went on to present some memorable scenes from the director’s films featuring the landmark. This included Kaathalikka Neramillai of course. Mohan Raman’s witty recount of anecdotes related to the film kept the audience in high spirits. The panel discussion that followed included inputs from Mrs. Devasena Sridhar (wife of the late Director Mr. C.V. Sridhar), Mr. Chitralaya Gopu (Co-writer of the film), as well as the actresses Kumari Sachchu and Ms. Raajshree. Quipping that her busy director husband embodied the film’s title (No time for love), Mrs. Devasena spoke of the high esteem in which he was held in the cine industry. Ms. Raajshree recalled her heart-warming experiences from working on the film. Mr. Gopu – now a nonagenarian – displayed his trademark sharp wit while telling the story of how the film came to be and his personal experiences in writing it. Gopu spoke of the rapport he shared with Director Sridhar and entertained all present with anecdotes that revealed the depth their friendship. He rendered the audience awestruck and received a standing ovation. Kum. Sachchu shared her experiences of working with the cast and crew of the movie in her ever-youthful, charming manner and the listeners were once again regaled by her stories. To celebrate Madras is to celebrate everything about this city, and cinema forms an integral and favourite part of it. Fitting then, that the 60th anniversary of Kaathalikka Neramillai found a place in the Madras Week celebrations.

The final lecture in the series was held at the lovely Hanu Reddy Residences in Poes Garden, where former TCS CFO S. Mahalingam delivered an insightful talk on the digital transformation of Chennai. Maha, as he is popularly known, is a chartered accountant by qualification. His career at TCS is a singularly remarkable one, feted by the industry even today. Credited with several firsts in his career, the Economic Times describes him as ‘the man who crafted a slice of software history.’ Mr. Mahalingam spoke of a Chennai in the 1980s which had just a smattering of software companies such as Shaw Wallace, K.V. Thomas, Cholamandalam Software and Pentafour. It was Bangalore, he said, that emerged as India’s first IT hub. It was Mr. F.C. Kohli, Co-founder and first CFO of TCS, who first eyed Chennai as a city to develop a software business in – this, Mr. Mahalingam confesses, was not an immediately popular idea but Mr. Kohli achieved his desire through trademark persuasiveness. And so it came to be that after Mumbai and Delhi, TCS set up offices in Chennai. The operations soon grew so big that the company found themselves needing a much bigger space.

The team considered Sholinganallur as a potential site for a new office in the late 80s and early 90s, at a time when the area was mostly agricultural land and deemed ‘too far’ from the heart of the city. My Mahalingam then took the audience through the city’s journey in digitalisation and underlined the advantage of having political leaders who were able to envisage the city’s future in tech. He also touched upon the formative story of Tidel Park, pointing out that it was executed in record time. Equipped with state-of-the-art infrastructure, it attracted many software giants and paved the way for the great IT corridor that we know today.

The prosperity of the entire state was lifted by a great extent thanks to the growth of the IT industry, he said. Mr. Mahalingam also spoke of the importance of educational institutions to the growth of the IT industry. While Bengaluru continues to glitter perhaps more brightly as the country’s IT hub, Chennai holds its own in Tamil Nadu and has achieved traction in IT growth, he said. Going forward, Mr. Mahalingam added that electronics would play an important role in Healthcare and Agriculture, with virtual supply chains playing a larger role. He emphasised in his sign-off that infrastructure and broadband connectivity would have to be improved for digital transformation to be meaningful.

In all, the lectures were each vividly entertaining and richly insightful. We thank our speakers for their participation and trust that audiences enjoyed the evenings. We hope to see you all again next year.

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  1. Srinivas Chari says:

    Thanks a tonne MM…Bird’s view of Madras Week celebrations. Too good. Needs to be shared. God bless

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