In tune with the times

This is perhaps a far cry from the status quo that existed on August 22, 1639, when the East India Company chose an area near a fishing hamlet on the Coromandel coast — Madrasapatnam — to build Fort St George. Settlements sprung around it soon after. The older (local) settlements nearby, such as the deeply devout Mylapore and Triplicane areas soon got linked up with the settlement around the fort, and the humble and down-to-earth city of Madras was born.

Today, however, Madras, renamed Chennai, is a city that has discovered its soul and fallen in love with itself. So much so that, it has an entire week devoted to its celebration of itself. Madras Day was initially an initiative of three people — historian S Muthiah, journalist Sashi Nair and publisher Vincent D' Souza. But now, come Madras week (beginning August 22), just about everybody joins in the fun and celebrations — from schools and corporate houses to art galleries, news houses and hospitals. Everything about the city is celebrated through a plethora of activities — heritage walks, school exchange programmes, talks and contests, poetry and music, quiz and lectures, food fests and rallies, photo exhibitions and bike tours, etc. “Chennai deserves it,” smiles Vincent D’ Souza.

The old and the new

It started innocuously enough — this city’s understanding and appreciation of its special charms. It began with the December or Maarghazhi Music Festival that sent out a traditional lure to Carnatic music enthusiasts around the world, who made it a point to visit the city every December, soak in the ragas and revel in the home atmosphere. “Ten years back, the crowd at sabhas consisted of veshti and pattu podavai clad thatha-paati types. Now, the crowd includes not just the much stereotyped foreign rasika (fan), but also jean clad local youngsters,” points out top carnatic musician Sikkil Gurucharan, whose concerts are a sellout during the season. Chennai is one city that has not lost its soul to the onslaught of globalisation. It is not that minis are banned in the city. It is just that the city continues to favour its traditional attire, so that in this city, minis coexist gaily with nine-yard madisar saris.

Down the years, the Maarghazhi Music Festival expanded to include a rainbow of art forms and performances staged at hundreds of sabhas or art centres around the city. The kutcheris now come entwined with culinary attractions at the venue, so as to make for a feast for the ears and the tummy too. The Chennai Open Tennis Tournament, India’s solo ATP tournament, entered the picture in the 90’s. Now, the city goes crazy over tennis in the first week of January every year, with the likes of Somdev Devvarman, Leander Paes, Robin Soderling, Rafael Nadal and now, Thomas Berdych, gracing the Nungambakkam tennis courts. “The Chennai atmosphere is unmatched,” last year’s Chennai Open winner Marin Cilich had remarked to the delight of the crowd.

Following this tennis mania, just when you realise that you had been intoxicating yourself on sports and culture all month long and decide that you need to devote more time to work and home, the Chennai Sangamam rolls in. Now, streets and public parks in the city come alive to stage folk arts of the state and elsewhere.

Then, there is the ‘Other Festival’, the brain child of classical danseuse Anita Ratnam, which brings to the city classical art forms from around the world. And then of course, there is the charm of the city’s old world institutions like the Kalakshetra which give Chennaiites a chance to savour culture as they could nowhere else, right through the year. There are also the assorted festivals that are religiously adhered to by the city’s folks — like the bommai golu (doll festival) which brings art, spirituality and social mingling all together in a jazzy confluence.

There is a lot of culture in the city. Chennai has the potential to become the cultural hub of the country,” says Deborah Thiagarajan, an American woman who fell in love with Chennai after marriage to industrialist Thiagarajan brought her to the city. She went on to establish the famous Dakshina Chitra on the scenic East Coast Road that links Chennai to Pondicherry, to help conserve the region's traditional art and culture.

Down the years, the city has also found favour with huge multinationals which make a beeline to set up base here. And it is not just tied to the software boom either. The likes of Nokia, Ford, Hyundai, and a host of multinationals prefer Chennai to other cities.

Culture and favourable economic conditions, yes. But there must be more to a city that attracts so many. So, what else makes Chennai such an attractive city to live in? For one thing, the cost of living is cheaper in Chennai as compared to Mumbai or Bengalooru. And if you have children, this might be a promising place to lay anchor in, considering that children here get to choose from a variety of extra curricular options from classical music to cut-throat tennis. This is besides the coaching class fetish that has bitten everyone here — right from the parents in slums to millionaire enclaves. “Besides school, most kids here seem to be going for extra tuition or coaching classes, either to shore up their education or to find place in the IITs,” observes veteran Saroja Ramamurthy. Also the thriving medical tourism the city sees. “Now we have patients coming in not just from Asian and Gulf countries, but also from countries like the US,” says Padmashri Dr Mohan Kameswaran, Madras ENT Research Foundation.

Geographically, Chennai is perhaps lucky in the sense that it has a marsh (the Pallikaranai marsh), rivers (Adyar, Coovam and Buckingham Canal), a forest (the Guindy National Park) and an estuary (the Adyar Estuary) within its city limits, not to mention the world’s second longest beach in the form of the 4.5 km long Marina Beach. As for the weather, it certainly is not as uninterruptedly hot round the year as before. Chennai does have its share of winter chills and rainy days. But the city is not without its problems. “Garbage clearance is still a major nuisance here, and the city reels under piles of dumped garbage,” points out M B Nirmal, founder director, Exnora International, a civic self-help group.

Gateway to South India? The country’s fourth largest city? Home of filter kaapi, Kanchipuram saris and Kollywood productions? A modern metropolis? Well, Chennai is all this and more. Amidst all the modern infrastructure, you still get to catch a glimpse of surviving heritage structures, and pockets in the city like Mylapore and Triplicane manage to hold on to the lifestyles that existed a century back.

Chennai today is changing, and the challenge ahead is in holding on to its unique identity even while embracing globalisation. But this shouldn’t be too difficult, considering that, with Chennai, the more some things changed, the more they have remained the same.

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