The final assault on the colonial legacy of Chennai roads

Last Updated 19 November 2018, 09:27 IST

Culture “cannot be deliberately aimed at,” are the memorable words of the great modern Poet T S Eliot. But who cares in a land vociferously sloganeering, ‘Engum Tamizh, Ethilum Tamizh (Tamil Everywhere, Tamil in Everything)?  

This metro, already renamed in 1996 during an earlier DMK rule from the old venerable Madras to Chennai and known as the “cultural gateway to South India” where diverse cultures have blended over centuries, again threatens to go purist, frightfully reminiscent of the ‘Shiv Sena mindset’.

In the run-up to the recently held first ‘World Classical Tamil Conference (WCTC)’ at Coimbatore, the Municipal Corporation of Chennai did not wish to be left behind the Tamil-zealot Joneses, if only to convince the DMK patriarch M Karunanidhi of an ‘impending Tamil wave’.

Under Mayor M Subramanian’s tenure, the DMK-controlled Municipal body has suddenly mooted re-baptising an unusually high number of 52 city roads and streets in one stroke.
Though renaming is nothing new in the Country when politics gets the better of
locally home-grown civic traditions and subaltern chronicles, Greater Chennai, home to over a six million people now, would soon get lot more ‘Dravidianized’ if the Mayor has his way. Map-makers, watchout!

The city’s most famous landmark, 'Mount Road’ had decades back been rechristened ‘Anna Salai’. So did ‘Poonamalle High Road’, part of Bangalore NH, turn ‘EVR Periyar Salai’.
The ‘South Beach Road’ along the famous Marina sea front and the ‘North-Beach Road’ were also changed in a quest for Tamil-politico identity as ‘Kamarajar Salai’ and ‘Rajaji Salai’ respectively years back. 

All these took time to register in people’s address books, while dual names are still in use. There was hardly a ripple then as those names were of known and great political leaders whom the powers-that-be wished to honour.  

People with fond memories of tree-lined important roads like ‘Haddows Road’, ‘Harrington Road’, ‘Sterling Road’, McNichols Road’, ‘Taylors Road’, ‘Greams Road’, ‘Monteith Road’, ‘Pantheon Road’ and ‘Eldams Road’ , now among the 52 roads identified for renaming after Tamil poets and scholars, will have to rework their cartographic who-is-who of Chennai.

And this precisely has sparked a clash of ideas between the pro-changers and the no-changers.

When the city earlier went in for large scale renumbering of houses, “there was complete chaos and confusion,” recalls Chennai’s noted Music and heritage historian V Sriram. The worst sufferers were the senior citizens receiving pensions and dividends by post who spent “enormous time” in intimating the address changes, he rued.

  For the larger issue, as an old-timer and veteran historian of Chennai, S Muthiah put it, is whether the names of those Englishmen who contributed substantially to the city's development should fade into oblivion with just another paint brush.

Of the 52 British names targeted for the black hue now, at least 12 of them have made huge contributions, and their memory should be preserved for posterity, Muthiah told Deccan Herald here.

 Those noble British Raj personalities after whom roads have been named
include the ones like ‘Anderson Road’ in Nungambakkam. Dr James Anderson was the first to encourage study of flora and fauna of South India.

‘Balfour Road’ took its name from Dr Edward Green Balfour who founded both the Madras Museum and Zoo besides encouraging Islamic studies. Images of other equally illustrious Englishmen are not to be brushed aside. ‘Norton Road’ for instance, was named after Eardley Norton who was not only one of the city's best-known lawyers but also one of the founders of the Indian National Congress. Again J W Madley, who was responsible for pioneering the city's extensive drainage system, had lent his name to ‘Madley Road’.
“Surely, are these men not worthy of our commemoration?” asked Muthiah.

“A name change though will not adversely hit the property market for people will also use the old, familiar names including in sale deeds,” a leading city builder said. But the core issue is “can you legislate and force people to use only one name?” wonders Muthiah.
As more concerned citizens speak out, Mayor Subramanian seems relenting. “The Council meets later this month to consider the name-change resolution; but a final decision will have to be taken only by the State Government,” he said, promising that not all British names will go.       

(Published 17 July 2010, 15:19 IST)

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