#MadrasWeek2016 Diary Aug 24

Otha Street

Woke up this morning to find Mohan Raman had whatsapped me this picture. It made for a good beginning for the day. There are apparently several streets of this name in various parts of Tamil Nadu, including, if google is to be believed, at Rajaram Mehta Nagar, Aminjikarai. While I am sure the intended meaning is something else, what it immediately brings to mind is the first of the many cuss words of Chennai. To me it symbolises the essence of our city. As the British said at the end of each day over here, “Whattaday”.

Now to get down to business. In the morning I set off on a long pilgrimage to Anna Nagar. To Mylaporeans (and in that I include Alwarpettis, Mandavaleans, RA Puramites and Royapettans), anything beyond Cathedral Road is an outstation visit. Years ago, I remember my paternal grandfather, happily ensconced in his Mylapore home, telling my mother that her father, and his sambandi, was most misguided in building his house in a place called Adyar. Anyway, I trudged along, my only solace being an article written by Jayanthi Gopal on the vanishing wood apple trees of Cathedral Road. I reached the college that was my destination in due course and was greeted by a nice rangoli done by the students.

Anna Adarsh rangoli

This was a combo event put together by the Anna Adarsh College, the Women’s Voluntary Service and the University Women’s Association. The common factor linking all three, and the principal reason why I agreed to attend, was my friend Mano Bhaktavatsalam. Years ago, my mentor KV Ramanathan said that she was a perfect example of selfless service and I agree. Mano, who despite having known me for years still insists on referring to me as Sriram Sar, has worked in every social service organisation you can think of. The Bala Mandir is perhaps what she was most closely associated with. To me, she is a shining example of the Komatti Chetty (Arya Vysya these days) community, that made Madras its home and in the process of making profits built several schools, music sabhas, orphanages and temples. Mano’s father was Seshachalam Chetty of Curzon & Co. A great patron of music, he has written a wonderful article on Colletspet (now Kaladipettai) and its associations with the performing arts. The family are related to the Calavala clan, whose scions Cunnan and Ramanujam, left behind a rich legacy of charitable trusts in Madras. But then, most of the Komattis are related to each other. Years ago, Randor Guy, another of my mentors told me some rollicking stories of the community. But those are not for print.

And so as I said, the joy of meeting Mano Bhaktavatsalam was the principal reason for my accepting this invite. I realised as I trudged along to Anna Nagar that I would have been better off meeting her at her home in Alwarpet but then the word of Srirama is his bond, as Tyagaraja said.

The Rangoli was perhaps the best part of the event. A retired college prof in her speech glared at me and said that it was most disappointing to see that in all the Madras Week celebrations, there was not one event commemorating the great women of the past. I shrank into my clothes and pretended to be invisible. Around 400 pairs of eyes, all female, were looking at me accusingly. Thereafter, the prof announced that to correct this, the college and the other co-celebrants had selected three groups to research the lives of three women. I would now have to sit through these, presumably by way of expiation. The first presentation was on Annie Besant by a teacher from another college. This was long and loquacious, the kind that omits no detail however slight. After half and hour, and much shifting in my seat, I realised that the speaker had come only to Besant’s 50th year and there were a good 33 left, all of them action filled. Fortunately someone sent in a paper to the stage and then therestofbesant’slifewascondensedintoafurthertenminutes.

The other two speakers spoke for shorter durations. The second one was on Sister RS Subbalakshmi, a most unstructured and meandering one that was besides full of howlers, English and factual. The third was on, of all people, Lady Rama Rau. Dhanwanti Handoo was a Kashmiri whose connect with Madras was at best tenuous. She studied here at Presidency College and married fellow student (later Sir) Benegal Rama Rau, of the ICS, who wound up a distinguished career by becoming Governor of the Reserve Bank. He was one of the many victims of TTK’s legendary rudeness. It was only much later that it struck me that the respective lengths of the various presentations was in directly proportional to what was there on them on wikipedia, that one source which has given birth to several ‘historians’. The choice of Lady Rama Rau is still puzzling. There were after all hundreds of other deserving women from Madras.

It was then my turn to speak. I thought I would relieve the girls of their tedium by keeping my speech short. I dwelt on Mary Dacombe Scharlieb, C Saraswathi Bai, Vai Mu Kothainayaki and DK Pattammal and finished in ten minutes. Made friends with some of the college teachers, promised to do a heritage walk for them some time next year and left. Mano, in classic Mano style, pressed a wrapped parcel into my hand and said it a gift with a difference. On coming home, I was delighted to find that she had packed a set of bedsheets and pillow covers in lovely pastel shades. God bless you Mrs Bhaktavatsalam, for that most utilitarian gift. It shows your practical bent of mind.

Audience at Hyatt

In the evening went to host the Madras Musings lecture series, this time at Hyatt Residency. Had called in advance and warned the hotel about the predators. So I was delighted to see that the hotel staff was in full attendance to monitor the off take. The Gorilla, who was hovering around the food counter even at 6.00 (refreshments were to be served at 6.30), gnashed his teeth in frustration. No doubt after yesterday’s abstinence he was all raring to go at the food. I prevented the Camp One from stealing the water bottles. I also warned off the Woolly Headed Mammoth from trying to stand in queue again for a second helping. He was most offended and said that I need not tell him this repeatedly as he had heard me well yesterday at Chamiers. My counter to that was it had had no impact on him. To this he grunted and retired into the middle distance and focused on sponging up the coffee. Noticed that The Wig, whom I had long presumed dead, was back. Also in attendance was the female Boa Constrictor, who was missing the entire week. I thought I had got them under control but I had to go to the lobby to receive the speaker and in the process the predators apparently made merry. The wife and I disagree on this issue. It is her view that by feeding the deserving, we are gathering punya for the hereafter. I am of the view that for the sake of punya we cannot allow for bad behaviour. The jury is still out.

GK Gandhi at Madras Week

The programme began late what with the speaker, Gopalkrishna Gandhi and just about everyone else getting stuck in traffic. He spoke on how Rajaji saved the marriage of the Mahatma (apparently in 1919 the old man developed the hots for some kinswoman of Tagore’s) and tried to prevent Periyar from marrying Maniammai. When the latter went ahead, he gave his blessings anyway. He also spoke of father Jerome D’Souza, member of the Constituent Assembly and who helped integrate Pondicherry with India. His last personality was Apithkuchambal, the forgotten wife of T Sadasivam (of MS Subbulakshmi fame). In the process Gopal was at his acerbic best on all those who have suddenly crawled out of the woodwork to celebrate MS’ centenary, all of them claiming close association with her. Decided to monitor the Q&A session personally and so avoided giving the mic to the man who is obsessed on asking questions about sex lives of the rich and famous. But could not overlook the claims of the bounder who asked Gopalkrishna Gandhi what he thought of Bharatiyar. The Wig redeemed itself by asking an intelligent question for a change. Later heard from The Chief that the sound was weak wherever he, the Chief was sitting and that he heard Gopalkrishna Gandhi with difficulty.

One of the joys of Madras Week is meeting up with friends whom you dont see otherwise. I was delighted that Hemant and Ann Dutia were in the audience. They were among the early supporters of my heritage walks.  Karthik Bhatt put in a rare appearance. This man, who soaks in heritage throughout the year, invariably goes underground during Madras Week. Noticed late at night that Rajagopalan Venkataraman was absent and so his flying fingers had not updated his fb devotees on G Gandhi’ s speech.

Much amused and somewhat distressed during the day on receiving emails that accuse all Madras Week celebrations as being sponsored by a Christian lobby. One of them was headed Madras Weak. Amen!