“Chen­nai doesn’t show off” by dancer- writer Tulsi Badri­nath

India Today - - INSIDE -

The Wood­lands Drive- in restau­rant was quintessen­tially Madras, in the quiet that pre­vailed de­spite be­ing sit­u­ated near two of the busiest roads, in the de­li­cious idli- sam­bar that ap­peared mag­i­cally on trays ap­pended to the car- win­dow, in the old- world cour­tesy of its wait­ers and the fact that it wel­comed all, clerk or in­dus­tri­al­ist. While else­where the city sprouted malls and glass- fronted, multi- storeyed build­ings re­placed gar­den­bun­ga­lows, in­side Wood­lands my soul was nour­ished by its dense green­ery, spread­ing acres of land and the aroma of ghee, do­sais and fil­ter cof­fee; time was on hold. I can visit Wood­lands now only in my mem­ory; a part of the city van­ished for­ever.

The Bay of Ben­gal both con­nects the city to the larger world and leaves her vul­ner­a­ble to visi­tors such as Fran­cis Day whose ex­ploratory step on our sandy beach in 1639 re­sulted in the Bri­tish rule over In­dia ( to­day, the coun­try’s tallest flag­mast flies the In­dian tri­colour tri­umphantly at Fort St. Ge­orge), and to killer waves such as the tsunami of 2004. Like many oth­ers, I take the end­lessly blue sea and wide beaches com­pletely for granted, not head­ing to nearby ‘ Bessie’ for days, but when I do, al­ways ac­cept­ing the em­brace of its salt- laden breeze with plea­sure.

While its in­ner streets feed my senses— swara- notes from a vi­olin ca­ressed by a lover’s bow; the sight of plump jas­mines strung for a newly- wed to gift his bride; the daz­zle of pink Kan­jee­varam silk, veg­eta­bles to be as­sessed by touch; edi­ble paan- leaves; the ol­fac­tory as­sault of freshly caught vaaval fish; the joy of pinch­ing a baby’s cheek, the city al­lows me the space to with­draw in or­der to write. With its em­pha­sis on be­ing rather than hav­ing, it also al­lows me to be my­self.

Hav­ing danced across the city, I am fa­mil­iar with the se­cret ac­cess back- stage of many an ‘ au­di­to­rium’— thatchroofed shed or posh the­atre— and hid­den ar­eas of pub­lic places, such as the kitchens of the Connemara. I once wan­dered wide eyed through the stain­less- steel bow­els of the ho­tel, sin­gle- file with twenty other dancers and mu­si­cians, saw tons of onions be­ing chopped, be­fore emerg­ing in the per­for­mance hall.

Al­though Chen­nai hosts what is the world’s largest and long­est or­ganic art- event: the day- long, month- long ‘ Sea­son’, span­ning as it does mul­ti­ple venues where the finest of clas­si­cal artists per­form, it is pos­si­ble that a trav­eller vis­it­ing in De­cem­ber might come away com­pletely ig­no­rant of the fact. That is the city’s in­nate mod­esty— be it Chola bronzes or Car­natic mu­sic, we do not be­lieve in show­ing off.

Tulsi Badri­nath is a Chen­nai- based dancer- writer.

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