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