The Asian Age
Remembering Chennai, the city and its music
Chennai turned 375 this year. A birthday that was celebrated with fanfare. I feel I need to add my testimony to a city that has been part of my life. If I compare it with Mumbai, which has been my city as well, I see it in complete contrast. Sandy streets, yellow broad boards of street names, cows, music, cool bars, grape juice and sights and sounds so characteristic of this seaside city come to my mind. There’s also a stereotypical image of an idli- eating people, flower- bedecked women and a certain prudish mentality. Some of it holds true, but a lot about Chennai has changed and at a phenomenal rate. For me, my memories of the city are still about Madras, or Pattinam, its traditional South Indian name, of the good old summer holidays in sprawling homes of grandparents, never ending days of leisure, visits to musician homes and all that feel- good factor difficult to sum up in a few words.
Chennai was a lot about music and dance. It still is. Those many sabhas that dot the town, an entire city that is seemingly in love with Carnatic music, troupes of trim girls with sarees well above the ankles clad for dance class in the evenings are still a familiar sight. If there’s a place for those incredible yards of silk, it’s in those overflowing saree shops. Of course, there are the chic joints, less frequented by the hoi polloi, which showcase an exclusive dimension of Chennai. The rush of West Mambalam, Pondy bazar, T Nagar, Triplicane, contrasted with the sophistication of Boat Club Road, the colonial splendour by the Marina Bay and everything converging at the festivities at Parthasarathy temple are also an intrinsic part of this city. From the snobbish gentry that frequents the Music Academy to the free concerts teeming with rasikas, Chennai has its overpowering dose of Carnatic music, even Hindustani music, dance schools, avid learners, powerful gurus and shrines of all maestros. Where would you find streets named after musicians as much as in Chennai? Musiri Subramaniam Street, Tiger Varadachariar road and Papanasam Sivam Salai stand alongside Adam Street, Mount Road, Lloyds Road, Paris — all indelible torchbearers of history. For years, great musicians lived here, their neighbours treated to their music, making the city a concentration of musical goodness. For me Chennai does embody culture, in its heritage monuments, its fascinating ancient temples, its art, which makes it the Mecca of music and dance. Of course, the Rajnikant culture undeniably runs parallel. Alongside its passion for Tamil language, coexists its unexplained love for certain English words that have entrenched themselves in the Tamil dictionary. Night, rice and face wash live alongside jaali ( read jolly), soopper ( read super) and vettu ( the cut of victory!) all so characteristic of the Madras lexicon!
Chennai turned 375 and a song was made for the occa- sion! A song in honour of Madras, does there exist a better tribute than a musical one! Yet I was a trifle disappointed. The song and its video did not quite touch the chords of my heart. The inexplicable charm of Madras went unsung to me in its jaunty lyrics of English- laced Tamil, in a young model’s jumping dance all over the city. It was too immature in its representation of an age- old city. It did not have images that symbolise the city in my eyes, but it bore the name Madras Song . I am myself lost between Chennai, so understood by everyone and the name Madras, a little hidden in the misty past. Madras Song, for what its worth, hails Madras, a name to which I am still attached, unabashedly.
Dr Vasumathi Badrinathan is an eminent Carnatic vocalist based in Mumbai. She can be contacted on vasu@ vasumathi. net