Chennai’s cultural establishments
Locals say, if you visit Chennai and leave without trying the idlis at Murugan Idli Shop, your trip is incomplete. I couldn’t agree more. e taste, texture and avour of the idlis (savoury rice cakes – a staple of South India) here are entirely di erent in comparison to what one may have tried elsewhere. ey’re so er and u er, and served piping hot, fresh out of the steamer and on the banana leaf that is your dining plate.
ough the idlis are served with chutneys, one could eat them plain as well. On ingesting the last bite, I see Brahma, my guide in Chennai, bringing me a glass of a pinkish drink topped with ice cream. “is is jigarthanda, a speciality of Murugan,” he tells me. Jigarthanda actually originated from Madurai, an ancient city in Tamil Nadu, about 450km from Chennai. e drink, quintessential to the state intends to cool you down. In fact, the name literally translates to “cool heart”.
Brace yourself when ordering it because it is quite heavy – prepared with milk, almonds, rice and ice cream. ankfully Murugan's idlis aren’t heavy on the stomach, and so I had enough room to polish this dessert-drink.
Much to my dismay, Brahma tells me with a grin, “Our meal is not complete without
lter co ee, madam.” Any Indian who has frequented South Indian restaurants knows that lter co ee marks the end of your meal, irrespective of what you have consumed earlier. It is prepared by beating co ee and sugar with hot water to make a somewhat thickish paste. Hot milk is poured into it before serving it in a stout steel glass placed in a shallow steel bowl. is is so you can toss the co ee between the glass and the bowl to cool it down, before slurping it.
us, began my wonderful weekend exploring Chennai’s culture, a city of warmhearted people who take pride in being the custodians of heritage, art, tradition and music.
Walking around them felt a lot like a stroll through a scene out of a history book – it was green and serene, away from the chaos of city life
A re ection of Tamil Nadu’s art and culture is Kalakshetra Foundation (kalakshetra. in) that has been around since 1936. It was founded by classical dancer Rukmini Devi Arundale. In 1993 it was recognised as an Institute of National Importance by the Government of India. e visionary had setup this institute to keep alive the languishing art form of Bharatnatyam that originated in Tamil Nadu. e building itself has a rustic charm to it. It resembles an ancient Tamilian home with a terracotta roof, patterned oor tiles and modest wooden and cane furniture within. ere is a beautiful courtyard with a large tree under which students dressed in cotton South Indian saris or pavada (blouse, ankle-length skirt and a long scarf ) practise Bharatnatyam to the beats of Indian percussion instruments. When it gets too hot – April-June – the class moves indoors. Chennai is known for pleasant weather for most part of the year. At least twice a month, modestly priced tickets have appreciators of classical dance and music ll the partially open air auditorium.
Another open air centre for arts is DakshinChitra. It overlooks the Bay of Bengal at Muttukadu, on the East Coast Road leading to the ancient temple town of Mahabalipuram. is living museum opened to the public on December 14, 1996. On its land, there are 18 heritage houses, purchased from other locations, dismantled and reassembled here to showcase the lifestyle and architecture of, for example, a Syrian-Christian, Calicut, Chikmagalur or Ilkal Weavers’ household. Walking around them felt a lot like a stroll through a scene out of a history book – it was green and serene, away from the chaos of city life. Except for cars in the distance, there is little evidence of modern life glaring at you. Artisans were happy to feed my curiosity while they weaved a basket, beaded a necklace or knitted a stole. All these items are available at the on-site bazaar to encourage the artisans’ growth with the help of NGOs who educate them on how to expand their businesses. e overall atmosphere here is friendly, mainly because interaction seems to be important to its members. Visitors too can participate in activities such as competitions, volunteering and workshops to acquaint themselves with almost forgotten skills. (Open WednesdayMonday 10am-6pm; `100 for Indians, `250 for foreigners; dakshinachitra.net.)
About halfway between the above two centres is the charming Cholamandal Artists’ Village. It actually has a heartwarming story to its origin. e principal of Government School of Arts and Cra s (India’s oldest art institution in Chennai), K.C.S. Paniker brought together and encouraged artists specialising in various mediums to form Artists’ Handicra s Association. e group of 30 artists worked on wood, ceramic and leather amongst other materials to create varied art forms including jewellery and sculptures. eir sales helped raise enough money for the group to contribute `4,000 each to purchase ten acres on April 13, 1966.
Today, each of the 30 plots is a studiocum-home for the artists, some of whom are award-winners – P.S. Nandan and M. Senathipathi. Over the years, a few artists have passed away, their homes occupied by the next in kin or purchased by nonartists. e village itself is equipped with art galleries showcasing contemporary works of modern artists and beautiful gardens displaying alluring pieces created from granite, wood, copper and bronze. I bought a few to take home – or at least the more a ordable ones. Performances, poetry reading sessions and dance recitals take place o en at the open air theatre here. Interesting pieces of terracotta and batik, to name a few are available at the village shop. I for one enjoyed touring homes of the artists – it’s interesting to watch them transform raw materials and empty canvases into masterpieces. For long stays, a house can be rented here too. Open daily 10am7:30pm; +91 44 2449 0092.
Mahabalipuram is about a two-hour drive from Chennai and is a small coastal town known for century-old temples. e seafront Shore Temple re ects the glory of the Pallava dynasty from the 7th and 8th centuries through intricate carvings with spectacular detailing on its facade and in sculptures within. Krishna’s Butter Ball is another attraction here, a massive boulder appearing precariously balanced on a small hill slope.
is UNESCO World Heritage Site is a collection of spectacular ancient monuments and temples, de nitely worth a visit. Kanchipuram was the capital of the Pallava dynasty. is is where kanjeevaram (type of silk) saris come from. Some of the shops have a workshop at the back; most of them usually allow you to watch their workers spin a good sari. Kanchipuram too has an impressive collection of ancient temples from Pallava, Chola and Vijayanagar dynasties.
Cabs and auto rickshaws are easily available in the city and run by the metre.
PREVIOUS PAGE: Traditional performers at DakshinChitra CLOCKWISE FROM TOP LEFT: Dancers at Kalakshetra; a weaver weaving a Kanchipuram silk sari; Mahabalipuram's relics; and idli and lter coffee at Murugan Idli Shop