back to issue

I NEVER acknowledged the name Chennai as an English name for Madras. It was always the name I read in Tamil script on the buses of the city. Chennai in Tamil script, Madras in English and spoken Tamil. Madras was a city that happily harboured this duality of language and name and was comfortable with both languages, at least among its college educated citizens. Language has been a source of pride among Madrasis, and it was common even in the ’70s to hear Tamil speaking Madrasis converse among themselves in English, with mastery over both languages. As a young American woman arriving in Madras in 1970 with my Tamil husband, I took refuge and comfort in the prevalence of English while struggling to learn Tamil.

Language – this is an issue which has stirred Madras and its politicians over the last 34 years that I have been experiencing the happenings of Chennai. It is one of the keys to the character of the citizens of Chennai. The fixation with Tamil and English both hides and reveals many facets of what makes Madras such a charming and culturally significant city to live in. Madrasis regard the Tamil language as the key to the essence of their culture. English is their window to the wider world; Hindi, an imposition of an alien, aggressive culture trying to dominate. However, the reality today is that the knowledge of ‘good’ Tamil is dwindling among the children of Madras’ elite thanks to English medium schools and, slowly, ever so subtly, the knowledge of Hindi is increasing, mainly through the cinema and TV.

Madras has a reputation of being conservative. And it is. It is socially conservative, but that has been changing rapidly during the last ten years. The first lesson I learned was that the character and strength of a Tamil matriarch was kept happily camouflaged by her outward demeanour and dress: the Kanchipuram silk sari, diamond nose studs and earrings, sleekly oiled hair in a bun decorated with jasmine, a gold chain and tali around her neck and vermillion pottu on her forehead. Accompanying this traditional dress was usually a demure, almost languorous and self-effacing demeanour. This was the outward face of the married Tamil woman in Madras, carefully nurtured through her youth by a protective mother and a hoard of aunts.



Underneath this exterior, however, was a keen, thinking mind, often a progressive one. Unfortunately, up through the ’70s it could usually only emerge into action with some twist of events, as was witnessed by the unleashed energy of Madras women during independence or as a consequence to the tragedy of widowhood. The choice before the Madras woman in the ’70s was social compliance to restrictive rules or face the consequences of social ostracism. Most gave in, but the few who broke away discovered that they could make it on their own and gain respect for it.

During my early years in Madras I met enough of these strong women, who today are in their late ’60s, ’70s and ’80s, to realize that they were made of a metal that few American women could compete with. And they influenced and inspired me and gave me the direction I took in my life in Madras. They also inspired their daughters so that it is now my generation of women who are working, and who have brought up their daughters as equals to their sons, living and experiencing the wider world in a way they could not. These children, like other young adults throughout India, are pushing the limits of Madras’ conservatism and bringing in rapid change.

And how is Madras changing? There is the obvious. A soaring population, cars which choke the roads, a surge in new businesses and new business opportunities, including IT, the entry of many new players from all over India, an increase in MNCs and the foreign population that accompanies that, an unsolved problem of garbage and debris, the influence of the media, cable TV and the cinema for which Madras is famous, the rise of modern consumer oriented stores and a sprouting of good restaurants of every kind. Madras now boasts of Korean, Japanese, Thai, Fusion, Middle Eastern, French, Continental and Chinese restaurants alongside a whole range of Indian restaurants of every type and from every region. The restaurants with foreign fare are filled with the young, many of whom work in the thriving IT sector. The Indian style restaurants have a large family clientele. This is a huge change from the ’70s when good restaurants were almost non-existent and eating out was considered something that you did only if you couldn’t eat at home.



Madras has also become the consumer capital of India. Another aspect of the Madrasis which has influenced the character and pace of the city is the Tamil disdain for public ostentation in spending. Madrasis have never been ones to easily part with their money. Theirs has always been a low-key lifestyle. No outward show of money was considered positive. So with the consumer boom Madrasis are weighing the way they spend their money and they want value. If a product is tested and succeeds in Madras, I am told that the chances of it succeeding throughout India are high.

I admire this aspect of Madras. It makes life comfortable. No keeping up with the neighbours, no Rs 75,000 designer sets. Wear what you like, but don’t make it too flashy unless, of course, it’s your diamonds, the one weakness of the Madrasi. Gold, diamonds, Kanchipuram saris, weddings, the shastiathapurti or renewing of the marriage vows at age 60, and family functions – these were what Madrasis traditionally spent their money on. Now it’s education abroad for the children, health, the family home or flat, and consumer items which make for more convenient living. House pride has also made its appearance, and those with money are now indulging themselves in home decorations, altering the ascetic living environments of the ’70s. The Kanchipuram sari is seen less and less, but still holds sway at weddings. Otherwise the salwar kameez and all its modern avatars are in.



For me Madras was a journey of discovery, like the opening of a lotus with each petal revealing one of its secrets. These secrets were the cultural avenues which Madras offered: learning yoga with T.T. Desikachari for nine years; experiencing the dance of Kalakshetra, the music of the home katcharis; a youthful Cholamandal artist’s village which then held folk performances and craft workshops as well as art exhibitions, exploring Tamil and the literature of the Sangam period, the bhakti movement, learning Sanskrit, uncovering the history of the Pallava and Chola kings through inscriptions and temples.

For each of these discoveries there were dedicated people in Madras, scholars and experts willing to take time to help me in my learning. Malcolm Adiseshiah and the Madras Institute of Development Studies guided me in sociological explorations into caste; C. Subramaniam offered his political strategy insights when I organized an INTACH campaign on clean water and the Cooum River; Dashrath Patel explored his beliefs on design as I contemplated beginning the DakshinaChitra project to promote the traditional arts of the South; Chandralekha, the dancer, threw questions at me again and again to make me think; K.V. Raman and R. Nagasamy helped me unravel the complex history of temple and cult development in the South. I experienced the guru shishya tradition, alive and generous and so empowering in its support and encouragement. And this is all part of what makes Madras so culturally alive.

Madras is not a city which comes to you. This perhaps goes along with its understatedness. For many it is a long adjustment just in getting everyday life into order. But if one looks beyond to what the city has to offer there are treasures galore, if one is open to them, and many warm, accepting Madrasis willing to help or to listen.



In the world of culture Madras is beginning to truly blossom. I used to marvel at the raging controversies Madras rasikas had about Carnatic musicians. Each had his/her own like or dislike of styles and musical interpretations. These controversies, I decided, keep music at the centre-stage in Madras, and have resulted in the December Madras musical festival as an annual happening. The earlier rasikas were Mylapore Brahmins, stereotyped, maligned, but widely admired. They can be applauded for their work and for planting the seeds that are ensuring the continuity and evolution of Carnatic music in Madras.

Today culture in Madras is expanding to include the visual arts and more experimental programmes in theatre and dance. Madras is finally seeing the beginnings of good architecture, after at least 60 years of medio-cre to bad buildings. As employment opportunities open up to the young they are moving out into new areas and developing interests beyond the traditional domains of their parents. This augurs well for the development of Madras as a major cultural centre in India. The city, however, still lacks that vital spinal cord which holds all the art forms and people working in the arts together.



Sometimes young people express a sense of feeling that they are working in a vacuum, but this is changing rapidly. New people and institutions offer new arenas and programmes; Anita Ratnam, Prakriti Foundation, and other cultural organizations for the Other Festival, innovative performances, music, lectures and special seminars; Amethyst for its venue for programmes and adas, and even the press for their recent Metro pages which bring the buzz and interest to the public at large. Corporate Madras has come forward to support these activities without whose funding they could not exist.

Yes, Madras is changing, and rapidly. I sensed the beginning pulses of this change in the early ’80s and have witnessed the consequences. The destruction of some of Madras’ and the South’s most interesting heritage sites, a rupture of Madras youth from their parents’ and grandparents’ earlier rural roots, the intoxication with things new. No longer are the youth making the mandatory journey in their holidays to their ur or ancestral village for weddings and functions. This tie that bound Madras to its cultural practices has ceased in the last ten years. And yet, Madras has not let me down. Its cultural moorings are deep and they are loosening, but have not been lost.

I have admired these cultural roots. It was easy for me as a young married woman from a different culture to respect them and to be motivated to delve into them and their meanings, since people held them with pride. If they presented the world as black and white without the shades of grey which tend to engulf us today, it was all right. They presented a tableau which one could question, and hunt for the answers oneself.

Madras taught me that in the end it is what you believe, and what you feel is right for you, that you must do. I listened sporadically to the spiritual swamijis giving talks in Madras. They are ubiquitous, and they have lessons on life. Madrasis throng to them every season in great numbers, young and old, male and female. These lessons bring you back to the basics: they are about compassion, giving, peace of mind, the shrinking of the ego and the lessons of the Gita. I would like to think that Madras still harkens to the messages, even if in diluted form.



Madras still has a humanity about it that I have not noticed in a city like Delhi. There is no fear on the streets, no intangible feeling of aggression. Socialization on the streets or in shops reflects a harmony of interaction which stems from respect. Even eve teasing, the plague of young women in Indian cities, is largely under control in Madras although it has its moments. In a report on the position of women in India, Tamil Nadu, includ-ing Madras, took the number one place in the country for respect for women. When I first came to Madras I was shocked to see homes and settlements of the poor next to homes of the well to do. I now feel that this proximity had the effect of creating a balance in the minds of the people, by giving those less economically fortunate a personalized, and familiar face.

How long this peaceful integration of society will last is a question. The settlement patterns of Madras show a marked increase in slums and populations under the poverty line. Some of these slums are village communities which grew and were absorbed into urban Madras, and the environment. Though physically degraded, they are psychologically supportive of children and family ties. Others are not, but I cannot judge to what extent any of these families or settlements are able to access the opportunities of modernization. I am no longer in touch with these communities as I was when I worked on environment and malaria campaigns throughout the length and breadth of the city. I fear the anonymity that comes with high-rise, modern urban living of the western variety.



What has influenced me is the bright, attentive eyes filled with anticipation of the young children I have seen in the many city schools of Madras. It was into these school classrooms that I, with the untiring enthusiasm of V.R. Devika, brought in both classical and the folk performing art performances under the auspices of the Madras Craft Foundation from 1987 to1996. The MCF goal was to create an awareness of the rich diversity of the cultural forms of the South of India in the public and in the city schools. With INTACH’s intervention for the preservation of the environment and the built heritage, I, as the INTACH Tamil Nadu convener for 14 years, initiated a larger environment and cultural preservation programme for the city.

But as cultural as Madras is, it has still to acknowledge the importance of its built and visual heritage, (even in 2004). Neither politicians nor bureaucrats have passed or supported heritage legislation to protect a single building, and protection, case by case, must still run through a court of law. The struggle to protect the built heritage, worldwide, must begin at the grassroots level with enough people clamouring for their right to their heritage and history over the demands of development for profit.

But in Madras only a handful of citizens were sufficiently concerned to be actively involved in fighting for this protection of the heritage. And so, the DakshinaChitra project I had conceived in 1984 of creating a museum for the promotion of the crafts, textiles and folk performing arts, grew into a larger conceptual project for the creation of awareness and promotion of the architecture and arts of the everyday lives of the diverse peoples of South India.

DakshinaChitra born as a concept in 1984, opened to the public in December 1996, and continues to evolve both in its programmes, exhibitions and institutional framework. It is a gift of Madras to Madras, the sustained work of all the people who volunteered their time and their effort, many in training me to be able to guide and sustain and persevere in the creation of DakshinaChitra, and many who joined the project out of their commitment to the significance of their culture.



Madras is inspiring. Dakshina-Chitra took root because Madras is a fertile Mecca for cultural projects. The public has also embraced the centre and we now have the wider Tamil middle class visiting, enjoying the reconnection to their rural roots, its architecture, folk performers and artisans. If DakshinaChitra continues to be a catalyst for new ways of looking at the past, at heritage and at its connection to the future, I will be rewarded. After all, only in Madras would the public, even the state government who gave the land, have encouraged and nudged a now, not so young American girl to embark on and accomplish a project she had barely envisioned 20 years back. A project which grew out of the way Madras and Tamil Nadu embraced her.