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IN contrast to our other metropolis’, Madras/Chennai has most often been presented as an idyllic, genteel city, an example of ‘simple living and high thinking’. If Delhi comes across as a court surrounded by villages, its soul corrupted by power, Mumbai as a worshipper of mammon and Kolkata as a city more marked by its past than present, Madras with its unhurried, almost sleepy pace, is seen as representing the continuity of Indian (read Hindu) cultural traditions.

True that the public culture of the North is rarely marked by grace, the Lakhnavi/Mughal adas notwithstanding. Our caste appears more casteist, our sectarian strife more intense, and our politicians just that much more crass and rapacious. The usual reference is to Bihar and U.P. Hardly surprising that most commentators believe that the Narmada represents the boundary between civilization and barbarism.

If the cultural difference is not to be traced to the erroneous ‘racial’ basis of Aryan and Dravidian, do we instead focus on the differential impact of Muslim rule? For many, South Indian culture has preserved, in a more pristine and pure form, the traditional Hindu ways of living. Even granting that such a proposition is implicitly ‘communal’ and does little to acknowledge the substantial Muslim (and Christian) presence in the states of the South (a common North Indian error), it cannot be denied that unlike the North, the Brahmin in the South enjoys a unique position, a far greater social importance and weight.

To the outsider, the South is Madras, not just the city but the idea –ritually defined, vegetarian and conservative, if not orthodox. Despite the fact that the more important temples – Madurai, Chidambaram, Tirupati, Guruvayur and Annamalai are not in Madras, and nor is it the seat of the Shankaracharya, the city, in popular imagination, represents the power of spirituality and faith.

Like all representations claiming to capture the essence, this one too is mistaken. Starting as the first English outpost on land negotiated from the local rulers, Madras-Chennai has grown into a sprawling metropolis afflicted by all the problems marking large urban agglomerations – overcrowding, decaying infrastructure, impersonality and, above all, a crippling water shortage. When a vast majority of the populace has little access to potable water and even the better-off are forced to rely on bottled water, tension is endemic. More surprising, however, is the fact that the shortages have, so far, not translated into severe water riots.

Much is made about the Madrasi’s understated austerity, the absence of garishness in public and private buildings, how even the powerful and famous lead reticent lives, that a M.S. Subbulakshmi answers her own phone and the person next to you in the milk queue could well be a famous scientist. There is the amazing katcheri season which attracts hordes of music lovers, many young, and we have The Hindu, the one national newspaper still retaining space for serious articles. And of course, the fact that even the non-Hindu communities seem to effortlessly merge into the dominant public culture, the religious distinctions subsumed in a common cultural style. Of all our major cities, Chennai has been least disturbed by Hindu-Muslim conflict.

It is rare, in these accounts foregrounding temples and spirituality, devotional Carnatic music and Bharatnatyam, vegetarian food and Nalli sarees, love for scholarship (who can contest the fact of C. Rajagopalachari as our most erudite politician-statesman) and austerity, the Theosophical Society and Kalakshetra, to examine the role of the non-Brahmin, rationalist movement challenging Brahmin supremacy in public affairs and institutions on the city and the people. Or how an anti-caste movement over time consolidates caste divisions such that we even have clear differences between Brahmin and non-Brahmin Tamil and the rise of caste/region specific political parties whose hold refuses to wither and whose shifting alliances make psephology a hazardous exercise.

Nor does this accommodate the inordinate influence of films and film personalities over politics, popular culture and discourse. Nowhere else can we see a shrine dedicated to MGR, with fur cap and dark glasses, or a temple with actress Khushboo as the presiding deity. And no other part of the country has witnessed suicides and ritual mutilation on news of the death of an Annadurai or MGR. The hold of fan clubs on politics and the frenzied adulation of stars cannot but affect civic culture. It thus causes little comment when politicians in power, in true filmy style, expend more energy to harass their rivals (though Punjab now seems to be making the grade) than ensure good governance.

A major enigma is the status of women. Like Mumbai and Kolkata and unlike Delhi, Chennai enjoys a well-deserved reputation for women’s safety. A ride in the city’s efficient bus system shows little sign of eve-teasing and seats reserved for women are never commandeered by men. But indices of domestic violence are high, and across class divides, demonstrating the gulf between public perception and private reality. The same remains true of Dalits who, despite the social justice plank of the Dravida movement, are subjected to endemic social exclusion and violence.

Old timers lament the passing away of the good old days – be it of Hindu greatness or British fair play. Madras, after all, was the first English outpost, the site of the initial experimentation with rules and regulations, libraries and archives, the municipal corporation, modern banking and even the Indian army. Even as the action shifted to Calcutta and Bombay and then Delhi, Madras retained its importance in national affairs – from the founding of the Congress to Gandhiji’s call for swarajya. It refused to be relegated to the outposts of the empire.

With all its continuities, Madras-Chennai today is a different city. The Brahmins may no longer dominate public affairs (this despite Chief Minister Jayalalithaa being an Iyengar), but they are crucial to the private sector. Having been forced out of their traditional environs and occupations by a combination of reservations and the non-Brahmin movement, they have become a pan-Indian, even global, community which retains an interest in the city, dominating industry and trade.

As it struggles to define a new identity for itself seeking to outgrow the traditional confines, partly as a result of pressure from the young, present Chennai now approximates any other large city. The tempo is undoubtedly faster as is the new importance to flash, display and consumer choice. Be it clothes, music, cuisine or nightlife – Chennai is no sleepy town, possibly no match for a Mumbai or Bangalore, but offering sufficient diversity.

There is also the grime and the decay, fraying infrastructure and an underlying edge of tension. Nevertheless, there is also the tradition of public service, be it the K.S. Sanjivi initiated Voluntary Health Scheme or the Shankar Netralaya which ensure quality health care at low cost for the less privileged. The state’s rulers take justifiable pride in their mid-day meal scheme and primary health centres. And business, probably more than elsewhere, follows a code of ethics foregrounding substance over form.

Chennai-Madras is a complex, contradictory city experiencing the pangs of transformation. This issue of Seminar introduces the Queen of the Coromandel, the Gateway to the South, a city responsible for many innovations, which will hopefully extend its glorious past into the future.