February 28, 2009

Journalism for the young people

Does your newspaper change things in the neighbourhood?
I am asked this question at discussions on small and local media.
I tell people that we are agents of change.

I have been observing the impact in the Adyar neighbourhood where we run Adyar Times, published on Sundays.

The weekly always has a few stories every week on local civic issues, community projects and on the law and order situation.

Details of the projects proposed by local councillors get big play - sometimes though the councillors and officials are not happy at the publication since this becomes a public record.

Now, many Adyarites are picking up the information from these reports to comment/remark or debate the issues. Others are delving deep into local problems and are quick to e-mail their letters. Still others send us short notes.

Many local officials do take note of these voices that find a place in the weekly. We know that official response has been quick in some instances. Clippings of key reportage find their way to senior officers.

Change takes place. Sometimes immediately, some times gradually and sometimes, slowly.

All of us can make this happen faster if we have an alert readership. One which also communicates on key local, issues.

This is one reason why we run our annual Journalism Camp for senior students in summer. To equip interested young people with the tools and skills necessary to communicate and be more active in the public sphere.

Many young people who attend this Camp do so to prepare for admission to media courses. Some though have gone on to write letters or report on local events or even send pictures to our weeklies and to other media.

This year's Camp will be in mid-April and is open to young people of the city. We look forward to the bright sparks.

You can get a feel of the course and what goes on during the camp at the blog - www.mtjclass.blogspot.com

February 21, 2009

Conserving tiled houses, agraharams . . .

Where would you source a traditional harmonium?

The Panruti region is your destination. Making this instrument used to be a cottage industry but the business is on the wane.

There are companies which have existed since the 1930s.

Nuggets of information that our 'koothu' artistes from Pondicherry (or Puduchery as it is now called) shared with me on the sidelines of a recent function.

The troupe was there to take part in a street fest.

A fest got up as part of an official function hosted by the Territory.

Vysial Street had won a UNESCO award for heritage restoration. The project was among a dozen and plus more from around the world to be recognised, the only other entry being from Ahmedabad where lots of work has been done to restore the fantastic old city.

Vysial Street is in the Tamil quarter of core town which lies in the Boulevard area of Pondicherry.

Like all other streets here, it sported a unique architecture dominated by local aesthetics.

Over time, most of that heritage was eroded.

More so when the houses were turned into shops, godowns and offices and house owners chose to rebuild the way their budgets and their fancies allowed them to.

When the local chapter of INTACH, a body which works on restoration and heritage got the opportunity to work on a unique project, it chose Vysial Street because there were many houses here which retained the old and the distinct.

It wasn't easy to undertake a restoration project - not when you need to convince about 50 households for whom heritage is surely not a priority.

In the end, about 20 households agreed to get their facades restored. The painstaking work was rewarded and Vysial Street went on to bag many honours including the UNESCO certificate.

The area is now a showcase for tourists and the recognition is encouraging groups like INTACH as well as the territory's government to embark on many similar projects.

Exploring some of these houses that evening led me to images of the village of Kottur in our city. This area has the most striking tiled street houses I have seen so far and many exist even today as others have given way to ugly apartment blocks.

Restoring such unique neighbourhoods is difficult. But if you have the zeal that the INTACH team in Pondy had, it is possible.

An impressed Chief Minister at the Vysial Street function waived property tax for the restored houses and promised more incentives in the budget. Wow!

February 14, 2009

Those utililty nooks in our neighbourhood

Think aloud this Sunday.
And as you do that let your husband or your child keep a count using the fingers.
Recollect all the useful nooks that you depend on or frequent in your neighbourhood.
You will be amazed at the number, variety and range.
Food tops my survival / utility list.
So how do I compile and expand it?
By looking out for the food spots which remain open at different hours of the day and night and them sampling their menu.
Don't go by the flexi-boards or unimpressive handbills. Talk to the men who run the kitchen.
There is one nook where the parottas and string hoppers vanish by a certain hour, the biriyani is sold out at another hour and what is guaranteed at 9 p.m. is the chicken curry - because it is so spicy that not everybody who orders food here opts for it.
Down the road is another nook that stays open till about 11 p.m.
Rotis and sabji are always available, cooked North Indian style.
On the other side of the road is a Chinese restaurant which is reliable on home delivery on key occasions - when the neighbourhood endures a blackout, when the rain is heavy or when you want the soup at your doorstep in 10 minutes.
This one is hugely dependable and Suren is the man to call, not anybody else.
Between the two roads are many other nooks on the streets and bylanes.
The 'mess' on a terrace with a roof was the only place open after 11 p.m. and its rotis and meat curries were the only saving graces but it folded up recently - patronage by the computer people fell, the woman in charge said.
I have had to tick off one popular place though - visiting friends from Pondicherry who stopped by late at night for dinner were aghast at the minimal prawns in the curry they ordered and walked off in a huff, swearing never to come here again.
I don't think these Malabar restauranteurs want to see me there.
I leave you with a much important question - why does the police force restaurants and food joints to down their shutters at 11 p.m. and then sneak in at the Malabar eat-outs to order packs of biriyani?
Am told a 1836 law ordains this - the downing of the shutters.

February 07, 2009

Walks inside old Madras Jail

This was a Jail House Rock of a different kind.
The Elvis Presley hit of the late 1950s is evergreen.
This Jail House was not one any more and so we, who lead these city-based heritage walks organised a few walks inside this campus recently.
Police officer Nataraj who is DGP in charge of the Prisons Department did not even wink to grant us permission.
But organise them before the demolition squads arrive, he suggested.
Which meant that we had to host two walks one after the other and back to back - one in Mylapore and the other inside the Madras Jail.
Crowded in by the overbridges, flyovers, viaducts and abandoned some years ago, the Jail campus was worse than the two graveyards it has as its neighbours.
Luckily, we got a man who brought it alive.
Warder Bala who now lives in Tambaram volunteered to be our guide.
Having joined service in 1967, Bala has worked at different jails across the state and has had a couple of stints at the Madras Jail so he had a fund of stories to share.
Of Sri Lankan terrorists and North Indian cheats who wore shoes that cost three thousand rupees. Of thieves who painted the walls of their cells and Auto Shankar and his gang who broke out of the jail . . .
The tour ended at the abandoned gallows located outside the walls of the Madras Jail and on the perimeter of its campus. Bala had served here when two men were taken to the gallows. So his demo was good enough for the walkers to click away.
Bala improved on his act on Day Two so much so that some people on the walk suggested that he should write a book. 'Tell it all', said one woman who has even jotted his address and phone number while we wondered if she wanted to be Bala's ghost writer!
Bala is a story teller we enjoyed having on this tour.
There are many story tellers in our midst. Seniors who have had a fascinating life.
But who is willing to give them a chair and gather local people around them?
Every time we publish in our newspapers the obituary of such wonderful people, I rue the opportunity gone by to record their histories.
If I had a few volunteers I would love to embark on this venture.
Interested? Mail me at adyartimes@gmail.com or at mylaporetimes@vsnl.com.
If you are keen on heritage walks, mail us at madraswalks@gmail.com