March 30, 2013

Who is your neighbour?

In the old days, Mount Road was the theatre of the city.

Processions, VIP motorcades, dramatic events and demonstrations - these and more had to be held on this road which is now called Anna Salai.

Our home atop one of the buildings on this road gave us a grand stand seat, much like a seat in the ‘D’ gallery at Chepauk.

So we could watch all that took place on the road from the India Silk House end to the Round Tana end - the Wallajah Road-Ellis Road-Mount Road junction where the statue of our former chief minister C N Annadurai stands today.

I vaguely remember American astronauts ( perhaps the guys who first landed on the moon in 1969?) being taken out in a procession on this road. The scene was fascinating enough for me to choose this as a theme for my drawing class at school!

Much later, in 1977 when MGR went on to win the state elections and became chief minister, the celebrations on this road were of epic proportions. And though we had moved out of Mount Road in the 80s, the funeral of MGR in 1987 that took this road was also an event that cannot be easily described.

The historic anti-Hindi agitation had also spilled on to this road but I really do not have memories of that event.

These images roll back now as I read about the agitation and campaigns that are being undertaken by the student community across the state and in our city.

I do not want to go into the merits or demerits of this move by our young people.

But I wish our young people begin to take serious interest in our local, local affairs.
Affairs that concern civic budgets and civic projects, neighbourhood schemes and the environment, local politics and ward development.
If they do, we may witness some dramatic changes and responses locally.

Sadly, our seniors have given up the fight. And the rest are busy with their 9-to-9 lives.

I am convinced our young people, guided by our seniors can do a world of good locally.

They have the strength, they have the adventurism, they have the talent.

Sri Lanka is our neighbour. What about our own neighbourhoods?

March 23, 2013

Summer Camp by the sea; Idea only

A summer idea is getting tossed about in my head. And it is taking all kinds of forms.

The idea is simple. Create a base camp on the coast outside the city where kids from the city can enjoy themselves and also interact with the kids of the village. And invite our friendly, young creative people to share their talents with the coastal community.

The idea germinated when we got to see a circular community hall standing on concrete stilts in a fishing hamlet some 100 kilometres from the city.

This Community Hall was built as part of the tsunami rehabilitation project undertaken here. This was an add-on to the colony of concrete houses that the state had built.

But for social functions - puberty and betrothal related - the hall was hardly used and had become a dank, dark space. Could we use it?

The kuppam's kids loved their cricket on the sandy green and the crab catching flings in the backwater which earned them some decent money, selling to highway shoppers. But they didn't mind getting together this summer for some fun and learning.

But what could they offer to our young friends from the metro?

Can you show them how to catch crabs? I asked.

The idea was to get these kuppam kids to take the metro ones on a kuppam tour. Start with time spent on the shore, looking for the fishing boats that come back after the sun comes up, observe the boat landings and watch the collection and auction of the catch.

Our young kuppam friends would then take out sample fish and share their knowledge.

Break for juice. Then walk down the shore till the legs got weary. Adjourn to the casuarina grove for light breakfast. Get back to walking on the dunes, look at the local vegetation, hop across to the backwaters to sight birds and end the camp with an adventurous speed boat ride after lunch and pallankuzhi games.

The idea has taken shape and I have tossed it over to my friend Jaspal Singh who was once rode the seas on merchant ships.

If Jassi says yes, we should have a good summer experience. What are looking forward to to do with the kids at your end?

March 16, 2013

Natyanjali 2013

This past week, I spent time in Chidambaram covering the annual Natyanjali Dance Festival for

Since last year, we have been blogging this unique fest that opens inside the famed temple on Sivaratri evening and runs for five days.

Blogging is still a challenging task - it pushes you to tell little stories all the time and share pictures and visual clips.
And sometimes, you are in the middle of a story.

On Sivaratri night, dancer Aniruddha Knight who had driven from Bangalore via Chennai just to dance in front of the Lord on this special evening found that he wouldn’t have any space at all to offer his anjali.

People were thick all around the core of the temple that Sunday night and more were filing in, dodging the hundreds of earthen lamps that had been lit in all the corridors. Knight and his musicians looked helpless. Since I am a regular at the temple at this time of the year, I quickly waved my arms and created some space for the musicians to sit down and for Knight to launch into his dance.

It was indeed a special moment for all of us though it lasted for a mere six minutes.

Two aspects of the Natyanjali always strike me and they have to do with community bonding.
One is the community dining facility that is offered to artistes and their guests at the festival.
Breakfast, lunch and tiffin is free, sumptuous and on time.

A wellwisher offers a wedding hall for this purpose, other benefactors provide rice bags and cooking oil tins and veteran cook Vageesan and his team serve the food fresh and on time, with artistes from the north served chappatis, curry, green chillies and onion slices.

Dining in the common hall also allows artistes to meet each other and enjoy a chat or exchange notes.
For dinner, the hosts of the festival follow a practice that has been in existence for almost three decades ( the Natyanjali is in its 32nd year). Each member of the Trust brings one or a few dishes to a house close to the temple and the food is served to guests and the hosts also have a bite.

Lemon semiya, curd semiya, sweet poli, vadai, chappati, vegetable curry, pickles and grapes - that was the menu one evening when I dined here.

Food does bring people a bit closer. At Chidambaram, it bonds the team and builds new relationships with guests and well wishers.

March 09, 2013

Restaurants as hangouts. In Chennai.

Why do restaurants become hangouts for many people?

Is it because food and friendship go together? Or is because the act of dining lets you unwind unknowingly?

In recent times, one place has been drawing me to its confines.

New Bombay Halwa House in Luz.

Every time I am in the area - for a concert, or to buy magazines or to catch up with a friend of this area, I create an excuse to step into this restaurant.

There are many things that make this a nice hangout.

The food tops the list - its spicy samosas, its variety of rotis and the delicious sweets.

I tend to order the rotis twice since I can't stop with the first order of two methi rotis. The masala tea comes next. Then, the gulab jamun, whose small size is not my kind of size.

There is an old-world charm about this place and I have never been told to clear out.

If the manager could play vintage Rafi and Burman songs on volume level two, we could be transported to another world, away from the maddening traffic outside.

And we would order for another round of samosas and masala chai.

The famed Irani restaurant used to be our hangout when I lived off Mount Road. Samosas at two rupees and tea at 1.50. Tired employees of The Mail and The Hindu would head here to amuse themselves.

Much later, my Anglo-Indian friends introduced me to Hotel Shiraz in Egmore. The band would play the golden oldies of the 50s and 60s in dim red and blue lights. This was a good weekend hangout. Of course, when the contracted women slipped on to the dance floor after 10 p.m., we would move out.

In the early 80s, a jazz aficionado opened a little restaurant on Dr. Radhakrishnan Road, opposite the AVM Rajeswari Wedding Hall. He hosted only jazz bands on the weekends and though it did not run long, it was another great hangout as long as it lasted.

These places remain with you long after you have moved on. Or they have closed down or taken on other avatars.

What has been your experience?

March 02, 2013

Celebrating Dilip Veeraraghavan

Community meetings are good indicators of a neghbourhood’s social health.
And if you look closely at the buzz in Mylapore you will realize that this is one neighbourhood that seems to remain alive around the year.
It is easy to credit this liveliness to concerts and religious discourses that are held here round the year. But if you look closely, there is lots more that engage different groups.
Raga Sudha hall on Luz Avenue is one of the many venues for concerts.
Last week though it drew a completely different set of people.
They were labour union leaders and students, academicians and Left-leaning activists, lawyers and the rest. And they were here to celebrate the life and work or a brilliant scholar-activist and teacher who is no more – Dilip Veeraraghavan.
Dilip grew up in Mylapore, soaked in Marxism, enrolled at the IIT-Madras for his doctoral studies and was the sort who attended factory gate meetings and labour strikes in the city.
In between, he would dip his hands into community campaigns and social issues.
Two decades after he received his Ph D., his research thesis has now been published as a book titled ‘The Making of the Madras Working Class’ and releasing this book at Raga Sudha was the head of the CPI(M) party, Prakash Karat, who had also cut his teeth by attending gate meetings after his studies at Madras Christian College.
Rarely has such a big crowd been at this hall for a non-music event

It was much later, when I interacted with old friends and new ones that I got to realise the amazing circle of friends and well-wishers that Veeraraghavan had cultivated through life. And here they were to celebrate him at the release of what is said to be a very important book on the labour movement in India.
Prakash Karat made an important observation that evening – we do not care to keep and maintain records and very few people attempt to document and write on key developments around us.
It is a message that institutions and communities must consider seriously.
Documenting the life and times of a 1965 sabha or that of a 40-year-old primary school is as important as the early days of labour unions in our city.