Chennai is a coffee connoisseur's home turf , and it is only befitting that the idea of celebrating Madras Day was brewed by journalists Sashi Nair, Vincent D'Souza and author S Muthiah, while sipping a cup of coffee. That was in 2004.
The trio felt that the city deserved a special day dedicated to celebrating its history and heritage. After all, Madras is where modern India began, when Francis Day acquired a piece of land from the last king of Chandragiri on August 22, 1639 (Some dispute the month, claiming the sale happened in July, but Day is thought to have arrived in Madras only on July 22).
We all know that piece of land as Fort St George. We have also learnt to appreciate our heritage, thanks to Madras Day events, but we still need to walk the talk, says V Sriram, historian and one of the organizers of Madras Day events. Excerpts from an interview with him.
Q. Would you say that the Madras Day celebrations this year have been spread out to more localities, in keeping with the way Chennai has expanded? What would you say are the challenges here?
A: It definitely has spread out more, and it is reflected in the fact that this year we are seeing 25% more events, compared to last year, although in terms of locality we haven't spread far and wide. I must say that in Purasawalkam and other areas of North Chennai there has not been much enthusiasm for Madras Day. The love of history and heritage is still very elitist, and it has not reached the common man on the street. The challenge lies in taking it forward, but the fact is that we are not an organization, merely an enthusiastic group of facilitators. Anyone can approach us and we will give them ideas, and even provide them with a list of speakers etc. It is up to them to take it forward from there.
Q: Are you not worried you would run out of heritage sites?
A: Not at all. In the last eight years we have done 30 heritage walks, and I have enough ideas for another 25 years.
Q. We now know that modern India was seeded in Madras, but has Chennai itself changed? Are we losing a lot of the city's history because of the rapid urbanisation/ infrastructure development ?
A: Chennai has to change , evolve and develop, or it would become another Kolkata. However, Chennai should change in an inclusive way, which is sadly not happening. There is a lot of awareness among Chennaiites and when a heritage structure is under threat, many rally around. But after that they close the doors. Advocacy is the best way to raise awareness, but pro active activism is still a long way off, especially among the government employees and the business community. In both categories some individuals have always tried to make a difference. Parry and Co , Amalgamations and TVS group are some of the companies with a high level of commitment to modernizing within the parameters of heritage.
Q: Are we lacking only in awareness, in matters of heritage buildings?
A: The government has appointed a heritage Conservation Committee, so that is a big start. The problem is that our technological expertise is very poor. If there is a seepage in the bathroom, the plumber tells you to go in for vitrified tiles. Nobody seems to have the time to explore how to recycle old buildings and ancient wood work. We need to wake up now, before we lose the heritage buildings. The traditional method used in restoring Senate House is a positive one, but the maintenance of Queen Mary's College is a bit of a let down. We need to get more serious.
Q: How far have schools shown an interest in the Madras Day lectures?
A: Many schools have responded well, but the foundation for interest in the subject has been laid by INTACH. They have been active in schools for years now.. As I said, there is no lack of awareness..
Q: What are your five favorite heritage spots of Chennai?
A: The entire George Town—NSC Bose Road, Rajaji Salai, Old Jail Road and Waltax Road is top of the charts for me. Park Town stretching from St Andrew's Kirk to Nurses' Hostel and Madras Medical College is at number two. Mylapore Kapaleeswarar Temple and Tank, the Parthasarathy temple in Triplicane and the Chepauk Palace are the other favourites. The last one is a special one , since Indo Saracenic architecture was born there.
Q: Are you harnessing social media networks to bring in NRIs into the loop during the celebrations? Have you tried live streaming of lectures?
A: Very much. We are very active on Facebook and Twitter . We have a Madras Day page, and many of us blog as well. In fact the great grandson of Loane—he was the chief engineer of the then Corporation in 1890— has been writing to us regularly.
Q: Like the Margazhi Music Festival, the Madras Day has become a calendar event. What is your team's feeling now?
A: We do not want it to plateau out. There are around 20 of us now. Apart from the original three, we have Sushila Ravindranath, Sushi Natrajan, Chitra, Padma Swaminathan, Pramod, Bhatt and many others volunteering to help Chennaiiites celebrate their history and heritage. We organize eight talks and four heritage walks each year. But Madras Day should not be exclusively with a handful of people. We need more public participation. This is our city, our event.
Q: As a Chennaiite what is the one thing that bothers you on this Madras Day ?
A: Our apathy towards filth and garbage. This mindset is very , very frightening. As a city we have developed a chalta hai attitude. We spit, pee, chuck plastic everywhere , thoughtlessly. We have become immune to the very concept of hygiene.
Q: Has anyone come up with a Madras Day anthem?
A: Not so far. But we are confident it will happen.
Image: This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.
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Bhama Devi Ravi is a Chennai based journalist