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(ARCHIVE) Vol. XX No. 9, august 16-31, 2010

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From ‘bunktea’ to Nawabi days

Capturing the spirit of Madras

The Don of Design

Naming them picturesquely

Racing in February

From ‘bunktea’ to Nawabi days
(By Vincent D’ Souza)

What is bunk tea?

Tea made in the bunkers? Tea not made from tea leaves? We were at the foothills of St. Thomas’ Mount. Richard O’Connor had come to meet me because we wanted to make a recce of this area and find out if there was a possibility of hosting a Heritage Walk for the Madras Week celebrations.

It was 4.30 p.m.

“Would you like to have bunk tea before we set out?”

I was puzzled.

There exists a colourful lexicon of the Anglo-India language and though I have moved with it for many years, I had not heard of ‘bunk tea’.

Richard, who works for the Customs at the Chennai Airport Complex and lives on the ‘hill’, pointed out a tea shop with an asbestos roof, as if to answer me.

“That’s the bunk!”

I got it.

And from the teashop owner there was more to learn when I asked him why the tea looked orangeish. “People want it strong so we mix Kannan Devan and 3 Roses.”

I thought of that blackboard kept outside the old India Coffee Depot off Mount Road, behind India Silk House, and the coffee mix they offered to customers.

There is so much you discover, experience and feel when you volunteer to take a closer look at places.

Anwar, photographer and researcher, was tentative about hosting a Heritage Walk that took you to the last days of the Nawabs, but he was planning to do an illustrated talk.

So I joined him for a recce of the Palace of Chepauk and of Triplicane. This area was our haunt when we were teenagers. But Anwar had the history of places we took for granted, included a simple arch over a street that is 6 feet wide.

When we looked around for a tea shop, we stopped at a nook that sold samosas, vadas and a sweet made from beaten rice and sugar, in a street where once the devadasis are said to have lived.

Madras Day / Week will hopefully show you a city you have not known or seen or felt.


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Capturing the spirit of Madras
(By Revathi R)

What is Madras to young Chennaiites?

Those grand old tales

Over 2000 entries have been received till August 10th for the Madras Kathai contest (, in which schoolchildren have to record stories told to them by senior citizens in their homes and neighbourhood. This initiative involving the young is by Prodigy Books and, a website for Chennai children (run by Revathi R.) and they plan to publish the best 50 entries as a book.

Revathi R

At two photowalks early in August that YOCee, a website for Chennai children, organised as a pre-event of the Madras Week celebrations, the children captured the spirit of the city through their simple aim-and-shoot cameras.

When YOCee approached N. Ramaswamy to lead the photowalk for children, he was excited. Ram is a dedicated blogger chronicling the city in pictures through his blog http://chennaidailyfoto.

The walk on August 1st started at the famed Ratna Cafe in Triplicane and the children walked shooting all that is Madras to them to Pycroft’s Road. They clicked the Hindu High School campus (opened on March 12, 1898, according to a plaque) and the Sri Saraswathi Gana Nilayam established in 1939 with the name written in Tamil font of yesteryear. An old bus stop sign board at the Gosha Hospital stop was another many rushed to click. The last stop was at Presidency College, another landmark of the city.

Over the next weekend, walking along Poonamalle High Road was a different experience for students from Maharshi Vidya Mandir, Chetpet, who participated as a group. Along with them a few children from Kilpauk and a few from Mylapore and Adyar travelled all the way early in the morning to reach Ega theatre, the start point of the walk, at 7 a.m.

Walking on one side of the road, they stopped at a huge green campus that houses the Chetpet Post Office. In quest of history behind the campus, one child peeled off the wall poster hiding the factual evidence that the property belongs to Kanchipuram Ekambaranathar Temple!

The Seetha Kingston House and the really huge campus of St George’s School & Orphanage with its colonial red buildings kept them busy shooting.

The photos taken by the children during these walks have been pooled and are printed for exhibition during the Madras Week at four different venues: Maharshi Vidya Mandir, Lady Willingdon School, Anna University (School of Architecture), and the Alliance Francaise Madras.

Here’s a true coming together of celebrating the spirit of Madras.


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The Don of Design
(By P.C. Ramakrishna)

He is a producer, director, actor, sets and lighting designer, plus impresario, to boot – theatre’s Kapil Dev, if you like. He is Mithran Devanesan, and he’d probably enjoy being compared to Kapil Dev; for, not only is Mithran an ‘all rounder’, but he is also a near-fanatical follower of Indian cricket. Come rain or shine, if our cricket team is playing anywhere, even against Iceland, you can be sure Mithran is glued to the TV, urging them on, wearing his patriotism on his sleeve – a facet of the man that we recognise more in his life and work.

Mithran Devanesan

Mithran began his theatre career under Ammu Mathew (who didn’t?) by initially sweeping the stage for her productions, as he is fond of saying; and, believe me, the 100-year-old wooden planks of the Museum Theatre in those days really did take some sweeping! He was a keen observer and quick learner. Soon he picked up from her the dynamics of theatre – what makes a production tick. Mithran worked on the technical side of all of Ammu’s productions, accumulating ideas and sharpening his skills. He never was really gung-ho about acting, though, but was persuaded to do a couple of roles in the early years. In Tiger Tiger, he told Ammu that he’d act only if she gave him the role of the sadistic rapist, Maqbool Khan. She gave it to him; Mithran shaved himself bald (he could still get it done those days!), played Maqbool with ferocity laced with ghoulish delight, and generally had a ball! He was also cast by Yamuna to play the title role of Androcles in Androcles and the Lion, opposite the Amazon Hilary Von Schomberg who played his wife. The contrast in size between the two worked wonderfully for the play. A couple of smaller roles, too, came his way during this initial period – the early 1970s.

By now, however, Mithran had lost the edge for acting, finding his focus shifting to design and production. Vimal Bhagat’s wife, Nikki, an architect, started to get involved in set design, and Mithran acknowledges her influence in the development of his own skills. He still talks of the sets for A View from the Bridge, and Virginia Woolf, on which he worked with her, as important phases in his evolution in this field. It was then that he perfected his understanding of angles, texture and colour, which set him on his way to designing some of the most innovative, yet functional, sets for the productions of The Madras Players.

There are plays, of course, that work with no sets – just space and may be colour (or the lack of it). But a majority of plays need sets to contextualise and locate them, not only for the actors, but also for the audience. Quite often, they create the ambience that defines the play, make it real, bring it alive. Mithran’s sets have been written about, extolled, studied, analysed, and used as models in the world of theatre, not just in Madras. His sets for The Shadow Box, The Diary of Anne Frank, Anna Weiss and Mahesh Dattani’s Tara illustrate the phenomenal range of his imagination – from the seemingly simple (Anna Weiss) to the spatially complex (Anne Frank). In The Lizard Waltz, his set literally weighed a ton, as he had to create an entire TV studio, complete with control room and catwalk, and still provide space for the actors to move.

I would, however, like to single out three productions in which Mithran’s designs worked in very special and different ways – Dance Like a Man, Mangalam, and Mercy.

A scene from the play Dance Like a Man – with Mithran’s midas touch.

Dance Like a Man is set in an old ancestral house, which is home to the middle-aged dancing couple Ratna and Jairaj, and their dancing daughter, but which still resonates with the strident tones of Jairaj’s late father, Amritlal, the hard-nosed businessman and resident despot. The house needed to reflect both these periods in time, as the action of the play moves seamlessly between the past and the present. What Mithran gave us was a house with arched entrances and doorways, the walls of which he painted in a shade of fading yellow, and determined the acting spaces for the past-present transition through lighting. There was the Amritlal corner, the dance area, the Ratna-Jairaj domain, and a shadowy region of stairs to the upper region. He threw in an old gramophone player, period furniture, and other knick-knacks and, lo and behold, when we entered the set, we were in our home – the home with so many painful memories, which the yellowing walls could not erase. Compare this to the glitz and opulence of Lillette Dubey’s Bombay production, and you realise immediately the difference between sensitivity and sensationalism.

In striking contrast was Mithran’s set for Mangalam. The play is set in a lower-middle class Brahmin home in the agraharam of a small town near Kumbakonam. The play was being performed at the Alliance Francaise auditorium, which was small and did not possess many facilities then. Mithran designed thinnais or front sit-outs, defining the two distinct areas in the house. He put a thulasi madam in the centre between the thinnais, and then delivered the coup de grace – dummy wooden projections at roof level on both sides of the set, suggesting rafters within the house. It was a touch of pure inspiration, and fixed the location and ambience of the play exactly.

Mercy was a first-time effort in Madras at solo theatre in English. I had been fascinated with Sivasankari’s novel Karunai Kolai, on the subject of euthanasia. It dealt with a woman in coma for nine months and her husband’s trauma during that period. The anguish and desperation of this man had been adapted by me as a piece of solo theatre. I needed someone to understand the conflict, design the production, plus direct me. Without hesitation, I went to the best in the business – Mithran. He, too, was excited by the play, and felt challenged by the format, as there were no stage directions, no descriptions of settings etc. All he knew was that the action happens in the woman’s music room. Mithran had to create everything from scratch, and what a design he came up with! He virtually caged me in a semi-circular wooden grid, surrounded by musical instruments repeatedly echoing her music, a prone figure suspended behind the grid, shadowy and surreal. It not only defined the space and the turbulence in the man’s mind, but was visually stunning. And with the lighting design that he had devised, it was an experience like none other. I do believe it is one of Mithran’s most imaginative works, because it had to not merely address a man’s space, but reflect his claustrophobic mind. It is a design that deserves to go into the manuals.

As a director, Mithran is very, very different. He chooses his actors carefully, and then trusts them implicitly. He blocks the movement, initiates the chemistry of action, and then apparently withdraws, leaving the actors to explore nuances and experiment with movement, stopping them only if things go haywire. This allows retention of freshness through rehearsals, leading to spontaneity in performance. Looking back, it seems to me that I have done more plays under Mithran’s direction than anyone else’s. I remember with satisfaction The Shadow Box, Tiger, Fragments, Next, Dance Like a Man, Anna Weiss.

The comedy Funny Money was so successful that it was invited to Coimbatore, Bangalore, Goa and even Sri Lanka. Mithran also has the gift of drawing on his wide reading (he is a voracious reader), and making humorous compilations. This English was one such that we milked for over 30 or 40 shows. Smoke Signals, on tobacco, The Rain it Raineth Every Day, from Elizabethan writing, Sex – the most fun you can have without laughing, etc. have entertained audiences over the years.

There are a couple of things Mithran found very difficult to do, though. One was to give up smoking – he tried it 150 times. He was the last of the great smokers in Theatre.

There was a time in the 1970s when rehearsals would soon be enveloped in a pall of dense smoke, with Vimal, Yusuf, Mithran, myself and sundry others giving the weed the good old drag. En route, everyone gave up, leaving Mithran alone, sending up smoke signals as the ‘Last of the Mohicans’. Currently, however, he has kicked the habit – “Out, out, brief Weed...!”

The other burning desire he has is a complete tonsure, not that there is much there to excite the barber into doing cartwheels. With the few strands he has left, Mithran has tried the pony tail, the tight bun, and other hirsute ornamentation.

He is now at his wit’s (hair’s) end, he says, and wants to go for the billiard ball look. Alas, his mother will have none of it, and restrains him every time the topic is raised; and Mithran is left looking for new ways to deal with something that is neither “hair nor there!”

Had Mithran been abroad, his virtuosity would have made him one of the most sought-after theatre designers. But it is a measure of his love for India that he chooses to do his work here, watching Saurav Ganguly fail for the umpteenth time, and still saying – “But did you watch the innings he played against Sri Lanka at Taunton?” – (Courtesy: Bring down the House Lights.)


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Naming them picturesquely
(By T.K. Srinivas Chari)

Branding your cattle with a hot iron stamp to distinguish them is the history behind modern business need for brand identity. Speaking of brands and cattle, the world-renowned picturesque annual five-day Pushkar livestock fair in Rajasthan comes to mind. Will women who go there to shop for jewellery and textiles come across a ‘GRT Bangle mela’?

Putting aside the issue of marketing in rural areas, let’s zero in on certain unusual promotional names that you comes across in namma Chennai.

Even the remover of obstacles in the Hindu pantheon has been branded. There’s a temple for Cricket Pillaiyar!

The branding strategy starts in getting the right name for crèches, activity centres and pre-schools. Sample these. Grandma and Grandpa’s, Learning Tree, Spring Blossom, Sapling, Hansel & Gretel and Kanchana Patti. The School is a typical generic name. Another is Sishya (an Indian word for student).

English magazines having not so run-of-the-mill names are Frozen Thoughts, Culturama and Frappe.

To name two publishing houses with Indian names: Tulika (quill) and Tara (star).

The fear prevailing in our city about mosquito bites has been used to name a cricket team Mambalam Mosquitos.

And there’s an interesting story behind one of the city’s hospitals named after Christian Albert Theodor Billroth. Generally regarded as the founding father of modern abdominal surgery, he was one of the first to attempt a scientific analysis of musicality.

Working on the premise that smiling more often can improve your heart condition and overall health, offering you smile makeovers are dentists who brand their clinics with striking names and attractive visuals. Some in this list are the international Dr. Smilez (the ‘m’ in the illustration is shaped like a tooth) chain of clinics, five of them in Chennai alone.

Another city clinic with a novel name is Saycheese and the illustration shows the text placed in the bitten off portion of an apple.

Some of the other dental clinics with names that stand out are The Tooth Place, Tooth Fairy, Twinkle and one calling itself the V.H. Sunshine Dental Clinic.

Shops selling optical products with names that have got it right are C thru and Lens & Frames and Focus.

Trying to carve an identity for themselves in the competitive world of gyms are names like Fitness One, Pink (think ‘in the pink of health’) and O2.

Forget fitness, think food. And the names seem endless – Eden, Veg Nation, 2 Square, Eatalica, Mast Kalandar, Rasam, Mathsya, Mr & Mrs Idly, Dosa Calling, Holy Smoke, Ali Juice Centre, Milky Way, Frosty Yumm, Freez Zone, and Sinful Something, among others. The most unpretentious of them all is a restaurant called Hotel Runs.

Shops that sell clothes with catchy names are Dollars & Pounds, Handcuff, Mee, Sting and Mom & I.

With the private sector stepping into banking in India, there’s Yes Bank.

Shops selling household needs with fancy names are Mummy Daddy and Aunty Uncle. And then there is Amma Naana, and Brown Tree.

It’s easy to guess that Koblerr, Soles and Mochi (Hindi for cobbler) sell footwear.

Anything and everything have labels. Only some stick, some don’t. For instance, among all the apartments in Chennai, there’s one overlooking the Cooum, named River Heights.

According to landscape garden artist, writer and lecturer David S. Slawson, ‘‘Names are an important key to what society values. Anthropologists recognise naming as one of the chief methods for imposing order on perception.’’


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50 years of the Madras Motor Sports Club
Racing in February
(From Sholavaram to Irungatukottai – 50 years of the Madras Motor Sports Club
By B.I. Chandok)

(Continued from last fortnight)

The old racing fraternity from Madras consisted of Genji Varugis in his MG, Babbaya (K.P. Ranganatha Rao) in his Citroen Special, and Babu Mathen in the SIAC Special; Mike Satow and Kinny Lal from Calcutta; K. Rajagopal, K. Sundararam from Coimbatore; N. Soundararajan from Dindigul; the Maharajah of Gondal, P.S. Hariharan in his Triumph Jaguar 150, Haji Sattar Sait in his Triumph Jaguar 150, Kumar Siddanna in his MG Twin overhead cam, A.D. Jayaram in his Jayaram Special, Loganathan in a Buck Fiat, Freddie Webb in a Jaguar Mark V, John Webb in a 1952 Chevy with 3 Stromberg carburettors from Bangalore, and Palaniappa Chettiar from Salem in his Cadillac Automatic.

The main two-wheeler competitors were Sheriff Dyan, Bullet Bhasky, P.D. Sathy and Bose from Madras apart from the regulars like Tyrewala from Bombay and Krishnaswamy from Coimbatore.

As the old guard moved out, there was a void which was filled by drivers from Ceylon. The cars had Mike Rauf, David Pieris, Priya Munasinghe and Shanti Gunaratne, while the bikes had Rally and Zacky Dean, U.D. Jinadasa and Raja Sinathorai, apart from a host of other riders. Since the races at Sholavaram were normally held during December or early January, the group from Ceylon found it very difficult to get here in time for the MMSC races because the ferry service was closed from November to the second week in January. Hence, to accommodate the strong Ceylon contingent, the Club decided to shift to the first Sunday in February. Coimbatore and Bangalore also scheduled their races to follow the Madras races at one-week intervals. Thus, during February, there were three All-India Races – in Madras, Bangalore and Coimbatore. There were even reciprocal arrangements with Sri Lanka and our teams – Maharaj Kumar of Gondal, Nazir Hoosein and Dr. Rossi in his V-12 Ferrari in their cars, and Sheriff Dyan, Prithivi Baveja and Bhasky and others in their bikes – went to Sri Lanka.

* * *

Can you imagine a starting grid with a Buck Fiat, Chevrolet Studebaker, Cadillac, Standard 10, Fiat, MG, Mercedes 300 SL coupe, Ferrari V-12, M.G. Twin Cam, Jaguar Mark V & VII, Fiat Spyder, Triumph TR-3, Austin Healey and a Modified Jaguar 2½ litre car? This was the scene when enthusiasts decided to start racing in India.

Since handicap racing had its own problems, it was decided to encourage the building of a Formula India car. The first such car was developed by Kinny Lal and Suresh Kumar from Calcutta around an Ambassador engine and it was called the ‘Qumari Special’. Adi Malgam developed a frame around which Vicky Chandhok of Madras developed the first indigenous racing car in Madras with a Herald engine. Many ancillary industries like India Radiators, Brakes India, Rane Madras, Gabriel (shock absorbers), Union Company and Wheels India donated components which helped to keep the cost of the car down. These companies used the race tack to test their components.

Suresh Naik of Bombay drove the Teksons Special, Taifar Special, Rolon Special from Coimbatore, and many others followed. Special rules were drafted with specifications for a car which could also be used on the road.

Bombay and Coimbatore built the cars with Fiat engines, Calcutta with Ambassador engines and Madras and Bangalore with Herald engines. The slip up in the permissible weight below 500 kg ruined the concept and though, these cars had lights, horns, etc., they could not be used on the roads. The only car that came close to comfort was a car made by TVS in Madurai. However, because the others were much lighter, this car was not competitive. All the specials, however, started the swing to having competitive racing.

The big hero on the racing scene then was the Maharajkumar of Gondal in a F5, which was fast and a big crowd-puller. Vicky Chandhok got an Image-Formula Ford and this was the beginning of getting racing cars that would give Indian drivers a chance to get closer to world class. F-2000 was the next jump for Vicky, Karivardhan, Vijay Mallya in F 1 and Akbar Ebrahim. The latter trained here and went on to racing F-3 in the UK. Soon he was followed by Narain Karthikeyan and now Karun Chandhok.

The real improvement to the racing scene was made by the late Karivardhan. He developed the real Indian racing car engine, but unfortunately did not make this a single make car. Specifications were there, but without the single make restriction the class started tottering. With the sudden death of Kari in a plane crash, this class stagnated till JK Tyres came forward to give tyres to all competitors and this revived the FISSME class because everyone raced on similar tyres.

B. Vijaykumar has now developed a single make LG special and this is a step in the right direction. It is only hoped that the enthusiasm shown by the car manufactureres, especially Maruti Udyog, results in a faster Indian racing car – single make which can set up as a Formula Asia single-seater.

(To be continued)


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In this issue

Just out, for Madras Week
When religion turns to realty
Govt. dithers on green spaces
We’re impeding the Sprint of the Blackbuck
From Kanchi to political leadership
The making of a Madras calendar
Other stories

Our Regulars

Short 'N' Snappy
Our Readers Write
Quizzin' with Ram'nan


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