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(ARCHIVE) Vol. XIX No. 12, october 1-15, 2009
A blogger’s view
of some of the Madras Week talks
(Posted on

Posted by Sridhar Joshi at 4:29 a.m. on August 17th

A friend, Sivakumar, my wife and I reached the Park Sheraton at around 15.20 hrs, well in time for the first of the Madras Musings Lecture series scheduled for 16.00 hrs. The venue was Dublin, the discotheque of the hotel. A very apt venue indeed, for a speech titled Some scandals of Madras. The speaker needs no introduction – Randor Guy, the evergreen legal eagle, historian, film buff and what not.

Not having stepped into Dublin earlier, we took a rather long time finding where it was. We had to ask at least three people to get there, only to be welcomed by a “Sorry, Sir, the disco opens at six.” I am sure the guy at the entrance was trying to figure out how on earth we could spend time on a dance floor – a paunchy 43-year-old, a white-bearded 43-year-old and a DVT-affected lady! We explained we were there for a lecture. Thank God we were there early – the seats were full by about 15.45.

The setting was perfect, dim and diffused lighting, just like they say the time when scandals happen. The anecdotes came thick and fast from Randor; he did not name any person as he espied that there were some descendants attending the speech. But there was a tinge of disappointment. Randor must have held back deliberately – the punches were a tad less than in previous years. But whatever was there was lapped up in glee and loud laughs by the audience, which had by now swelled to people sitting on the stairs. When it all ended, many must have felt that the dinner was over with the appetiser! But there is always a next time, and I only hope that Randor Guy will next year speak on ‘Some more scandals of Madras’, or at least, ‘The cabaret dances of Madras’, and the venue will be Dublin again. Would Dublin offer a performance as well, if the topic is the latter?

Posted by Sridhar Joshi at 4:24 a.m. on August 18th

My knowledge of fine arts like Indian classical music, dances is not worth even two paise, and can be written on the back of a postage stamp! For me, though, any fine arts performance qualifies as a good one if, at the end of the day, I come back satisfied with having spent a worthwhile time.

That was exactly the feeling, and much, much more, when I exited The Park after a great speech – should we say performance, or should we say a lecdem – by Aruna Sairam, the Carnatic vocalist.

Aruna recalled her early days in Bombay, particularly her interactions with her guru, a rather hard taskmaster and another of those icons of Carnatic music, Brinda. One day, when one of Brinda’s students had brought a notebook to take notes at the music class, Brinda, seeing the notebook, chided the girl: Enna, kaadhu kondu varaliya? (“Have you forgotten to bring your ears?)”

The lecture was also more about what singing in Madras meant. She confessed rather candidly that the decision she took to move to Madras to further her singing career was late. There were hardly a handful to listen to her during her first two visits to Madras, even though she was well received at private functions and public performances abroad and elsewhere in India. However, according to her, “An artiste’s true worth is when the discerning Madras audience accepts a singer.”

She worked hard on getting Madras to accept her. She recalls, “Once, I was singing with a Mani mama – my child on my lap and the sambar boiling in the kitchen. Swara after swara after swara, when Mani mama interrupted me and gave me sound advice – ‘Do not go for a wide range that you cannot handle. Develop lateral thinking around a limited range’. Those were golden words I cannot forget.”

She confessed to feeling rather lost in Madras in those early days, wondering what to do with her hard-earned knowledge. That’s when a group of friends gave her a piece of their mind – yes, a bit of advice about where she should improve to make it big, like changing her repertoire and other small adjustments. This was when she felt like, in her own frank words, the proverbial ‘Dhobi ka kutha, na ghar ka, na ghat ka’!

She had a very forthright answer when I asked her how much of an influence Hindustani music had on her. “In Madras, I have the reputation of singing Carnatic through Hindustani.” That was following her wonderful rendition of an Abhang!

At the end of the day, rather the evening, if a two-paise worth fine arts rasika like me felt like wanting more, there can be no greater tribute to Aruna and her voice – whether speaking or singing.

Posted on on August 19th

Just before the lecture began, somebody asked C.V. Karthik Narayan whether he was raring to go like a horse. Karthik’s repartee at the top of his speech was, “Yes, you decide at the end whether I neigh or bray.” That set the tone for a historical walk down memory lane, oops, that should be a drive down memory lane – it isn’t for anything that Chennai is the new-age Detroit!

He turned the ignition key on with maps of Chennai on the screen, and I was surprised that I had not realised till then that, with the possible exception of the OMR and the ECR, all roads radiating out of Chennai have a strong presence in either automobile or ancillary manufacturing. The fact that Chennai has sustained what has been arguably the most auto industry-friendly metropolitan agglomeration speaks volumes about the foresight of the visionaries who ruled the roads – rather, ruled the machines that ruled the roads.

The long and rewarding journey actually started in 1840, when Simpson’s set up shop in India, apparently to manufacture harnesses and the like. It went on to make coaches, palanquins and the howdah for Buckingham, the architect of the Buckingham Canal. Being a railfan myself, I was rather ashamed that I did not know that Simpson’s manufactured the coaches for the first-ever rail run in the South, from Royapuram to Arcot!

In 1940, it was Simpson’s again, this time jump in with a gas-plant fitted car and having people go right up to Peshawar to sell them! That was a period when giants like Visveswarayya thought about cars and Lalchand Hirachand talked about cars.

In the 1940s, Raghunandan Saran came down all the way from Delhi to set up Ashok Motors, the precursor to Ashok Leyland that we know today. The first Austin A40 was assembled in Ashok Motors. The story of Ashok Motors, particularly after its collaboration with Leyland, is one of spectacular achievement. AL was the leader in every sense of the word. It pioneered multi-axle vehicles, owned a test track and probably had the best R & D in India! No wonder, the Indian Army relies heavily on AL!

Standard Motors started operations in a shed in Chromepet and assembled tractors that were manufactured by Massey Fergusson. When Massey Fergusson bought over the Standard Motors at Coventry, the factory in Madras moved to Perungalathur, and started manufacture of the Standard Vanguard. Standard also developed the Herald, the iconic car, from scratch and probably was way ahead of its times with two doors, advanced suspension and what not. In 1982, Standard came up with the Standard 20, a van as advanced as you could get then. Fully tested for crashworthiness and for aerodynamics at the IIT, Madras, it was a winner, ferrying athletes at the Asiad in Delhi.

Some non-Standard stuff now. In 1957, Sundaram Iyer collaborated with Enfield to start Royal Enfield, and brought out India’s first four-stroke 350 cc motorbike. What a rhythmic beat the Bullet has! Even today, it will put any pretender to shame.

The biggest advantage, according to Karthik, has been the strong ancillary industry the vehicle manufacture triggered. The TVS group, the Rane group, UCAL and many more have never had second thoughts of collaborations, investments and taking risks. Economic liberalisation meant that the halcyon days of Madras in the forefront of the auto industry were never really in doubt.

Karthik ended up certainly neighing as well as any pedigree would have! It is about time that he changed his name to ‘Car’thick!


In this issue

The road ahead...
Twists and turns...
During Madras Week...
A blogger's view...
Historic Residences...
Other stories

Our Regulars

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


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