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(ARCHIVE) Vol. XIX No. 18, january 1-15, 2010

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The pluses and minuses of highrise

A walk along the beach

A new life for the old

This is Chennai, in a dancer’s view

English theatre – with Indian dance and music

The pluses and minuses
of highrise
(By G.V. Ramakrishnan, IAS, Rtd.)

At a seminar recently organised by the Construction Industry Development Council – Chennai Advisory Group, a number of representatives from industry and research institutions participated and presented several technical papers.

Apart from the technical aspects of construction of highrise buildings, there are a number of other factors that have to be studied to understand the implications of the impact of such buildings on living conditions in cities.

Multistoried buildings are generally classified by CMDA rules as buildings with ground plus three floors. Now, high­rise buildings are defined as those over 100 metres in height.

The Palais Royale highrise builidng in Worli in Mumbai was India’s first residential building of this type. It caters to super luxury living with four flats of 7500 sq ft per flat on each floor. The top floors consist of duplex villas, swimming pools, car park etc.

The technology, equipment and standards used are quite different from those used for multistoreyed buildings. The builders had to deal with new problems like water in the foundation stage, seismic activity and protection against tremors. New standards of fire protection had to be developed based on the experience of foreign countries.

While the Palais Royale building caters to the super luxury class, other buildings, even in Mumbai, cater to the average upper and middle class residents. Mumbai has had a history of poor construction and safety standards in some of the older buildings, with some recent buildings under construction also going down. To ensure safety and quality in the construction of highrise buildings calls for a paradigm shift in all activities connected with construction. Are our regulatory and supervisory bodies ready for the new challenges posed by highrise buildings?

Apart from design and construction of highrise buildings, there is the big issue of actual living in these buildings. The FSI (Floor Space Index) being relaxed to 2 or 2.5 to make it worthwhile for builders to go in for highrise buildings to meet the needs of a growing population, the number of flats and persons living on each floor will be quite high, about 300 to 400 persons per floor. People in these flats on the 15th to 25th floor level will have to deal with several problems for which training and discipline will be necessary. Some of these are dealt with below.

Car parking: With each flat having at least one car, there has to be provision for parking a few hundred cars. Multi-level parking, mechancial hoists, etc. will have to be provided and people trained to use them.

Garbage disposal: Garbage collection and disposal is already a major problem in all urban centres. Segregation of biodegradable and non-biodegradable waste is not being done. Garbage from the scores of flats in a highrise building will be a serious problem. In some places, garbage chutes have been introduced to bring down waste from the upper floors to ground floor.

Since there is no check on the garbage that goes in and also the collection of garbage in plastic bags before it is put in chutes, this calls for consumer education and discipline.

Domestic help movement facilitation: The flats will require dozens of persons to go to the upper floors at least once or twice a day to sweep, clean, wash etc. There will be a lot of acitivity and separate elevators will have to be provided for such service personnel. A lot of energy will be consumed in providing power for the use of separate elevators almost continuously.

Lifts and elevators: It is our experience that there is frequent breakdown of elevators. Persons stuck even on 7th or 8th floor will find it difficult to climb down. So there is need for standby elevators, auxiliary power systems, and continuous maintenance.

Fire safety: Electrical short circuiting and cooking gas accidents are major source of fire mishaps in many buildings. There should be stringent fire safety standards on par with international levels. Electrical connections will be installed by several private contractors and they should be strictly monitored. For major fires above the 6th or 7th floor there will be great difficulty in getting persons evacuated. The capacity of fire safety equipment in India stops at 7th / 8th floor. Fire security should have international standards to fight fires in the higher floors of the building.

Safety: The technological changes required in the construction, maintenance and occupation of highrise buildings calls for major changes in all these areas, somewhat similar to moving from Dakota airplanes to Concordes. The chaotic condition of urban areas is likely to be compounded several times if highrise buildings are allowed to come up in areas less than 5 acres. There has to be a careful study of all these aspects by people’s groups along with technical persons.

Costs: For adopting the latest technologies for construction and maintenance of highrise buildings, the cost will be very high. Builders should not try to cut standards. Regulatory and inspection agencies should be particularly vigilant in monitoring the work of construction agencies.


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A walk along the beach
(Text and pictures by A. Rajaram)

The weather gods have relented, giving us some rain over the last few weeks and it is reasonably pleasant in the morning for a beachside walk. Not being of the early bird kind, I get out for a walk only after half past six when there is sufficient light to enjoy a little nature left on the beachside and a bit of exercise. The very early walkers are already on the way back, a few sporting a funny stick to ward off aggressive country dogs that don’t take kindly to oldish men in strange attire at these hours.

On our beach road, it is always advisable to wear a cap that helps to shield you from the sun which is rather strong here. For a naturalist, the wayside plants are the first attraction. After the rains in September, there is a spurt in growth and many are in flower. The pictures seen alongside are of the flowers that can be seen and appreciated on the Kottivakkam beach. The green carpet on the sands by the sea is formed by the creepers, the Beach Bean and the Goat’s Foot Glory growing densely together. The East Coast Beach Walkers’ Association (ECBWA) periodically removes these plants, but they persistently grow back. They hold the seasand well and, even when there is strong breeze, sand from the beach doesn’t get blown on to the road.

The plants are in bloom now, and it is a pretty sight to see the carpet of green adorned with pink dots. There is a lot of insect activity in this area as we can see from the swallows zooming over here catching midges. The omniscient crow is also present, industriously trying to catch crickets and grasshoppers and looking for insect egg cases below the leaves. They promptly abandon this labour when a ‘kindly’ soul puts out corn or other junk food for them.

It is difficult to concentrate on nature alone as there are detractions aplenty. There are people who as they walk suddenly thrust out their hands sideways and above, finishing with a clap over their heads – all part of their exercising and you have to be watchful of them. Sometimes you are unable to hear the bird calls, like those of the Ashy wren warbler and Tailor bird, since there is a Hare Krishna group busy chanting. Would they ever understand if I tell them that I would rather listen to the birds?

On the seaside walk you cannot escape the canines. I have learnt a lot about dog behaviour on these walks. Each stretch of the area is controlled by a separate local group. If a dog wants to go past the area of a different group, it will attach itself to a human, keeping disconcertingly close to him much to his annoyance but detaches itself once safe territory is reached. It is interesting to watch the interaction between pet dogs and the free rangers. Some well trained pet dogs just ignore the locals. They are not on a leash and reflect the nature of their owners – indifferent to provocations. Those on a leash sometimes bark back and the owners try to shoo away the crowding aggressors and you cannot suppress a smile. The droppings of both pet and country dogs are strewn on the road and I have only once seen a dog owner putting the readily available sand on his pet’s dropping. May his tribe increase!

On special days, functions by ECBWA are held on the road. Promoters of healthcare, insurance, car sales, organic foods etc. also use the road, besides the usual vendors. All extra activity results in litter and the Association does its bit to clean up afterwards. In my young days we used to do environmental cleaning on Gandhi Jayanti day, but this activity, along with his other noble principles, have been given the go by. Now it is a ‘Clean the beaches campaign’ sponsored by many organisations with lots of money spent on publicity and for TV coverage.

When manmade distractions are not to the fore, Caspian terns flying south may be noticed this season very near the shoreline. They are our largest terns and have a red beak and a black cap. During daytime, they are seen in numbers at Kovalam. A surprise sighting for me on this coastal stretch was a blackcapped kingfisher. Other common birds to be seen include the redvented bulbul, hoopoe, spotted dove, common myna, palm swift, roseringed parakeet, house sparrow, small green bee-eater, shikra, whitebreasted kingfisher and large pied wagtail, but not all of them are sighted on the same day, unfortunately!

My most unforgettable sighting is of around fifty flamingoes lazily flying high up towards the northeast, probably to their abode at Pulicat. Migrant waders also can be seen after the rains, but they are difficult to identify as they mostly travel at dusk, night and dawn. Some of them I have seen in the morning keep very close to the water, almost skimming the surface and making identification difficult with the sunlight reflecting from the background.

When I am disappointed with poor birding, I take recourse to the flowers and insects that can always be found. The Passion flower is marvellous in its symmetry; its cultivated relatives are even more beautiful. Some of the plants seen here do have uses in native medicine but I can testify to only one, i.e. the Tridax procumbens (common name: Coat buttons). The crushed juice from clean leaves is effective in healing open and even infected wounds. In fact, it is called Vettu-kkaya-thalai in Tamil. The White buttercup flowers most often have caterpillars or adults of the tawny coster butterfly feeding on them. The Country mallow flowers open only in the evening, but their disc-like fruits are distinctive. The spiny fruit capsules of the Puncture plant can puncture cycle tyres. Dragonflies are common after the rains and they attract the small green bee-eater. The large vacant plots by the road are the places to look for flowers and birds and, fortunately, some of them are still left.

A point of regret is there are very few people in their teens taking a morning walk (or run) and, even if they are around, they are in couples and interested only in their feelings for one another; the living environment scarcely seems to interest them!


Beach bean Canavalia lineata, Coat buttons Tridax procumbens, Common Pedalium Pedalium murex, Country mallow Abutilon indicum, Goat’s foot glory Ipomoea pes-caprae, Passion flower Passiflora foetida, Puncture plant Tribulus terrestris, White buttercup Turnera subulata, Yellow spider flower Cleome viscosa.


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A new life for the old
(By Savitha Gautam)

We today begin a new occasional series featuring pictures of old Madras and, in some cases, what has become of them. Today we feature a nearly 85-year-old building (Picture 1), that once housed the offices and, more recently, the library and the District Board Room of the Freemasons’ Grand Lodge of the Madras District – the former Madras Presidency.

When a portion of the tiled roof of this cottage-like building collapsed some months ago (Picture 2), it was decided not to pull it down but to renovate if for new use. And in five months, under veteran architect S.L. Chitale’s supervision, it was restored for not only Masonic use but public use as well. The building (Picture 3) will continue to serve as the District’s Library, but the Board Room is now a modern airconditioned auditorium with seating for about 110 and available for theatre and concert performances, lectures, training programmes etc. It has its own parking space and the Freemasons’ Hall kitchen offers catering.

The Library Auditorium is in the campus of the Fremasons’ Hall off Ethiraj Salai. The Hall, inaugurated in 1925, was renovated for the new Millennium by the Masonic Heritage Buildings Trust, which looks after all the Masonic buildings in the District. In its campus are several small buildings of the same vintage.

In renovating the building, the Freemasons have demonstrated how old buildings can not only be put to new use but also serve as income-generators.


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This is Chennai,
in a dancer’s view
(By Pradeep Chakravarthy)

* Chennai, a Bharata Natyam presentation by Dr. Srinidhi Chidambaram at the Music Academy.

Srinidhi Chidambaram

Madras that is Chennai is Srinidhi Chidambaram’s home. It is a city she is deeply involved with and wishes others to share her love for the city. To get more people to see the historic city, rich in cultural content and once environmentally blessed, she recently presented a dance recital on the city that she had choreographed and wedded to narration and song. It was a performance that struck an emotional chord in everyone in the audience who called Chennai ‘home’.

Using a series of five dance items, the well known dancer weaved together different images of Chennai from a personal but still easily communicable point of view. The medium of dance is ideal for telling a story, but the history of Madras has so many factual elements that cannot be easily emoted. To overcome this, she also included a traditional narrator (sutradhara) who, at the beginning of each piece, connected in words the dance to the overall story and gave the audience a sense of what was to follow.

Srinidhi used a combination of songs set in the city or composed in the city by Papanasam Sivan, Dharmapuri Subbaraya and Bharatiar as well as verses specially written for the performance by the poet Vairamuthu.

She did not intend this to be a “scholarly chronicle of the history of this great city, nor did she seek to document its artistic or spiritual lineage.” She intended it to merely be an expression of her love for the city. Being the first of its kind, it was a performance which, hopefully, more dancers will elaborate in time.

In the first piece, we are briefly given the historical context of the city, its names in the past that rolled off the tongue of foreign travellers, and how the Fort and all that is secular or British coexist happily and peacefully with what is ancient and religious – especially the temple of Mylapore. Using a verse from the saint Sambandar, she portrayed the festivities and prosperity of Mylapore. Expanding on this theme, the various facets of the Sivan temple were brought out in the song on the temple by Papanasam Sivan.

The choice of Sambandar’s verses is appropriate as they list, in each verse, a festival celebrated in the temple. This is of great importance for social historians since they give clear proof that, by the 7th Century, temples had become important institutions in the social fabric in terms of providing entertainment as well as pageantry.

Another song captured the contrasts of the city, the beautiful trees and garden houses juxtaposed with roads that were adventures to drive on and unpleasant to the nose!

The dancer also brought the present lifestyle into focus by looking at the lives of working women who juggle a career at work and maternal responsibilities at home. Using the metaphor of a working mother in a rush to leave for work putting her child to sleep, Srinidhi brought out not only the sentiments of many women in modern Chennai but her depiction of the husband showed a man more willing to share the maternal responsibilities.

The musical and cultural heritage of the city was captured in the part where it was the richest – George Town. Taking the image of the legendary veena player Dhanammal, the dancer used a short composition on Dhanammal by the composer Dharmapuri Subba­raya to depict the richness of the arts at the turn of the 20th Century in Madras. With the collapse of the Thanjavur court, artistes migrated to Madras and found patronage from the rising elite of the city. Dhanammal was one such artiste from Thanjavur who became one of the stars of the musical world of Black Town. The song praises her skill at playing the veena, which was worth listening to during her Friday evening soirees in her residence despite her caustic sarcasm and intolerance of anyone who got even faintly distracted during her performances.

The most emotionally appealing part of the performance for many was Srinidhi’s dance on the Cooum River. Using the tanam that reflected perfectly the flowing movements of a river, she showed the progressive ruin of a river that was once so pure that it was considered sacred to bathe in and useful for carrying merchandise as well as picnic groups. The line on how the river was once as grand as an elephant but now reduced to the width of an elephant’s tail was particularly well executed.

If people today dismiss the possibility of bathing in the river, they only need to look at aquarists’ surveys! In 1949, it had 49 species of fish, in the 1970s 21 species and today none at all!

Srinidhi was also emotionally connected to the city and recounted the role of the city in the freedom movement through a song of Bharatiar.


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English theatre –
with Indian dance and music
(By S. Janaki)

A unique feature of Gowri Ramnarayan’s plays is that music is an integral part of her productions. And dance too is often woven into them. You ask her the reason and she excitedly shoots a question at you in return: “Don’t you think music helps us to express our emotions and feelings more effectively?” For a person born and brought up in a traditional and culturally rich milieu it is but natural!

“My plays are emotion-driven, not plot-driven; they move forward on bhava. I am not too fond of stark realism, and music helps a great deal to go beyond and touch a chord as it can easily convey the various layers and textures of the emotions of the characters,” says Gowri.

The live music in the plays helps to set the underlying mood through the varied soundscapes.

In One Day in Ashadha, not only were music and dance used to heighten the mood and situation, but the intelligent weaving of verses from Kalidasa’s own works through music and dance in the tapestry of his life gave the audience a glimpse into his classics.

In Dark Horse, a woman writer talks about a dead poet. The classical musical score sung by Savita Narasimhan helped to bolster the ­abstract theme through aural imagery. Gowri had even included the strains of a vivadi raga like Chandrajyoti to create the eerie effect of the Leper’s Band, a poem by Arun Kolatkar.

Rural Phantasy – an English translation of a Tamil play by Kalki – was a straightforward short story made into an entertaining musical with a lot of dance which added pep to the drama. The singers T.M. Krishna and Sangeetha were the star attractions of the show.

Flame of the Forest, of course, revolved around the story of a classical dancer Sivakami during the rule of Mahendra Pallava, and the music and dance (by Mythili Prakash and Priyadarshini Govind) seemed to meld into the warp and weft of the production and gave it a classical, historical feel.

Water Lilies, a play with three stand-alone segments drew inspiration from Monier’s impressionistic paintings. The sensitive music created and played by Anil Srinivasan on the piano caught the sense of light and colour as the play moved from bright open spaces reflecting a carefree spirit in the first segment to the gray moroseness of an oppressive dreary airport interior in the last one. It also helped to identify the nature of the characters in the segments – two each in every segment, none of which had a strong storyline.

Mathemagician depended heavily on sound and music, using old thumri-s – rendered by young Subhiksha Rangarajan – to capture the pastoral feelings of romance and yearning for the beloved.

Gowri signs off saying, “I just cannot think of directing a play without music. It’s so much a part of our lives.”

To the query “Why do you present plays only in English?” pat comes the reply: “Because at present I have found good committed actors in English theatre who are willing to learn and rehearse with me.”

Whatever the reasons, the inclusion of music and dance in theatre has generated curiosity about these art forms among theatregoers, and staging English translations of regional works has helped to widen their reach – (Courtesy: Sruti).


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In this issue

Yet another Committee?
What’s with Madras and heritage conservation?
May 2010 see their conservation
Calming traffic in shopping areas, like Pondy Bazaar
Historic Residences of Chennai - 33
Other stories

Our Regulars

Short 'N' Snappy
Our Readers Write
Quizzin' with Ram'nan
Dates for your Diary


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