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(ARCHIVE) Vol. XIX No. 24, april 1-15, 2010

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Nostalgia: Going back to my school...

Feasts & concerts in Mylapore – as seen by Sister Devamata

Nature: The fall of a sparrow...

Cricket on steroids

Trendz: Kollywood’s new face

Going back to my school...
(By Radha Padmanabhan)

I stood outside the building and stared at it as nostalgic memories kept flooding in. There it was, standing tall and proud, a three-storied building, built of stone and painted brick red, like all colonial buildings, and looking as good as new although it was more than a hundred years old – my school, St. Columban’s European High School, yes, St. Columban’s and not Columbus the explorer.

The watchman would not let me in. Admissions were over, he said, and the Principal would not see anyone without an appointment. I made a swift arithmetical calculation. I was eighty plus. If you had to retire at sixty, then all the staff and the principal would not have been born when I studied in the school. I told him so and watched his eyes open in surprise and he went promptly to ask the Principal whether she would see me. And of course she said “Yes”.

Sister Prabha was dressed in an off-white saree, her hair neatly combed back and made into a bun. It took me by surprise, although I knew that nuns these days did not follow the habit – voluminous, white skirts, a black veil covering the head, draped around the face and, horror of horrors, specially in a climate like that of Madras, a thick white collar so thick it looked like cardboard, which started at the neck and came almost down to the waist. We used to call the nuns ‘penguins’, although we did admire and revere them.

I asked her details about my school. She told me that the school, which belonged to the Presentation Order, was the very first school to be started by the Order in Madras. It started in Black Town later known as George Town. What about Church Park, I asked. That was started a few years later, she said, like several other schools – St. Aloysius, Vepery; St. Kevan’s, Royapuram; St. Williams, Royapettah; St. Antony’s, Egmore; St. Joseph’s, Perambur; St. Ursula’s; and Church Park. The Irish sisters, she said, came to India as far back as 1842 with the main aim of starting schools.

She wanted to know about the times when I had studied. No nun, I told her, taught the higher class, especially the ninth, which was the class that appeared for the European High School examination. The syllabus was the same as the Senior Cambridge exam and the brighter students were allowed to appear for both, as the dates of the exams did not clash. There was a healthy rivalry between St. Joseph’s Boys’ School, Armenian Street (which was nearby), and our school, as to which school would get the better results. How proud we were when Patricia Coelho, our senior, secured the first rank in the European High School examination in 1940, if I remember right.

I asked Sister Pushpa about the skeleton of a man which was in a glass cupboard in our classroom. Was he still there? He is still there, but has been shifted to the lab, she said and laughed. We had no lab those days as we were not taught physics and chemistry. We studied human physiology, and hence the skeleton.

I still remember those classes. As the teacher lectured on and told us that the human skeleton had about 206 bones, I used to look at the skeleton and my imagination would wander. Who was he, what was he in real life, did he die young or old, did he leave a family behind, young children, perhaps, and so on. The teacher noticed my lack of attention and asked me where the skeleton’s femur bone was. I could not reply. Was it in the arm or the leg? I guessed it was in the arm and said so – and sent the whole class into fits of laughter.

I told Sister Pushpa how we used to have our sports practice for the inter-school sports meet at the High Court grounds. We ran races, vaulted the high jump bar, and even practised hurdles. Impossible to think of such a thing now! We came to school by tram, some of us from Mylapore and some from San Thome. The trams were not crowded and they ran so smoothly that some of us completed our homework on the way to school. The more adventurous girls were even allowed to run the trams for a little while by the kindly conductor.

The bell rang and announced the prayer for Angelus just as it did seventy years ago when I was in my early teens. It was time to go. I wished Sister Pushpa good day as she saw me off at the door with an invitation to come any time I wished to.

I had to make my way along the corridors. Like a huge wave, a sea of little girls poured out of a classroom. What a sight it was! They must have all been aged about 6 or 7, fifty of them, almost of the same height, dressed in school uniforms, all from one classroom. When I was in the school, the strength of the whole school was less than 200.

On my way out, I took one last look at the building. It was spic and span and the brick red stone glistened and shone in the midday sun. There was not a crack anywhere. It looked as if it were built yesterday.

The classrooms quickly emptied spilling out girls of all ages. They were talking and laughing, full of fun, as only youngsters could. Only I had grown old, very old.


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Feasts & concerts in Mylapore
– as seen by Sister Devamata
(Flipping through yesterday’s pages* by Sriram V.)
*Days in an Indian Monastery by Sister Devamata
(Sri Ramakrishna Math, Chennai 600 004)

(Continued from last issue)

A dinner at Dr. Nanjunda Rao’s …

A leading light in Madras at the time of Sister Devamata’s visit was Dr. Nanjunda Rao, who lived on Brodie’s Road (R.K. Mutt Road) in a house called Sasi Vilas, which still stands. Sister describes a feast at his house:

I remember especially one dinner given by a leading physician of Madras. The poet and orator Sarojini Naidu was also among the guests (her wedding was celebrated in this house). The dinner was served in a central court. As we entered it, water was poured over our hands. Then we were seated on mats spread on the floor along the inner wall of a broad arcade. A large leaf plate was placed before each one of us and filled with rice. A number of little leaf cups were set around this. They contained a great variety of side dishes, mild and pungent, sweet and sour, curries, vegetables and fruits. The lady of the house and her daughters served the guests. They were too jealous of the privilege to allow anyone else to claim it. Their graciousness and sweetness added much to the joy of the dinner. When it was over, water was poured over our hands once more and we went home.

... and a public feast at Tanneer Turai market

The Tanneer Turai market now, alas, a mere shell of its former self and its future yet unknown, was the brainchild of V. Bhashyam Iyengar whose Vembakkam Gardens (today’s Vidya Mandir School and its annexes) was next door. Envisaged as a water-side market to which fruits and vegetables could be brought by boats plying on the Buckingham Canal, it must have been newly built when Sister visited Madras. Here she describes an unusual use to which the market was put:

In Mylapore there were families who made it known that on a fixed day each week they would feed a certain number of hungry mouths. My landlord, a wealthy judge, gave a hearty meal on Friday to any indigent Brahmin who came.

Our religious Order has always been lavish in this form of charity. At the first festival held at the Mylapore monastery after my arrival, we fed eight thousand poor and at the next one the number rose to ten thousand. The food was served in a large marketplace which was built and presented to Mylapore by a philanthropic resident of the community. The market consists of a series of raised cement platforms roofed over, but open at the sides. About six hundred could be seated on these platforms at one time and when that number had been admitted, the gates were closed and ample time was given to satisfy the heartiest appetite. As soon as all had finished they were let out on the opposite side of the market and another six hundred allowed to enter.

The food was distributed by a band of students. When the people were seated, plates made of leaves fastened together by the stem were brought. Then rice brought in closely woven willow bowl-shaped baskets was served, a soup of pulses was poured over this; next a curry was passed around and a dessert of sweet curds closed the meal. The food was of the best and every one was given as much as he could eat. There was no stint in the quantity. Some were served four times. I saw children three years old helped two and three times to a large pile of rice and curry. The feeding began at ten in the morning and continued till two or three.

The preparation for the feeding was carried forward with great zest. Some of the workers did not eat for 24 hours and their leader, the founder of the Students’ Home, who was known as Ramu, in his ardour of service, took no food for 36 hours. As the festival fell on a Sunday, the boys from the Students’ Home came early on Saturday to prepare the vegetables. They peeled and sliced hour after hour until long rows of bushel baskets were filled.

About ten o’clock when the road was comparatively free from traffic and the quiet of the night had fallen on the community, all the provisions were carried by hand or hand-dray to the market. Here a long trough had been dug, logs laid in it and huge copper cauldrons placed on its two edges. By the time everything was in readiness to begin, it was long after midnight. There are special cooks whose trade it is to prepare these mammoth feasts. They arrived at about one. A little later, Swami Ramakrishnananda who, with his fervour had been the impelling spirit in all the preparations, conducted a short religious service, after which the fires in the trench were lighted and the cooking began.

As the rice was cooked it was piled on clean boards in an open shed. When it was all done, the huge pile reached from floor to roof. It kept itself hot. It was steaming still at noon and it required no little fortitude to stand beside it, as one of the workers did, and filled the serving baskets. The curry was kept warm in the cauldrons and the curds stood in enormous earthen jars.

Musical entertainments

One hot afternoon I opened my entrance door in answer to a loud knock and found a group of eight or ten little girls ranging from six to twelve, all dressed in bright silken saris with many gold chains and bangles. There was a tall beturbanned servant with them; he acted as interpreter and explained that the children had come to give me a concert. I unrolled a large mat on the floor of the lower hall and they sat down cross-legged upon it. The servant stood beside them. Then they took out their violins, put the neck against the crossed right foot, the other end under the chin and began to play and sing. I was surprised at their skill and fluency of technique. They remained for nearly two hours and it touched my heart deeply that they should come in that scorching heat to entertain me.

While at Mylapore I had a rare opportunity to hear Indian music at its very best. One of the leading singers of South India was asked to come and sing for the Head of the Order while he was at Madras. With him he brought his father, also a famous musician, and his younger brother of nine. The little boy played the violin with great fecility; the father played small tempered steel cymbals with one hand and with the other marked the beat by softly snapping thumb and first finger together, producing a sound of mellow ivory. The singer himself played the vina, one of the most perfect instruments art has created. The musicians sat in the centre of the huge rug in the monastery hall; Swami Brahmananda, Swami Ramakrishnananda and I sat at one end. There was no one else in the hall and the whole monastery was still. The singer sang with indescribable art; and vina, violin and cymbals wove a spell around his song. Sometimes his voice faded to an intangible pianissimo, violin and cymbals died away, nothing remained but the subtle tones of the fine understrings of the vina. Then they lost themselves in subtler silence and the song was over. Never did music give me a keener pleasure than on that late afternoon in the monastery at Mylapore. I seemed to be listening to something more plastic and melodious than mere human sound...

I remember going one evening to the home of a close devotee at Mylapore. Several branches of the family lived together, forming a community household. I found the head of it in the central court of the house surrounded by children of all ages, some toddling, some crawling, one wee one of a few weeks swinging in a suspended crib. I asked him how he happened to be playing nursemaid. He replied that a wandering sannyasin was reading the Ramayana every evening in the porch of the Vishnu temple nearby and that night Sita was to give her answer to Ravana, the hostile king who had carried her off. The ladies of the house were so anxious to hear (her answer) that he had offered to stay with the children while they all went.

When I first reached Madras, the other sacred epic, the Mahabharata, was being read at the Mylapore high school. The school stood at the lower corner of the four streets of the temple, close to the primary school building where I was then living, and I could hear the sound of the voices from my room there. A rich resident of Mylapore had engaged a learned Pandit and another Brahmin scholar to read the whole of the epic. It took six months. This is not an infrequent form of public service. Every evening at dusk, the Pandit would take his place at a table on the school verandah with a lamp beside him and a large Sanskrit tome open before him. A bench stood at right angles and on it sat cross-legged the other Brahmin holding a tamboura. Next to him on the bench stood a large picture of Sri Krishna. Their appearance was a signal for people to gather. The readers waited patiently for their listeners. When a sufficient number had gathered, the Pandit began to chant in a deep voice a passage from the Mahabharata; then he paused and the other Brahmin rendered the passage in the vernacular, intoning it in a soft, melodious tenor voice to the accompaniment of the tamboura. It was beautiful and musical. During the hour this continued, many stopped in the street outside to listen. Tired burden-bearers laid down their loads and sat in the dust of the road beside them to hear the heroic lines; home-coming coolies and peons and sweeper-women joined them.


On the morning of my last day in Madras a gentleman sent his eldest son to bring me to their home for a visit. The son came in a pretentious carriage with two liveried servants on the box and two standing behind. We drove along a broad shaded road edged by handsome residences, through a high gate and beautiful garden, round an imposing house with up-reaching pillars, to a curving verandah-terrace in the rear. There, amid other seats and swinging hammocks, stood a narrow wooden bench with one end raised like a pillow. Laughingly I said to the boy with me, pointing to the bench: “I suppose you sleep there.” The quick reply came: “No, but my grandmother does.”

The hard, narrow wooden bench struck the key-note of the South Indian home. The South Indian by choice sleeps on a mat on the floor with his head on his arm. I had one close friend at Madras, a government official, who all his life had slept on an eighteen-inch bench with Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary as a pillow!

Sister Devamata left for Calcutta from Madras and from there returned to America.


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Nature: The fall of a sparrow...
(By Dr. T. Murugavel)

Carrying some jute fibre in its tiny bill, the sparrow-like bird was getting into a hole in a fig tree branch. I was sure it was building a nest. I was delighted to watch the bird; not for its colour or for its call – for it was rather a dull-looking bird with a brownish grey head and upper parts and its call was just a monotonous ‘chewt’ –
but because it was this species that inspired the great Salim Ali to begin his documentation of the birds of the Indian subcontinent, reading which created in me an interest in this species.

When he was a child, Salim Ali got a Daisy air gun as a present, with which he used to shoot the sparrows around his house. One day, however, he shot a sparrow-like bird which had some yellow colouration on its throat. He wanted to know more about it, as it was different from the usual ones he ‘hunted’. His uncle was clueless when Salim approached him. However, he took Salim to the Bombay Natural History Society for an answer. W.S. Millard of the Society identified the bird as a ‘Yellow-throated Sparrow’, then took him around the museum and explained the various bird species. Salim was amazed to learn that so many species of sparrows existed.

It was this ‘fall of the sparrow’ and the incidents that followed that motivated Ali to take up his great documentation; he even titled his autobiography The fall of a sparrow.

I was thrilled to watch this bird that had inspired Salim Ali. Its old name, Yellow-throated Sparrow (Petronia xanthocollis), is better suited to it, according to many, as the yellow on its throat is more conspicuous than the chestnut colour on its wings’ lesser coverts – though it is only the male that has these colourations. The species is, however, now called ‘Chestnut-shouldered Petronia’, based on its chestnut wing patch.

The sparrow I watched, unconscious of the role its species had played in the life of one of the greatest naturalists of our times and also of the controversy over its name, continued its chore of building a nest. When I visited the tree a week later, the bird was still moving in and out of the nest, but less frequently. I was sure that it would have laid its eggs and eagerly looked forward to seeing the parent birds feeding the chicks when they hatched.

But things don’t happen as we assume, particularly when there is human intervention. A few days later, hoping that the chicks would have come out of the eggs, I visited the fig tree again, only to find that the branch where the nest was built had been chopped off. It could have happened only a day earlier, for the chippings looked fresh.

Words failed me, for I was so moved with anguish seeing the birds sitting on a nearby tree. They kept flying to the fig tree, searching for their lost home and their babies. Poor things!

I was ashamed of what my fellow-humans had done to a vulnerable creature and I felt so helpless. As I moved away, I was reminded of what Hamlet says as he confronts his dreadful
destiny. “There’s a special providence in the fall of a sparrow...”


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Cricket on steroids
(By Itty Abraham -

Okay, I admit it. One of the compelling reasons to come and visit my parents during a brief one-week break in the middle of the semester was the possibility of watching an IPL 20-20 match in Chennai. A long way to come, perhaps, but as a once avid cricket fan who is puzzled over the transformation of a once tranquil and languid game into its current supercharged avatar – cricket on steroids, you might say – there seemed to be no other way of understanding the changes of the last two decades (and not just in cricket) than direct observation. So, I trotted off to Chepauk on a Sunday to see Chennai get hammered by the Deccan Chargers.

Even from the stands you could feel the difference in temperament between the two teams. The Chargers had their game faces on from the first ball and carried themselves as a team; the Super Kings looked flat and insipid by comparison. When good things happened, the Kings celebrated; but when the going got tough, they played like atomised individuals. More than anything else, this was a failure of captaincy and coaching and, in hindsight, the outcome could have been predicted right away. But before I get carried away as an armchair critic, I should note that this little note isn’t about cricket per se, but my encounter with the New World of T-20 and more.

Perhaps the first indication of change was my young driver, who didn’t know where ‘Chepauk’ was. This would have been impossible in the Madras I grew up in, when the stadium was a universal landmark, and memories of watching, say, Roy Fredricks flicking sixes over the fine leg boundary (in the first over) were something to be treasured for life. (Yes, I know I’m dating myself.) Of course, the driver knew how to get to Wallajah Road, but he was far more aware of the new Assembly building than the old stadium. This sense of distance, that cricket was something to be watched on TV rather than experienced in person, continued into the stadium.

I hate to admit it, but I got the distinct feeling that I was one of the only people in my section of the stands actually watching the game when sixes and fours weren’t being hit! It should be said that the stands were ablaze with colour, sound, and life; every generation was present, from squealing toddlers to elderly paattis; and huge quantities of Pepsi and curd-rice were being put away from the first over. In other words, this could easily have been the Marina beach or the erstwhile Woodlands Drive-In. And this was the second indication of what had changed.

The Kings’ golden-hued fans were enjoying themselves thoroughly – as they should – but they didn’t seem to appreciate the difference between rooting for their home team and cheering for a six, regardless of who set the ball in motion. Chennai fans have always been known for their sportsmanship, but this was something else. 20-20, as the League itself points out, is all about entertainment. The game is only backdrop to the real thing, which is to go out in the evening, and be entertained by “huge” sixes and thumping boundaries. Seeing Dhoni warm up is more important than Chennai winning the game; and, it should be noted, it is impossible to realise how big a star Dhoni is without attending the game and seeing the raw adulation for this man. By the end, it was clear to me that the fans enjoyed themselves far more doing the wave, eating and drinking, and singing along to Michael Jackson’s ‘Beat It’ than the game itself. So what? As the man says, it doesn’t matter who’s right and who’s wrong...

That said, I also came away thinking that the IPL, in its current form, is not sustainable, at least for old coots like me. Of course, the idea is fabulous on many levels and has struck a real chord around the cricketing world. At the same time, I’d like to believe that the rootless cynicism with which IPL organisers and owners have defined India’s demand for 21st Century global style entertainment is going to make this contemporary Circus Maximus fall apart. The fans are soon going to draw the line at being bottomless piggy banks when what they are getting in return is less and less.

The relentless selling of a faux global, conspicuous consumption lifestyle on TV – epitomised by soft drinks, mobile phones, and cars – now even between balls, let alone between overs, continues into the stadium. Where it would be nice to get slo-mo replays and useful statistics on the large electronic displays that flank the sightscreens, what we get is even more ads, entirely blurring the distinction between sitting at home and actually being at the game. Surely, I tell myself, popular outrage will eventually kick in. But I am probably entirely wrong. The IPL’s ‘real’ problem is going to be, how can they make this blurring of the real and the virtual experience even more intense? How, in other words, will they come up with a 3D version of the IPL?

The IPL now seems to me a classic case of Baudrillard’s post-modern simulacrum, when images and virtual experience set the terms for ‘real’ life. My driver didn’t need to know where the stadium was in order to participate in the IPL experience. How retro of me to even think that way. The pity isn’t the speed with which the IPL has set about emptying the pocket books of fans and fools alike. It’s that, at this moment in Chennai’s long and storied history, there doesn’t seem to be anything else better to do.


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Trendz: Kollywood’s new face
(By Mithran Devanesan)

There have been some sweeping changes in Kollywood over the last two years

Top picture: Still from Renigunta; Bottom left: Goa – Sampath is in extreme left in the cut green T shirt; Right bottom: still from Tamil Padam.

But, first a flashback to a trend that was started years ago. Stars were given titles such as: Rajni – Superstar, Kamal – Universal Hero, Vijay – Ilaya Thalapathy (young warrior), Simbu – Little Super Star, Vijayakanth – Captain (he has acted in over 140 films and in 98 of them he has played a police officer), Ajith – Ultimate Star and Madhavan (Maddy, for short) – Chocolate Hero (because the girls find him cho chweet!).

Cut back to the present

Kollywood has a new face. Ordinary people from ordinary lives are turning into star material. Story lines are no more boy meets girl, chases girl around tree, beats up villain, boy gets girl. Today, there have been a slew of hits that have broken out of the stereotypical image, such as Nadodigal, Ayan, Naan Kadavul – where a whole bunch of real life beggars were used – Renigunta – where the star of the film was a boy who in real life was a garbage collector – SMS, Chennai 28, and, of course, the Kamal starrer where there was not a single song or dance number – Unnai Pol Oruvan.

Kollywood has also learnt to laugh at itself. It started with the blockbuster Rajni hit Sivaji in which Vivek takes a dig at Rajni while standing next to him! Two recent hits were Goa which took a dig at Tamilish and had Sampath, usually type cast as a villain, play a very loveable gay who was brilliant to watch. And, of course, Tamil Padam produced by Dhayanidhi Alagiri which took a freewheeling dig at all the actors and directors.The only ones spared were Sivaji and MGR. It even had a song made up of nonsensical words from songs by A.R. Rahman, Harris Jayaraj, Yuvan Shankar Raja, Vijay Antony and others. The film made waves even in the B and C centres.

Today, audiences have become more demanding – and directors, cinematographers, choreographers, costume designers, art directors and editors have had to lift the bar and how! Several big budget films that were hyped flopped at the box office because audiences have come to expect more than just lavish song and dance numbers and formula films.

To end, as they would say in the new breed of films, Inga Thaan Twist:

Kamal – 50 years, over 300 films, 55 flops

Rajni – 36 years,170 films, 30 flops

Vijay – 18 years, 49 films, 20 flops

Ajith – 18 years, 49 films, 39 flops.

But, now, there’s a star, even if an unwitting one, only one film, yet Super Hit! What ideas they have in ashrams!

I know it’s a cheap shot, but, hey, maybe our politicians will learn to laugh at themselves next!


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In this issue

This budget causes concern to some
Is this the only way to remember Tamil scholars?
All atwitter at Chennai Corporation
The majesty of Chepauk
Historic Residences of Chennai - 39
Other stories

Our Regulars

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