New old city

Madras encompasses the traditional and the modern; the historical and the contemporary; and the poor and the rich.

Published : Aug 20, 2014 12:30 IST

At Elliot's Beach. Chennai's tryst with modernity does not mean a disconnect with orthodoxy.

At Elliot's Beach. Chennai's tryst with modernity does not mean a disconnect with orthodoxy.


CHENNAI, which was Madras until 18 years ago, draws to it many people from far and near. It is their city of hope, whose energetic social, cultural, political and economic ethos, they expect, will one day turn their dreams into reality. Its profile, encompassing the traditional and the modern, the historical and the contemporary, represents the vibrant diversity of the country. The fourth most populous city in India and the 31st largest urban centre in the world, it has emerged as a culturally rich metropolis of divergent ethnicities. Like any other metropolis in a developing country today, a number of factors contribute to the changing social, political and cultural contours of the city.

It was the advent of the Information Technology (IT) and Information Technology Enabled Services (ITES) industries in the 1990s, supplementing the city’s diversified manufacturing base and the services and financial sectors, that changed this once middle-class haven into a vivacious urban conglomerate. According to a study, 10.94 per cent of the State’s income comes from the city alone. In terms of cost of living indices, purchasing power in Chennai is 22.81 per cent higher than in Mumbai. Interestingly, the percentage of below poverty line (BPL) families in Chennai city declined from 31.58 per cent in 1993-94 to 9.58 per cent in 2000 on account of the focus on welfare of successive governments led by Dravidian parties.

Multinational companies and big brands were quick to entice the populace with their wares—from fashionable apparel to branded cereals—in posh malls and shopping arcades. (In the 1980s, before a fire engulfed it, Spencer’s was one of the very few multi-brand stores.)

Chennai’s tryst with modernity does not mean a disconnect with orthodoxy. However, from eating out to hep dressing, Chennaiites have adapted to the styles of modernity. The rise of Gen Next and the influx of youth from multicultural backgrounds in a neoliberal environment have, for instance, resulted in the growth of a pub culture and a fashion consciousness that goes beyond saris and dhotis.

Dating, as the West knows it, did not exist in Madras, but seems to be catching up with youngsters in Chennai. “Why not? We go out. Thus we come to understand each other before we settle down in our lives,” says an IT executive. She is the icon of an economically empowered new generation. She prefers “cool dressing” and “chilling out in pubs occasionally”, which in Madras would have invited deep frowns earlier.

But come the Tamil month of Margazhi (July-August) and other festive occasions, it is not uncommon to see these hep girls effortlessly give up their faded jeans and sleeveless tops for saris and madisaars (the Brahmin style of draping a sari) to draw kolams (floor decorations) in front of their houses and offer prayers at temples. “We thus guard our culture and tradition,” says Kamala, 45, who commutes daily to work at a private firm on Anna Salai from Triplicane, which, like Mylapore and T. Nagar, still retains the flavour of the agraharam (Brahmin quarters).

A new breed of fashion gurus and other influences that are part of modern living, nevertheless, are slowly but surely posing a serious challenge to old sensibilities. Today’s young men and women overwhelmingly prefer apparel such as capris, dhoti pants, bell bottoms, leggings, jeggings, bermudas and palazzos in shades of beige or khaki. It is said that nearly 81 per cent of Indians are fashion-conscious, and Chennaiites are not far behind.

It did not take long for a peppy night life to be a part of the mix, with party hoppers swinging to funky music well into the wee hours of the day. Cultural stereotypes have been virtually obliterated to the extent that girls are ready to drop their inhibitions and walk the ramp.

Swanky BMWs, Mercs, Audis and Jaguars were soon to line up in front of their doors and jostle for space on the road with autorickshaws, tricycle carts, bicycles and even cycle-rickshaws. The city has about one lakh autorickshaws on its roads, making it reel under the chaos of unmanageable traffic.

By the roadside

A study on “Road Connectivity and Traffic Improvements in Chennai” put the vehicle population in 2008 at 27,00,000 as against 6,00,000 in 1961. Two-wheelers constitute 77 per cent of the registered motor vehicles. The exponential rise in the number of vehicles has led to a surge in accidents: road mishaps claimed the lives of 353 two-wheeler riders in the city during 2013-14.

Not surprisingly, the increasing congestion in the city’s road network of 2,780 kilometres is leading to high stress among drivers. Road rage, hitherto an unknown phenomenon, is rearing its ugly head in the city. The average volume of traffic on Anna Salai in 2006 was about 1.58 lakh PCUs (passenger car units) as against its capacity of 60,000 PCUs a day.

An attraction that is unique to the city is the roadside temple. Such temples once stood on bunds of lakes and habitations that have either vanished or expanded. Festivals in these temples are celebrated with great fervour, especially in the month of Adi, by local residents with nary a thought for road users.

Another roadside entity that merits mention in Chennai is the eatery on a pushcart with its steaming idlis and dosas, which caters to the working class. Some of these are so popular that they attract even film actors and other celebrities. Luxury hotels and upmarket restaurants offer a spread that ranges from “Chettiyar Samayal” (Chettiyars’ cuisine) and “Grammathu Virunthu” (village feast) to Mediterranean and Vietnamese cuisines and many more to suit different palates.

The city’s variety of cuisines includes Eid ul-Fitr dishes. “It stands tall for its religious tolerance and diverse cultural ethnicity,” says a restauratteur who caters to a select clientele.

“Today in its new avatar as Chennai, the city, yes, it can be called that today, has leapt over centuries to become a gourmet’s delight, if not a paradise,” says the writer Timeri N. Murari in an article.

Nowhere can the coexistence of cultures be more visible than in coffee-drinking in the city. While one can take in the aroma of a filtered degree coffee by the yard from the Kumbakonam coffee shop across the street, there are for the youth Frappuccini and other types of coffee brewed from the choicest beans in Starbucks, which recently opened its outlet in a mall in Velachery. “Coffee-drinking is the morning habit in the city. And habits die hard,” says a long-time Chennaiite.

Tradition and culture

The brew of tradition and culture is even more potent. While the city gleefully welcomes the re-release of the 1960 Tamil blockbuster Ayirathil Oruvan , an MGR-Jayalalithaa starrer, it also finds divinity in the voices of the Carnatic singers Bombay Jayashree and Sudha Raghunathan. The city crowd can patronise a three-hour stage play, a Bollywood music nite or a stand-up comedy as well as Jam studios, where pop, rock and metal music are composed.

According to the Bharatanatyam exponent Padma Subrahmanyam, Chennai is still the cultural capital of India. “Chennai became a hub of dance teachers from the 1930s after the official halting of dance in temples. Dance became institutionalised in Chennai through Kalakshetra, Saraswathi Gana Nilayam and Nrithyodaya, which have been in the city for more than seven decades in the city. The December festival of performing arts has a magnetic appeal for domestic and international music lovers. Artistes all over India deem it an honour to perform in one of the city sabhas during the season,” she says.

Many such programmes are held for a cause. That is the warmth the city exudes. No wonder that actor Aishwarya Rai Bachchan, launching a promotional campaign in the city on the importance of stem cells recently, said, “I always feel at home here thanks to the love Chennaiites shower on me.” The cross-cultural milieu adds lustre to the city’s profile.

Sport, too, has a special place in the hearts of Chennaiites, be it cricket, football, tennis, chess, carom or kabbadi. Football aficionados will never forget the cheering of yesteryear actors Nagesh and Muthuraman from the sidelines of the Nehru Stadium during first division matches.

Physical fitness and health are other buzzwords in Chennai today as in other cities. Walkathons, runs, marathons and so on have become an integral part of life in the city. From Max Fitness to Maverick, the city boasts about 375 fitness studios.

The city itself, however, is bursting at the seams. At its rapid pace of expansion it is estimated that by 2016 it will be among the 26 mega cities in the world that have a population of 10 million or more. Today, the city has a population density of 26,553 people per square kilometre. Its urban cluster, which includes its suburbs, has a population of nine million.

Growth has brought with it skyscrapers that vie with colonial-era buildings for attention. The Life Insurance Corporation (LIC) building on Anna Salai (Mount Road), completed in 1959, and the housing quarters at Nandanam were the tallest buildings in the city until the late 1980s when skyscrapers began dotting the city’s skyline.

In fact, the major beneficiary of this has been the real estate sector. One effect of this has been the influx of labourers from the north, east and north-eastern regions of the country, as can be seen at construction sites in the city today.

The city has to grow vertically on account of space constraints. “It is close to heaven,” says Aparna (name changed), who lives on the 15th floor of an apartment on East Coast Road. The flipside is that these high-rises have replaced the serene, independent houses that once lined neatly laid streets and roads.

Even as the city modernises, a strong city-based movement has become active to protect existing structures and resources, including heritage buildings. The noted film director S.M. Vasanth from Devakottai, a Mylaporean since 1968, welcomes the development wholeheartedly. “But it should be inclusive. The needs and demands of people should form an integral part of the development, besides preserving our heritage and the environment,” he says.

Inclusive it is. The city offers space to all, from the 30-year-old cab driver B. Diwakar of Tiruvannamalai, who lives virtually in his taxi, to the successful film director C. Pandiraj, who hails from a village near Pudukottai. “I sleep in my car since the rents are not affordable, eat in Amma canteens and use public toilets. This way I live a life in Chennai and save enough money,” says Diwakar.

‘Nalla’ Madras

But quite a few people who love to hate the city recall the cynical lyricism of the poet Kannadasan in his poem “Madras nalla Madras…”, rendered in K. Balachander’s film Anubavai Raja Anubavai in 1968. It speaks about the darker side of the city and pours sarcasm on its elite. Though a runaway hit, the song created a bitter controversy, forcing the then ruling dispensation to ban it albeit for a brief period.

“Since 1968 I have lived here. The city embraced me and allowed us to become a part of it. The films I saw in Kamadhenu and Kapali theatres and the food I relished in Rayar Café and Maami Tiffin Centre remain fresh in my memory,” says director Vasanth.

Pandiraj of Pasanga fame recollects how Chennai at first sight intimidated him. “With a dream I came, got conned and duped. But it did not desert me. She is like my mother who gave me life,” he says.

On the margins

Two of its indigenous inhabitants—Dalits and the fisherfolk—however, remain on the margins. Nearly three lakh fishermen live along the long coastline of Chennai. “The hectic development and activities other than fishing on the beaches isolate us. The State and the city should ensure our traditional livelihood. Any intrusion will be counterproductive,” warns “Kabaddi” Maran, president of the All India Fishermen Association and a resident of the Nochikuppam fishermen’s colony.

Dalits, many of whom lived in slums, have been shifted from what had been their dwelling places for generations. Statistics show that nearly 10 lakh people, the majority of them Dalits, lived in the city’s slums in the 1970s. But the drive for a slum-free city moved 21,000 families in 2000 to a resettlement colony. Some 30,000 will soon be shifted to another new settlement. Social activists argue that any development should be inclusive and should not deprive the livelihood options of the marginalised.

There is a great divide between the north and south of the city too. Chennai’s postal index number (PIN) starts with North Chennai, once George Town, at 600 001. But this part of the city, where most of its dispossessed and marginalised live and eke out their livelihoods, sees very little development.

North-South divide

Cities, town planners say, generally grow northwards. But Chennai expands on its southern corridor, which has adequate infrastructure such as an airport and rail and road connectivity besides educational and health-care institutions vis-à-vis the heavily industrialised north.

With a port, a fishing harbour and industries such as the now-defunct Binny Mills, north Chennai had once been the epicentre of the labour movement. Industry labourers, conservancy workers and Railway employees form the major chunk of its population, which has a liberal sprinkling of migrants too besides wholesale and petty traders from various States. While fisherfolk comprise about 8 per cent of the electorate here, more than 80 per cent are from the labour force.

This asymmetrical development with regard to the south has rendered north Madras a cesspool of garbage, bad roads and pollution. The real estate boom that has transformed the south into a megapolis has skirted the north. “But, of late things have started looking up,” says a resident, adding that the extension of the Metro rail up to Thiruvottiyur will be a boon.

Despite the synthesis of these contrasts, Chennai, at 375, is enticingly young, contemporarily dandy and traditionally suave. But in social sector development, it needs to be humanised a bit.

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