Recalling the Madras of Yore
Storytellers Vikram Sridhar and Geeta Ramanujam enthralled an eager audience at Madras Literary Society on the stories of the city
Where in Chennai do you come from?” asked Vikram Sridhar, theatre practitioner, to the small audience at Madras Literary Society and the answers were varied. “Velachery,” said one, “T Nagar,” said another, “Mambalam,” one more person replied. “West or East Mambalam?” Vikram asked, to which no clear answer emerges. “You see, many descriptions of places that were common a generation or two ago have slowly faded, without our even noticing it,” Vikram went on to add.
The event was ‘Celebrating the Spirit of Madras’, as part of Madras Week celebrations, and Vikram and Geeta Ramanujam, storyteller, took the audience through two storytelling sessions combining personal memoir, history and culture as it unfolded in Madras.
Of Gandhi, T Nagar and Hot Chips
Vikram occupied the stage with a small tanpura in hand, almost in the guise of a folk singer, and took the audience on a journey along several of the city’s precincts and the historical figures who frequented them. A key element in his talk was MK Gandhi and his relationship with the city. “We all know this man, and yet we don’t know him,” is how Vikram described him. “Back when the Madras Christian College was situated in Armenian Street,
Gandhi paid a visit in the late 1910s and it was here that he met Bharathiyar and other figures of the freedom struggle like VO Chidambaram Pillai,” he said, and went on to recite a stanza from Vaishnav jan to, a song popularly associated with Gandhi. “This song,” he remarked, “must have been sung in most schools around Madras. It certainly was in the school I studied in, Padma Seshadri.”
The next stop in Vikram’s journey was T Nagar, where he apparently grew up. “How many of us are aware that T Nagar is named after P Thyagaraya Chetty, one of the founders of the Justice Party? Half of T Nagar’s streets are named after Justice Party members like Mohammed Habibullah, who are barely remembered today,” he said. Recalling the bus journey from T Nagar to Pachaiyappa’s College, where he took special tuition for maths the days when school life was sandwiched between tuition classes in the morning and evening, he remarked parenthetically and the many eateries en route he would frequent regularly, there was one that stood out; Hot Chips, purportedly the first in the country to sell chips of that kind. Here again a Gandhi anecdote popped up. “In his very first trip to Madras, Gandhi paid a visit to Pachaiyappa’s College in order to raise funding for the Tamil community in South Africa,” he said, and sang another extract from Vaishnav jan to.
One metropolis to another
Geeta’s story was one of assimilating into a new environment from the one she grew up in. “I was 13 or 14 when I moved to Madras, and my early childhood was spent entirely in Bombay,” she said, and proceeded to do impressions of the sights and sounds of her growing up years in maximum city. The graceful catwalks of the teachers in high heels at her school in Bandra, the cacophony of the streets, the radio that demanded an occasional pat when the signal wasn’t clear, all of these memories came alive through her performance. Then there was the Mumbai Local, the discourses by Chinmayananda at Azad Maidan her mother regularly attended, and most importantly, her mother’s outbursts of temper. “My father then got a job at Indian Oil, and that is how we moved to Madras,” she recalls.
From out of nowhere, she burst into song — Madras Nalla Madras, the song featuring Nagesh that ruled the charts around the time she moved into the city. But the enthusiasm didn’t last too long, and she began yearning for a social life. “Then my father bought a Fiat, and took us on trips to the movies and the theatre.” At a time when theatre was an immensely popular art, the thrill of watching a live performance proved irresistible. More impersonations followed of the theatre veterans of the time, including Y Gee Mahendran and Cho Ramaswamy.
Then there was the thrill of watching movies on the sly. “Me and my friends decided to go to an adult movie or so we heard at Midland theatre. We were not of legal age yet, so we dressed up to look a little older. We finally made it, only to realise there was hardly anything that made it an adult film,” she said, breaking into a loud guffaw.
After her marriage, Geeta left Madras for Canada. “One also has to let go, you see,” she remarked. And that was how she concluded her malarum ninaivugal, as she termed it, of her seven years in Madras. And yes, she also displayed a tapestry sewn with the memories of her life in the city where she witnessed her coming of age.