While it may be inaccurate to commemorate the start of a city to a piece of paper that exchanged hands since there may have been some small settlement around this area but then one needs to start somewhere. It was on 22 August, 1639, East India Company purchased a small piece of land from the local Nayaks and started to build a fortified area which later became Fort St. George. To support the activities of the company, which were primarily textile and spice related exports, a bunch of handloom related workers from what is now coastal Andhra were asked to set up residence in what was later known as the "Black town" (as against the White town inside the fort). So the place grew and grew to be what it is now: a hot-humid-water-depleted city called Chennai.
The first (and only) talk that I could attend during this 'Madras day' week was on the 'Sabha culture of Chennai'. It was given by V.Sriram, the same person who wrote the book 'The Carnatic Summer'. The book elaborated on the lives of 20 great carnatic musicians of the past. The venue of the talk was Anokhi on Chamiers road. For some reason, I was under the impression that the talk was to be held at Amethyst and it was only in the last minute when a social call I made to someone did I realise that the talk was elsewhere.
For those who do not know, Anokhi is a chain of small boutique stores across the country as well as in few other coutries. Those who find themselves in Jaipur could visit their Hand printing museum . In Chennai, they have renovated an old house and the garden doubles up as a small restaurant. Just as we entered, we were told that the talk would be on the first floor. It was a small hall with about 30 chairs, all of them were taken already. The speaker was all set to start. However since few more people poured in, arrangements had to be made in the form of more chairs and a small dhurrie was placed in the front. Devika and Ranvir Shah of Prakriti Foundation promptly got up and sat on the dhurrie making two extra seats available to the latecomers.
The talk started with an introduction to the Madras Day by Vincent D'Souza who runs Mylapore Times, Adyar Times and Pondicherry Times. He is also involved with Namma Mylapore an organisation working towards heritage in Mylapore.
V.Sriram started his talk after Devika gave a brief introduction. The sabha culture in Chennai can be traced back to the second half of the 19th Century, thanks to the collapse of the Tanjavur court. Since most of the city's music lovers were in North Chennai, the concerts took place in small halls around that area. It was for the first time in 1890s that a fee was sought for the concert and it was promptly met with lot of opposition.
Considering the fact that most of the music lovers were lawyers and who predominantly lived in Mylapore regions, some of the sabhas started moving southwards and the most important outcome of this audience was that when few organisers wanted to have a festival, it had to be during the court holidays. The first few festivals were during the Easter. Later on, it was shifted to the Christmas holidays as it was longer. Hence, the December music season had nothing got to do with Dhanurmasam or Andal Thiruppavai.
The talk also touched on the political issues that shaped the sabha culture like the Telugu people spinning off from Music Academy to start their own festival, the Tamil Isai movement where Telugu and Sanskrit songs were prohibited from being sung, which lead to the start of another organisation (Tamil Isai Sangam) with a different festival. It was not the birth of these organisation that troubled people but the fact that all these organisations had festivals during the same time. Emminent eople like Kalki Krishnamurti (who supported the Tamil Isai movement) appealed to the various organisations that they should have festivals at different times since he felt that there will not be enough audience for every sabha but it had no effect. Organisation continued to spring up and all of them had their festival at the same time. Currently there exists over 70 organisation and all of them have their festival (over 2000 concerts) during the December/January months. There are any number of people who stream into Chennai from all over the world to take part in these festivals.
On the whole the talk was extremely interesting with Sriram interspersing his talk with intertesting anecdotes. The question answer session at the end was also very lively with the audience asking some in depth questions for which Sriram had to give few more anecdotes.
After the talk was over, the first thing I did was to run out to see if the car had any wheel locks as I parked on the side of the main road itself. Thankfully there werent any. To end this lovely evening, we had a nice dinner (but alas with small helpings) at a well-designed Mediterranean restaurant called 'Cedars' in Kotturpuram.
In the second part, I will talk about the Georgetown Heritage Walk that took place on Sunday morning.