In 1639, the East India Company purchased a strip of land along the Coromandel Coast from the Nayak rulers of the region and built Fort St. George here. Numerous settlements evolved around it, the city’s limits expanded to include ancient villages and, eventually, the strip of land became the city of Madras, formally renamed as Chennai in 1996. While there is some speculation on the exact date of the purchase of the land, every year, August 22 is celebrated as Madras Day.
What began as a half-day event in 2004, has over the years grown to be known as the Madras Week and has now become an extended festival with preparations in July and events running through August, extending well into September. There is no organising committee for the celebrations, no positions and no funds. Each year, a small group of historians, journalists and keen citizens who love the city come together to help put together a festival to showcase Chennai’s unique cultural, social and living heritage.
The line-up of events this year is impressive – over 140 and counting – and goes beyond lectures, food walks, heritage trails, film screenings, tree walks, quizzes and exhibitions, making forays into active heritage trails and inclusive events.
This Madras Day, we look at six organisations in Chennai that engage different sections of the city’s residents and visitors, with a unique blend of activities and interests.
While Chennai Past Forward brings bite-sized pieces of information on heritage structures at one’s fingertips, Storytrails uses elements of the city as props to narrate stories. Cycling Yogis combines two interests to organise themed active heritage tours in the city and beyond, while Explore Differently makes exploration accessible for persons with disabilities. Nizhal celebrates not only the native species among the city’s trees, but also the rare ones that have found their way to the region, and Kreeda has revived traditional games that were at the heart of the social life of the city.
Chennai Past Forward
Who better to put together an app on the city’s heritage structures than an entrepreneur who is also a historian? V Sriram, one of the key people who facilitate the Madras Day celebrations, narrates the story of how his company, Broadgate Technical Services, created Chennai Past Forward. “In 2010, the Madras High Court gave a judgement banning outdoor hoardings in the city and also halting the demolition of two heritage structures. This was based on the E Padmanabhan Committee’s report listing 478 heritage structures in the city. I thought that this list should not remain in a book, but be available to everybody.”
In the Chennai Past Forward app, a user can search for a heritage building based on the location and learn the history, the current status and associated trivia. If the building is not listed, the user can send an image of the structure to Broadgate Technical Services who will attempt to trace its origins, accredit that find to the user and add it to the app. “Today,” said Sriram, “we have 300 buildings listed on the app. My guess is that there are around 2,500 buildings in the city that can be classified as heritage buildings.”
The app also has a picture postcard feature where one can select a listed building as an image for a picture postcard and send an electronic copy with a handwritten message, either by email or as a Facebook post.
Nine years ago, Vijay Prabhat Kamalakara started Storytrails to provide walking tours of the city. “Our trails are not sightseeing tours, we don’t attempt to show places in the city,” said Vijay. “Instead, these are about stories behind ordinary sights you see every day. Some are historical stories, and some are about local customs and symbolism. Many of our trails don’t even touch a tourist landmark. You could, for instance, walk through a vegetable market, or spend a day in a village living the life of a farmer with insights into farming and the rural economy.”
Initially designed for the business traveller visiting Chennai, Storytrails now gets more leisure travellers as guests. About 10% to 20% of their guests are local. “In the Peacock Trail,” elaborated Vijay, “we visit a temple, we visit a church, we walk along the bylanes of Mylapore, but the trail is not about Mylapore. We use what we see there as props for our stories. Many people who were born and brought up in Mylapore, and even live there, are just as fascinated by these stories as any visiting foreigner would be. The sight may be familiar but it’s the stories that really make the difference.”
Begun as a Facebook page on April 24, 2012, Cycling Yogis is a group of 30 cyclists who organise rides all year round to places of heritage and historical interest in and around Chennai.
“The experience of a place is incomplete when I take a train or a bus,” said Moulana Ramanujar. “When you cycle to a place of heritage interest, there is a deep sense of satisfaction – or as we say in Tamil, paripoornam.”
For last year’s Madras Day celebrations, Cycling Yogis organised a ride from Napier Bridge tracing the history of the river Cooum back to its origin in Kesavaram. This year, the ride is to Sadurangapattinam (Sadras) Fort built by the Dutch, positioned strategically along the coast in relation to Pazhaverkadu (Pulicat).
Cycling Yogis has also just released a booklet that traces 100 years of bicycling in Chennai (1877-1977), includes trivia on subjects like cycling in the movies, cycle manufacturers in Chennai, Nobel laureates and religious thinkers who bicycled, etc. “The city has the distinction of being the place where the first Indian bicycle – named Swan – was assembled by SAA Annamalai Chettiar in 1925.”
Nizhal (the Tamil word for shade) works towards promoting tree culture in urban areas, creating awareness about the role of trees, planting the right kind of trees and caring for trees through collaborative efforts with the local community.
Over seven years, using limited resources, Nizhal’s volunteers have transformed a five-acre dump yard into an environmental biodiversity heritage spot called the Kotturpuram Tree Park.
Their work in prisons across Tamil Nadu grew from a basic greening programme to include vegetable gardening. Besides their tree walks and Free the Tree campaign which involves removing boards that are taped or nailed onto trees, Nizhal’s volunteers have, over the years, not only documented species endemic to the region like the neer maruthu but also identified rare trees like the asoka. More recently, they received permission to create landmark name boards for seven trees regarded as living heritage in Chennai.
Shobha Menon of Nizhal said, “One of the walks organised for Madras Day celebrations this year is led by children from our Junior Yuva programme, who will each talk about one special tree they have observed over the last few months.”
Explore Differently hopes to provide accessible outdoor exploration options for disabled persons and wheelchair users in India. Incidentally, Nizhal led the first ever wheelchair tree trail for Explore Differently in June 2016.
Aditya Sharma said, “We invite persons with disabilities, with any disability, be it visual impairment, speech-hearing impairment, mobility challenges, autism, cerebral palsy, learning disability and more. The challenge of lesser social exposure is common to all forms of disabilities and in fact we would prefer to have a mixed group in a given trip. Depending on participation, we arrange the kind of support needed for a given trip.”
Sharma elaborates that physical access is the most common obstacle. The basic checks done before a trip include a ramp for wheelchair movement and ensuring there are grab-bars in critical sections, including toilets. If portable ramps are required, they are organised from Explore Differently’s partners, Include.
“For the Madras Day celebrations, we have two visits – one is a closer look at the amazing collection of arms and weapons on display at the Government Museum. The second is on the history of the city’s cinema as narrated through a film and a visit to a film studio.”
Years ago, when Vinita Sidhartha was at work, her children spent time with her grandparents. “There is an 80-year age gap between my grandparents and my kids. That’s a hard generation gap to bridge and I was fascinated at how much of their time together centred on games.”
Vinita first wrote a series of articles on traditional games. “People began asking me about them, so I made a few games. It was never intended as a retail business.” The games sold out very quickly and today, Kreeda has 19 games in the market and many others still being researched.
For the Madras Day celebrations, Kreeda has, among its many events, a talk on the games one finds in temples, a series of game events for the elderly, one event with special children and also an evocatively titled talk on “Games of Courtship, Games of Love” where Vinita links the Krishna Jayanthi festival and Chennai.
“Games are for everyone, old and young, healthy, normal and special, young adults, young children and the elderly,” said Vinita. “The lessons you learn from games are intrinsically a part of our own cultural heritage. Games are not apart from life, but a part of life.”