In the winter of 2017, artist Hemalatha Venkataraman sat sketching at the local tea shop in Chennai’s Anna Nagar while sipping on hot tea. She drew the overcrowded little stall – a riot of colours with bunches of bananas hanging on one side, plastic packets of potato wafers lined up to make a background of blues and yellows, and the “tea-master” busy making batch after batch of steaming tea and coffee. She captured this scene in miniature, cut out the illustration, held it up in front of the shop and clicked a picture. It was her ode to the tea kadai, an intrinsic part of every neighbourhood in the city she calls home.
The 26-year-old, a graduate teaching associate at the Ohio State University, is a trained architect. When she was home from the US for a small break in late 2017 she was determined to use the month rediscovering her old haunts and neighbourhood, Anna Nagar. Lack of time meant she couldn’t do full-scale sketches of the city, as she had done in the past, so she chose to go the miniature route and recreated in Chennai what Australian illustrator Maxwell Tilse had done all over Europe. On her trips around the world, Tilse created little cut-out ink and pen illustrations of landmarks, cafes and city scenes.
Venkataraman took a similar approach in reacquainting herself with her home and sketched the monuments, streets and people. Photographed against the backdrop of the original setting, these miniatures were uploaded on Facebook and Instagram with the hashtag #MadrasInMini. “I didn’t want to just draw these places but also capture the [spirit] of Madras and its people,” said Venkataraman, referring to Chennai by its old name. “The series began as an attempt to showcase my favourite city’s local culture, people and places of personal importance to me. I did 50 of them and even had the people from those spaces photographed in this visual documentation project.”
The Ohio-based artist has over 1,400 followers on Instagram and over 1,500 on Facebook. While Venkataraman was diligently posting at least one sketch every day during the month, her followers, some of whom have lived in Chennai or have visited the city, took this journey with her. While some said that her sketches filled them with nostalgia, others reminisced about the colourful Metropolitan Transportation Corporation bus tickets that have been replaced by simple printed ones.
Art has been a part of Venkataraman’s life for as long as she can remember – “My mother says I drew an elephant with chalk on my house floor when I was two years old, and according to her, that was a perfectly fine elephant.” Despite a brutal rejection at the age of eight from an art teacher who refused to teach her, assuming that Venkataraman was not really interested in learning, she never stopped pursuing her love, whether it was copying images from another book or drawing kolams.
“I wasn’t formally introduced to art or trained in it while growing up, but India is a country where art is commonplace and ubiquitous. I believe I was, and still am, inspired by the art around me,” she said. “The kolams, sari prints, temples, sculptures, colourful household celebrations, interstate lorries, and trucks have all influenced my art style.”
For her MadrasInMini series, Venkataraman visited her alma maters – the State Bank of India Officers Association School and Junior College and Muslim Educational Association of Southern India Academy of Architecture – besides her old haunts and her favourite chaat shop to capture them in colour on her sketchpad. She drew scenes from Royapettah, Triplicane, Egmore, Anna Salai, Mylapore and Parry’s Corner.
As she walked around, she noticed details that are a natural part of Indian cities – multilingual road signs, little wooden carts used by local dhobis to iron clothes and the local coffee powder shops, for example. “These shops are retail outlet stores for different kinds of coffees, sorted by strength, taste and the plantations they come from,” writes Venkataraman in the note accompanying the sketch. “Madras households start their day with this filter kappi and it is extremely important that folks replenish their stock regularly. You go to the store and get your coffee kind, and composition – they roast, blend and grind it for you then and there for you to take it home and enjoy some super fresh filter kaapi.”
In her sketches, Venkataraman highlights the balance between the traditional and the modern that she feels Chennai excels at. “Madras is a warm and a welcoming city where you’re greeted with the biggest of smiles and love wherever you go and I wanted to bring those aspects to the foreground. Makeshift shops, brightly-colored iron-shop stalls, tiny chai stalls that people stand around and have social meetings at, food vendors along the beach, and [people who] don cultural attire without a need to portray modernity. The city doesn’t try to be hip or trendy. It is modern and keeps growing but holds on to its tradition and culture pretty protectively. I love that. I think that it’s extremely important to know one’s origins and stay rooted. That is what keeps making me want to bring my paints out, to showcase the simplicity, and elegance of Madras.”
For the artist, Chennai’s character is also intrinsically linked with its architecture. In many of her sketches, she focused on the places of worship and their designs that she grew up admiring, theatres and libraries built in the 19th century, or designs incorporated in old houses she saw. “Madras has a range of historical architectural styles dating all the way back to the 7th and 8th century,” Venkataraman said. “There is brilliant temple architecture and other religious institutions – Mughal, colonial, Indo-Sarcenic and Art Deco styles. The city has the second highest number of heritage buildings in India and it bothers me that this isn’t well known or recognised by the locals. I think it is vital that we preserve these buildings and tap into the socio-cultural and historic capital. Mindless development and urban planning causes me much pain and this is my way of documentation of spaces that have huge architectural value.”
The artist also wanted her art to reflect her own experience of Chennai and the familiarity and affection she experiences on a daily basis. “I think people define the environments we sketch and how we sketch it,” she said. “I have had tea and pakora shop owners offer me tea when seeing me sketching, a watchman at a church even gave me his good chair to sit on. That love and sense of being welcome affects the art I make and how attached I am in the process of making it, and the drawings themselves.”