Many years ago, on this day, a city was born. A city called by various names, that grew voraciously and, we believe, well. A city that houses the intelligentsia of the country and one that drives the race for many an invention and innovation. A city that has its roots in strong classical tradition, and yet pushes full steam ahead towards a new tomorrow. A city that delights in contemporary fashion, but is just as comfortable in nine yards of silk. A city where the ancient is revered, yet the modern is welcomed. Strange contradictions indeed. And that is Chennai.
She is but an image of the people who make her. And these people come in all garbs, influencing the character of the areas they lived in.
Look at Georgetown. It started as a market supplying goods to the British, and went by the name of black town. Goods were both produced here, and brought from places near Madras. Cotton, gems and precious stones, silks, tea, sugar, pepper and other spices… even peacocks! The British thought that they looked good on the lawns of their estates.
And this place attracted traders from far and wide. One such person was Coja Petrus.
He came from a far away land called Armenia and became very rich trading here. It is said that at one time, the French who were fighting the British confiscated his considerable property. They promised to return it if he left Madras and came to the French territory of Pondicherry. Coja Petrus refused, deciding to remain loyal to the British, because he had made his money in British territory. A benevolent and God fearing man, he donated generously to Churches here, and also built the bridge over Saidapet, earlier called the Marmalong Bridge.
As before, Georgetown continues to be a traders hub. Crowded, chaotic, colourful and crumbling in parts, but still home to many who call this home and feel Chennai’s pulse is to be found here.
A different place, a different time. An age when dance was confined to temples. When famed musicians sang for hours on end, egged on by a discerning audience; and dance performances were meant for the Gods alone. These dancers, called the Devadasis, were wedded to the Gods, and dedicated their lives to the perfection of their art.
But then, slowly things changed, and the temple dancers became chattels of the rich. This resulted in the dance form itself being looked down upon. It took someone with the grit and determination of Rukmini Devi Arundale, to wipe away the blemish and re-invent this art form, that to many is the face of Chennai today.
Coming from a traditional Brahmin family, 16 year old Rukmini shocked the world by marrying 40 year old Arundale, an Australian at the Theosophical Society. Her association with a Russian ballerina woke her to the world of rhythm and movement. She soon discovered Bharatanatyam, only to learn that it was out of bounds for the elite.
Undaunted, she bullied some renowned teachers into teaching her the art in secre,t and danced for the first time in front of an audience in 1935, changing the image of Bharatanatyam for ever. The tinkling of anklets accompanied by the beat of the Mridungam, continues to be the face of Chennai for many.
The temples continue to flourish, albeit without the presence of Devadasis, and if anything they have only grown in the eyes of many. From Gopurams steeped in antiquity, to roadside shrines, both inspire the same faith in the common man. For many, these temples personify the spirit of Chennai.
But if you thought Chennai was all about Hinduism, think again. As early as 52 AD, a man from a far away land, walked the sands of a beautiful beach in the port town of Mylapore. He spoke of a new God in a new land and left his footprints on the sands of time.
From the humble arrival of St.Thomas, to the British who left behind a cathedral of neo-gothic splendor, Chennai to many is the cradle of Christianity in this part of the world.
Every major religion has left its mark on Chennai. And majestic monuments testify to the diversity of religious belief here. To many, this is the face of Chennai – a haven of spirituality and a stronghold of tradition.
Vibrant, pulsating, frenzied, turbulent and a city on the move, yet haphazard, pot-holed, noisy and polluted – Chennai goes by many faces. From potti kadais to supermarkets, from gypsies hawking beads, to multi-storied gold marts, from seedy cinema halls to the best of multiplexes, Chennai is home to all.
She constantly reinvents herself, she changes her persona to suit you and she is never the same for any two people. Chennai is what you want to make of her.