The name of the city has changed - so also everything else in this once beautiful, large, spread out city, in the last fifty years.
Then Madras was the capital of the Madras Presidency which comprised today’s Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Tamilnadu and Malabar (part of Kerala). My first visit to Madras was in 1945 as a young bride on my way to New Delhi. Whenever we came down South from Delhi to our home town in Kerala, we would spend a couple of days with our uncle and aunt in Monegar Chowltry, and so we visited Madras many times. In 1957, my husband was posted here for six months, so I actually got a feel of the city then. I came back to Madras in 1998 and have been living here with my daughter off and on, more on than off. In the last twenty years itself, Madras has changed so much, in many visible ways.
What really attracted me in Madras on my first visit was the beach, the Marina beach, which at that time was considered the longest beach in the world. It was just a long and wide spread of sand up to the waves from the road. There were only a few sellers of eatables scattered over the place, and we really relaxed going there. And look at today’s’ beach. It is now crowded, not only with men, women and children, but also by so many brick and mortar constructions, and so many temporary constructions, too. And a car park between the road and the waves. I find this beach very different from what I had seen on my first visit, very crowded and very commercialized like many beaches in other parts of the world. The only thing that attracts me here on the beach now is the row of statues - very beautiful, imposing and artistic.
To those who come to the beach for the first time now, it will seem wonderful, but for old-timers like me who have seen the old Marina, this is a disappointment. At the same time this is called progress.
Madras of those days was a very laid-back city, very quiet and peaceful. The roads were deserted most of the time with only a few cars plying here and there, and fewer buses. There were no auto rickshaws, no two-wheelers (like scooters and motorcycles) but for a few cycles. Another commuting facility which the city boasted of was the tram service, running from the Town area via Royapettah up to Mylapore, Luz. I remember those tram rides in Madras in the late 40s. Now Mount Road, called Anna Salai, is so congested and crowded with vehicles of all sorts, including bullock carts. One finds it very difficult, tiresome and time consuming to cross Anna Salai at any point. Chennai city has become a moving city like any other metropolis anywhere else.
In the old city of Madras there were no high rise buildings, only single bungalows surrounded by courtyards on four sides and pukkah walls. Today all the single storey buildings have been pulled down, with multi-storey buildings taking their place, changing the skyline of the city.
The shops were also fewer at that time - unless one went to China Bazaar, Flower Bazaar Pondy Bazaar and Luz Corner, which were known as shopping centres. When we were living here, our house, a beautiful bungalow, was on a road off Mowbrays’ Road, (now TTK Road). The few shops in our locality used to close by 8 pm. One evening I found I had run out of salt. And to buy that packet of salt my husband had to drive me all the way to Pondy Bazaar. There too, there was only a single provision shop open, where we found our salt. What a difference to today’s night life in the shops.
Then there was the mother of today’s shopping malls, the Moore Market, where you could buy and sell everything. Any visitor to the city was treated as a hero on his return home because he had been to ‘pattanam’, the name given to the city by people in the interior south. The womenfolk in his family in the villages would boast no end, showing off their celluloid soapboxes and powder boxes bought in Moore Market. Chennai city now boasts of malls in every area, crowded with so many consumer goods and so many eating places, full of people all the time.
In the Madras days, there were only a few choice eating places like Dasaprakash, (near Egmore) catering to vegetarians, Ambi’s Café and Ramakrishna Lunch Home (both in Parry’s) and Swami’s Café, (near present day Sathyam theatre) to mention a few. We went to Dasaprakash, especially for the ice creams - the children simply loved the big cups of ice cream. Ice cream was not available in so many places then. I still remember the taste of hot adai served with a blob of butter on it for breakfast at Swami’s. Whenever we visited Madras from Pondicherry for a day, our favourite place for lunch was Ramakrishna Lunch Home. And the children and I used to tease my husband saying that it was because it carried his name that he patronized it. Close to this was the famous 777 Pickles and Appalam shop, where we never forgot to pick up two or three of both to take home. Today there are a minimum of two or three eateries in each street.
Music and art flourish here now. The British left in 1947, but it took a long time for the British influence to leave us, resulting in a dearth of great musicians in the late 20th century. Now all that has changed. Where girls once learnt singing, only as a passport to get married, we find now there are many great female musicians. Among the musicians are well-educated professionals, who are world famous for their music, like Sanjay Subrahmaniam. Art in any form is well-encouraged, exhibited, and well-received.
Madras city had only a handful of theatres in the fifties, one or two of them screening only English movies. We used to go to the night shows on the spur of the moment, for there was no advance booking. I still remember seeing ‘Bhowani Junction’, which was set in India. Tickets were available on demand any time. I also took my mother-in-law to many Tamil movies for the afternoon show. Now, I think one has to plan ahead even to have some entertainment like watching a movie. Entertainment at home is available at the touch of a button on the TV.
When I came to live in Madras from Delhi in 1956, I used to mostly wear cotton sarees. A friend of mine told me that if I wanted to be acknowledged by the Madras ‘in-set’ I should wear Kanjeepuram sarees and plenty of ornaments – an idea I rejected. In Chennai today, you can see anyone under the age of 50 wearing jeans and tops, or salwar suits very comfortably, with sarees reserved for special occasions. I have seen professors, teachers and lawyers going to work then, wearing the dhoti in the traditional panchakacham style with turban, which has disappeared along with the traditional nine yard saree – both are now worn only on the day of the wedding. The 'pavadai daavani' (long skirt and a half sari) costume, which I consider very elegant for a teenage girl, cannot be seen any more. In my younger days, nobody wore 'pavadai daavani'. We all graduated straight to sarees from skirts or long skirts and blouses. But it came into vogue in the fifties. Later I felt a great fascination for this costume. While we were in Madras, my sister came down for a short visit with her children and their cousins. We decided to go to Moore Market, and my sister made me wear her teenage daughter’s 'pavadai daavani',and I did so happily, feeling very trendy.
People in Madras generally were, and still are very generous and helpful. In 1967, we were at Vummidiar’s to buy a pair of bangles for our eldest daughter’s valaikappu. She was expecting her first, and the bangle ceremony is one of the important events connected with the pre-natal ceremonies. We had just chosen a pair of 'kadas' (thick bangles) and were looking at it, when a lady walked in, saw the one we had selected, and wished to buy it. When she realized we were buying it for our daughter, she apologized and wished her a safe delivery and left. I shall never forget her kindness.
The city is still changing, and I wonder what it will be like fifty years from now.
This piece appeared in the February, 2009 issue of Eve's Touch, a Madras/Chennai publication.