In 1774, by the terms of Pitt’s India Act, Madras was made subordinate to Calcutta. The growing importance of the latter meant the growth of Madras slowed down. In the 19th century, Mark Twain visited Madras and said:

Clive kissed me on the mouth and eyes and brow,
Wonderful kisses, so that I became
Crowned above Queens – a withered beldame now,
Brooding on ancient fame

But Madras survived and stayed its same lazy self, till Independence. Classical music and dance grew in importance, and performing at a sabha during the music season was an honor for every musician. Dr. Annie Besant started the Home Rule League and was fighting for dominion status. Apart from classical Carnatic music, the city was also the home of folk music and classical Western music. Indo-Saracenic art was envisaged and appeared here for the first time while the first Art Deco building was built here in 1938. It was a city of regal houses and green canopies. The city housed the World Theosophical Society. Madras was famed for its greenery, its beaches and its cleanliness.

Madras High Court, another exemplar of the Indo-Saracenic style

After Independence, there was not much change. Madras got India’s tallest building—the LIC on Mount Road, and several industrial estates which encouraged the small and medium sectors. MS Subbulakshmi and Balasaraswati rocked the world. Ramanathan Krishnan became a tennis legend while India won its first Test match against England in 1952.

The big change began in the 1960s. Till then, the Dravidian movement was mired in controversies, such as the transition from the Justice Party to Dravida Kazhagam (DK), which rejected Independence; DK split consequent to Periyar’s marriage to Maniammai; and the formation of DMK. Congress handed the state on a platter to DMK by trying to force Hindi, which the state had been opposing since the freedom movement. This time they went further by calling out troops to fire on students. Needless to say, when the elections were announced in 1967, Congress was wiped out and never regained primacy in Tamil Nadu.

Chennai’s traffic chaos

Madras State became Tamil Nadu in 1969 and Tamil pride was the main issue. In 1998, Madras became Chennai—to make a point. Unfortunately, DMK did not realise that Chennappa Nayakar was a Telugu, not a Tamilian, and for all their Tamil pride, the city got a new Telugu name!

The 1990s changed Madras. The IT boom hit the city and south Chennai started blooming with IT parks. The roads to Mahabalipuram—Old Mahabalipuram Road and East Coast Road—were now the localities of a flashy new city with glass-fronted buildings, McDonald’s and KFC. Seven auto companies moved here, giving Chennai the name “Detroit of India”. Medical tourism also became popular as foreigners came to Chennai for cheap medical treatment. Meanwhile, north Chennai was a hell on earth, with the oil refinery, thermal power stations and heavy industries.

With DMK came a new culture. DMK and its offshoot, AIADMK, were led by film script writer Karunanidhi and film stars MGR and Jayalalithaa, respectively, who brought a new cinematic lifestyle, with loud and enormous cardboard cutouts of themselves decorating the roads. Politically, DMK and AIADMK were two sides of a coin and their governments alternated. But DMK was virulently anti-Hindu, while AIADMK led by Jayalalithaa was deeply religious. The new millennium saw the two parties breathe fire at each other. It was a personal battle between Karunanidhi and Jayalalithaa, who never forgave DMK for physically abusing her in the Assembly in March 1989. Film culture became the substitute for folk culture. Fortunately, the classical arts lived on.

Dr. Nanditha Krishna
Director, CPR Institute of Indological Research

Courtesy: Open Magazine, 27 August, 2021.

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