Madras Day, an ode to Chennai’s colonial history and its classical past

Madras Egmore Station. Photo: Wikimedia

There are not many cities that can boast of a birthday. One such city is Madras, which is today known as Chennai, dating back to August 22, 1639. However, the rarity doesn’t end there because the city’s history predates Madras, as it has a combined history of more than a thousand years.

For the last 15 years, a celebration of the city has dwelt into its rich history with food walks, heritage walks, quizzes and talks on various aspects and personalities that have made the city what it is today. The Madras Week celebrations held between the third and fourth week of August, is actually a month-long commemoration with individuals and groups taking up the initiative to organise events.

How it began

Renowned author and historian S Muthiah, who passed away in April this year, has been the principal organiser of the Madras Day event which began in 2004. The birthday of the city is based on the fact that it was on August 22 in 1639 that the East India Company transacted the land where Fort St George stands today, kickstarting the growth and settlement of the city.

Historian Vincent D’ Souza who has been part of the core team of organisers since then says, “The celebration of the city brings focus to a few things that we need to look at — history,  the relevance in history and where it has gone from where it started. These include the celebration of the people who make the history in various ways and the institutions. Through these celebrations, we also expose the newer generation to the history.”

The uniqueness of the celebrations is also due to the fact that no other city has a celebration of this kind, says V Sriram, who has been an integral part of the celebrations for several years now. “We also have to thank the social media for having been able to drive the celebrations. We wouldn’t have been able to achieve it without this. The one positive spin-off from this is the interest it has generated in history,” he says.

Not just colonial history

While the contention raised by a few has been about how Madras Week limits the purview to colonial history, Sriram strongly disagrees. “Pinning it down to August is just about giving a definite time to celebrate it. However, it is utter rubbish to say that we are only celebrating colonial history. We are also talking about temples that are several centuries old, discussing religious verses like the pasurams, thevarams, Thiruvasagam and the Bronze museum. All these predate colonial history of the city,” he explains.

Madras Day brings together the vast history spread over centuries, points out Padmapriya Bhaskaran, a historian and author based in Chennai. She says, “Till then, it was a number of revenue villages of Purusawalkam, Mambalam, Thiruvottiyur and Pallavaram. The transformation of the city from the time of the establishment of the Fort triggered an ongoing process.”

“Having said that, I think while the celebrations began with colonial history in focus, it has become cosmopolitan now. So, we talk about Sowcarpet which is the base for Rajasthanis in the city alongside Triplicane that has a strong presence of Muslims in the city during the course of celebrations,” she said.

Digging deeper

Nivedita Louis, who is all set for her walk that she is conducting to capture the religious plurality of the city on August 3, says there is so much to explore and deliberate. In the walk, off the famous RK Salai, she will take the participants through Kapaleeswarar Temple, the relatively lesser-known Jewish cemetery, Bahai cemetery, talking about the links of the religions to the city, and to the Dastagir Sahib Dargah, on August 3.

“I will be leading the walk with many first-time participants to show them the dissemination of cultures and how Tamil culture has influenced the life of Muslims. From there, we go to the Buckingham Canal and talk about the CSI Kalyani Hospital and such Christian institutions that have contributed immensely to the city.  We will conclude at the Sufi Dar Trust of the Sindhis, talking about the Hindus who came all the way from Pakistan soon after partition,” she says.

Louis says that the Madras Day celebrations have ensured a sustained interest in the city’s history. “I am happy that we have a whole month dedicated to the history of the city. There are a lot of takers for these events, but a city also has to celebrate its roots throughout the year. I think we are doing that as well.”

A movie made, a book or a project based on the city is also an extension of the celebration. “It can take any shape and it is loose, apart from continuing the engagement the people have with the city,” D’Souza says.

Untapped potential

Restricting the focus to just a few places and not considering aspects that have a larger relevance to contemporary times would be a big disservice to the city, says Bhaskaran.

She says, “Take the case of the biodiversity, which is not being looked at. There were several lakes when the British were here, what happened to them? Guindy was once a forest and so was the stretch from Karapakkam to Tambaram. There were as many as 40 types of fish, and crocodiles in the Cooum River. How did the river’s course change into the narrow stream it is today?  Thiruvanmayur gets its name from Thiru Aamai Yur (place of turtles), where even today we have the nesting season. There are several such stories from the city that are waiting to be narrated.”

With just a section — the educated folk being in the scheme of things — Sriram also believes that every section of the city should be a part of the celebration. He says, “The Indo-Anglians is a microcosmic group that celebrates the week. It runs the danger of saturation if it is going to get only the same set of the population involved with it.”