Sunday, August 15, 2010


Compared to my rush to reach Music Academy for Landmark 2010, the relaxed manner in which Sivakumar and I reached Taj Connemara was not a surprise. The reason I had even decided to give the finals of the Landmark Quiz (we have never been on stage so far, so that could never be the reason) was that I had a date with the first of the Madras Musings Lecture Series of the Madras Week 2010.

After a rather good time snacking around and catching up with the familiar faces from last year’s lectures, it was time to sit in attention to catch up with what Sivasankari, the popular Tamil writer. The introductions were done with and Sivasankari was at the mike. Sivasankari was speaking about My Madras – the Madras being the one she grew up and earned a name for herself, not the supposedly post-modern Chennai that we live in.

She started off describing herself as a typical Madras girl, and rightly so, though she also spent time at Villupuram (during which time she was at Madras for almost half-a-week) – a small self-introduction. She then set the right tone for the day quickly moving on to how the entire family – remember, it was a joint family of close to 40 people at home – stood around as her father hoisted the national flag and the family sung patriotic songs. That really moved me – would have loved to be in such an atmosphere.

Sivasankari is writer – hugely successful too. I must confess that I have not read much of her writings, but I have liked what little I have. What stood out today was the planning that had probably gone into her lecture, if she had thought ahead last week as to what she was going to tell us today. What also stood out, purely in my personal opinion, was the same planning – that probably is the reason why this piece is titled so.

She had segmented her lecture into three distinct segments – Places, People and Events (read festivals). She roped in the audience with little effort, and as it happens at such lectures, the senior citizens who always outnumber youngsters, always have an I-told-you-so or an I-have-been-there-and-done-that-too kind of look if you are rather unfortunate to catch their eye! There were a lot of such moments today, and I must consider myself lucky that flanking me on one side was Sivakumar and on the other was Karthik Bhatt – arguably waiting to be the next big thing on the Madras heritage scene, a status he richly deserves. We will have more about Karthik in a few days’ time if I am lucky; for the moment we can come back to Sivasankari.

Sivasankari spoke evocatively about her childhood and youth; about the uncle from Dhanbad whose visits the entire family looked forward to, for this offered a chance to have a series of outings with him; of her moonlit dinners on what was then not considered the done thing – at the Elliot’s Beach; how Adyar was done and dusted at Gandhinagar, beyond which there seemed no tomorrow; about the Sun Theatre which was considered low class in comparison to the Rajakumari – apparently the only movie theatre to be named after an actress (!) – which showcased English movies; how she sneaked in wearing a costume to look like an adult to watch an ‘A’ rated movie at Minerva. What must take the cake, or the ice cream, was the description of her movie watching days at the New Elphinstone – more than the movie, the ice cream at Jaffar’s. A very interesting piece of info was that Jaffar had the ice cream sent to your seat in the movie hall if you paid for it in advance and gave your seat number at the time of ordering the ice cream – for what was the Dress Circle class at there. The Satyams and the PVRs – we have done that before you!

Kapaleeswarar temple, the Island Grounds, the Munroe statue, the Congress grounds also found a mention in the lecture. Another surprise for me was that Modern Café, that wonderful restaurant of yester years actually sold food from a van parked on the Marina; for Sivasankari, though, the attraction was the iced water they served! Her reminiscences also took us to the Woodlands Drive-in, the RR Sabha, her birth place on the Boag Road – this is now a wedding hall! She also had a pet deer when she lived in a huge place on Tirumalai Pillai Road!

She then seamlessly integrated her next segment, people. Talking with fervour, she narrated how she got to know the then big names like Kamaraj, Bhaktavatchalam, Rajaji, TTK, and many others. She was particularly fond of the Kalki Gardens as she was close to M S Subbulakshmi. She talked of how her father and many contemporaries used these children to help out when they prepared food for the hordes descending on Kumbakonam for the Mahamaham. Apparently at his wits’ end to mix the rice and sambar for the sambar rice, her father had a concrete mixer thoroughly cleaned and used it for making sambar rice!

The festivals she talked about were Deepavali and the Navaratri. How the parents used to line up the kids as early as 2.30 am to have a ‘gangasnaanam’, the holy bath on Deepavli, how they burst crackers right from 4 am and the wonderful, mouthwatering spread of bakshanams! Navarathri was an equally elaborate affair; the nine-day festival entailing their visits to more than 100 households for kolu, and more than an equal number visiting them!

She also touched upon her association with both Indira and Rajiv Gandhi, the first family in India’s politics then, now and probably forever! She described how Rajiv Gandhi celebrated her birthday on board the Air Force plane in the midst of a state visit!

Well, if you are wondering what was underwhelming about all this, there are two reasons. The turnout was rather disappointing – it was much better last year. But last year opened with Randor Guy’s talk on the sleaze, read crimes at Madras, and this proves that crime pays – even in a heritage series’ lecture! The second was that - at least I felt so - Sivasankari was intent on not overshooting the allotted time. By the time she was done with places, she probably felt she was running short of time and had to rather gallop through the next two of her segments, to use her own words, like Munroe on the horse!

My impressions of the day – an evening very well spent. But it had the potential to be the blockbuster of the lecture series this year (I am not including Mohan Raman’s talks – it is like comparing Sachin Tendulkar to Dravid and the rest), but failed to make it at the last possible centimeter of the race. We could have been party to this rather unwittingly – why do we turn out in large numbers when there are only movies and when there is only sleaze? Our inherent and time-tested interest in others’ personal lives or in the make-believe world of celluloid? Voyeurism? It is time to move on – come on Madras, there is life beyond the movies and sleaze.


Blogger rajaram said...


thanks for a nice write up.i felt as if i was listening to her. As an author, i have always felt that she has not done enough to her talent. she has always come out as 'next door akka' telling you stories. her written words always made me to live along with the characters of her novels. good that she was also a good speaker.
do continue your post, daily...

Blogger KARTHIK A.BHATT said...

Hi Sir,

Thank you very much for the wonderful words about me!!!

Though am not quite sure I deserve them...

Anonymous Anonymous said...

She also touched upon her association with both Indira and Rajiv Gandhi, the first family in India’s politics then, now and probably forever! She described how Rajiv Gandhi celebrated her birthday on board the Air Force plane in the midst of a state visit!

Not entirely sure which all this is relevant in a talk about Madras!

Is it something like hey, I am this cool person who grew up in this city but I am so well-known even outside of it???


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