For the third year running, the Chennai Heritage Week (19-26 August), organized by a band of heritage buffs, took the ordinary citizen by the collar and frogmarched him through a fascinating encounter with the past.
In a sense, the festival was a small victory for S. Muthiah, the city’s historian and chronicler. His tireless championing of various civic causes, from cleaning up the city’s dirty drains and filthy waterways to finding ways of renovating the fading architectural glories of the colonial era, has, at last, found an answering echo.
The small broadsheet called Madras Musings that he started has inspired a number of young people to take up the cause of heritage. Some of them have started their own area-based tabloids, thereby reinforcing the notion that Chennai is still a collection of small villages flanking the imperial White Town, with the native Black Town—Georgetown, in the old days—linked today by the main arterial highway known as Mount Road or Anna Salai.
“I think what we really lack is an easily recognizable meeting place,” explains Sushila Ravindranath, editor of The New Sunday Express, who was at the forefront of the current initiative. “It is not easy for us to rally around any well-known spot as they might do with the Kala Ghoda Festival in Mumbai. So, we threw it open to as many people as possible, and made it a really fun kind of heritage festival. For me, the high point was to take an early morning walk through Georgetown, under the guidance of V. Sriram, and discover the immense wealth of history that lurks there. It’s the sort of heritage that other cities would die for and yet, we are barely aware of it today,” she says. V. Sriram was the maverick spirit of this year’s Chennai Heritage Week. An engineer by profession, his intense involvement in classical South Indian music has led him into a bumblebee’s flight path into the past.
He has tossed aside both convention and conformity in showcasing the lives of a once splendid community of dancers and musicians (devadasis) who graced the inner sanctum of the gods in their role as temple dancers. They later became ornaments in the courts of southern kingdoms such as Thanjavur and Mysore. During his guided tour of Georgetown, he pointed out that this was once a celebrated neighbourhood for both music and dance, with 2,000 women who were not only well-versed in the performing arts, but were educated and independent and belonged to a unique tradition in the South, quite unlike those who might be regarded as their counterparts in the North.
“They were,” he explains, in the course of an illustrated lecture, “married to the gods in their respective temples and highly-respected individuals. They owned their own property and the inheritance passed from mother to daughter. They could never become widows and, when they died, the cloth that was placed on the devadasi’s body was taken from that adorning the god. In fact, even in my family, it was considered to be very lucky when purchasing a diamond earring to make sure that it had once come from one of these women. It was a symbol of good fortune.”
As he traces their story with the help of a slide show, he describes how their days of glory at the famous Brihadeshvara Temple in Thanjavur was slowly eclipsed by the Marathas’ growing power under the Nayaks. As the colonial powers gained ascendancy in Madras, the devadasis shifted their base to the new centre of privilege. One of the old Indian elite’s standard ways of offering entertainment to the English masters was to bring on the devadasis, much as the Moguls did in the North, with their nautch girls.
One of the observers of the scene, Thomas Salmon, wrote in 1699: “Female choristers make up part of the equipage of a great man when he goes abroad; for every man of figure in the country I observed had a number of these singing women run before him, even the Governor of Fort St George was attended by 50 of them, as well as by the country music when he went out.”
This does not fit in exactly with Sriram’s image of excellence and virtue suggested by the term devadasis. Though it does suggest how some of their kind might have had to adjust to the changing times. It was, he says, a combination of the change in attitudes that came with the Victorian era and the creation of a Western-educated Brahmin elite—a middle class that wanted to appropriate the hereditary landed rights of the devadasis—and their own marginalized status within the community that led to their being labelled women of easy virtue, whose rights had to be denied to them forever by an act of legislation.
What was extraordinary, however, was how every one of the women he characterized, Veena Dhanammal, Mylapore Gowriamma and Mysore Nagarathnamma and finally, the incandescent Balasaraswati, found a resonance in the memory of the equally well-educated and receptive audience. In one of the evening’s sessions, Gowri Ramnarayan, a granddaughter of the celebrated Kalki, writer, dramatist and stalwart of the freedom movement, not only spoke on music but also entertained the crowd with her own spontaneous rendering of the compositions they wanted to hear. In some ways, it was a coming together of the many different strands of Chennai’s past in an atmosphere that was full of nostalgia and even a sense of longing for all that has been lost.
The hotels in the city rose to the challenge. The Taj Coromandel recreated the recipes of Chennai’s most famous writer of cookbooks, S. Meenakshi Ammal, whose three volumes of recipes called Samaithu Paar have become such a resource for brides departing to North America that she was named one of the 50 most influential women of the sub-continent by Cosmopolitan magazine.
The ITC Welcomgroup Park Sheraton created a high tea around the theme of “Memsahibs and Mamis,” serving hot dosas and lemon tarts. Others organized tree walks, a tour of Stone Age Madras at a site not far from the city.
And there were art shows, displays in the local museums and galleries and a talk by a German scholar of the time when the German warship, Emden, on a freak tour of the coast during World War II, sent citizens scattering to the hinterland by firing two cannons.
“Madras Week does not call for wild parties, colourful wristbands and ribbon-cutting events,” declares Vincent D’Souza, editor of the Mylapore Times, who runs his own heritage week in December in the city’s Mylapore temple area, “It invites you to enjoy the good things of the city.”
The ghosts of the devadasis of Georgetown would have danced a round to that.
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