I remember jumping like a schoolboy, running from one end of the town to another to see the varied celebrations,” says K.V. Ramanathan, a retired bureaucrat. “the city wasn’t as large back then, but it was still no joke...but in that atmosphere, there was no question of getting tired.”
Ramanathan was 19 years old when India achieved its independence in 1947.
Wedged to the south-eastern part of India, Chennai was somewhat spared the mass migration and uprooting that bloodied much of the North when people were forced to choose their homeland after the division of India and Pakistan.
Chennai, Madras as it was called then—with tracts of farmland on the West and the Bay of Bengal on the East—was almost a village with the amenities of a city.
“In that period, Chennai was the best city in India to live in,” says G. Dattatri, who joined the Planning Commission of the city in 1951, worked in related capacities for the next 50 years, and continues to act as a consultant to the Chennai Metropolitan Development Authority (CMDA).
“It had all the urban amenities–good water supply, decent drainage, good transport, and it had all the charm of a rural setting.” Dattatri added that the rivers which flowed through the city were nowhere close to the filthy ones today.
Madras, as the old timers still prefer to call it, came into existence only in the 1600s, formed from villages in the area–Triplicane and Mylapore, which are some of the most crowded neighbourhoods in the modern city.
But the odd mix of villages has changed into a burgeoning city, and is growing in economic importance–helped by the Guindy and the Ambattur industrial estates, which were set up by CMDA, and its seaport location that connected the rest of the world with the peninsular region South of the Vindhyas.
“Untouched by the violence of Partition, Madras was able to celebrate without stint the achievement of independence,” says M.G. Balasubramaniam, who was among the first batch to clear the Indian Administrative Service examination post-independence.
The economy of the city grew, slowly in the 1950s and 1960s, and in leaps and bounds during the 1970s and the 1980s. Alongside, the cultural scene flourished.
Rukmini Devi Arundale had already established Kalakshetra, a school for Bharatanatyam in the 1930s, and the steady infusion of people from around the world put it on the global map.
Meanwhile, Carnatic music continued to grow in significance. “I remember reading the eminent journalist Kalki Krishnamurthi’s criticism of the Carnatic season festival (held every year in December) for holding the festivals in three different sabhas, since the Madras audience may not be strong enough to fill all three,” says city historian Sriram V. He pauses, and then adds, “Today there are 53 sabhas, all packed to the rafters during the season!”