Thanks to the Great East Coast Road Drive, I spent two of the last three weekends in Chennai, soaking up the city’s overwhelming warmth. Thus overwhelmed and with a sun-baked epidermis to prove it, I returned with the conviction that this great metropolis of 375 years vintage, sewn out of a patchwork of fishing villages and estuarine marshlands into a military and naval stronghold and seat of administrative power, still known most endearingly to more than a few as Madras, remains the undisputed capital of the south. This, despite the rash of new cities that are staking their claim to a title over which Chennai unassumingly maintains its hold, without any intention of letting go.
Sure, Bangalore has the weather but don’t forget we didn’t invent that – and we’re losing it rapidly to manic, regressive, unplanned growth. Kerala, ever a vassal state to Tamil Nadu (before you reach for that coconut to pelt me with, look at its film industry), doesn’t have a single contender. And with Hyderabad all set to go the way of Chandigarh after the Telengana decision, it’s just as well that all of us acknowledge Chennai’s suzerainty over the south.
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Disagree? Try applying for a US visa, and all doubt will condense into a rivulet of perspiration as you stand obediently in line outside the US Consulate in Chennai, barred from yakking into your cell phone to temper the insult, with an arkful of chattering fellow south Indians from coast and hinterland.
But even that doesn’t justify the cow-belt boorishness for the pejorative Madrasi. Calm down, I’m not about to launch into a cliché-ridden tirade defending my Dravidian gene pool. I'll leave that to the less-travelled. Instead, I’ll buy you a ticket to Dakshina Chitra to rid you of your malaise for good. Or for better or for worse.
Twenty-five kilometres to the south of Chennai along the East Coast Road, this 10-acre spread of built-up land and grounds was once a rolling expanse of undulating sands. Today, it is a thoughtfully conceived and flawlessly executed tableau of south Indian tradition, construction, art and culture. All four states come vibrantly alive here, and the marketplace of crafts stalls are thrumming with artists and craftspersons from Odisha and Rajasthan as well.
The visit, I’m happy to say, prepared us for our tour to more southerly destinations along the ECR and, especially, into the hinterland. At Karaikudi and Thanjavur, we drew upon our mental picture of the exhibits at Dakshina Chitra as we admired the living but unoccupied Chettiar mansions and the pillared verandahs of the Sattanur Brahmin homes, respectively.
Back to Chennai. Or Madras, if you will.
In 1639, the English East India Company acquired a piece of land on the Coromandel Coast from Peda Venkata Raya of Chandragiri, represented by the Nayak of Vandavasi (or Wandiwash, famous for a decisive battle between the English and the French for control over South Asia). Measuring three square miles, this strip of beach is where the British built Fort St George. From these deceptively modest beginnings rose the city of Madras, later the headquarters of the Madras Presidency that encompassed all of present-day Tamil Nadu, the Malabar region of northern Kerala, Lakshadweep, much of coastal Andhra and southern Odisha and the Dakshina Kannada, Bellary and Udupi districts of Karnataka. Much of this territory remained unchanged until 1956 when the states of the Indian Union were reorganized, mostly to linguistic considerations and for political mileage.
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The name Madras derives from Madraspatnam, the original name of the British settlement. Chennapattanam was a town that lay to the south of the city, and thought to be so named after Damarla Chennappa Rayakudu, the aforesaid Nayak of Wandiwash. The British acquired it in 1639 to build a factory and warehouses. Yet, in years to come, it was this territory of dubious significance that would press its stamp on the city. After Independence the desire to shrug off colonial aftertastes was felt strongly by partisan groups that exploited identity and difference to further political agenda. In 1996, the DMK won the battle to rename the city as Chennai.
Madras still lives, though, in the Madras High Court, the Indian Institute of Technology – Madras, the University of Madras, the Alliance Francaise of Madras, the Madras School of Economics, et cetera. Fond remembrance lingers in establishments such as the Madras Gymkhana, where I once spent an evening touring with rock band Thermal And A Quarter as stiff-collared gents sipped their rum-and-cokes and admonished their daughters with mournful glares if they dared applaud. And the name still slithers reassuringly at the Madras Snake Park and the Madras Crocodile Bank Trust.
It takes a Madras Cafe (and not a Chennai Express?) to jolt us out of our indifference for the name that was. And every now and then, one of you in far-removed Gurgaon inevitably blinks at the world with a ruddy, watering Madras Eye. So, allow me to hitch my Madras-checked lungi to the knee, and dare you to risk your full set of incisors and call me Madrasi.
Bijoy Venugopal is Editor (Travel) at Yahoo India. Friday Funk is his skittish weekly blog that goes AWOL some weeks. Pardon his fractiousness, as he's lost his hair recently to showering in seawater as he went on The Great East Coast Road Drive. You are invited to test his Madrasi tolerance on Twitter and Facebook.