Maniam Selven talks about happy days spent watching boats bob gently in the Buckingham Canal, cycling around, the festivities, and a time when life was simple
I was born in the house we were staying at in Chintadripet. My earliest memories are that of the tram that used to run near the house. In fact, for a while after the trams were stopped, the tracks remained — as a pointer to an era of different conveyance. I remember how the city embraced a festive spirit during Independence Day — Ripon Building, Victoria Public Hall and the Central Station sparkled with lights.
After we moved to our own house in R.A. Puram, my attention shifted to the Buckingham Canal. Boats held me in perpetual fascination, and I spent hours together watching them gently pass by, with merchandise such as salt and firewood. Boats halted behind what is now Citi Centre. But, for all the water around, there were hardly any mosquitoes; water bodies were clean.
Two events we all looked forward to were the kolu and the Mylapore festival. For kolu, women used to plan shopping for grocery and thengai a month ahead! All of us friends after a game of cricket or gilli thanda in the evening, would be ready for a trip to all the houses in the neighbourhood for a cocktail of delicious sundal, in dhonnais and plantain leaves! Those were the days when you could enter anyone's house without misgivings.
Ah, the Mylapore festival — with its bioscope (we'd get so close we'd smell the oil in the equipment!), puppet shows, hand-made toys, kambarkat, thaen mittai, thengai burfi, the sticky ‘bombay' mittai, choppu saamaan in maakkal and wood, pallankuzhi… Much later I realised that right in its heart, Madras brought alive to me the life in a village. And, to think we had all this fun without a single paisa for pocket money! My father used to take us around and buy us whatever we fancied. But then, there were no threats in terms of hygiene.
My father also took me to the cinemas — all English films in New Elphinstone Theatre, Globe, Odeon, Casino, and Minerva. The huge banners outside the cinemas always caught my fancy. Colour banners for black-and-white films!
New Elphinstone Theatre was said to have been a ballroom during British rule. The city was a treasure trove of Mughal, British and south Indian architecture. Though an artist, my father never compelled me to take up art. However, such trips to theatres, temples, exposure to architecture and my father's keen eye for photography, and most importantly, the need to carry forward my father's legacy, slowly drew me to art, and I took it up in college.
Once, someone I knew had mentioned to a group of foreigners visiting Madras that I painted, and they wanted to see my work. I carried around 15 of my paintings to Taj Connemara, sold more than five, and made a whopping Rs. 600 in a day! Dizzy with delight, I took a taxi back home. It was a treat because I always took a bicycle wherever I went. I used to travel at least 35 km every day on the bicycle — traffic was less, and we felt safe. In fact, my cycle did not even have a dynamo then, and I only carried an oil lamp to avoid being fined by the police!
That was a time when amenities and access were limited, but hospitality was abundant, and we had time for everyone and everything.
As a kid, I had a chance to travel with my father to Mahabalipuram in director AP Nagarajan's Plymouth. I noticed that his number plate said APN (followed by the car number). I knew M.S. Subbulakshmi's car said MSS. I thought number plates were, in fact, the owners' initials! Much later, when the registration series was TSL (for T.S. Loganathan), I could not afford a vehicle. Finally, I got a car when the series was TMC, and I consoled myself saying it, after all, stood for Thandarai Maniam ‘Chelven'…
Born in 1950, T.S. Loganathan alias Maniam Selven is the son of legendary artist Maniam. Ma.Se, as he's popularly known, is a gold medallist from the College of Arts and Crafts, Madras. He's carved a niche for himself with his illustrations for Tamil magazines such as Kalki, Ananda Vikatan, Kumudham, Dinamani Kadhir and Amudhasurabhi. His creations are in watercolour, acrylic, ink and pastel. He's the recipient of the NCERT and the Gnana Bharathi Awards.