A bigger Madras Week

Madras Day, August 22, is an informal celebration of the City's founding in 1639, and was begun seven years ago. That's officially grown into a week, from last year, and, judging by this year's programmes, from August 1 to 31, looks like becoming Madras Month.

What's special about this growth is that it has been entirely due to people and institutions volunteering to organise programmes and that it has all been done without any sponsorship except for institutions such as the hotels and the Freemasons (who are doing so for a week) offering events space and others offering modest prizes. This attempt to create a people's pride in their city is truly a citizens' effort — and that's what it should always be.

The core celebrations this year are from August 15 to August 22, when over half the 150 or so programmes will be held. But what has struck me as being particularly heartening about this year's celebrations is that apart from all the published programmes open to the public is the number of ‘closed' events and even more ‘private' remembrances of the city.

Several Rotary Clubs are having programmes as are some of the leading clubs in the city, one of which is organising talks, quizzes and a treasure hunt. Then there are schools as far apart as Tambaram, Pallikaranai and Tiruvottriyur organising programmes. Neighbourhoods such as Valasarawalkam are trying to get their residents together to learn more about their area. And I know of at least one apartment complex in Nerkunram which is getting everyone together for an evening of learning about Madras and their own area. And that's the spirit that's kept Madras Day growing and makes the coordinators confident that the annual, no-cost, participatory celebrations by volunteers have come to stay.

Even the media is getting into the act I find, going well beyond generous coverage. This year, some of The Hindu's supplements are running competitions for the young and the paper is presenting a magnificent photographic exhibition featuring some of the treasures it has in its library. And NDTV-Hindu appears to be having almost a daily feature on the city's heritage. That certainly gladdens their hearts, the coordinators tell me.

An interviewer recently asked one of the coordinators — and this year there are eight of them — won't you run out of ideas for talks, exhibitions and quizzes in the next couple of years. And he had replied with a laugh that there's so much to learn about Madras and Chennai that it will take a couple of generations to exhaust the known information, by which time there'll be 50 more years of information. Madras is inexhaustible.

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In memoriam

A friend of mine as well as a hero of mine passed away in the last couple of weeks, the one taken away in his prime by the Big C and the other by old age, the former just turned 60, the other just turned 90.

Mithran Devanesen was born in Ceylon, had a Sinhalese mother but wore his love for India on his sleeve, particularly when India was at cricket. But even he would have found it hard not to cheer C.I. Gunasekera, who dominated Ceylon cricket in the 1950s and 1960s when he forged his links with Madras. As much as the loquacious Mithran was all Madras, the taciturn Ivers Gunasekera was all Ceylon, turning down several offers to play county cricket in England where his uncle, Dr. C.H. Gunasekera, had shown the way for other Ceylonese to follow when he turned out for Middlesex.

Everyone knows Mithran for his contributions to Madras theatre and his help to the disadvantaged in and around the city. But I knew Mithran for his love of the city that I first discovered when he wrote for Aside magazine. And that love and pride in Madras that we shared, as much as our Ceylon links, kept us friends through the years, as we kept urging each other to do more for the city.

But in one thing I know I disappointed him and that was in not turning up at plays, particularly those in which he was involved, as regularly as he had hoped I would. Particularly, as he had known of my involvement with English and Sinhalese theatre in Colombo. But all I could say is that I never found the time here, whereas in Colombo it was part of the job.

Two quotes describing Mithran capture the man Madras theatre, particularly young players, and the young wards cared for by his NGOs, are going to miss. Opening an article on him one said:

“He is a producer, director, actor, sets and lighting designer, plus impresario to boot — theatre's Kapil Dev, if you like. He is Mithran Devanesen, and he'd probably enjoy being compared to Kapil Dev, for not only is Mithran an ‘all-rounder', but he is also a near fanatical follower of Indian cricket. Come rain or shine, if our cricket team is playing anywhere, even against Iceland, you can be sure Mithran is glued to the TV, urging them on, wearing his patriotism on his sleeve…”

And the article concludes: “Had Mithran been abroad, his virtuosity would have made him one of the most sought-after theatre designers. But it is a measure of his love for India that he chooses to do his work (and philanthropy) here, watching Saurav Ganguly fail, for the umpteenth time, and still saying, ‘But did you watch the innings he played against Sri Lanka at Taunton?' ”

It's for his innings played in Colombo that I remember the tall, handsome Ivers Gunasekara, the Keith Miller of Ceylon cricket. Both were against Madras in the then annual Gopalan Trophy match, the Madras Cricket Association versus the Ceylon Cricket Association, Ceylon's ‘Big Match' of the 1950s and 1960s.

Leg spinning V.V. Kumar — whom many feel was unlucky to miss an India ‘cap' — was in his prime at the time. In the 1958 match played in Madras, Madras won for the first time, thanks to Kumar's 12 for 108. But in Colombo the next year, it was all C.I. as Ceylon, at the Sara Oval — where India recently won a thrilling Test — scored the highest score in the series till then, 481 for 9, CI scoring 212 of them with one six and 32 fours. When C.I. was scoring 176 on the first day of the match, there was a long spell when Kumar did not bowl.

Word spread like wildfire around the ground that he had asked his skipper to keep him out of the attack as C.I. was taking him apart. Whether story is apocryphal or not, Kumar had his revenge in the next match I saw in Colombo. The CCA won by an innings that 1962 game, C.I.'s 80 and his leg spin doing the trick. But that 80 was an innings I've never forgotten because of the duel between C.I. and Kumar.

Every time C.I. lifted him just short of the boundary for the ball to race over for a four, Kumar would adjust his four fielders in the deep a few yards this way or that, till at last one of them was in the right place to accept a dolly. Watching Kumar move his fielders like chessmen and C.I. spot the new positions and hit away from them — till that final shot — had the whole crowd spellbound. That was truly an epic duel — no one else seemed to be on the field that afternoon.

May my friend and hero rest in peace in Elysian Fields where no doubt they'll enjoy many a match one as a cricket lover passionate or the other as a player extraordinary.

*****

When the postman knocked……

There have been several calls and messages reminding me that I had often said that my typewriter and I thought at the same speed and so got along very well together in producing this column, but that last week I'd let my new Olivetti race ahead and, in the process, leave behind Giacomo D'Angeli about whom his great grandson had set me straight. Mea culpa. I must learn to keep up with that new treasure of mine.

Meanwhile, for those who do not know Giacomo D'Angeli (Miscellany, July 28, 2003 and December 1, 2003) let me record that he was a French-trained confectioner who arrived in Madras in 1880 and set up a cake and pastries shop in that triangle facing what is now Anna Circle and developed it into one of Madras's best hotels of the day, D'Angelis opening in 1906.

He also was a caterer to Government House, across the road. D'Angelis became Bosotto's, then the Airlines and is now a Bata showroom. In March 1910, just seven years after the Wright Brothers took to the air, D'Angeli got Simpson's to build him a biplane and provided Madras crowds the first sight of a flight by a local resident. With his great grandson promising more information, I'll have much more to say about Giacomo D'Angeli in the future.

Another person/institution about whom I hope I'll have much more to say in the future is R.C. Paterson of Paterson & Co, the share and stock broking firm that is celebrating its 75th birthday this year. M. Amarnath, a partner, writes to tell me that the firm had its origins in Huson Todd & Co., set up in the late 19th Century and reckoned the first stock broking firm in Madras. When R.C. Paterson took over the firm in 1935, Paterson & Co, was born. I look forward to the rest of the story from Amarnath.

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