Chennai-ites often whiz past landmarks without sparing much thought for their historical value. Bishwanath Ghosh talks to a group of women that is imparting heritage education to the young
“We south Indians don't know how to blow our trumpet,” declares Kavita Rau, adding, “we are very passive. We are sitting on a goldmine of heritage, yet do nothing about it.” Four other women in the room nod vehemently; they know what she is talking about and they are all doing something about it — not by blowing trumpets but by talking about Chennai's rich history to school students.
The five women — apart from Kavita, there are Nandini Arun, Shama Prasanna, Lakshmi Kishore and Sundari Sidhartha — are now leading heritage walks in certain pockets of the city, bringing to life for the children ageing buildings that Chennai-ites whiz past every morning and evening without sparing much thought for their historical value.
They were roped in by Sushi Natraj of Chennai Heritage, who recognised the increasing demand for heritage walks during Madras Week celebrations held every August, and who hopes these women would soon be able to share the burden of heritage-education that at present rests on the tireless shoulders of chroniclers such as S. Muthiah and Sriram V. In fact, it was Sriram who tutored them on leading heritage walks and did dry runs with them on the two routes they have been currently entrusted with.
While Nandini and Shama lead the Marina walk, briefing the students about the history of the buildings dotting the stretch from the light house to the War Memorial, Kavita, Lakshmi and Sundari do the Park Town walk, from St. Andrew's Kirk to Ripon Buildings, with a trip to My Ladye's Garden thrown in. They have been doing the walks the whole of last month, and will continue it on certain days during the Madras Week celebrations.
“They are doing it only for the love of it. There is nothing in it for them; even the weather has not been of much help,” says Sushi, “The idea is to have 25-30 people like them and make these walks a permanent feature so that tourists get to know about Chennai.”
Sriram, the women say, opened their eyes to their city during the dry runs of the walks. “Imagine, we had been living here all our lives but didn't even know about the existence of the Chepauk Palace (one of the oldest Indo-Saracenic buildings in the country) or the history of Ice House,” says Shama. Adds Nandini, “We are so glad that we are now passing on the information to the younger generation.”
Sundari Sidhartha, a Sanskrit scholar associated with the Theosophical Society Library and who is in her seventies and therefore the oldest in the group, says, “The Victoria Public Hall (near Chennai Central) is another place we were not aware of. At least, I was not aware of it, though I've lived all my life in Chennai. The walks gave us a chance to learn about our own heritage.”
“We read a lot before we started the walks. When Sriram took us on trial runs, we recorded everything he had to say and kept listening to it over and over again. We also read S. Muthiah's book (‘Madras Rediscovered'),” says Lakshmi. Adds Kavita, “And since the students are invariably accompanied by their history teachers, the teachers also get a chance to brush up their knowledge of Chennai's heritage. Without the anecdotes we narrate, the buildings are nothing but relics.”
Life as usual at home
As of now, students from seven schools across the city, from Classes 8 to 10, are participating in their walks, which commence at 6.30 in the morning. The women, most of them homemakers, say their new-found passion has not interfered with their schedules at home. “It is life as usual. Our families have been very supportive,” says Nandini. Everyone nods. “As long as they get breakfast on time,” laughs Lakshmi.