For 10 years now, the residents of Madras have been celebrating its birthday. How did the event come about?

Three hundred and seventy four years ago, a small strip of land by the Bay of Bengal changed hands from the Nayaks, who then ruled over the region, to the East India Company. Fort St. George was built on that land. Along with the ancient villages around, it came to be known as Madras.

Three hundred and sixty five years later, it was decided to celebrate Madras’ birthday for the first time. But how do you celebrate the birthday of the oldest ‘modern city’ of India? Well, you could always cut a cake — and that’s among the many memorable events that marked the first ‘Madras Day’, on August 22, 2004, commemorating the city’s founding anniversary. (The transaction on August 22, 1639 was brokered by the dubash Beri Thimmappa, on behalf of Andrew Cogan and Francis Day, representatives of the Company).

From that single day of celebrations — which included exhibitions and a function at Rajaji Hall, attended by the eighth generation descendants of Thimmappa’s family — ‘Madras Day’ has now, in its 10th year, grown to fill a week with over 120 events, in various parts of the city. The brainchild historian S. Muthiah, publisher Vincent D’Souza and journalist Sashi Nair, Madras Day seeks to forge a link between the city’s past and present with walks and talks, exhibitions and quizzes, food-fests and fanfare. “Madras Day is not about over-romanticising the city but we have to keep in mind its heritage, to know where we come from,” says Vincent. Because with that identity comes pride in belonging to the city.

 A well-known fixture in the city’s cultural calendar — interestingly, Vincent says, they’ve managed to create awareness without mega promotions and multi-crore projects — Madras Day also helps the citizens explore lesser-known areas — “We want people to look beyond just the important or famous places,” says Sashi — and get to know their own neighbourhood better. In June and July, the core-team — which now includes senior journalist Sushila Ravindranath, writer-historian V. Sriram, and entrepreneur Revathi R. — is busy exploring options. Vincent talks about showcasing not just the heritage but also the underbelly of the city through gripping, grisly walks. “Why not a haunted house tour? Or an Auto Shankar walk, where he murdered all his victims? All you need is a very good storyteller to get people interested,” he says.

Taking a break from their brainstorming session one July evening, Sushila and Sriram tell me that they try to get new faces every year. Last year, they invited the city’s tennis star Ramanathan Krishnan, who spoke about a time when matches were announced from bullock-carts! Other highlights include industrialist Nalli Kuppuswami Chetti who spoke about T. Nagar; then police commissioner T. Rajendran on the travails of policing the city and Y.G. Mahendra and A.R.S on theatre. “Madras Day is gender- and age-neutral,” says Sushila, while Sriram adds that the eclectic walks have included everything from temples (by historian Chitra Madhavan) to trees (by Shobha Menon of the NGO Nizhal).  

Given the way Chennai grown, it’s a constant challenge to organise events in all parts of the city. South and Central Chennai tend to garner a large number of events and this unfavourable tilt (or favourable, depending on where you live) is mostly because many of the participants live around here. The organisers do make a conscious attempt to get everybody involved, but it is, Vincent acknowledges, difficult, since it is a very large city, and the events are organised voluntarily.

Over the years, several people — including Kiran Rao (of Amethyst) and Mathangi Srinivasamurti (of Chamiers) with space, and Satyan Bhatt (of Prism PR) with press relations — have enthusiastically and generously supported Madras Day

 Small local events are, thus, seen as a smart and sustainable way of spreading the celebrations to nooks and crannies. “If there are even 10 committed people in an area, they can do something on their own,” says Vincent. And while exhibitions — especially that of old photographs — has an instant appeal with people in their 40s and 50s, the challenge, the team agrees, is to get the younger generation interested. “Go to any programme and you will find that a good many people are 60 years old! To attract a younger audience, you need youngsters at the helm,” says Sashi.

So it’s imperative to get them interested in their city during their formative years. “The best way is to get the schools involved,” says Muthiah. He’d like to see INTACH’s 20 Heritage Clubs help form more Heritage clubs for joint activities, not only during Madras Week but also during the rest of the year. A special INTACH initiative this year, by architect Sujatha Shankar, is a CD on the story of Madras and its heritage buildings to be shown in schools, he says.  

The other great hurdle is finding ways and means to reach out to the average Chennai-ite. “It hasn’t quite reached the man in the street,” says Muthiah, “One or two programmes on the streets have had great response in the past, but exhibitions and plays on the street face numerous handicaps given the legal requirements. But the Mylapore festival demonstrates that street programmes can interest the man on the street. To capture that, there is also need for much greater daily coverage of events by the popular Tamil media.” Sashi too says the events should be more inclusive, and not be restricted to the urban elite. “We need more Tamil speakers to reach out to a wider audience,” he says.

And that, really, is the idea behind Madras Day — to grab the attention of the residents and make them take an interest in their city, streets and neighbourhood. Actor and film historian Mohan Raman says that was his experience — the history bug bit him, six years ago, when he began researching for a talk. “I was looking at Chennai through the lens of cinema camera, and it opened up a new and different dimension for me.” Thanks to Madras Day, he made the transition from actor to film historian, and his popular walks have led people down Mount Road theatres (“do you know Safire was the first ever multi-screen complex with its own restaurant?”), down Kodambakkam’s studios and helped them discover their own backyard. “M.G.R made his film debut at the end of Kasturi Ranga Road, at Vel Studio. How many people know that or even remember Mount Road before the Gemini Flyover,” he asks, while researching for a starry Madras Day talk on Rajinikant.

 In the long run, Vincent would like to see Madras Day inspiring more literature written about the city and more fiction set here. “When you get more intense about the city, you begin to do these things. Have you heard the wonderful ‘Mylapore Blues’, choreographed by A.R. Rahman? We’re looking at that kind of thing, in literature and pop music.” And to make Madras Day a bigger success, “we don’t need big money, we don’t need VIP’s for our functions,” says Vincent. “It’s just a people’s movement, a celebration of our city”.