Visiting Chennai? Take a piece of the city that you’ll always cherish. Anusha Parathasarathy on the fast-growing souvenir market

Screeching autorickshaws, loud street vendors, Central Station, wire baskets, MGR’s witticisms, Tiruvalluvar’s words of wisdom, Rajini’s punch dialogues, painted pumpkins with tongues sticking out, filter coffee, the Marina Beach… these define Chennai, but were never made into souvenirs that a proud Chennai-ite or a tourist could pick up. But those days are fast disappearing.

With merchandise that captures the ethos of the city, Chennai is rapidly emerging as a brand.Take Huzaima Rifai, for instance. This 25-year-old Tamil from Bangkok was inspired by the ‘I love NY’ T-shirts. A series of designs and ‘I ♥ Chennai’ T-shirts later, ‘Tanglish Tees’ was born. “All fruitful ventures are born out of a unique idea. I decided that at least one word on all my T-shirts should be in Tamil. But, before that, I did a Google search on Chennai T-shirts and found that no one had thought of T-shirts with Tamil words on them,” she says.

The Internet is a big help, says Huzaima. “Initially, I printed around 200 ‘I ♥ Chennai’ T-shirts and got a few friends and cousins to wear the T-shirt to their colleges. Before I knew it, most of the T-shirts got sold out. There was even an actor who bought several T-shirts. Since then, the response has been steady, with my major market being NRIs,” she says. Tanglish Tees are available via Facebook at www.groups.to/ilovechennaitshirt or mail (tanglishtees@gmail.com).

Theme cafe

Zha Café, including its name, symbolises everything Tamil. Arasi Arul, its owner, says, “We call it the world’s first Tamizh theme café.After seeing so many people sporting Che Guevara T-shirts, we’ve launched a new line of Bharati and Tiruvalluvar tees. There are Goundamani and Senthil tees, and we’re working on a new line on Nagesh and other classic comedians as well. Our ‘I love Chennai’ postcards are popular too.”

Zha Café’s quintessentially Tamil menu, consisting of bajji, vadai and sundal, is its major draw, says the entrepreneur. “I thought the cappuccino would be popular but discovered that the traditional brews are a hit.None of my global fare sells as much as sundal or sukku coffee. There is a graffiti wall that’s all about the city too,” Arasi reiterates. Zha Café is located at 2nd Street, Kamarajar Avenue, Adyar.

Chennai Gaga is another brand that concentrates on all things Chennai. T-shirts, coasters, pens, mugs, magnets and totes are just the beginning, says Sujata Tarakesan, “There are many souvenirs you can buy abroad. Somehow the souvenir culture did not exist here, though Chennai has so much to show. It’s a wonderful place but there isn’t much to take back home. When our first range was launched, people were pleasantly surprised. Our ‘Vanakkam’ and ‘Marina’ T-shirts became very popular. We’re coming up with other items too. It’s an opportunity to go gaga over Chennai.”

While boutiques and tourists make up the chunk of the clientiele, these brands are reasonably priced to attract the average Chennai-ite too. Chennai Gaga has boutiques across the city to reach a wider range of customers. They’re available at The Box (The Park, Nungambakkam) among other places. “Though we target tourists who are looking for a souvenir of the city they’re visiting, we are also looking at those proud Chennai-ites who are looking for a T-shirt to flaunt their love for the city,” smiles Sujata. Check out their products at www.chennaigaga.com.

Varnajalam markets wire baskets, those that you would find in every Chennai home a couple of decades ago. The organisation aims at providing employment to women from the slums in Sathyavanimuthu Nagar (Pallavan Salai). The bags have been tweaked to attract tourists. “These recyclable plastic bags are made by around 50 disadvantaged and physically-challenged women who work for a daily wage of Rs.100. We’ve had a good response so far and many tourists have shown an interest in them. We make bags in different shapes, some are lined and have pouches inside,” says K. S. Prasad. The wire bags are available at The Box and The Slum Showroom in Pallavan Nagar (opposite Central Station), ph: 64572188.

In touch with tradition

Traditional games are getting popular, not just among tourists but among the local people too. Kreeda, a brand dedicated to promoting and reviving traditional games, has been making waves with its collection of pallankuzhi, gilli danda, pambaram, dayakattam and others.

Vinita Sidhartha, the woman behind the company, says it’s a way of remembering all things good. “Our lifestyle has changed so much that only little things like this can keep us in touch with tradition. Recently, we also launched a pack of cards called ‘Memories of Madras’ Each card has information about a particular place. You could play with it or just pick a card and drive out to see the place,” she says.

Kreeda’s games are child- and eco-friendly, but this pushes up the cost. “We use recycled paper cartons and bio-degradable materials,” says Vinita.

Kreeda is located at 749-A, Anna Salai, ph: 64622111.

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Anusha ParthasarathyJune 28, 2012