Artists and photographers talk to Anusha Parthasarathy about how Chennai’s sights and sounds have inspired them and their work

What is so endearing about our city that artists and photographers can’t get enough of it? Is it the steam coming off just-fried bajjis against the backdrop of frothy waves, a groundnut-seller’s stall lit by a single hurricane lamp, the sight of fishermen lugging their boats into the sea at dawn, the stately silence and the earthen red of the Indo-Saracenic buildings, a crowded mall or the birds that throng the city’s marshlands? These little snippets of life are captured forever by groups and individuals who have made Chennai their muse.

Birder, wildlife enthusiast and history buff R. Shantaram has been posting one photo of the city everyday since 2008. An HR professional and hobby photographer, he began the Chennai Daily Photo to show off his city to the world. “There are things that get lost in the everyday madness for the people here, but are fascinating to others. But over the years, the blog has grown into a showcase of what Chennai has to offer,” he exclaims. Shantaram also provides insights into the city’s history through his photographs and posts.

Sketching the city

A similar love for the city and art brought together two engineers in February this year. They started Chennai Weekend Artists (CWA), a non-profit group of artists and art enthusiasts who meet every weekend to sketch, practise and discuss art. “We wanted to create a platform for people with or without formal training in art but with an interest to pursue their passion. We are achieving this by sketching together every weekend somewhere in and around Chennai,” says founding-member Ganapathy Subramaniam. The group now has 50 regular members and over 500 others who participate now and then. They have found that the city is interesting in terms of subject and level of work. “We have sketched in Mylapore during Navaratri on the mada streets, in malls, railway stations, and even once took a trip on the MRTS and sketched through the journey.”

Senior artist and architectural concept designer P. Ramachandran has been portraying his love for the city and its people through pencil sketches and paintings that talk of the city’s evolution over 300-odd years. “Even as a student of Fine Arts and later, I have found that Chennai appreciates and respects artists. Whenever I go somewhere to draw, the people there would flock around me, tell me the story of the area I’m trying to paint. They would offer me food and water and snippets of history. Everyone had a story to tell, whether it was about Elephant Gate or Central Station or a little bridge somewhere. All this made me realise that my art should not just portray a street or a building but the whole story — the people around it, how the building evolved into what it has become today.”

And giving everyone a slice of the city is also Chennai Weekend Clickers (CWC), started in 2009 by three photography enthusiasts to encourage photography as a hobby. “Normally any place of interest would have a cultural and social significance. Interestingly, Chennai offers a lot of scope in everlasting landscapes, a mix of the past and the present (be it the lanes, lakes, markets, public events and so on). Being an evolving yet conservative city, Chennai presents great scope in terms of architectural, social and economic dimensions,” says Ashok Saravanan, a member of CWC.

Historic buildings

Shantaram often finds himself drawn to the older parts of the city — Mylapore, Triplicane, Royapuram, Tiruvottriyur and the beach and these areas recur on his blog. “There are little surprises, even from places that I think I know about. And, in some way, many of Chennai’s parts connect with the world. But the trick to finding those connections is paying attention to detail,” he says. “It’s a city that has a lot to offer, but will never be in your face.” CWA goes to different localities for different reasons, “The northern part of the city for its historic buildings, the beach for an interesting mix of people and Nature. But our favourite spot so far has been Semmozhi Poonga because it offers wonderful sights and convenient spots for us to sit for a longer duration,” says Ganapathy.

Ramachandran has painted every aspect of the city. In fact, he created a 20x40 ft. painting of the city for a National-level conference in 1998. “I would paint the Victoria Hall from the booking office inside Central Station and the Madras University from across the Ezhilagam building. I would go to Broadway just to paint those 150-year-old buildings that juxtapose the present with the past,” he says. “Chennai is like home. My parents lived in Royapuram and I grew around the sea and the harbour. Even though I have not lived here for a long time, I always keep coming back. The city is like a cultural cocktail.”