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Updated: December 3, 2010 19:27 IST

We like Chennai because... - Of change and continuity

Gowri Ramnarayan
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Anita Ratnam
Anita Ratnam

Dancer-choreographer Anita Ratnam Chennai has moved on, yet is firmly rooted in tradition

My idyllic memories of Madras include thenga-maanga-pattani sundal in paper cones on the Marina beach and enormous mounds of pineapple passion icecream at the Gymkhana Club, and the maami who came home to make the special bakshanams during every festival — murukku, seedai, appam, athirasam, mysorepak

Every season brought its own vegetables and fruits, you didn't get them round the year as we do now. In today's Chennai, despite much awful stuff in the name of multi-cultural cuisine, I can still get good expresso or ristretto, a great variety of international cheeses, fabulous authentic thin-crust pizza delivered home, and Mediterranean, Korean and Japanese food in free-standing restaurants.

The dhavani has all but disappeared, salwar kameez is in, and jean-clad, scooter-riding vadyars swiftly change into panchakacham before puja, their mantras punctuated with mobile talk. You can slip on a readymade nine-yard sari for weddings. Films drive fashion, but where are the earthy people we saw in Bharatiraaja's and Bhagyaraj's creations? Karan Joharisation has made mehndis and sangeet part of Tamil weddings. And, there's bling in everything. In this overpowering import, the hand-made and hand-crafted have lost out. However, as Chennai-ites hone their fashion sense, the city remains home to the greatest number of sari wearers. And yes, more women are comfortable about socialising alone. There is a more relaxed attitude about divorce, break-ups and hook-ups. Going to the beach or park has been replaced by hanging out in shopping malls and coffee shops. Outings with parents and siblings used to be common. There were family conversations and much delight in multi-generational interaction. Now, Chennai's youngsters don't know how to talk to people beyond their peer group. Our youth are more adventurous in choosing careers. We have more entrepreneurs, writers, artistes and people opting for a career in media. The arts scene has changed beyond recognition — Chennai is part of the national circuit for everything from Israeli theatre to Osibisa. Technology has transformed the world, and Chennai too, but our largely computer-untouched sabhas with pandal canteens are in a charming timewarp. But, audience manners are dreadful — mobiles ringing, unauthorised video taping, talking…

Don't forget that Madras Presidency was never mono-cultural. Pan-Indian thought and exchanges were part of daily life here despite the vagaries of politics. From Vivekananda and Aurobindo, thinkers found kinship in this region. Which State honours and confers awards on artistes from other States as we do? What we need and don't have are quiet spaces. I am grateful that one thing has not changed —the sylvan quiet of the Theosophical Society — my favourite space for a walk.

(As told to Gowri Ramnarayan)

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