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No longer country cousins

The image of Madrasis as being "narrow-minded" and "conservative" is passé. Today's Chennai-ite is as cosmopolitan as any urban Indian and, what's more, has a tradition to be proud of, writes PREMA SRINIVASAN.

UNTIL TWO decades ago, the term `Madrasi' had covert derogatory connotations, especially when used in a pan Indian context. Though the Madrasi was somewhat grudgingly credited with brains, particularly for mathematical problems, there was a veiled snigger, about the other dominant characteristics that were associated with the people.

While the docile Madrasis went about their business unobtrusively, the urban non-Madrasis would make a point about their conservativeness and the consequent lack of sophistication in their apparel, customs and behaviour.

Children and childhood sensibilities have often suffered humiliation because of the snide comparisons and thinly veiled superciliousness experienced in extended family situations. During festivities, such incidents used to get blown out of proportion. The way of life of the Madrasis and their routine would become the butts of insensitive jokes, inviting scathing rejoinders which, when voiced, would sound merely childish.

Starting from the Madrasi habit of rising with the lark, the habitual brunch at 9.30 a.m. or even earlier when office-goers and school children would eat a complete meal, their penchant for afternoon coffee at 2 p.m. accompanied by small tiffin and settling down for the night bright and early, were all mocked by the cousins and relatives who would converge at their "native place" from time to time. They would point out tirelessly the advantages of living away from the old-fashioned city, which refused to change.

Madrasis, they used to lament, had no dress sense, showed an amazing lack of manners by eating curd rice with their fingers at any time of the day or measuring coffee by the yard to cool it from "tumbler" to "dabras'" before drinking it. Some of us may recall the satirical portrayal of a South Indian music teacher in the popular Hindi film, "Padosan". Madras girls did not know a thing about fashion, in fact sported the passé "pavadai davani" when the rest of the world went about in jeans and what have you. Madrasi ladies in their finery were referred to as "walking jewel stands" as they loved to deck themselves up with jewels for every occasion and carried awesome bundles of flowers on well-oiled plaits. Even in the sizzling summer months, they wanted to show off their Conjeevarams, these critics would ridicule, pointing out the chic Bombayite parading her crisp cotton saree or the svelte Delhi-ite who dressed sensibly bringing out the chiffons for summer and putting away the heavy silks for the winter. They would of course, unwillingly acknowledge the Madrasi brains and the capacity of the Madrasi women to churn out a tasty meal in a jiffy.

"Narrow-mindedness" and "conservatism" were the words bandied about while talking about the degree of socialising in Madras as compared to Bombay, Calcutta, Delhi or even Bangalore. Here liberated career women lived by themselves, as or even selected their life partners (unheard of in Madras of decades ago) and generally did not worry about what people would say. In Madras, dating was definitely taboo, arranged marriages were the order of the day and daughters and sons working or otherwise usually lived with their parents.

Somewhere along the line these equations began to change and the term Madrasi began to lose its pejorative associations. Long before Madras became Chennai, these changes became discernible.

Almost simultaneously the value of being a Madrasi began to be apparent and there was almost a rediscovery of the customs and the traditions of the past, safeguarded jealously in this cultural capital of the country. For authenticity, be it in silk or jewellery, sweets or snacks, Madras became the haven for Indians residing abroad.

Advice on astrology and yoga lessons from elitist artistes in classical music or Bharatanatyam were eagerly sought, in the hub of the city, by the visitors in their annual vacation.

Vacationing in Madras was no longer merely a matter of strengthening old ties with relatives but became a matter of finding one's roots and coming to terms with one's identity.

No matter how many performances an aspiring danseuse or musician may have given elsewhere in the world, they cannot match a single review of approbation from a senior critic presiding over the December festivities at Madras.

Earlier, Madrasis living in other cities used to look smug when they were mistaken for North Indians and some actually considered it a compliment. Not any more.

Madrasis living outside the frontiers of their native towns had begun to revel in their new-found status.

A friend in Delhi confided that her erstwhile supercilious acquaintance came to her for advice on buying genuine antique jewellery and silk sarees from the south. Yet another avant-garde socialite consulted her conservative Madrasi friend about the auspiciousness of having rangoli and mavilai thoranam during her house warming ceremony.

The efficacy of offering worship in various shrines in Chennai and Tamil Nadu is gaining credibility as well as visibility and advice of josiers from Chennai is in great demand. Cultural ambassadors from our city make a mark all over the world and not just in northern India.

Arrogance, we know, can come in many forms and inhabit different social groups.

Although superficially, Madras or Chennai may have shed its mantle of conservatism, the value-based life-style of the people, their hospitality and, intelligent approach to issues still persist in the media age. The ubiquitous pizzerias and multi cuisine eateries exist side by side with the dosa corners and Ilai sappadus.

Discos, bowling alleys may divert the young temporarily but classical music and religious discourses invite all age groups consistently.

There is a general awareness of the need to substantially improve the art of living. If there is a clash of cultural values elsewhere we do not see it here in our city as decades of socially correct norms have been instilled into our people.

Self-effacement is not the dominant trait any longer, for the Madrasi turned Chennai-ite is as cosmopolitan as any urban Indian and what's more has a tradition he or she can be proud about — a tradition that still exists and is relevant to their daily lives.

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