This week, your city turns 373 years old. To mark the occasion, we bring you — starting today — a series of features capturing the spirit of Chennai that was once Madras. Also, as part of the Madras Week Celebration taking place in the city, The Hindu will display photographs from its archives at Abirami Mega Mall on Purasawalkam High Road from August 19 to 25. Meera Srinivasan examines the variant of the language that has flourished in Chennai over the decades
“Nainaava ittugunu poriya?” (Will you take your father and go?)
“Vootanda poi thunnuttu varen” (I will go home, eat and come)
“En kaila wraang pannada” (Don’t mess with me)
“Anga ore galeejaakudubaa, inna poyappo!” (It’s really yucky there, what kind of a job is that!)
Some say it is as old as Madras itself, while many consider it a post-Independence phenomenon.
Unlike those in Madurai or Coimbatore, Chennaiites may not speak a specific variant of Tamil, but if there is a language that is truly Chennai, it has got to be Madras Tamil or ‘Madras bashai’.
Though far from being a regional dialect, an elaborate Wikipedia entry and a Facebook page with over 2,000 ‘likes’ clearly show how popular Madras Tamil is. The origins of this spoken dialect could be traced to the time the British arrived here nearly four centuries ago, but it grew only after the 1950s, say scholars.
Anchored in the maze of George Town where the dialect, along with trade, flourished in its most natural form, Madras Tamil has travelled far and wide.
Willingly embracing words from languages such as Hindi, Urdu, Telugu and Sanskrit, it has become quite an amalgam of sounds and intonations, some familiar and others, hardly heard.
“A local dialect spoken in a multilingual context” — this is how V. Arasu, head of department of Tamil literature, University of Madras, describes Madras Tamil.
“This language grew after the 1950s, when the city began developing. Labourers living in north Chennai slums, who needed to communicate with businessmen from different regions, picked up many words from their vocabulary,” he says.
Prof. Arasu, who specialises in modern Tamil literature, social history and Tamil, and Tamil media studies, says: “We must understand that this is not a regional dialect. We see it being spoken more in the slums of Chennai. Madras Tamil has grown very organically, unlike the Tamil spoken in FM channels which is artificial, pretentious and horrible.”
Poet-lyricist Vairamuthu says: “This is a language spoken by people who are not educated. All they know is hard work.” They pull ( istugunu ) the cart so they can have a meal ( tunnartukku ).
“Like Chennai is a congregation of people from different parts of the State, Madras Tamil is a mix of different languages — those which labourers picked up at different points,” he says.
However, Mr. Vairamuthu believes that with better education and employment opportunities for the working class, the language might die a slow and natural death, over time.
But the fact that it is thriving could be attributed to its vibrant spoken form, Prof. Arasu says. “As long as a language is spoken every day, its functionality will ensure its continuance,” he says.
Madras Tamil’s flavour and appeal may draw many fans, but the fact that it is still used by some people in every day communication is what really matters. “Take the words poikkondu irukkiren for example. It could be split into three words, but in Madras Tamil, it shrinks and becomes simpler — poikkunu [ kiren ],” he says.
Tamil literature and cinema have, from time to time, portrayed characters that speak Madras Tamil in order to appeal to a wider audience. Writer Jayakanthan, in several of his works, has captured the lives of simple people speaking Madras Tamil, often ushering in a sense of informality and warmth.
Actors Cho Ramaswamy, Thenga Srinivasan, Manorama and N.S. Krishnan were known for the ease with which they could speak this variant, instantly striking a chord with the audience. Kamal Haasan, too, included a liberal dose of Madras Tamil in films such as Vasool Raja and Pammal K Sambandam .
While only a section of Chennai’s population speaks this language, there is, perhaps, no one in Chennai who is not familiar with the dialect. A form of Tamil that began in north Madras, it has gradually spread to other pockets as well.
It is largely confined to the working class. It is very much the language of labour of Chennai. As Mr. Vairamuthu puts it: “The form will thrive and flourish until the time of the last labourer in this city.”