History & Culture

Madras nalla Madras!

A file photo of University of Madras. Photo: R. Ragu  

Sixteen years ago, South India's biggest coastal city went to sleep as Madras and woke up as Chennai. Overnight, the city was expected to shed all that its former name — and its colonial associations — stood for. Trains and schools were hurriedly renamed; signboards were swiftly updated; and with a lick of paint and a flick of a brush, cultural and linguistic history was rewritten. Well, almost.

Because ‘Madras' — as anybody who's not merely nostalgic, but also secretly in love with the name will be pleased to note — has managed to survive, to thumb its nose at the enforced name change, by sticking around in the unlikeliest of places…

Globally famous

Call it tartan, plaid or just plain checks, but the hand-woven, checkered, cotton fabric that originated from Madras has wide appeal. Inspired by the Scottish regiment's dress in the region (in the 1800s), Madras checks was quite a fad in the 60s. Today, it might locally be dismissed as ‘lungi checks' (have you ever seen cloth flagged as ‘Madras checks' in Chennai? I haven't…) but globally, this cheerful, colourful cloth routinely gets a glamorous makeover, especially at upscale fashion houses. Interestingly, the checks gained a certain degree of notoriety during the 60s for its tendency to bleed copiously, and with each wash, the garments fashioned out of them took on a new and interesting pattern. People, however, continued buying what came to be known as ‘bleeding Madras'; was it because it was cleverly marketed as ‘guaranteed to fade'?

But the terrace construction that Madras generously lent its name to is, thankfully, unlikely to fade away. Simply called the Madras Terrace, this type of flat-roof construction that originated in Madras, involved placing wooden beams — usually teak — 1.5 to 2 feet apart. Specially made clay bricks, lime-mortar and flat tiles made up the actual roofing, and it was strengthened with a 10-cm layer of broken bricks, gravel, sand and limestone. This ‘concrete' was then pounded in and compacted, cured with limewater and topped off with lime-mortar and weatherproofing. Auroville, as we speak, is said to be reviving Madras terracing.


There's a slice of Madras that went really far, all the way to the east coast of Scotland, thanks to a school founded to popularise the ‘Madras system' of education. Back in the late 18th - early 19th century, Andrew Bell, a clergyman from Scotland, was appointed chaplain for the East India Company regiments. While educating the children of the soldiers — and to compensate for the acute paucity of teachers — he made the older pupils (monitors) teach the younger ones. This Madras system quickly found favour, with nearly 10,000 schools adopting it by the time Bell died in 1832. Oh, and the slice of Madras in Scotland refers to a school in St. Andrews (Madras College) founded by Bell, to ensure that his system of education survived well into the future.

Closer home, Madras is almost synonymous with the language spoken in the region, the one with a flavour so strong, so distinct that you can sniff it out at a hundred paces… yes, Madras Tamil. Once the preserve of the not-so-well educated, it's now universally fashionable to throw in a few words of the local dialect, at least to show you are ‘with it'. A decade ago, anybody who wished to compile a list of Madras Tamil words just had to talk to a local autorickshawman for half an hour and the job would be done. But now, even children from posh schools casually use some choice Madras Tamil epithets in their daily conversation. The classicists can frown all they want, but this corrupted version of Tamil is very likely to have a fairytale ‘happily-ever-after' ending …

Would any talk of Madras be complete without mention of Madras eye? This nuisance of an infection makes the white of the eye all sore and itchy, and the fair name of the city was dragged into the blood-shot conjunctiva only because the adenovirus that causes it was discovered here back in 1918.

Madras curry powder, however, has a slightly more tenuous connection to the city. A somewhat coarsely ground mixture of nearly 20 spices, herbs and seeds (much like a garam masala mix, with added turmeric and tamarind, fennel and fenugreek), it's practically unheard of, leave alone used in Madras. But for some strange reason, this smartly packaged, pungent mix is much sought-after abroad, and visiting chefs and food lovers have been known to traipse around the markets of Chennai looking for it. Perhaps they should first fortify themselves with a nice, tall Madras drink, a fruity cocktail of vodka, and cranberry and orange juices? As for the rest of us, surely we can take heart in the knowledge that no matter how hard anybody tries, they really can't take the Madras out of Chennai…

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Printable version | Apr 16, 2021 5:52:43 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/features/friday-review/history-and-culture/madras-nalla-madras/article3296560.ece

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