In Chennai’s 375 year, I complete 15 years of conducting heritage walks – around 35 different routes in the city. Putting these together has always been a fun-filled exercise. And the enthusiasm of those who want to participate in such tours has been a great motivator.
Historians such as Talboys Wheeler, H.D. Love and S. Muthiah have covered most of the city’s past. Their works provide us with a good guide with which to go around and look for the visible remainders of bygone times. The joy in such searches is the unexpected find, or the discovery that something presumed to be long lost, is still standing. Several years ago, I remember going on a cycle rickshaw around George Town. The rickshaw driver was sceptical. Did I think I was going to find the homes of Carnatic musicians who were long dead, he asked. He had been operating in the area for thirty years he said, and he could categorically assert that he had never heard of a Veena Dhanammal.
The only clues I had were from veteran artiste T. Mukta who remembered her grandmother’s house to have been in Ramakrishna Chetty Street, George Town. The house had pillars in front she said. I entered the narrow lane fairly certain that the building would not be there. But it was still standing. And what’s more, the owner of the premises who lived next door was sound enough to vouch for the fact that this was Dhanammal’s house. I took a photo of it and showed it to Mukta who recognised it at once. And that was that. When I did the heritage tour, the joy of telling Dhanammal’s story at her own doorstep was unparalleled. We were allowed to walk in, see her rooms and the space where she performed her Friday concerts. The house later changed hands and became a godown. I have not gone back in a few years now, chiefly out of fear that the house may have been demolished.
There have been other occasions — like the discovery that Minerva Theatre had not been demolished after all. The rumour that it had been pulled down was like the one about Ganeshas drinking milk. Everyone believed it and several of us knowledgeably wrote articles about it. And then one day film historian Steve Hughes and I were wandering around George Town. “So you say Minerva is demolished?” asked Steve. “Yes,” I replied and added that it was all very sad. I was just launching forth on a speech about lack of heritage awareness when Steve steered me towards a poster. I never looked more foolish. It was for a film being screened in Minerva! It was just that the theatre had changed its name to Basha. Steve and I called at the theatre and had tea with the owner.
Chennai is like that. You never know when history will spring out at you, after lurking in a corner for decades.