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The classic baashai!

In cinema or everyday conversation, youngsters love the Madras baashai. Photo: S.R. Raghunathan.   | Photo Credit: S_R_Raghunathan

There is a lot of interest on the etymology behind the famed Madras Baashai online. The dialect offers plenty of scope for both fun-filled ‘guess work’ and proper research on the origin of the words. Some of it sounds very plausible — take the case of OC, the slang for free. There are articles in newspapers as well as crowd-sourced online forums that suggest the word came about from the era of the East India Company when official postages used to carry ‘On Company Service’ and was shipped around free of cost.

And there are words possibly borne out of the figment of imagination of popular comedians such as Thengai Srinivasan — most notably jalsa and jilpa (both meaning ‘fun’) — that have become so popular.

But does this mean most of the lexicons of Madras Baashai have relatively recent origins, dating back to the last three-and-a-half centuries that the city has thrived. Or do some words go back even further in time?

Fascinating origins

There are several blogs and Wiki entries that study the etymology of some of the words. Tamil writer and scholar Pazha.Athiyamaan says that even though the enthusiasts may be right in reasoning some of the origins behind the words, there are some words that are not really as casual as they may appear. “A commonly used word for pulling is ‘ valikarathu’. A rickshaw puller might say ‘ konjam valipaa’ to say pull something. You would be surprised to see that Thirumoolar (one of the Saivite saints) has used the word to mean the exact same thing in his verses.”

Athiyamaan argues that some words that sound colloquial really have their roots in classical Tamil literature. “Another word is ‘Aminji’ that forms the location ‘Aminjikarai’. People think this is a colloquial modification of a pure Tamil word and suggest ‘ Amaintha Karai’ as an alternative, but ‘ Aminji’ is a classical Tamil word that means something done without hard labour.”

Humourist and script and dialogue writer Crazy Mohan says, “Those who speak Madras Baashai speak the words without the Sanskrit influences. Funnily, there is no ‘sha’ in Madras Baashai!”

He argues that often colloquial words become mainstream. “Perhaps the first person to mainstream colloquial words was poet Kamban whose Kamba Ramayanam used the word thummi, which is colloquial for thuli (water drop). There goes an associated story in which when the king and poet Ottakkoothar (Kamban’s nemesis) challenged the word thummi, goddess Saraswathi is said to have been born as a fisherwoman and used the word. That Kamban used colloquial words is indication that one should not look down upon them.”

Changing times

Veteran playwright and journalist Cho Ramaswamy, who is credited by most as being the person who moved the language of the streets on to the stage with his many popular plays, says the Madras Baashai of today, or Chennai Baashai is most likely to be a lot different from what was portrayed in his plays or his movies. “The reason why I used it in my plays was there was a certain force associated with it. People appreciated it the way we used it because it was done in good humour.”

Cho played the near-perfect Madras Baashai-speaking character in the 1968 movie Bommalaattam. The song ‘Vaa Vaathiyaarey Vootaanda’, a riotous duet between ‘Jambajaar’ Jaggu and Chinnaponnu (played by Manorama), is still the song to watch if you want a humorous dose of the dialect.


Portrayals on the silver screen

‘Vaa Vaathiyaarey Vootaanda’ song in Bommalaattam featuring Cho Ramaswamy and Manorama as ‘Jambajaar’ ‘Zambazaar' Jaggu and Chinnaponnu. This should rank as probably as the crowning glory moment for Madras Baashai.

‘Thengai’ Srinivasan in many roles — though his stand-out performance as the strict disciplinarian boss in Thillu Mullu, Srinivasan popularised words such as jalsa and jilpa long before Chennai 600028 did!

‘Surli’ Rajan — another effortless comedian, who was typecast as the Madras Baashai-speaking labourer.

‘Loose’ Mohan (Arumugam Mohanasundaram) acted in several movies, playing the same sketch over and over again.

Kamal Haasan in Pammal K. Sambandam, Michael Madana Kama Rajan and Maharajan. Some of his roles can be seen as a homage to the comedy greats listed above.


Possible etymology

OC (meaning free) — from East India Company marking official postages free of cost as ‘On Company Service’

Dhuddu (money) — from Kannada

Dakaalti (to cheat) — from dacoity


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Printable version | Apr 10, 2021 8:56:15 PM |

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