A month ago, this correspondent was trying to take a picture of a rickshaw puller one early morning in front of the Madras High Court. Irritated, he said, “Bemani, poviya andhanda” (Shameless fellow, move aside). He is one of the few thousands of the original ‘Madras Baashai’ speakers in the George Town area, where the dialect is believed to have originated, influenced and grown from the time this modern city took shape over three hundred years ago.
Liberal use of loanwords
In his speeches during Madras Week celebrations, film historian Mohan V. Raman said that ‘Madras Baashai’ was different and borrowed liberally from other languages, including Telugu, Hindi, Urdu, Sanskrit, among others. It is very unlike a regional dialect like those found in Madurai, Coimbatore, or Tirunelveli.
The language grew gradually through the labourers living in north Chennai, who picked up words from businessmen arriving from different regions. It is essentially anchored in George Town and spoken in the northern parts of the city, though a true blue Madras-vasi’s ears would perk up at the slightest accent of ‘Madras Baashai’. And it is essentially a working class dialect that flourished with trade. There are a few scholars who think that some colloquial words really have their roots in Tamil literature.
Popularised by films
Thanks to Tamil cinema, the dialect has become popular. Actors and comedians N.S. Krishnan, Cho. Ramaswamy, Thengai Srinivasan, Manorama, Suruli Rajan, Janakaraj and Loose Mohan are known for their penchant for speaking in ‘Madras Baashai’ and taking it to the masses. While N.S. Krishnan made references to the loanwords from other languages and explained how they were shortened, mentioning the example of ‘jaladosham’ which becomes ‘jalpu’ in his film Nallathambi, Cho popularised it in the song Vaa Vathiyare in Bommalattam. Kamal Haasan took to the slang in two of his films – Vasool Raja MBBS and Pammal K. Sambandam.
As modernity suffuses Chennai, one may be tempted to ask: is ‘Madras Baashai’ dying a slow death? Till people like that rickshaw puller who shooed away this reporter roam the streets of George Town, the dialect will endure.