Do you want to join our hyperlocal history project?

A view of Annanagar from the Tower as it was in May, 1972. In the foreground is the structure in which the Kerala State exhibits were located at the time of the International Fair.   | Photo Credit: K_NARAYANACHARI

History is born when current events are chronicled. These events may unfold on the global stage, or just across the road, on a hawkers-lined pavement. If you caught the drift of what we are saying, hyperlocal history is as important as any other form of history.

Hyperlocal history, which can also be called neighbourhood history, provides a sense of continuity to local spaces, which is significant when we consider how rapid changes sweeping through neighbourhoods are changing them beyond recognition.

Define it yourself

“Local history can be about anything and there is no restriction to what constitutes local history,” says historian Venkatesh Ramakrishnan. It can be a building in a neighbourhood, a street or a village or a famous personality who lived in that area, he adds.

For Thirupurasundari Sevvel, who founded the Anna Nagar social history group “Nam Veedu, Nam Oor, Nam Kadhai”, local history is common man’s history.

“It is about the lives of people, both in the past and present. The simplest of things, such as the names of streets can tell us so much about the history and heritage of the past generations. The more we learn about the past, the better perspective we get about the present,” she says.

Just look around

All you need is a keen interest in your neighbourhood and community, a willingness to invest some of your time towards exploring it and the initiative of starting a local history group, says Thirupurasundari.

“Get out to the field and keep your eyes and ears open. Talk to people, read neighbourhood newspapers and books, and visit local libraries,” she says.

Start small

“I started my exploration of local history with a study of the Cooum river. Along with volunteers, we spent nearly three years tracing and documenting historical events linked to the river. It always helps to study a specific subject; invariably, one will be led to bigger things linked to it. It is an unending adventure. I am interested in the Madras of 1940s and I collect information by accessing biographies of people who lived at that time. They provide you with such interesting details. For example, before the city’s zoo moved to Vandalur, it was located behind Ripon Buildings, right in the heart of the city. The Madras Zoo, as it was called, is the oldest zoo in the country. In 1942, when the World War II was at its peak, all the animals in the zoo were shot dead fearing that Madras would be bombed and carnivorous animals would run loose, endangering the safety of residents. And hordes of residents moved out of the city fearing bombing,” says Venkatesh Ramakrishnan.

“It might be best to start the study on a small scale and then expand to a wider circle, as you get access to more resources. The key is to sustain interest and keep the work going,” he adds.

Form a group

Historian V. Sriram, who has chronicled the city’s rich history and heritage, says the first step to studying local history is to form a group.

“It should be as easy as starting a residents welfare association or an interest-based group. Find people who are interested in local history and band together and start the research,” he says.

Identify resources

Sriram says elderly residents make the best source for local history.

“Start the study with the seniors, asking them about their memories of the neighbourhood and the people who lived there. Document their reminiscences about how the neighbourhood looked in a particular time period and how it developed to what it is now. Once the information is collected, look for published material such as books, newspaper clippings and photographs, and document them,” he adds.

Use technology

The Facebook page, Madras Local History Group, founded by Venkatesh Ramakrishnan has nearly 20,000 members. Every day, there are 400 to 500 posts by active members, and these include photographs, newspaper clippings and snippets about Old Madras.

“In the digital era, it is important to harness technology to collect and document information. We have users who share pictures of things used in a bygone era. Such memorabilia give a good insight into the past,” he says.

Sriram also suggests that browsing the Internet with keyword searches will give sufficient information about a neighbourhood and its people. Documenting the collected information in a blog or website will aid the research, he says.

Look for markers

If you are studying a particular neighbourhood, first look for physical markers of history.

“Local history should not stop with collecting and documenting information. Once you identify a historical building or a landmark or learn that a famous personality lived there, sensitise the building owners and residents about it. Put up a plaque or marker about the significance of the place and preserve the memory of the people who lived there. It is important to make people feel proud of their history,” says Sriram.

Historian A.R. Venkatachalapathy feels that local history should be embedded in the syllabus. “What we study now is history on a grand scale and local history is largely ignored. Each district should have local history as a subject. Local history is as important as the world history. Chennai has expanded by leaps and bounds. New neighbourhoods have come up in the last few decades but very little has been done to preserve their past history. Local libraries too are a vital resource in studying local history. The government should establish local libraries is new neighbourhoods to help people understand their significance,” he says.

Venkatesh calls for heritage clubs in schools and local history to be made a part of the curriculum.

“Children should be sent out to explore their neighbourhoods and discover aspects of it that have historical significance. Give them maps and old photographs or drawings of their neighbourhoods, ask them to identify a particular landmark, and get them to explain how their locality has changed from what it was back then. Make it creative by teaching them about culture, housing and transport, fashion and other activities that may have thrived in the past in their area. Take them to museums and places of archeaological importance,” he suggests.

Be inclusive

When Thirupurasundari organises heritage walks, she ensures that she is not the only person taking the lead. Her resource persons are often long-time residents. “Who will know a locality better than those who have lived there for generations? I have had one of my walks curated by an elderly rickshaw puller, an auto driver and small traders. It is important to see history through their eyes because history and heritage is for everybody and should always be inclusive. City historians take so much effort in documenting local history on websites and blogs and that’s the right way to go: sharing the knowledge. It is essential to keep local history alive,” she says.

Here are few resources that can help you. We emphasise that the list is by no means exhaustive.

A list of books (not in any particular order)

Vestiges of Old Madras by Henry Davison Love

Madras Rediscovered by S. Muthiah

Chasing Rainbows in Chennai by Colin Todhunter

The Politics of Heritage from Madras to Chennai by Mary E. Hancock

Madras Then, Chennai Now by Nanditha Krishna and Tishani Doshi

The Madrasiana by W.T. Munro

Madras - Its Past & Its Present by S. Muthiah

A Madras Miscellany – People, Places and Potpourri by S. Muthiah

Degree Coffee by the Yard by Nirmala Lakshman

The Unhurried City: Writings on Chennai by C.S. Lakshmi

Tamarind City by Bishwanath Ghosh

Chennai Not Madras: Perspectives on the City by A.R. Venkatachalapathy

Chennai: Annals and Antiquities by Sir Charles Lawson

Madras: Tracing the Growth of the City Since 1639 by K.R.A. Narasiah

Icons of Madras by Kamala Ramakrishnan (the book has been brought out by The Hindu)

Blogs and social media

On Facebook

Madras Local History Group

Nam veedu, Nam Oor, Nam Kadhai - The Anna Nagar Social History Group

Chennai Weekend Artists

Write to us about the marks of history you find in your backyard to

This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor

Printable version | Jan 19, 2021 5:40:39 PM |

Next Story