History & Culture

1947: A Madras story

Seventy years have passed since that momentous date. One that changed the lives of billions living and those yet to be born. But what was Madras like during the historic year of 1947? And what did everyday life look like?

The famine of 1946 still scarred the city. Luckily the Government’s idea to ban idlis and dosas in hotels was put on hold.

Wheat as an alternative to rice was being promoted with a propaganda blitz in the press and free wheat-based cookery classes were held all over the city. Firewood, the principal fuel in kitchens, was scarce and bundles of twigs were being sold in the black market for six annas.

1947: A Madras story

The city was bursting at its seams in a post-War boom. The uninhabited South of the Adyar River campus of St Patrick’s, an Irish missionary school (its students shifted fearing the Japanese bombing), gave city planners an idea. Negotiations went on throughout 1947 and finally ₹17 lakh was paid for 150 acres. (This money, in turn, funded the Catholic Center in Armenian street.) About 332 plots were planned with all amenities and the area named Gandhigram. This became Gandhinagar, launched the subsequent year — co incidentally a week before the Mahatma was shot. Then the city would grow from nagar to nagar all the way to Mahabalipuram.

Song and dance

The city’s sabhas were celebrating the centenary of Thyagaraja of the Carnatic trinity. Bharathiyar songs from Naam Iruvar, an AVM movie, were blaring from gramophones everywhere.

Additionally, baby Kamala dancing to Bharathi’s tunes, sung by DK Pattammal, on the silver screen had school girls pestering their parents to let them learn Bharatanatyam. Suddenly the town embraced what was previously a socially objectionable art form. MG Ramachandran acted in his first movie as a hero in Jupiter film’s Rajakumari, after 14 insignificant years as supporting cast. He never looked back.

1947: A Madras story

Literature and liquor

The Telugu classic Radhika Santawanam, the first book to be banned in India on account of obscenity was unfettered. Written by a 18th Century Devadasi Muddu Palani and edited by Bangalore Nagaratnamma in 1910 it had been banned soon thereafter. Revoking the ban Indian leader Prakasam would say “I am adding some pearls to the necklace that’s Telugu literature.”

RK Narayan sat in Gemini studio and co-wrote a screenplay (his only one) — Miss Malini. The movie bombed at the box office and Narayan would later rewrite it as a novel Mr. Sampath — the printer of Malgudi.

Eight districts of the Presidency went dry, pushing 2/3rds of it into Prohibition. The Government even went to the extent of saying that they would declare drunkenness a crime. However, Europeans were given ‘permits’.

Although Madras agreed to take in 10,000 refugees from Partition-hit areas, only a fraction arrived. The local Punjab association headed by Lt Gen Gill and funded by the Maharani of Vizianagaram (a princess from the Punjabi state of Keonthal) supported the refugees. One rupee four annas for each adult and 10 annas per child was the daily food allowance given to every refugee. That Punjabis would later become one of the most prosperous communities in the city in a few decades is an example of their perseverance.

1947: A Madras story

Camels at Independence

Time had indeed softened the mutual resentment of the ruler and the ruled. Lady Colleen Nye, the Governor’s wife urged citizens to proudly wear the National Flag. On August 15, the city often considered responsible for the British Empire was illuminated and the sirens of docked ships in the harbour blared at midnight.

Tricolour festoons bedecked most buildings. Celebratory processions each vying with another to be different were organised (some of them even had elephants and camels).

The 150-foot long-standing flag post in Fort. St George had a new silken flag — a tricolour woven in Hubli. (Incidentally this was its third flag, after the East India Company and Union Jack flags.) And the city rejoiced.

(The writer is a novelist and historian. He has worked on the cultural cartography of Chennai’s rivers. His present project is on researching the “40s in Madras”.)

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Printable version | May 4, 2021 11:14:17 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/society/history-and-culture/1947-a-madras-story/article19492358.ece

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