The Chennai Photo Biennale is underway - a tremendous and wonderfully curated series of exhibitions and events. If you are anywhere near, don't miss it!
More than twenty venues across the city have been brought into service - from galleries to train stations to some of the city's most historic buildings, including the Madras Literary Society, and the building you can see above, the Senate House of the University of Madras.
And I owe the Biennale a huge debt - for the first time I have been able to enter the Senate House which is even more overwhelming and remarkable inside than from the outside.
The Senate House was built in the 1870s and completed exactly 140 years ago. It's an outstanding example of the Indo-Saracenic style which draws on Mughal design and is itself an expression of British Indian cultural confidence at the high watermark of Empire.
One of the earliest buildings in the Indo-Saracenic style was Chepauk Palace nearby, built in the mid-eighteenth century. And you could argue that the buildings at the heart of the Indian government, North Block and South Block in Delhi, which were built from 1912 when the capital was moved from Calcutta, are among the last examples of this trend in architecture.
But nothing quite prepares you for stepping inside Senate House.
The building was designed by Robert Chisholm - one of the key figures in Indo-Saracenic design, particularly in Madras/Chennai. The Times of India has recently published an article lamenting its poor upkeep and gross under utiliisation, and suggesting that the substantial amount of money allocated in recent years to restoration has not been well spent.
But as far as I could see, the building is in decent condition - and a glorious space for a photography festival. The stained glass and the many aspects of Mughal-influenced design - the arches, the shape of the windows, the jallis, much of the fine detail - along with the vast size of the interior make it among the most memorable buildings I have visited.
If anything typifies Tamil cuisine it's the dosa - a pancake made from fermented batter. Rice and black gram are traditionally the main ingredients of the batter. In dosa joints in London, the dosa is usually crisp and outsize, and wrapped around aloo (potato) masala - that's the famous masala dosa.
In Chennai, more often the dosa isn't crisp but soft, a little like an appam from neighbouring Kerala. It's eaten above all at breakfast time with coconut chutney, often homemade, and sambar, a lentil-based curried vegetable dish, a bit like a spicy vegetable stew. And yes - it's good!
On the Madras Inherited heritage walk I've just been on around Royapettah in downtown Chennai, we all were invited in to a suite of old houses - only to discover this elderly woman cheerfully cooking dosas. Lots of them! It was barely seven in the morning and she was presiding over quite a production line - as you can see ...
Three houses here shared a courtyard and at first I imagined that she was cooking dosas for everyone in these households. But just after I finished filming, a man came to collect all the cooked dosas in the container by the door - I guess there were twenty or more of them - to take them, as far as I could gather, to a local tea stall for sale as a freshly-cooked breakfast.
The cooking of dosas didn't halt - I reckon this woman could easily make fifty in an hour. They sell for 10 rupees each - that's a little more than ten pence. So this is quite a cottage industry.
Up early this morning for a heritage walk round Royapettah, an inner-city district of Chennai. Royapettah means the district of the rulers. There's still a palace here - the Amir Mahal, the home of the Prince of Arcot (I hope to be blogging about that later) - but the garden houses, the palatial bungalows in their own grounds, which once distinguished the area are now long gone.
In their place, just under a century ago, came up smart vernacular housing using the new building material of cement plaster and often gently influenced by Art Deco. Many of these too have gone, and those that survive are sometimes in poor repair, but there are some real treasures still to be seen.
This is one of the more imposing examples - a corner house with columns, balustrades and parapets, and incorporating a lovely sunrise motif in the jallis, the latticed plaster work.
Here's another corner building, fronting Pycrofts Road (many of the main roads in central Chennai still retain the name of the British colonialist or trader who once lived nearby). It's called the Summer House, though no one's quite sure why. And it bears some of the traits of Art Deco, not least the narrow vertical windows.
Alongside the light imprint of Art Deco are buildings of a similar vintage which are part of quite different architectural traditions. Some show a hint of the gothic ...
... while others are just altogether crazy!
Swami's Summit, it seems - and the property owner happened to be on the walk, so we have this on good authority - was visited by Gandhi. Which prompted the construction of a peak above the summit (not sure that makes sense terminologically, but then not much about this building does).
And a big shout out to our guide, Tahaer Zoyab of the pathbreaking heritage initiative Madras Inherited, whose architectural expertise made the morning so memorable. We had the good fortune to be able to go, impromptu, inside a few of the houses ... what a wonderful city Chennai is!
And the walk was part of the admirable India Heritage Walk Festival,
Elections are just around the corner here - so it's the season for outsize political wall paintings, one of my favourite aspects of Indian politics. I came across one such work in the throes of composition in the back streets of Chennai.
It's good to see that some parties are sticking with the more expensive and time-consuming paintings, rather than just making do with posters ...
... which as you can see don't have anything like as much scale or impact.
This wall had been marked out for the DMK, the main opposition party in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu, which (helped a little by its alliance with Congress) is expected to do well when voting is held, probably in April and May.
When I suggested to the artist that his mural was in preparation for the coming elections, he got quite defensive: "no, not for elections", he insisted. Then the penny dropped!
India's powerful Election Commission places strict prohibitions on campaign wall paintings and all sorts of other once-standard election practices. But the dates of the general election have not yet been announced. So I suppose that the DMK hopes that this spot of street art will be seen as normal business rather than part of the election campaign. Hmm ...
The wall painting is of Stalin, the new leader of the DMK, and his late father, M. Karunanidhi, who was the longstanding party patriarch and spent in total the best part of twenty years as chief minister of Tamil Nadu.
Yes, I did say Stalin ... no, people here don't think it's at all strange ... well, this Stalin was born four days before the other Stalin died and was named after a leader who was widely admired in India at that time ... so, in South India, it's the given name rather than the inherited name which people go by ... his full name is Muthuvel Karunanidhi Stalin, which you have to admit is a bit of a mouth full ... and yes I guess it could be seen as remarkable for a man called Stalin to come to power in the 21st century, but not in Chennai where he is probably the most popular political figure out.
I'm glad we've got that all sorted!
When I again passed by the mural half-an-hour later, a bunch of local DMK heavyweights had come round to inspect the work, and to instruct the artist which other party figures should feature.
They brought round a likeness of a DMK former mayor of Chennai, M. Subramaniam, to ensure that the painter could manage to make him recognisable,
And then, of course, they all posed for a photo.
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