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.
In India's institutional areas, you sometimes come across institutions which have been allotted land and have constructed buildings but then have forgotten their purpose ... and have been forgotten by all around them. They crumble away back into the jungle, which is always eager to reclaim what it has lost.
The is the book store - as in a warehouse not a shop - of the Sahitya Akademi in the Taramani district of Chennai. The Akademi is run by the Indian government's ministry of culture and specialises in making available books and translations in Indian languages.
Three years ago a newspaper reported that this building was in a parlous state. Since then it's gone from bad to worse. And through the broken windows, you can see huge piles of literature slowly, or perhaps not so slowly, mouldering away.
The doors are firmly padlocked and the store is without that standard accoutrement of even the most desolate of buildings, a chowkidar or watchman to keep the curious and ill-disposed at bay.
The only living creature nearby was this rather marvellous cow (or perhaps it's a bull, I didn't get too near) which - to judge by its pendant and gold-painted horns - is clearly somebody's pride and joy.
I went out today on my first photo walk, organised by the Chennai Photowalk group on Facebook . We took an early morning stroll through Perambur in the north of the city. The meeting point was a huge Catholic church, Our Lady of Lourdes, and I suspect this woman was lighting a candle to beseech deliverance from the paparazzi all around her.
About thirty or so camera-laden Chennai-ites turned up. The group has an outing of this sort every two weeks.
This morning was a wonderful chance to capture the city as it starts to get into gear for the day.
This is Susannah - she had popped down to her local tea stall to get some idli to take home for breakfast. I'd never seen idli prepared before - but there were about as fresh as it's possible to be.
Nearby, two women were painting kolam outside their home - an abstract or geometrical decoration which is believed to bring prosperity. As with everyone else I came across this morning, they were only too pleased to be photographed.
And in Murasoli Maran park youngsters were being trained in an Indian martial art - all about how to twirl and strike with a stout bamboo cane,
Elliot's beach is perhaps the nicest of Chennai urban beaches. It's cleaner and less crowded than Marina beach. It's a place where youngsters like to hang out - and it has all the food stalls, coffee bars and cafes that go along with that. And while it's formally named after Edward Elliot - a onetime colonial administrator and police superintendent - it's better known as Bessie's beach.
That's because the beach is adjacent to the Besant Nagar district - in turn named after the redoubtable Annie Besant, variously a radical, freethinker, Indian nationalist and Theosophist and an altogether good thing. Quite nice that the name of the place has been subverted from commemorating an old colonialist to a Brit who delighted in disturbing the Imperial order.
This is also a working beach with a sizable fishing community. It was late afternoon when I was there, with that marvellous end-of-day natural light. The last of the boats were coming in, most of the catch had been taken away, and the fishermen were cleaning their nets and disgorging all the crabs and small fish that got caught up in the mesh.
There were then either discarded on the beach or - if saleable - put in the bottom of the boat, where some of the crabs in particular looked disconcertingly human.
This was once one of Chennai's most popular cinemas, As you can see, it's now derelict and awaiting demolition.
Star Talkies is on Triplicane High Road - an area where traditionally Urdu rather than Tamil is the main language. It opened in 1916 as Cinema Popular and became Star Talkies twenty years later. The last movie was screened here in 2012, and the building is now slowly crumbling away.
When new Bollywood movies were released, this was the Chennai cinema which screened them first. It got a reputation as the place to go in the city for Hindi films. While other cinema halls were showing the Tamil blockbusters, Star Talkies focussed on non-Tamil films.
While I was taking these photos, a passer-by stopped to remark how he used to watch movies here. 'It's been killed by the internet', he said. 'More than thirty cinema halls across Chennai have closed because of the internet.'
Star Talkies was also famous for having what amounted to a zenana, a women-only seating area where local Muslim women would feel comfortable watching a movie.
I was talking to an elderly Chennai movie enthusiast who told me that she and a group of ladies from the fashionable part of town would often go to Star Talkies to see the new Bollywood releases. And when there were no general tickets available, they would get seats in the women-only area and watch as women came in wearing a burka, then removed it to watch the film, and put it back on before leaving.
No, not rush hour. It was 8 o'clock this evening when I took this picture. The Chennai Metro is still shiny new - and so much more expensive than the buses and commuter trains that it's not all that widely used. But a couple of days ago, a new branch was opened. The prime minister, Narendra Modi, came to inaugurate it. And to mark this extension of the Metro network, travel is - for the moment - free.
On Sunday afternoon, not all that many people knew about the free travel and so the trains were busy but not rammed. By this evening, the whole of Chennai seemed to be joyriding up and down the line. And why not!
This was the scene at Teynampet metro station just now -
I took a stroll down Mint Street at the weekend, a narrow, congested, thoroughfare which happens - at four kilometres - to be the longest street in Chennai. Its southern end lies in Georgetown - known earlier as Black Town. And it remains home to communities which are incomers to Chennai, though now established here for generations: Gujaratis, Jains and Telugu-speakers in particular.
This was a walk with a difference - an organised culinary tour round the eating places of Mint Street, With camera in hand, I had: lassi, see an earlier post; paan; aloo tikki; kulfi; jalebi ... and a lot more, including freshly-pressed sugar cane juice -
It's a lively place - and while many of the original buildings have gone, it still has an array of fine and colourful buildings, as well as wonderful street traders and businesses which point to aspects of the city's history..
And here's our host and guide on the Mint Street walk, the excellent Sriram V of Chennai Past Forward:
This is Dinesh Soni, and he makes and sells lassi. More to the point, he makes kesar lassi - a saffron-flavoured, primrose-coloured version of this milk-based beverage. (It's traditionally made from buttermilk, the low fat liquid residue created when butter is churned.)
Dinesh is a mountain of a man. The story goes that he is a wrestler from Rajasthan who opened his lassi stall in Chennai many years back. It's on Mint Street in Sowcarpet - a long, crowded road which is great fun to walk along.
The street is a culinary delight - indeed I went there as part of a walking/eating tour yesterday organised by Chennai Past Forward and conducted by the inimitable Sriram V; more from that on future posts.
Dinesh's lassi stand - it's called Anmol (or priceless) Lassi - has become a fixture on foodie tours of this city, which takes eating very seriously. And the proprietor laps up all the attention.
As you can see, behind the stall there's a blow-up newspaper cutting about the place and the man ... and he even advertises, tongue-in-cheek (I think), the Dinesh Anmol Lassi Welfare Association. In other words, whenever you buy one of his kesar lassis you are contributing to Dinesh's welfare ... as well as your own.
There's just one service a year at Chennai's glorious eighteenth century Armenian church. This year's service was this morning. Two priests - the Very Rev. Fr. Movses Sargsyan, Pastor of the Armenians in India and (wearing the ornate clerical headgear) Rev. Fr. Artsrun - came specially from Calcutta to officiate.
Armenians once constituted one of Chennai's most wealthy trading communities. It has long since melted away. There are now perhaps five Armenians in Chennai - and with well-wishers and the curious, the congregation today just touched double figures ... though the youngest of those attending was only eight months old, so there is hope for the future.
There are about twenty-five Armenian families in Calcutta - the church there gets about 100 worshippers for its Christmas service. The Armenian College in central Calcutta is one of the city's most venerated educational institutions. Usually, a few of the college pupils and the Calcutta community come to Chennai for the annual service; today it was just the two priests.
The Chennai church - which I've blogged about before - is well-kept in spite of the paucity of the community. It was lovely to see a baby today among the congregation. His mother is Armenian and his father is a Chennai-based architect. I asked the parents what the language of the household was: English, Armenian, Hindi, Russian, Tamil ...
The church has a separate bell tower with six bells - the oldest dating back almost 200 years and two of them bearing the name of Thomas Mears, a master founder at the Whitechapel Bell Foundry in London's East End which, alas, closed last year. Of course, I couldn't resist the temptation to venture up.
The Musalman - founded in 1927 - claims the title of the oldest Urdu daily paper in India. It may also be the only one still using traditional calligraphers. And with a cover price of 75 paise - that's one US cent, or a penny in British currency - it must surely be about the cheapest paid-for title in the world.
The paper's been based in the largely Muslim district of Triplicane, what passes for inner-city in Chennai, ever since it was set up. I popped by at its rather cramped offices today and chatted to Syed Arifullah, the young man who is both editor and proprietor (he requested no photographs),
The paper was set up by his grandfather and he's the third generation to run it. And in case you are wondering, well, his son is just three - so it's a little early to say!
And for such a venerated title, its offices are about as inconspicuous as you can get.
The paper has a network of freelance reporters across India. It consists of four pages and publishes seven days a week. The print run is 21,000 - about a third of those sell in and around Chennai and the rest are posted to subscribers.
The Musalman employs three kitabs - traditional Urdu calligraphers. It takes them an hour to get the paper ready for the offset printing press, which is on the premises. No, the paper doesn't pay, Syed Arifullah says; but he's proud to keep the title and its traditions alive and it's subsidised by the commercial printing that he takes on.
The newspaper's offices are adjoining Chennai's grandest mosque, the Wallajah Big Mosque, built towards the close of the eighteenth century by the family of the Nawab of Arcot, whose heartland this was. It is constructed of granite throughout and is visually arresting - though once again photos are not allowed, so this is the view from Triplicane High Road.
And of course, where you have a large expanse of property in a central location, you have a property dispute to go with it ...
Andrew Whitehead's blog
Welcome - read - comment - throw stones - pick up threads - and tell me how to do this better!