It was a century ago to the day that Gandhi embraced the idea of a non-violent non-cooperation movement to achieve India's freedom - and he did so at a house just a five minutes stroll from where I am staying in Chennai.
India hasn't woken up to this anniversary, and I wouldn't have either but for a friend and fellow journalist Krishna Prasad, whose blog about the anniversary I would encourage you to read. The Rowlatt Act which prompted Gandhi's call to action was one of the most repressive measures introduced by the British - and set the scene for the egregious massacre at Jallianwalla Bagh in Amritsar on 13 April 1919.
The leading historian of the city, S, Muthiah, describes Gandhi's decision taken exactly a hundred years ago to launch a non-violent protest movement as 'virtually the start of the freedom struggle'. Gandhi had used a similar strategy in South Africa - in India, it developed to be the hallmark of his style of leadership, moral and political.
On March 18th 1919, M.K. Gandhi visited a house on Cathedral Road owned by Kasturi Rangan Iyengar, the proprietor and editor of the Hindu - and indeed the founder of the paper in its modern guise as a leading liberal, nationalist daily. There Gandhi met C. Rajagopalachari, 'Rajaji' - a key figure in the nationalist movement. Their discussions left his head spinning - and he went to sleep in the house that night pondering the political way ahead.
“I was still in that twilight condition between sleep and consciousness when suddenly the idea broke upon me that we should call upon the country to observe a general hartal", he later wrote. 'Hartal' is one of those words that defies simple translation - it implies strike, mass protest and civil disobedience, an all-encompassing act of defiance .
Tilak Bhavan, the site of this meeting and moment of political enlightenment, was demolished decades ago. An anonymous-looking hotel stands on the site - when I asked the receptionist last week whether she knew this key centenary was imminent, she didn't ... though she said, not entirely convincingly, that she would see if some manner of marking the anniversary could be arranged.
There is however a rather splendid plaque in English and Tamil, erected fifty years ago, which marks the spot and tells the story,
Sadly, Cathedral Road is one of those soulless arteries which hardly anyone traverses on foot - and if you are dropped off by car at the hotel you will never see this roadside plaque. So while it is well kept, it's also little read.
I can't find any photo of Tilak Bhavan online. I looked around for any buildings which could have borne silent testimony to Gandhi's visit a century ago. There's just one, across the road, that might just have been standing back in March 1919 - though my guess is it came up a few years later.
And sadly, the bold assertion of this memorial - 'THE NATION REMEMBERS' - is no longer true.
At the weekend, I went on a heritage walk around Triplicane, an inner-city area of Chennai. It was organised by Madras Inherited, an impressively energetic group engaged in heritage education and management. Our guide was Roshini Ganesh, an architect.
The focus was on the few remaining agraharams - a south Indian custom of homes linked to, and often owned by, a Hindu mandir - in the area around the Parthasarathy temple.
The buildings are often managed by a temple trust and were built for religious purposes to house brahmins, the caste from which priests traditionally came. There are some common aspects of design - often a raised seating platform area by the door and a small central courtyard.
Agraharams don't have to be single storey but in this area of Triplicane, those that survive are mainly from the late nineteenth century and are very simple in design. Indeed, they are often poorly maintained and distinctly modest compared to the buildings that have been replacing them - and they are disappearing fast
We had the privilege of being invited into one agraharam and up on to the roof space, looking down on a courtyard which would once have served several of these small homes.
As always with heritage walks here, we set off early - really early! By 8:30 our two-hour stroll was over.
One of the delights of walking around at such an early hour is seeing women decorating their doorsteps and approaches with kolam - an abstract design believed to bring good fortune.
Shankar is the watchman at one of the most remarkable and forlorn of the colonial piles that are dotted around Chennai (once Madras). This is his territory.
More prosaically, this is the Victoria Hostel - on the very appropriately named Victoria Hostel Road. It's a wonderfully imposing set of buildings, built from 1880 - though the opening ceremony was some twenty years later - to provide accommodation for students at the college of engineering.
The hostel was built by Thaticonda Namberumal Chetty, who was responsible for several of the city's more imposing buildings of the late nineteenth century. This was once part of the expansive gardens of the Nawab of Arcot - the current-day prince lives nearby in Amir Mahal.
In 1920, the engineering college moved from inner-city Triplicane and the hostel was handed over to Presidency College. The buildings have a distinguished history and have been listed as a heritage site, but their current condition is pitiable. A recent news report has suggested that the hostel is to be repaired and a new wing built - and there were signs, though not very encouraging signs, of building activity.
But there's a long, long way to go!
A shout-out for Madras Inherited, an impressive group of architects and historians who organised the walk round Triplicane today (more in a later post from that early morning stroll) which introduced me to the Victoria Hostel.
One day, maybe, it will bear more than a shadow of its original grandeur. For the time being, it remains Shankar's castle.
I went back today to the political wall painting I saw a couple of weeks back in the throes of composition. It show M.K. Stalin - leader of a key local party, the DMK - and his late father and party patriarch, M. Karunanidhi.
One of the photos I took of the artist at work was - to my intense surprise (and joy) - published by the Guardian. That's a first for me! Perhaps a last as well - but who knows ...
I wanted to see who else and what else had been included in the mural which, as you can see, is a fair old size. There are no more portraits. And the slogans? Well apart from the large script which could be translated as 'Hero Stalin', there aren't any.
The text of the painting consists almost entirely a list of the ward office bearers of the party - a roll-call of the local activists, who wish to bask in the reflected glory of their party leader.
One curious aspect of political protocol here - rival parties put up posters around the edges of the wall painting, but were careful not to obscure it. There's a strong informal code here - you don't deface your rivals murals but that could well lead to quite a dust-up.
Both India's main national parties - the Congress and the BJP - have a foothold in this corner of south India. But the main parties are regional - and indeed Dravidian ... an expression of southern pride, a championing of the Tamil language and culture and (by and large) anti-Brahmin with an emphasis, notionally at least, on caste equality.
So as well as Stalin's DMK and the late Jayalalithaa's AIADMK (the governing party in the state) there's the DK, the AMMK, the MDMK, the PMK ... you get the picture.
And the DMK has just agreed a seat-sharing agreement for the imminent elections with, among others, the Congress and India's two main Communist Parties ... which have been described as, yes, tinged with Stalinism!
It's taken four years of work - but at last my biography of Freda Bedi is out. The Lives of Freda: the political, spiritual and personal journeys of Freda Bedi was launched at the Oxford Bookstore in Calcutta over the weekend. Jawhar Sarcar, a former head of India's public broadcasting corporation, presided - and Ami Bedi, Freda's granddaughter, also spoke..
Who was Freda Bedi? An English woman who made her life in India - the first Oxford woman undergraduate to marry an Indian fellow student, that was in 1933, and who was jailed in Lahore during the Second World War for championing India's national cause over that of her mother country. She later was an active Kashmiri nationalist, a Tibetan Buddhist - and towards the end of her life she became a Buddhist nun.
You can find out more about Freda Bedi and my biography here and I've posted below a reading from the introduction to the book -
There are lots of ways to get the book - which is also available on kindle ... and if you order direct from the publishers, Speaking Tiger, then if you are in India you get a discount and there's no delivery charge. What about that!
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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