Among the many contributions the remarkable Annie Besant made to Indian nationalism was the establishing in 1914 of the Young Men's Indian Association - a challenge to the YMCA. The purpose of the YMIA was to serve as “a political gymnasium as it were, to equip the youth with a strong body, an informed mind and a noble character".
The following year, the YMIA's HQ opened - Gokhale Hall, on Armenian Street in Madras. Annie Besant paid for the construction herself. It took the name of Gopal Krishna Gokhale, a leader of the Indian National Congress and founder of the Servants of India Society, who died in February 1915.
The hall has been sealed off for a decade at least. It's caught up, apparently, in a property dispute - with heritage enthusiasts seeking to block plans for demolition. But as the row rumbles on, one of the main venues of Indian nationalism is sliding rapidly into dereliction.
Annie Besant established the Home Rule League in this hall and it's where she delivered her 'Wake Up, India' lectures. It was also used as a venue by the Justice Party, the pioneer of the Dravidian movement which now dominates the region's politics and a precursor of the anti-caste, anti-religion, self respect movement.
Periyar, the firebrand of twentieth century Tamil radicalism, spoke here. So too did Jawaharlal Nehru, the first prime minister of independent India.
Nehru once declared, in tribute both to the building and to Besant: "The Gokhale Hall has been the scene of great achievements in oratory and public speaking as well as music and the fine arts. It has received with open arms persons of every description without distinction of caste, creed, colour or political persuasion. The Hall ever reminds us of the voice of its founder and no one associated with it can ever forget the inspiration of that voice,"
The photograph above - taken from Reddit - dates from 1929. At the centre of the front row is the Urdu writer and poet, Muhammad Iqbal., who died before independence but has been described as the 'spiritual father' of Pakistan.
After independence, the hall became a venue for Tamil music and cultural events. But it is now slipping into dilapidation.
The hall has a caretaker who sits outside the shuttered entrance and keeps all-comers at bay. When I spotted a door leading into the hall ajar and started to photograph through the security grille, he quickly closed this peephole on the hall's once glorious past.
Quite by chance, I came across another YMIA building a short distance away on the splendidly named Second Line Beach Street (aka Moor Street). And I caught just a glance of a statue of Annie Besant - and alongside, a bust of Sir William Wedderburn, a co-founder of the Indian National Congress and colleague of both Besant and Gokhale.
It transpires these items have been retrieved from Gokhale Hall and appear to be well cared for in their new home.
Unlike Gokhale Hall, this YMIA building is still in use. It has a small library (consisting of a locked display cabinet), a gym, a boxing exercise room and - the only part of the building with any activity when I popped by - a room devoted to the table-top game, carrom.
Well, that's it from Chennai for another year. As I write this post, I'm already back in London - earlier than expected because of coronavirus. I am hoping there will be another series of posts from one of India's great cities in a year's time.
Along Anna Salai - Mount Road to those of a particular vintage - and tucked back a little from the furious flow of traffic is a quaint, curious-looking building now more than a century old. It proclaims itself to be the 'first cinema house of South India'.
This was the Electric- "a large corrugated iron shell with a brick facade", according to a comment cited in S. Muthiah's magisterial Madras Rediscovered - which started screening silent films in 1913. Muthiah suggests that a Mrs Klug showed films for a few months a couple of years earlier in a venue called the Bioscope - but let's let that pass.
The shed became the rather fetching building which still stands. Within a couple of years of starting as a movie house, the Electric was sold and became a post office.
The city's much more modern main post office now looms over the original building, which survives as Chennai's philatelic bureau.
I popped in one Saturday morning to see what's left of the (distinctly stylish) interior of the Electric. The bureau wasn't busy - four counters were open, and customers ... there were none.
When an eager assistant asked if she could be of assistance, I guiltily admitted I had come simply to admire the old building not the old stamps.
If the Electric is the ancient, just round the corner on Blackers Road is the modern side of Chennai cinema. The Casino is a striking post-modernist design and it shows movies in both Tamil and Telugu.
Cinemas here as elsewhere have lost some of their pulling power in the digital era, but movies remain popular in South India - after all it's home to one of the world's biggest film industries.
The jackfruit must be the ugliest of all fruits, with its warty mis-shapen skin. It's certainly the heaviest - jack trees can bear several hundred fruit which each can weigh up to fifty kilos. And the pongiest. An uncut, over-ripe jackfruit gives out a pungent and unpleasant aroma. It stinks - it really stinks!
Happily, the just-ripe-enough-to-eat fruit, once cut, bears a much milder and sweeter smell. Distinct, but enticing.
And if you want to get a sense of where jackfruits are grown, well, it's the national fruit of Sri Lanka and of Bangladesh and the state fruit of both Kerala and Tamil Nadu, India's southernmost states.
The unripe jackfruit is quite stringy and absorbs taste and it's widely used as a meat substitute in vegetarian dishes. But it's the sweet, ripe fruit which is most popular.
Cutting a jackfruit takes some skill. Inside the skin, pods of flesh surround dozens of stones or seeds. Nobody takes home a complete jackfruit; they are sold by weight as little pouches of fruit-plus-stone.
Because jackfruits are so big and messy, the stalls selling them - and these are the sort of barrow boys and costermongers which have just about disappeared from British streets - only offer this one fruit.
It's popular. There's a steady stream of scooter drivers and passers-by stopping to buy.
Selvaraj, the guy in the blue shirt, offered me a sliver - which, in the spirit of adventure, I duly ate -
Jackfruit is much firmer than mango, not at all sticky - and although not as succulent, it has a mild, sweet taste. I can see why it's sought after.
And at the heart of each fleshy segment is a sizable stone, which can also be fried or roasted and eaten.
Quite by chance, I came across a seedling jack tree. This is two years old and while it looks slender, the roots are well developed. Once planted out, it should start bearing fruit within another three years.
It wasn't quite how the day was planned - but what does that matter! It can't get much better than this ...
A walk round the Triplicane district of Chennai with my friend and heritage expert Yusuf Madhiya ended up with a call at Amir Mahal, the palace of the Nawab (or Prince) of Arcot. The family has an impressive mid-nineteenth century palace in eighty acres of grounds. That includes a cricket pitch where a match was underway ... a sort of England v India contest.
The British Deputy High Commissioner's team was playing - and lost by a wide margin. And I ended up giving an award to the man of the match. (And no, he wasn't from the British-led team).
So in this photo you have: Yusuf; me; Yash, the man of the match; our host, Mohammed Asif Ali, the Dewan (senior adviser) and heir to the Prince of Arcot; the British Deputy High Commissioner here, Oliver Ballhatchet; and his father, Ralph.
The Prince of Arcot trophy is a round-robin twenty-over cricket tournament played over several successive weekends. There can't be many tournaments anywhere in the world which are staged in the grounds of a royal palace.
The hospitality was wonderful. I was invited to join cricketers and guests in partaking of an excellent chicken biriyani and - as a sweet dish - a spectacular bread halwa, a palace speciality, rich in nuts and fruit.
The heir to the current Nawab, his son Nawabzada Mohammed Asif Ali, gave me a tour round his palace and explained something of the family's story - a princely family which is doing conspicuously well in the democratic era.
The title was established by the Mughals in the 1690s as the Nawab of the Carnatic - an area which included what was then Madras but initially had as its capital the town of Arcot. The dynasty had to weather the demise of the Mughals, the rise of the Marathas, and then the increasing power of the British. It did so with a fair measure of success.
But when the thirteenth Nawab died in 1855 without a direct male heir, the British invoked the indefensible 'doctrine of lapse' to annex his territory.
The family petitioned for the title to be restored. And unusually, the British authorities agreed that the uncle of the last Nawab could indeed resume a princely title - but a new one as Prince (though generally known as Nawab) of Arcot. That was in 1867.
The Nawab's old palace in Chepauk, close to what is now Chennai's Marina beach, had been taken over by the government - so the restored princely family built a new one on land they owned in Triplicane. And that's the imposing, and distinctly well-kept, palace where the royal family continues to live.
The princely family were important players in regional politics - and by-and-large were well disposed to the British (to whom, of course, they owed the restoration of their title).
In the palace's durbar room there are oil portraits showing various Nawabs of ages past alongside - and in one case arm-in-arm with - the top British officials of the region. Of the two joint portraits shown here, the first includes (on the right) a distinctly grumpy-looking Duke of Buckingham, Governor of Madras Presidency, and in the second portrait the Brit depicted is Lord Connemara, another Governor of Madras (after whom Chennai's leading heritage hotel is named, now the Taj Connemara).
Also on display in the durbar room are photographs of more recent VIP visitors to the palace including Queen Elizabeth, the Shah of Iran and Jawaharlal Nehru (who's not from a royal family but sure did start a dynasty).
Yusuf presented Mohammed Asif Ali with his painting of the entrance gate to the palace, one of many pieces of his artwork which features in his recently published Guide to Chennai Heritages.
The Nawabzada explained that because the title of Prince of Arcot was established by letters patent, they escaped the measures to restrict the influence of princely families introduced after India's independence. Indeed, the family still gets a pension from the Indian government - as set out in the terms of the grant of the title more than 150 years ago.
The princely family's considerable influence comes above all from their extensive property holdings in Chennai and elsewhere. The Nawab of Arcot and his family are well-off. And they have a long established tradition of philanthropy and community involvement which means that the family is well regarded locally,
The family are Muslims and the Wallajah Big Mosque in Triplicane - Chennai's largest mosque - stands on their land. Indeed it was built by the family in 1795 and takes the name of one of the most formidable Nawabs of the Carnatic, Muhammad Ali Khan Wallajah.
The present princely family have been taking steps to prevent encroachment on the sizeable grounds on which the mosque stands,
The princely family has also endowed and built several Hindu temples - and the area around the palace includes both Muslim and Hindu brahmin localities.
I was told that during the month of Ramadan, Sindhi Hindu families - who came over to Madras from Karachi at the time of Partition - come every night to provide food at the Wallajah mosque for Muslims breaking their fast. It's said to be in gratitude for the welcome the Sindhis received when they arrived as refugees more than seventy years ago.
In these bleak times, that's such an inspiring example of inter-faith harmony.
Chennai has a boat club with a history stretching back more than a century and a half - the Madras Boat Club on the banks of the Adyar river, founded in 1867. It moved to the current site in 1892. And happily, it's still a very active rowing club.
In the early morning, and just before the sun goes down, the rowers take to the river to scull, train and keep in trim. It looks idyllic - and in the photo below you can just see the white egrets roosting on the far side of the river ... but the Adyar, while perhaps a little cleaner that Chennai's other river, the Cooum, has an aroma all of its own.
To judge by the number of boats at the Club, and the excellent condition in which they are kept, the rowing aspect of the institution is still valued.
The Boat Club itself is a members' club, rather grand, with a few rooms, restaurants and a swimming pool. But as soon as you walk in, you can tell that it really is a boat club -
And as is befitting a club which owes its existence to the river, its best aspect is riverside -
The boards proclaim rowing successes and club captains and officers going back right to the club's foundations in the 1860s, but it seems to be as recently as the 1960s - to judge rather crudely by the names on display - that the Brits finally bowed out. M.M. Muthiah became the first Indian president of the club in 1967.
The club takes pride in encouraging women's rowing - and women have been training competitively here since the 1980s.
These curious conjoined insects look like the "push-me-pull-you" creatures of the bug world - I came across three couples, and one solo bug, in a very short stretch of pavement here in Chennai.
They are, it seems, red cotton stainers or something very closely related - and yes, they're mating. The insects can be serious pests for the cotton crop, though they are fairily undiscriminating as to what they feed on.
I can't quite work out why, with such flamboyant colouring they don't make a tasty morsel for the birds all around. But there didn't see to be a feeding frenzy going on.
Everyone in Chennai knows about Burma Bazaar. It's a long row of road-facing stalls either side of Chennai Beach station. The market was set up in the late 1960s for Tamils who had been forced out of Burma and made the journey back across the Bay of Bengal.
These days the market has a reputation - whether deserved or not, I cannot say - for dodgy phones and electrical items, There's very little apart from the name to link the place to Burma (now Myanmar of course) or the Tamil refugees who set up the bazaar.
But just across the road - and rather less well-known - there's an enduring aspect of the links between Madras and Rangoon (both cities have changed their names - they are now Chennai and Yangon) - two fast food stalls selling Burmese-style noodles and run by families which were part of the exodus from Burma more than fifty years ago.
The stalls are fairly anonymous - there's nothing to tell the passer-by that these are part of the once vibrant trading and cultural links between South India and Burma. The food is certainly popular and some come from quite a distance for the freshly cooked noodles and salad, the mild curry sauce, the stuffed eggs and other choice items on sale..
The stall worker you see here, Khwaja Mohammad, told me (he was speaking in Tamil and one of his customers kindly translated) that he moved from Burma in 1964. He was then five years old. I was told that the older men on this stall still speak Burmese - but I can't vouch for that.
Between the wars, Indians ran much of Burma's economy. In 1931, people of Indian origin made up more than half of Rangoon's population. The historian Sunil Amrith in his excellent book Crossing the Bay of Bengal has explained how the migration routes to-and-fro between South India on the one hand and Burma and Malaya on the other were among the busiest in the world at that time.
The Second World War and its aftermath changed all that. When the Japanese invaded Burma, many Indians in Rangoon fled. The rich could afford to pay for passage on a steamer back to Madras or other ports on the Indian coast.. Many others faced the arduous and perilous land journey up through the hill of northern Burma and into Assam.
Among those who made the trek was a four-year-old Burma-born girl who came to be a big Bollywood film star, known on screen simply as Helen. She has recounted how her mother miscarried on the journey, and her brother died of smallpox shortly after reaching Calcutta.
Those Indians who remained in Burma faced further upheaval when, after a military government came to power in 1962, many were forced out in what was clearly akin to ethnic cleansing. This is the migration from which Burma Bazaar - and the food stalls - were born.
There remain about a million people of Indian descent in Burma - approaching 2% of the population - but the community (Hindu, Muslim - Tamil, Telugu, Bengali) is no longer as powerful as it once was.
And the food that's served in the stalls? The most popular dish is atho, a noodle salad - that's what I'm eating in the selfie. This foodie website describes atho as: 'made with grated carrots, cabbage, fried onions combined with garlic oil, chilli powder and lime juice. The orange noodles are mixed with these vegetables (almost always by hand) and the Atho gets its crunch from the addition of bejo, a crispy deep-fried snack crafted with rice flour and a sprinkling of peanuts'.
And you can help yourself to a ladle full of sauce - a soup made with banana stem. It's good!
You can accompany that with masala eggs, you can see them in the next photo. These are boiled eggs with the yolk removed and replaced with spicy fried onions.
I'm leaving that until next time ...
There are quite a few Burmese restaurants and atho joints in Chennai - but these food stalls have the mark of authenticity. And they are also a vibrant remnant of the Burma-returned refugees who made their homes in this part of the inner city, close to Parry's Corner, in the 1960s.
If you are trying to find the stalls, this map may help. They are on Errabalu Street and at its junction with Jahangir Street aka Beach Road. That's not quite where the red marker is shown - it's closer to the bus stop just south of Chennai Beach station. Good luck!
LATER: I went back to the Burmese food stalls a couple of weeks later, had another bowl of atho and met up again with Khwaja Mohammed. We spoke briefly - in Hindi. He said all those who worked on the same food stall as him were from families that were forced out of Burma in 1964 (he was very definite about the date) - but they weren't from the same family. He was a Muslim but others on the stall were Hindus and Christians. At home, he said, Tamil, Hindi and Burmese are all spoken.
In total, he said, there were seven Burmese atho stalls in the area. The others are a littlle further north along Jehangir Street/Second Line Beach Road. I found them, also doing good business. At a couple I found young guys working on the stalls with some English - they both explained that their grandfathers were from Burma. Neither spoke any Burmese.
Here are a few pictures of these other stalls.
At the end of a cul-de-sac in the Egmore district of Chennai, there's an imposing century-old building which still serves the purpose for which it was constructed. It's Chennai's Freemasons' Hall.
The masons are, of course, a secret society. But when I sent an email asking if I could have a look around their Chennai HQ, I got a prompt call back saying: sure, come along. I'm not a mason and didn't pretend to be - but I was made very welcome,
The hall is on the banks of the river Cooum - but happily sufficiently far back to be protected from its stench - and is surrounded by trees which prevent a full vista of what is an elegant colonnaded building.
The Freemasons' Hall was opened in 1925. The governor of Madras, Lord Willingdon, had laid the foundation stone a couple of years earlier. But the history of masonic lodges in this part of India stretches back to the 1750s.
An earlier masonic temple in the San Thome district is now - according to S. Muthiah's authoritative and encyclopedic Madras Rediscovered - the office of the Director-General of Police. Some masonic insignia is apparently still visible there.
The Egmore hall is well kept and was being renovated when I visited. I was shown round the three masonic temples on the site - the biggest seats 250 people - and the three dining halls. All the masonic paraphernalia - sashes, aprons, set square, dividers - was on display, but I was asked not to take any photos.
These images of the main hall and temple are taken from a masonic website:
I was told that the Chennai district remains home to about fifty lodges - six following the English constitution, one each in the Scottish and Irish tradition, and the rest falling under the masons' Indian constitution. What's the difference? I don't know.
There are a couple of small masonic halls on the outskirts of Chennai, but this is the main masonic meeting place in the city. There was no sign of women's involvement in freemasonry - all the photos on the website feature men (though remarkably the redoubtable Annie Besant was an active freemason more than a century ago).
When many other institutions dating from the colonial era are struggling to survive, the freemasons seem to be in robust health.
I sometimes get the impression that one of the few factors working to promote urban conservation in India is the glacial functioning of the country's courts. Property disputes can sometimes take a generation to get sorted once there's formal recourse to the law. I don't know the ins-and-outs of the dispute hinted at on the signboard above - but I get the impression that a row over property has had the effect of preserving the property that's being fought over.
This is not Chennai but Bangalore - the other principal city of South India, where I spent the weekend. It's perhaps the most happening city in South Asia - and Richmond Road is about as good an address as you can get in Bangalore. Yet no. 86 is an old, now slightly dilapidated, bungalow which seems strikingly out of place amid the swish high-rise blocks all around.
The style harks back to another era - the 1930s perhaps but it could be earlier. It's not particularly grand or pretty - but very few city centre examples of this humble style of vernacular architecture survive.
I am by no means the first to be attracted to this curious remnant of Bangalore's past. As long ago as 1978 a study of Baungalore's surviving bungalows selected this building as among those deserving of attention and record.
The survey was done by Dr Harimohan Pillai and I have taken the images below from the site of Archi-eStudio:
More than forty years later, what even then was an unlikely survival is still standing - and from the exterior at least, remarkably unchanged.
Syed Iqbal, whose name features above the door of the property, stood for election a couple of years ago - and in the assets declaration he was obliged to submit, the value of 86 Richmond Road was put at (wait for it!) a little more than 460 million rupees (that's about £5 million). That same declaration lists Mr Iqbal's principal occupation as real estate - and he's also an actor. He doesn't live here, however - or at least it wasn't his residential address at the time he was an election candidate.
And S.M. Muneer - the man who put up the 'no trespassers' board? Well, a certain Syed Mohammed Muneer was listed a couple of years ago as a full-time director of Alpine Housing Development Corporation Ltd, based in Bangalore.
Oh. and 86 Richmond Road was listed in 2018 as the HQ of Air Pushpak, which charters private jets on behalf of its clients. 'Air Pushpak charter guarantees your privacy, and we will work closely with your security provider on all aspects of your charter'.
Anyone know any more?
The Great Bombay Circus took down its Big Top in Chennai this week - perhaps for the last time. The circus troupe was established in 1920 - and it seems likely to mark its centenary year by closing altogether.
Circuses around the world are finding it difficult to keep going. India's no exception to that. The ban on the use of many animals has aggravated their difficulties - though two camels still appear in the ring, along with performing dogs (that would cause a riot in some countries!), macaws and cockatoos.
The clowns, jugglers, acrobats and trapeze acts which are now the mainstay of the circus find it difficult to compete with the increasingly VR-aided digital landscape.
I enjoyed my afternoon at the circus. But even the 4pm show on a Saturday - the one you would expect to be the busiest of the week - was well short of full, Many of those attending came bearing cut-out coupons from the newspapers giving them a hefty discount on the entrance price ... though they clearly appreciated the show.
Some of the Great Bombay Circus clowns have been in that role for decades. Alongside them were acrobats from Ethiopia, Nepal and Manipur in north-east India.
The only photography tolerated during performances is on phones - which aren't really up to the difficult lighting conditions. But let me at least share a few images:
Happily there is a much more enticing visual record of the Great Bombay Circus's final rendezvous in Chennai ... the excellent Chennai Photowalk arranged for their members to take photographs inside the arena, and have very generously gifted the circus high quality prints of more than sixty of their best images.
With the permission of Chennai Photowalk - here's a selection of their handiwork ... and you can see the full circus album by clicking on this link:
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