Priests and congregation at the annual mass at the Armenian church in Chennai, February 2019. Mike Stephan, a prominent member of the Armenian comunity, is on the left and next to him the Jesudian family. The priests are the Very Rev. Fr. Movses Sargsyan, Pastor of the Armenians in India and Rev. Fr. Artsrun
Here's the script for a piece I wrote and recorded for 'From Our Own Correspondent' on BBC Radio 4 and the World Service. The introduction reads: In India there are still a few communities, much diminished in size, whose roots lie in the trading links which came with Empire. Andrew Whitehead has come across one such group in the southern city of Chennai which, for the first time in centuries, is growing in numbers again:
I didn't expect to see a baby in his mother's arms among the congregation. India's Armenian community - once conspicuous in commerce, though always modest in number - has been fading away for many decades. In Chennai, they are barely clinging on.
The city's serene eighteenth-century Armenian church holds just one service a year. It's the oldest church in what was once called Black Town - the place that became home for those not allowed to live in the British fort at the heart of what was then Madras. The place was one of Asia's commanding ports in that earlier era of globalisation and Empire. And the Armenian traders had money - that's reflected in the stylish design of this pocket-sized church, its large grounds, striking plaster cherubs and their bugles, and a separate tower complete with church bells cast in Whitechapel in London’s East End.
Two priests from Kolkata came over for the annual mass - a two-hour flight away, where the Armenian congregation can reach the heady heights of a hundred or more worshippers, at least at Christmas time. The clerics brought with them to Chennai the incense, ornate clerical headgear, capes and crucifix which are such essential parts of Orthodox worship. Even counting well-wishers and the curious - and I suppose I fit both descriptions - the number attending just touched double figures.
So the young family made up I guess a quarter of the congregation. The baby's name is Suren. His father, Kapilan, is an architect – Chennai-born and, he insists, 100% Tamil; his mother Ashkhen, with red hair and pale complexion, describes herself as Armenian through-and-through.
As is often the case with marriages across the frosted boundaries of race, religion, language and nation, there is a heart-warming measure of coincidence in this love story. Kapilan was so often told when a postgraduate student in Canada that his surname, Jesudian, sounded Armenian that his interest in the country was aroused; Ashkhen performed so well in Hindi lessons when she was at school in Armenia that she won a study trip to India, and on her return took on a role promoting links between the two countries.
When Kapilan arrived in Armenia as a tourist, Ashkhen showed him round. "He asked me if Armenia is safe" - she recounts, with feigned shock and amusement. "He's from India - and he asks if my country is safe!" When she was, in turn, invited to Chennai she was wary - "don't think I'm coming there to get married", she insisted. But a day before her return home, they got engaged. A white wedding followed, held in the Armenian capital, Yerevan.
Ashkhen found her first year in Chennai tough. She was hit by South India's ferocious heat and humidity. She missed her family, her language, her food, her favourite kind of coffee. Her husband is a Christian but the services at his Protestant church in Chennai didn't sound - or smell - anything like the orthodox worship she had grown up with.
Over time, she came through and adapted. She started teaching Russian and - with admirable entrepreneurial flair - worked as a business coach, offering Indian businesses advice on branding and on commercial etiquette when dealing with the Russian-speaking world.
That’s just one story. But there are more. Hundreds of Indian students now attend medical schools in Armenia. Ashkhen reckons that sixty or more Armenian women have married trainee doctors and accompanied them back to India. Suren is not the only youngster in Chennai with an Armenian Mum and an Indian Dad.
Not all the young Armenians in India cleave to the church as a marker of their identity – but they do network, and Ashkhen is now the regional coordinator of the India-Armenia friendship group. She’s worried about her son growing up in a culture where inter-racial marriages are still rare, and where anyone with a fair skin is likely to be seen and treated as an outsider. Chennai is no longer the cosmopolitan city it once was - but Ashkhen is determined to – as she put it – make herself comfortable there.
So for the first time in a couple of centuries, the Armenian community in India is growing. "If you want to find the bad things about India, you will", Ashkhen counsels her friends – and her clients. "If you want to find the opportunities for business, you can. There’re plenty."
Then she checks herself - looks at her husband - and declares with a laugh in her voice: "I sound just like one of those Armenian traders who came here back in the 1780s, don't I?"
It's difficult to disagree.
Time's up - my semester teaching at the Asian College of Journalism is over. But before I head back to cold, grey, Brexit-limbo London, here's a few warm memories of the last few days. Thanks guys!
It's an unlikely spot for a statue - tucked away under Chennai's first flyover, in the middle of one of the city's busiest junctions, and all but inaccessible to pedestrians.
But here it is - C.N. Annadurai, the key figure in Dravidian (to put it at its simplest, Tamil pride) politics, sitting lotus style reading a book. Above him the traffic rumbles along the city's principal artery. This was once Mount Road - it now takes Annadurai's name and is known as Anna Salai.
Annadurai was the last chief minister of Madras state and the first of the new state of Tamil Nadu, created in 1969. Less than a month after the renaming of the state, Annadurai died of cancer. He was 59.
Ever since his landmark election victory in 1967, Tamil politics in south India has been dominated by two parties - the DMK and the AIADMK - which both regard Annadurai as their mentor.
Krishna Prasad, a friend and renowned journalist, pointed out this hidden away statue to me, and I captured him on video talking about the man and the memorial to him -
If you are curious, the statue is close to the US Consulate, where Cathedral Road goes under Anna Salai - and when I say it's right in the middle of one of Chennai's busiest traffic intersections, I mean it. Good luck!
The place I stay in Chennai is just a few yards from Murrays Gate Road. Needless to say, there is no gate on Murrays Gate Road. But there is an old gatepost. It's often obscured by the stand of a press wallah (no, not a journalist - a guy who does ironing on the street). But there's still a single, solitary hinge. And if there was a gate attached to the post, it wouldn't be across one of the entrances to the smart houses and blocks of flats along here, but would restrict access to one of the roads on what's now known as Venus Colony.
So was this once 'Murray's Gate'? Well, there's is no conclusive proof - but this may be the last remnant of one of Madras's grander colonial-era houses, the home of a leading British barrister who supported Indian nationalism. More particularly this was where one of the leading poets of the turn of the century - nineteenth-into-twentieth that is - took her own life: Laurence Hope aka Violet Nicolson aka Adela Florence Cory, about whom I have blogged before.
And in a later incarnation this was the home of the Venus film studios, which played a crucial role in the development of Tamil cinema.
So, let's start at the beginning - unconventional as that may now be.
According to S. Muthiah's compendious and authoritative Madras Rediscovered, Murrays Gate Road led from Mowbrays (now TTK) Road to Dunmore House. This was where Leveson Keith Murray lived when he was Collector of Madras between 1822 and 1831.. He was born in Dunmor in Scotland; his father was the Earl of Dunmore and his brother succeeded to the title. Whether Murray had the house built or acquired it, we don't know.
No trace of the house - and, it seems, no picture or drawing of it - survives ... apart, perhaps, for this solitary gatepost. It's not unreasonable to assume that this once marked the entrance to Murray's home, Dunmore House - but it's not proveable beyond reasonable doubt.
By the end of the century, this was the home of Eardley Norton. He was born in India in 1852, educated at Oxford and returned to Madras to practise law in the High Court. Norton was not a conventional servant of Empire. He was a friend of the family which ran the Hindu and for a while wrote a column in the paper under a pseudonym. He was also aligned with the Indian National Congress and was reputed to have solicited the support for the Congress of the radical, atheist and republican MP for Northampton, Charles Bradlaugh.
Eardley rose to the position of Advocate-General of Madras - but his membership of the Imperial Legislative Council was short-lived ... he was obliged to step down after allegations of adultery. A two-volume biography of Norton has recently been published which will no doubt offer chapter and verse.
It seems that Eardley Norton was back in England on a visit when the poet Violet Nicolson - who wrote under the pseudonym of Laurence Hope - stayed here in 1904. Her husband, a retired general, required a routine prostate operation. He died. She was left bereft.
A new book about Hope - or rather the search for her elusive trail - tells us a little more about her stay in Madras. It's called Rapture's Roadway and the author is an Australian writer, Virginia Jealous. She records that Norton noted how the servants were alarmed by the manner in which Hope - after her husband's death - wandered around the grounds at night. 'In the garden, on the bark of many trees, she had written mysterious initials, and the end was terribly painful.'
A few weeks after her husband's death, Laurence Hope died by drinking corrosive poison. It was suicide. Her young son - then in England being cared for by relatives - was left an orphan. I don't believe in ghosts or anything of that sort, but I am tempted to wonder whether on any of my night-time walks around this part of Chennai I have communed with her restless spirit.
The Nicolsons, husband and wife, are buried in the large and haunting overspill cemetery of St Mary's Anglican church on Island, not far from Chennai's Central Station. I visited the grave a year ago, When I went back recently it was once more completely shrouded by grass and shrubs which I had to kick away before taking these photos.
Hope is best known for her beguilingly erotic, orientalist poetry - much of it about suffering, harm and loss. The best known is 'Kashmiri Song' - "pale hands I loved, beside the Shalimar". It was set to music and while now it seems incredibly dated, a century ago this was one of the most popular songs of the era.
She was in many ways a transgressive figure - a woman who loved India, its culture and customs, and initially published as a man presenting her writings as translations from poems written (by others) in Pashto and Persian. Hope's renown as a poet increased in the years after her death - she was one of the best-selling poets of the Edwardian era, and although she was not well regarded by the literary elite, Thomas Hardy was among those who admired her work.
As for Dunmore House, Eardley Norton sold it in 1933 to the Maharajah of Pithapuram. Within another decade, and following another tragic death at this address, he had sold it on; the house was pulled down and much of the site developed with part of it becoming Venus film studios - as S. Muthiah has recorded.
By the early 1990s, the studios had closed and that site too was developed. The area remains known as Venus Colony, and 'Venus' still survives in the names of streets and blocks of flats.
Now most of the first generation of post-Dunmore House properties have themselves given way to newer, bigger buildings.
And as for that gatepost, it's about the last remnant - if remnant it is - of one of colonial Madras's great houses ... and more particularly of a tragic death of a poet who deserves to be remembered.
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!
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.
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