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 ...
A Russian restaurant! It's not quite what you expect in downtown Chennai ... indeed I can't think of many places (Russia excepted) where you would come across a place advertising traditional Russian food.
The Winter Palace (the name is from the Tsar's old palace in St Petersburg which was stormed by the Bolsheviks in 1917, an event recreated in one of the high points of Soviet cinematography) is just a stroll away from where I and my fellow guest faculty are staying. And it has had good reviews.
So we gave it a go!
The Winter Palace is in the grounds of the Russian Cultural Centre, and the decor has been assembled with some care. It might be identikit Ruski diplomatic design, but there was a certain charm to it.
The menu includes some Russian favourites - borscht is there of course along with various versions of stroganoff - but extends well beyond it. Alcohol is served (but if you order a beer and can't work out why the mug has come and nothing more, do check carefully - there could be a sprinkling of Kingfisher lurking in the depths of the tankard). The service is ... well, well-meaning.
All it lacks is customers.
And the food? Well, on the whole impressive. We all enjoyed our meals - which ranged from steak to pasta, to stroganoff to pork loin. To be honest, it was better than I expected.
I had the pork, advertised as in a French style - which basically meant that there was a bit of melted cheese on top of each piece of loin. It was good, served with freshly-fried potatoes. A decent portion and intelligently cooked.
But alongside the high standard of the cuisine, I need to mention that there were - if you follow my drift - after-effects. You can't be sure about cause and effect, and I might well storm the Winter Palace again ... but Jane's prayers to/for her chicken stroganoff were not fully answered!
Do you recognise this? Then you are clearly of a certain vintage. It's a Uher - a portable (though not very) reel-to-reel audio recorder. And once upon a time BBC radio reporters swore by - or was it swore at - these sturdy monsters.
I came across this splendid specimen at the Asian College of Journalism in Chennai, where I am teaching - about the last place in the world where I would have expected to find one.
When I joined the BBC at the beginning of the 1980s, the Uher was radio standard issue. It used five-inch tape spools, which when you were recording lasted for just fifteen minutes. And if you used the fast forward and rewind buttons too much, your batteries went flat in double quick time.
Uhers were heavy - there must be radio veterans around who still have a sagging shoulder - but they were stout and the sound quality was excellent. What's more, in the pre-digital era when audio editing meant leader tape and razor blades, you could take the tape straight from the Uher to edit. When reel-to-reel began to be replaced by audio cassettes in the mid-1980s, you had dub from cassette to tape for anything but the most basic editing.
Here's A. Kamal, technical director at the college, with the Uher - which he used in journalistic action while covering India's 1971 war with Pakistan. The machine has the dents and scrapes that you would expect of such a war veteran. Once while covering the war, he fell into a stream - he got doused but he managed to keep the Uher out of the water.
Kamal told me that he was working for Indian TV at the time, and some models of Uher were designed to 'sync' audio with pictures recorded separately. At one point, Uhers were also used to record high quality sound for feature films, again using this 'sync' facility.
You are seeing the Uher against the backdrop of the stunningly modern new auditorium at ACJ, designed to allow performers to be heard clearly without the use of microphones. So it's ancient and modern in the same shot.
Uhers sell for hundreds of dollars on eBay but Kamal told me he had just sold this Uher for a single solitary rupee. If you give things away, he said, people feel they have no value.
Happily, the new owner is a Chennai audio buff who collects - maybe hoards is a better word - all sorts of vintage audio equipment. This wonderfully battered old Uher is in safe hands!
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