Bitten by the culture bug

Originally published in India Today

Kapaleshwarar Temple

Peering through the looking glass, half bent and wearing a smile, watching a kaleidoscope of pictures flit across. The bioscope might be an uncomfortable option, but it continues to fascinate even now. Today, if a bioscope of Chennai in all its cultural glory were to be shown, it would definitely include the following, some of Chennai’s known tourist spots, as listed by the Tamil Nadu Tourism Department (TTDC).

“There are several places in Chennai that represent some part of its rich cultural heritage. But if we had to pick five, it would be Fort St. George, the Government Museum, Kapaleeshwarar Temple, Valluvar Kottam and the Marina Beach,” says M. Rajaram, director of tourism. We profile these must-see locations.

As per mythology, when Lord Shiva was talking about something important to his consort Parvati, she was distracted by a peacock. Angered, Shiva turned her into a peahen and banished her to earth.

With rigorous penance and prayers to a Shiva lingam, she is said to have mollified his anger and was brought back to heaven. The Kapaleeshwarar temple, it is believed, was then built on the same location where Parvati did her penance, as a tribute to the Lord.

Set in the heart of Mylapore, the Kabali temple, as it is known colloquially, was originally built by the Pallavas in the eighth century and was later demolished by the Portuguese.

The present temple was rebuilt in the 16th century by the Vijayanagara kings. A magnificent example of Dravidian architecture, the temple’s stately gopuram, with intricate carvings depicting various legends, is one of its main attractions, as is the tank next to it. “The temple is important not just as a monumental heritage but is also representative of community togetherness,” says K.J. Suriyannarayanan, trustee of Namma Mylapore, a group that seeks to improve the environment within the area. “For instance,” says Suriyannarayanan, “on Moharram, Muslims perform their rituals in the temple tank and moreover, small shops around the temple are manned by Muslims. Other than that, the temple also hosts concerts and discourses, making this a major cultural centre in the city.”

Ford St. George

An imposing fortress, with six metre high walls, situated on the seashore, Fort St. George is the British East India Company’s first stronghold of tangible power, built in 1640 AD, to enable a smoother trade route for the Company’s future.

For Chennai, it was where life officially unfolded and the city took shape. “One of the historical forts of India, with the beautiful St. Mary’s Church inside, it also has a museum that houses artifacts belonging to that era. In fact, Robert Clive, a key figure of the East India Company, got married in this very church, the oldest Anglican church in India,” says Rajaram.

The fort, apart from its architectural magnificence, is reminiscent of the British Raj, and also boasts of the tallest flagstaff in India. What was once the very centre of life here, which also subsequently gave birth to the settlement around the fort called George Town, is today the premises for the Tamil Nadu Legislative Assembly and Council, and the offices of the state’s secretariat.

“It’s perhaps the only place where the facades are left largely untouched. Walking through the fort gives you a mental image of what life used to be like back then, and for me, the architecture of the museum building is significant,” says Pradeep Chakravarthy, writer.

Marina Beach

To say that Chennai is synonymous with the Marina beach is probably an underestimation. It is the soul and identity of the city, and at 12 km long, it is also one of the longest beaches in the world. Clear broad stretches of sand, several statues that line the road along the beach, hawkers and short rides for children; the beach is a haven for all, from fitness freaks, cricket fanatics, to young couples seeking privacy and college students looking for an inexpensive haunt. And during summers, it is a respite from the scorching heat.

With a stately lighthouse at the southern end of the beach, Marina is also home to several fishing communities that live along the shore. “The sea and Chennai are intrinsically connected and Marina is certainly equivalent to the Queen’s Necklace in Mumbai,” says cultural activist V.R. Devika.

Government Museum

This is where history comes alive. There are exhibits related to archaeology, anthropology, art, zoology, geology, old coin collections and more illustrating the various aspects of life before technology took centrestage. Said to have been inaugurated in 1851 AD, within the College of Fort St. George, courtesy the proposal submitted by the Madras Literary Society, the Government Museum was later moved to its current location in 1854—the Pantheon Complex. With a public library, the National Art Gallery and a theatre to host shows, the complex was where the British elite congregated. Built in the Indo-Saracenic style of architecture that was in vogue then, the museum exemplifies the style with its huge vaulted roofs, overhanging eaves, prominent towers and minarets.

“The museum was built when Madras was the capital of the Madras Presidency (a province set up by the British that covered most of southern India). So, most of the important archeological discoveries are housed here. For example, the spectacular relics of Buddha unearthed in Amaravathi, that is today in Andhra Pradesh, can be found here,” says Chithra Madhavan, post-doctoral researcher from the Indian Council of Historical Research. “But I think the bronze collection remains unrivalled, especially the bronze statue of Nataraja,” she says.

Valluvar Kottam

He was a nondescript weaver before he attained cult status as Tamil literature’s most celebrated writer. Thiruvalluvar was a poet-saint, renowned for the 1,330 couplets he wrote, divided into 133 chapters, and titled it Thirukkural. Considered one of the sacred texts of Tamil literature, Thirukkural is regarded as the purest expression of human thought.

The Valluvar Kottam, built in 1976, pays tribute to this stalwart of literature. Designed as the replica of the famous chariot of Thiruvarur, this 100 metre high chariot carries a life-size sculpture of the poet (39 metres tall). But Valluvar Kottam also has a massive auditorium, known to be one of the biggest in Asia, which can seat up to 4,000 people.

The speciality of the space is that all the 1,330 verses have been inscribed within the walls of the auditorium. And the auditorium itself is said to be built without the support of pillars, due to its unique grid type roofing.

“Every time one crosses the Valluvar Kottam, it is a reminder of the ancient text—it motivates you to read it, if you have not already. Moreover, it introduces the literature of our past, along with providing recreation,” says noted writer and cinematographer Chezhiyan.

Iris Productions ‐ Lata Menon

For Lata Menon, a student of mass communication from Sophia, Mumbai, filmmaking was a passion. It found an outlet through her company Iris Productions, which she started in 1996, after the birth of her first child. “I was heading the graphics division at Prasad Video, when I got married to Rajiv Menon in 1993,” says Lata.

The husband-wife duo may both be ad filmmakers and have two production houses with different working styles, but their offices are located in the same space. “We have individual clients, and Rajiv and I share a healthy equation. Our office is like an open house, where there are no secrets,” she says.

With her first regional ad for Bru, and then her national campaign for Fiesta condoms, Menon today has close to 100 ads in her kitty. “I came at a time when regional advertising was gaining more importance, so the opportunity was just right. It was the beginning of the endorsements culture,” she says.

The regional ad for Fanta with Simran for instance, was one of Menon’s most popular ads. “My initial years were tough, and once you make a mark for yourself, you need to maintain that standard. The biggest challenge is to recreate a different magic for the same brand. You need to constantly think of new ideas, especially today when we are living in an instant world,” she says.

Apart from working with brands like Britannia, Parle G, Odyssey, Spinz, Tata Indicom and Sharon Plywood, Menon has worked on documentary films and a music video called Valparai Vataparai with Shubha Mudgal. “Ad filmmaking teaches you simplicity, how to be brief and communicate well. I think the strength of my films lies in their pace, sensitivity and vibrancy,” says Menon who soon plans to direct a feature film.


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