Madras to Mumbai

I was conflicted about writing this, because I don’t think people should define themselves so narrowly.  In terms of the “land they sprung from.”  But I cannot deny the fact that such an identity exists.  So I wrote it.  Tried to keep it light.

The psychology of a Matunga Tamil

I grew up in Bombay,” says Gayatri, one half of the Carnatic singing sister duo of Ranjani-Gayatri. “Actually, you should say that I grew up in Matunga, which in many ways is like growing up in an agraharam (an enclave beside a temple, usually occupied by Brahmin priests and their families).”

What is it about Matunga and Chembur that makes these areas a thriving home for south Indian culture?

The sisters grew up in a housing society that was surrounded by four temples. The fabled Sri Shanmukhananda hall was down the hall, figuratively speaking. During Margazhi—15 December-15 January—while the rest of Bombay (now Mumbai) drank bed-tea, Matunga’s citizens would congregate on the streets. Women with dripping wet hair would wait outside housing societies to watch bare-bodied men walking down the street, singing bhajans, clinking kartals (called kinnaram in the south), beating dholaks and tambourines in time to their shaking bellies. “We would circle these mamas (uncles), do namaskaram (prostrate before them) and go in for our morning coffee,” says Gayatri.

Matunga in the 1970s was entirely south Indian. The girls wore long skirts, called pavadai, their oiled, braided hair adorned with flowers. “When I came for college to Chennai, my classmates couldn’t believe that I grew up in Bombay,” says Gayatri. “I told them that Matunga was different.”

Matunga holds a special place in the imagination of south Indians, because it is the land where our relatives went to make their fortune. They left villages with long, syllable-laden names and returned as posh Bombayites. Suryanarayanan became Suri; Ananthapadmanabhan became Padi; Balasubramanian became Balan; and their daughters became Raji Suri, Priya Padi and Vidya Balan. These early south Indians who migrated to Bombay didn’t forget their roots. Rather, they fulfilled their love and longing for their ancestral homeland by duplicating its ecosystem in their new home.

At the Matunga market, women would bargain vigorously in Tamil. “Not just any Tamil but Palakkad Tamil,” says Gayatri. “Pumpkins were referred to as ellevan (white) or mathan (yellow) pushnikai, instead of the traditional way of calling them vellai or manjal pushnikai.”

Among Tamil-Brahmins, Palakkad Iyers form a unique subset. These were people who could trace their roots to the Palakkad pass between Tamil Nadu and Kerala. Palakkad Iyers, or Pattars as they were called, migrated from Tamil Nadu to Kerala, and felt equally at home speaking Malayalam and Tamil. My father is one, and although he spent his career in Madras (now Chennai), he still multiplies in Malayalam. Palakkad Tamil liberally interspersed with Malayalam is pretty much unrecognizable to locals in Chennai.

Each of us has many layers; many personas. There is the global self that is at home in Cuba, Iceland or Japan. There is a world citizen who skiis in Zermatt, Switzerland, scuba-dives in the Great Barrier Reef, Australia, shops in Rue St Honore, Paris, catches a Broadway show in New York, learns tango in Argentina, and drinks sauvignon blanc in New Zealand. Certainly, if you are a reader of this newspaper, you do all these things and more.

Then there is the local self that has to do with family, history, stories and myth. The local self is why we define ourselves as Syrian Christians, Surtis, Bohra Muslims, Parsis, Kamma Naidus, Kulin Kayasthas, Agarwals, Assamese Kalitas, Sindhis or, in my case, a Palakkad Iyer.

The local self has to do with religion and caste, but it goes much deeper than that. It has to do with a small patch of ground from which we have descended—be it Kathiawar, Kanpur, Khajuraho or Karwar. It is the reason we Indians use the word “antecedents” in a meaningful way. It is the reason we have very specific idiosyncrasies and unstated enmities. It is also the reason for our deep-seated superiority complex and insecure chip on the shoulder, for each of us believes that the patch of land we sprung from makes us superior and special in some obscure yet salient way. This is true whether you are a Rajput from Marwar, or a Goan from Colvale. You don’t care about the next province, leave alone the next state. Your insecurities and enmities have to do with your neighbours: people who call the same patch of land by that resonant word—home.

The patch of land that I sprang from plays out in my head in this way. Strip away the politeness; strip away the—sincere, genuine, authentic—belief in plurality, the abhorrence of “narrow domestic walls”; strip away the garden-party persona and pour a few dirty martinis. Then stream some Carnatic instrumental music, if possible violinist T.N. Krishnan’s rendition of Nidhi Sala in that “curly-hair” ragam, Kalyani, from your Dynaudio Xeo 6 speakers. Ask me then who I am and I will tell you, somewhat sheepishly, yet bolstered by the music, that I (like T.N. Krishnan) am a Palakkad Iyer. The music is key; also the martinis. Django Reinhardt or Manitas de Plata will not produce the same answer.

Underneath the “we are all one” persona, I am secretly proud of my roots. I was taught to be. Palakkad Iyers make good “cooks, crooks and civil servants”, said former chief election commissioner T.N. Seshan. To that, he could have added musicians because his clan dominates the arts. Actor Vidya Balan; singers Shankar Mahadevan, Usha Uthup, Bombay Sisters, Hariharan and Ranjani-Gayatri: Palakkad Iyers all. My mother “hails” from Tirunellai, a village near Noorani in the Palakkad district.

Palakkad Iyers believe (as do most ethnic groups in India) that we are better than our neighbours. Our women are beautiful and accomplished; our men are fair and charming. We take pride in our food, our character and culture. When Justice V.R. Krishna Iyer, who is from the same village as my father, died recently, the entire clan mourned his demise. And yes, we drop names in select circles to prove our superiority. This is why India is united—not because we are tolerant, but because we haven’t been able to prove, definitively and without doubt, that As Palakkad Iyers, my family only cared we are better than our neighbours. about proving its superiority to Iyers from Thanjavur, or those pesky Iyengars. If you were a Bengali or Punjabi, we didn’t have a quarrel with you. We would accord you the courtesy of a guest, but you were as foreign as the man from the moon. Our petty hierarchies and feuding quarrels were limited to the neighbours who occupied our land.

One way in which Palakkad Iyers claimed superiority (to other Iyers, let it be said) was through music. The line of musicians who hailed from Palakkad is long. The other was a belief in the curative powers of coconut oil. A third was an affinity for border-dwellers like us.

People who lived in the areas bordering states were intellectually superior, I was told. This is why Dharwad produced exceptional musicians. Living on the border made you mentally nimble. It forced you to square away [off?] different, and sometimes opposing, constructs. It taught you how to settle into a new home but leave your stamp on it. It taught you to bring Madras to Matunga—actually Palakkad to Matunga, but Madras is a better alliteration.


Shoba Narayan’s Tamil when she hangs around her Palakkad cousins is an unrecognizable mishmash of Malayalam, Tamil and a few choice expletives. Write to her at

Evolution of Music

My friend, Chitra Srikrishna and I are doing a music event together on March 14th. Details here. A happy result is that I am reading a lot about Carnatic music. Ranging from Pantula Rama’s book to Sangita Ratnakara to white papers.

Two chance conversations started this. In both cases, the two music lovers were gushing about TM Krishna’s “musical genius” and berating what he was doing with the concert-format. I found the intensity of responses intriguing. And thus began this series of four parts.

Apropos of nothing, just watching an AMAZING Disney film called “African Cats.” Highly highly recommend it.

TM Krishna: Carnatic music’s ‘stunt’ man
TM Krishna’s experimentations with Carnatic music structure have opinionated concert goers, in a lather
Shoba Narayan


Chennai, the city I grew up in and still call home is in the throes of a creative ferment, at least with respect to Carnatic music. This has caused some apoplexy and bile among many keen ‘rasikas’ or lovers of music, who live in homes where even the pillars sing, as an ancient Tamil poem said about the author of the Tamil Ramayan, poet Kamban’s home.

These are homes in the bylanes of T. Nagar and Mylapore where the home-ground Narasu’s coffee (my father drinks it) is piping hot and frothy; where the pichi-jasmine is pink rimmed and smells of a beautiful woman’s hair—the one described in the Sangam Tamil poem “Kongu ther vazhkai anjirai thumbi,” which legions of Chennai’s students memorized from their trusty “Konar notes”; and where Carnatic music is played from dawn to midnight.

Carnatic music, for South Indians is not just music; it is a milieu. It thrives in Chennai where most of the top musicians live, but it has a vast cultural network with tentacles all over India. It draws within its fold the bharatanatyam dancers of Matunga, clad as they are in mustard yellow, parrot green and maroon Chettinad sarees. It includes the maidens of Palghat, Kerala, who step out in the morning with dripping wet tresses tied in a loose knot called the ‘aathu kattu.’ It also includes those Delhi army officers with long names like Lakshminarayanan who settle their stomachs with curd rice and piquant vadu-manga pickle couriered from Thanjavur, after enjoying the single malts in Delhi’s swirling party scene. These are men and women, aunties and uncles who can expound on the difference between the ragas, AnandaBhairavi and Reethigowlai; who can snatch a Saramati ragam (which is how South Indians say it—name first and ‘ragam’ next) from the sound of the waves; and who venerate the musicians of yesteryear like Ramnad Krishnan and Voletti Venkateswarulu. It is these ‘mamas’ and ‘mamis,’ the South’s version of ‘uncle-jis’ and ‘aunty-jis’ who froth at the mouth at certain new developments in Chennai’s cutcheri (concert) circuit.

One of the objects of their ire is a musician-singer named T.M. Krishna and the reason for their sound and the fury has to do with Krishna’s “messing with” the traditional cutcheri paddhati or format. Krishna sings varnams in the middle of a concert, for instance. These fast-paced compositions are typically sung at the beginning of the concert to warm up the voice and energize the audience. Krishna has, on occasion, trailed off after an alapana or flight of musical imagination of a raga. Instead of singing the composition that comes after the improvisation, he has asked his violinist to do the job instead. All this has my uncles and aunts who are rabid, devoted and opinionated concert-goers in all of a lather. I recently attended a family lunch where no one could agree on anything including whether peanuts were appropriate additions for a lemon-rice; or the origins of asafetida (it originated from Afghanistan for the record). But they were united in the condemnation of “modern” musicians who mess with tradition. My eldest aunt shook her handkerchief so vigorously while speaking “on the matter” that the rest of us were doused with the Gokul sandal powder that she spirits into her kerchief. My uncle—her husband—was frothing at the mouth and not because he had slurped a large mouthful of coffee. In fact, my uncle never slurps. He pours the hot coffee straight down his gullet, which has over the years developed a kind of acid coating to all manner of hot fluids going down its centre, tainting neither tumbler nor esophagus as far as I can tell.

In speeches and interviews, Krishna has tried to explain why he is breaking the mold. The cutcheri format as it exists today is less than 100 years old, he correctly says. It was formalized in the 1920s by Ariyakudi Ramanuja Iyengar to follow a standardized format. First, a brisk varnam; then an invocation on Lord Ganesha; then a few fast-paced krithis or songs without the improvisation; then a heavy piece in a ‘ghana’ ragam or weighty ragam like Kambodhi, Kalyani, or Bhairavi. Then the centerpiece of the concert or the RTP– Ragam, Thanam, Pallavi, which is raga improvisation followed by swara-play followed by the song in a ragamalika or garland of ragas; then the virtuoso “thani avarthanam” display by the accompanying drummers; then the lighter fare called ‘thukkada’ which include bhajans, abhangs, padhams, javalis and the like. This is how a typical Carnatic music concert is structured and most concertgoers time their bathroom and bonda breaks to suit this format. In changing this structure, Krishna has derailed the audience; and put a spanner, or in his case, silence in the works of when they go out to stretch their feet and gossip about sabha secretarys.

I too had a similar knee-jerk reaction when Krishna “pulled his stunt,” as some purists might call it, at a Bangalore concert. After shifting the varnam to the middle of the concert, he explained that there was no rule that stated that varnams had to be sung in the beginning; that he was just trying to innovate with the format.

My view, however is different from the average Chennai rasika who views Krishna’s experimentations as being disrespectful of tradition; and altogether too bold, indeed cocky. I think Krishna is right to experiment. I also think he is not bold enough; not imaginative enough. Read on…. Next week…..

Shoba Narayan is practicing pouring green tea down her gullet.

Why we dance?

I have become interested in dancing recently, perhaps because I have been doing it. This November 17th is Pournami or full moon day. Planning a folk dance in my building similar to what is described below.

Add a new ingredient to festivities: dance
Group dances involve community; they involve meeting and dancing face to face
Shoba Narayan

It was at Devi Garh resort in Delwara, Rajasthan, that I got my first inkling of how Indian festivals should be celebrated. I was there in October, during Navratri. My room was on the highest floor. Every night, I could see groups of women dance on the terraces of the village nearby. They were dressed in red and gold and although I could barely hear the music, I could see them dance.

Growing up in Chennai, I had a rather poor view of Hindu festivals, save Deepavali (as Diwali is called in south India). Whether it was Ganesh Chaturthi, Ram Navami, or Karthigai Deepam, the focus was on eating the same old sweets, and visiting the same old neighbours, who you saw everyday anyway. There were long rituals and pujas which, for a child, offered little joy. Now, I realize the key difference between festivals in Tamil Nadu and elsewhere: dance.

In Chennai, we didn’t dance. Not at weddings; and certainly not during festivals. Tamil Nadu has a rich tradition of folk dances but somehow they didn’t happen in an urban setting: not in Chennai where I grew up; not in Coimbatore where my grandparents lived; and not in Salem or Madurai. When we gathered in groups, we mostly gossiped and eyed each other’s jewellery. Dance, we didn’t. I learned Tamil folk dances at school, when we performed them for “Annual Day” celebrations. Kolattam (literally meaning stick-dance) is similar to the dandiya; and kummi or gummi is like the garba. One lovely version is called pinnal kolattam, and it involves intricate steps. Pinnal means braid in Tamil. The women stood in a circle. Long pieces of rope hung from the ceiling. The women held a piece of the rope and danced in a way that the hanging coloured ropes were braided and then unbraided by the end of the dance. But these were dances that I saw on stage, not on the street.

How do Indians celebrate festivals like Dussehra, Deepavali and—just ahead—Christmas? If I had to pick one factor that makes our celebrations distinct from other cultures, it would be dance. I don’t mean the Bollywood remixes that we dance to in nightclubs. I don’t even mean Kathak, Bharatanatyam and other classical dances that energize and elevate our performing arts. I mean local folk dances that are native, unique and regional—whether it is the Assamese bihu; Rajasthan’s ghoomar; Madhya Pradesh’s matki dance with an earthen pot balanced on the head; Maharashtra’s very sexy lavani dance; Manipur’s dhol cholom in which the drum plays a key role; Odisha’s baagh naach which takes its cues from the tiger; Punjab’s kikkli which requires more skill and looks more interesting than the bhangra; and West Bengal’s gambhira, which is performed by Hindus and Muslims, all clad in lungis.

Have these dances disappeared, or are they merely absent in the urban environment? Will they disappear as India rushes towards urbanization and is that a bad thing? I have a theory for why these dances aren’t common in our cities. Group dances involve community; they involve meeting and dancing face to face. That is hard to do for us city-dwellers. This festive season, my building in urban Bangalore decided to do Indian folk dances rather than the usual Western music and beats. Although we chose common and popular ones such as a diya dance for Deepavali and the garba for Navratri, what a challenge it was to pull off. South Indians like me didn’t know the steps intuitively so it involved rehearsals before the big day. Coordinating schedules was a pain. No wonder people send out texts and emails in lieu of greetings. Hugging a friend in person and wishing them is incredibly satisfying but also logistically hard.

Dipping my feet—quite literally—into the folk dances of India taught me many things. Cultures use their bodies differently with music. Discovering why it is a fascinating exercise. Why do the Chinese and Japanese move their bodies slowly to sonorous music and why do the Scots jump, hop and skip? How do circular body movements mutate through countries and cultures. Indians, Africans and Arabs all are masters at whirling round and round, but we each use this movement quite differently. Africans squat slightly and use only the pelvic area. I once watched a dance group perform at MalaMala Game Reserve in South Africa. They were hired from the local village for entertaining tourists. Their pelvic area seemed to have a life of its own, moving faster and faster with the beat. The rest of us tried it but even the trained ballet dancer among us couldn’t do it with any grace. Yet, the African whirl is quite different from the sensual belly-dancing whirl of the Arabs. They both use their hips but differently. Indians whirl too—in Kathak and in folk dances—but our whirls are more like the Sufi dancers and the whirling dervishes of Turkey and through the Silk Route.

This Deepavali season, along with the festivity, there was a bit of soul searching about how to celebrate our Indian festivals. This could well apply to the coming Christmas holiday. Are we going to be more eco-friendly? Are we going to splurge on ourselves or give to charity instead? Are we going to follow our over-the-top instincts that seek to keep up with the Joneses (or Agarwals and Chaddhas) or are we going to introspect a bit? For all those who are doing this, I have one more suggestion and request: dance a little. Not just at nightclubs which is fine and wonderful, but also at home, within your community and your building complexes. It takes a bit of work, but the effects are magical. To dance in a group is to learn how to express and communicate without words. It is joyous and soul-satisfying.

Shoba Narayan is looking to Goa and Kerala to see if there are any folk dances that are suitable for the coming Christmas holiday season.

Chennai’s Punjabi Envy and Puns

The best part of this piece was the punny-funny response I got from a friend in Chennai, which I have appended below after taking out all identifying characters.

He first sent a handwritten note on the computer, complimenting the piece.

To which I replied.
Thanks. Love, love, love (and am quite jealous of) your handwritten note.
Why can’t the iPhone have a stylus?

My Chennai friend’s response:
Alas. Steve Jobs eternal dislike of all things Scully…hence everything that Newton had had to be dropp-ed…..maybe something will get Cook-ed soon?

Made my day!! My husband is a great punster, something which doesn’t fly in our family. I’ve figured out why. You need wit and the ability to connect disparate dots to pun. It has to do with quick-thinking more than intelligence (as a bad punster, I choose to believe that). And what’s the response to a pun? The punster is thrilled with his clever line and the rest of us listeners are pissed off. This was the story of our marriage for a while. It’s taken me this long to figure out the right response to a punster. Offer another pun. They love it and this competitive sport keeps going till someone tires out. Got to write about puns someday. Ok, people if anyone can “up” the response to Steve Jobs-Scully-Newton- and Cook, let’s have it.

Below is the piece. Almost an afterthought.

Sat, Apr 27 2013. 12 09 AM IST

Chennai’s Punjabi envy

Chennai is changing with the city’s old-new layers becoming more visible every day

A mehendi ceremony before a Tamil wedding in Chennai. Photo: Chitra Aiyer
At a recent Chennai wedding, the bride wore white. “Shiva shiva,” said a guest. “What is the world coming to? White is the colour that Hindu widows wear and this young chit of a girl is wearing it on her wedding day.”
The bride also wore a “half-sari” for the engagement; a magenta nine-yards sari for the muhurtham, and a Vera Wangesque white designer gown for the reception. Multiple costume changes are becoming common in Tamil weddings. As are songs and dances.
Put it down to Punjabi envy. One wedding invitation included “Adalum padalum”, a clumsy phrase which literally means “dance and song”, an obvious rip-off of the sangeet. It also formally announced (or warned, depending on how you look at it) that “madhu and panagam”, or “liquor and non-alcoholic drinks”, would be served at the reception, lest the entire elder population leave in a huff. The groom’s party leaving because the proverbial “poli” (sweet) didn’t have “ghee” is a wedding legend, typically done right in the middle of the banana-leaf meal or “saapad”, after dramatically shaking your rice-laden hand over the leaf.
In lieu of the baraat, we have always had the mappillai azhaippu, or “inviting the groom”, with him arriving in an open-topped vintage car, busting his guts and sweating profusely in a tight suit. All these changes are nothing short of a revolution, given that most TamBrahm weddings involve long recitations of mantras that nobody understands, while guests stare at the dais in a heat- and smoke-induced daze.

“Chennai has changed,” says Urmila Sathyanarayana, one of the city’s top Bharatanatyam dancers and my college classmate. Urmila has been performing and teaching for over 17 years. Her dance school, Natya Sankalpa, in the tony Kilpauk Garden area, has 200 students on the rolls. Part of the change is the softening of Chennai’s famously blunt tongue. “When I was learning dance, teachers would say (and this sounds better in Tamil), “You are black (dark), so this costume won’t suit your skin colour. Or they would say, ‘You are fat.’ Nowadays, we don’t talk like that in Chennai. We emphasize the positive.”
As someone who was routinely greeted at family weddings with a “Hey, what happened? You look like a (insert preferred insult, scarecrow being one of them),” I welcome Chennai’s new political correctness.
This old-new layering is more amplified in Chennai because the city has a strong sense of place that almost veers on a cliché. Locals drink “south Indian filter coffee” with milk at home every morning; shop at Ranganathan Street for things that they didn’t know they wanted; visit the Shrine Velankanni church with auspicious turmeric paste on their faces; draw elaborate kolam designs with rice flour on courtyards for decoration and as an offering to ants; prostrate before elders out of respect; and learn traditional Bharatanatyam dance or Carnatic music.

Urmila says that Chennai’s layers are visible every day. “My daughter has a great nightlife. But she also chants slokas at home with my husband. Similarly, her friends are modern young people but they know that we look for rahu kalam and ashtami navami—auspicious hours and times to start anything. So they will say: “Aunty, I am buying a new cellphone. Can you check out that eighth moon thing?”
Lakshmi Venu, vice-president in charge of global business at Sundaram-Clayton Ltd, traverses both these worlds. With her well-cut dresses and stylishly short hair, Venu would fit right into Newbury Street, Boston, where her husband, Rohan Murty, is based. But when in Chennai, she socializes with her school friends from Sishya; talks to her grandmother every day; visits cousins, and laughingly admits to a “family forest, not family tree” of relatives she sees at weddings.
She isn’t unusual among the TamBrahm business families that still rule Chennai, each with a web of cousins and relatives managing different arms. “But the great thing about Chennai is that beyond a point, people don’t care who I am or what I do. People are really genuine in that way,” says Venu. “It may not be the most exciting city for a tourist but it is a great city to call home.”

Chennai is my hometown and I am inordinately, irrationally possessive about this city. Every time I return these days, there is something new; something atypical; something unnerving. The autorickshaw drivers are still rude as I haggle with them in street Tamil (when in doubt, use the swear word savu gracki, whose exact meaning, I confess, I don’t know). But when I ask the autos to take me someplace new, they take me not to a new tiffin-joint but to Toscano and Kryptos. Who eats Greek in Chennai—although I grudgingly grant that it is one cuisine that makes sense in this hot city? The roads are still perfumed with that potent combination of petrol fumes and Madurai jasmine, but now clover-shaped flyovers make the traffic flow better than Bangalore. And who buys the trench-coats from Burberry during the Agni Nakshatiram (fire star)? “The city grows on you,” says N. Kumar, vice-chairman, The Sanmar Group. “Chennai is not hurly-burly like Bombay (Mumbai). People are more relaxed here.”

Relaxed they may be, but Chennaiites are also parochial, somewhat like the American South, sticking to relatives and friends they have known all their life. The city has the third largest population of expats, after Mumbai and Delhi, but expats find it difficult to break in. “My French employee said that it took him six months to make friends in Chennai,” says B. Santhanam, managing director, Saint-Gobain Glass. “But later, he said that he learned Scottish dancing here; went parasailing outside Chennai. There are hidden pockets in the city where the most interesting things happen.”
Interesting is okay; interesting pockets are good. I just hope that they don’t cleave away the Chennai of my childhood. My Chennai.

Shoba Narayan eats badam halwa in Chennai because the heat and sweat take all the pounds off. Or so she’d like to believe.
Also Read | Shoba’s previous Lounge columns

Chennai (again)

Sat, Apr 13 2013. 12 08 AM IST

Chennai’s love for cheesy ‘compliments’
From the Great Chennai Paradox to the American ‘throw ins’—why this love for useless freebies?

Chennai shoppers buy a lot of gold, but a freebie makes them smile. Photo: McKay Savage/Wikimedia Commons
The lady wants a “compliment”. Nay, she insists on it. She has, after all, spent a few million rupees buying gold jewels at Malabar Gold. “Why no compliment?” she asks. The salesman pulls out a logo-ed plastic bag.
“Of course, I will give you a compliment, Mother,” he says. “If not for you, who will I give the compliment to?” He winks.
The sari-clad matron grudgingly accepts the cellophane-wrapped plastic bag. “No calendar?” she asks.
This then is the Great Chennai Paradox. Locals will spend a million bucks on gold and silks. They may even like their purchases. But they won’t truly feel satisfied till they get a cheesy calendar or plastic bag as a “compliment”.
To get a measure of this paradox, you have to begin at Panagal Park in T Nagar, where gold and silk shops spread as far as the eye can see. Named after the “Raja of Panagal” and Thyagaraya Chettiar—early founders of the anti-Brahmin Justice Party, T Nagar and Panagal Park have lost the socialist sentiments and proletarian leanings of the men after whom they were named. Instead, the area has turned into an elite shopping district, dedicated to the spending of moolah rather than upholding Dravidian son-of-the-soil principles. T Nagar is where you go to buy those awful Swarovski-studded Kanjeevarams, sold alongside genuine weaves at Sundari Silks, RmKV (the short acronym no doubt hides a long south Indian name), or Pothys.
Young Chennai eschews these old bastions. No Nalli and Kumaran silks for them and certainly no Rangachari’s, famous for its Sungudi saris—Tamil Nadu’s answer to Bandhini. For a selection of quintessential Tamil Nadu weaves from Arni, Dharmavaram, Chettinad, Madurai and Uraiyur, Rangachari’s is the place to go. The young set frequents boutiques such as Manjal (meaning turmeric) for Chettinad cottons, Sarangi near Loyola College for Ethicus organic saris, Ushas and Shilpi (old favourites still going strong) for dress materials and saris, or Tulsi Silks for wedding saris. Young Chennai doesn’t ask for a discount; and it most definitely does not ask for free “compliments” after buying a `50,000 sari.
Chennai isn’t alone with respect to the “compliment” concept. It may be called by other terms in other Indian cities, but the love of freebies is pan-Indian and perhaps global. Americans ask for “throw ins” when they buy cars. “Why don’t you throw in a car stereo with that BMW?” Travellers ask hotels and airlines for free upgrades—to first class or Club rooms. My grandparents asked for God calendars and bright yellow Leo Coffee cloth bags, which accumulated by the dozen in our dank storeroom.
Why this love for useless freebies? It is not value for money—our tendency to bargain takes care of that. Retail outlets use freebies to attract shoppers. Buy two, get one free—that sort of thing. The “compliment” concept, though, happens after the sale and has little to do with the amount spent. It has to do with customer happiness. An executive may be willing to pay `20,000 for a hotel suite but give him a free bottle of `400 wine and he will feel inordinately pleased.
Comedian Ash Chandler says that countries have tones: Russian sounds threatening; French, indignant; Italian sounds macho; German, precise. As for Indians, he says, we sound like we are negotiating, even when we make a date. “Come early, na? Let’s have a drink before dinner.” We drum down prices and forget the big picture in our hot pursuit of a deal. The sound of India may well be the sound of bargaining.
The sound of negotiation, bargaining, haranguing, call it what you will, rises to a crescendo in Mylapore, the mecca for shopping in old Chennai. Sari-clad matrons with oiled chignons haggle over the jasmine strings they adorn their hair with; they ask for the daily panchangam for free when they buy papad at the Ambika Appalam Depot; they stand in line for a free leaf-cup of sundal (Chennai’s chaat) after buying badam (almond) halwa at The Grand Sweets and Snacks. Mylapore has everything traditional Tamil-Brahmin families need and often their shopping takes a predictable route: ruby-like costume “temple” jewellery at Sukra Jewellery; Carnatic music CDs at Giri Trading; Hindu altar items at Indra Brass Pooja Metal Stores; topped off with a rava-masala dosa on a banana leaf at the Mylai Karpagambal Mess. These shops are a few steps from each other but often, the expedition takes hours because of the amount of back-and-forth bargaining in every shop. “Throw in a free CD,” at Giri Traders. “How about a free beeda (paan)?” at the Mylai Karpagambal Mess, and a free God image at Indra Pooja. If all else fails, we try to sneak in some free air conditioning.
At the Express Avenue mall, Chennai, one day, I ran into my septuagenarian uncle, ambling through its air-conditioned corridors with seven wizened buddies. “Too hot to walk on the beach, so we take our daily evening stroll in here,” he said in explanation. “Free air conditioning”.
They were clad in the Chennai elder uniform: white dhoti, (mis)matched with blazing yellow sneakers and a brown sweater to ward off the “chill” in case the temperature dropped from sweltering to bearable.
“The security guards at the mall hate us because we come in a group and don’t buy a thing,” added my uncle. “I hope they don’t start charging us an entry fee.”
The group cackled and ambled off.
Free air conditioning? Why this love for cheesy freebies?

Shoba Narayan had a drink at the ITC Grand Chola en route to the airport for its “free” air conditioning. Write to her at
Also Read | Shoba’s previous Lounge columns

Cupcakes in Chennai

In the early 1980s, if you said “cupcake” in Chennai, guys would have assumed you were talking about a pretty girl, possibly a voluptuous one—like Helen, Jayamalini or Silk Smitha. As for cups, in my household, they were kept aside for servants who sipped their coffee rather than poured it down their throat without touching the lips using a davara-tumbler.

What’s new in Chennai dining, I ask fashion designer Venkat Nilakantan. “Why don’t you write about all the cupcake bakeries that are sprouting up all over Chennai?” he replies.

Toto, I don’t think we are in Chennai any more. Not my Chennai anyway; the city I knew as Madras. We ate cakes even then, except they were hard and had icing like fresh concrete. We stood in line at McRennett Bakery on Burkit Road in the heart of Thyagaraya Nagar, ignorant of the irony of buying cakes from a fake colonial shop in a street named after a Brit in the heart of traditional T Nagar.

Established in 1903 by the entrepreneurial Maanikkam Pillai, McRennett is as European as Sonia Gandhi is Indian. Pillai realized that he had a better chance of selling his baked goods to his colonial clientele if he had a shop with a pronounceable name. So he wrote down a few European-sounding names on chits and had a child choose one. The child picked McRennett. My brother and I bought their cakes either at the Thousand Lights branch or the Burkit Road one—named after a corporation commissioner in the heart of T Nagar, where we shopped at Nalli, Kumaran, and later, Sundari Silks.


Big bite: Kavita Chesetty, owner of Cupcakes Amore. Nathan G/Mint

Big bite: Kavita Chesetty, owner of Cupcakes Amore. Nathan G/Mint


The old and the new coexist in Chennai today in a way that warms the cockles of its erstwhile inhabitants. Madrasis have turned cosmopolitan but still retain their mordant wit. A typical greeting when you attend a Chennai wedding and one that visiting non-resident Indians (NRIs) are unprepared for is: “How fat you’ve become”, followed by a gentle pat on the beer belly that you—actually—don’t have. 

Mathangi Srinivasamurthy, who runs Chamiers, a boutique and café, is emblematic of the new Chennai. She and her partner, Kiran Rao, also own Amethyst, a beloved Chennai boutique-cum-café. “Chennai people don’t forget their roots even if they add modern layers,” Srinivasamurthy says. “For example, I can dance all night at Dublin to nonsensical rock music and do Vishnu Sahasranamam the next day.”

The difference between Chennai and, say, a Mumbai is that Chennai doesn’t have too many stand-alone bars. When I ask Srinivasamurthy—who openly says that she is divorced and this isn’t taboo in the new Chennai—where she goes to dance, she lists Chipstead at the Taj Coromandel, and the bars at the Somerset and Hyatt Regency Chennai hotels. The only freestanding pub that makes her list is called—weirdly—10 Downing Street. Naming a chain of bars after a prime minister’s residence can happen only in India.

Most people point me to a Facebook page called Chennai Food Guide (CFG) when I ask them for dining suggestions in Chennai. Run by Mohamed Ali M. and Nishanth Radhakrishnan, CFG isn’t exactly unbiased but it comes close. When I asked for their 10 top picks for Chennai dining, CFG’s Ali sent me a list, but he also bcc’ed (blind carbon-copied) the restaurants that were on the list. I know this because several of the restaurants emailed Ali afterwards, thanking him for the inclusion, and asking if I needed more information.

Facebook foodie pages are potent ways to discuss, debate and recommend restaurants, recipes and ingredients. The key is to keep them transparent and egalitarian, something that foodies in Bangalore seems to have done, at least so far. Walking the tightrope between support and sponsorship is hugely difficult for all foodie sites, run as they are on a non-existent or shoestring budget.

So I call CFG’s Ali and have a half-hour chat with him. He wants to organize the world’s largest potluck in Chennai in 2013, and is looking for sponsors to fly the Guinness World Records people in to verify. They’ve organized a lot of events, including a barbeque inside a pool—with knee-deep water, it turns out.

So which are the best restaurants in Chennai? Silk List, an Internet group I belong to, often meets at Azulia, Cascade or 3 Kingdoms for decent food and good beer. Here are CFG’s not-entirely-unbiased recommendations for good food:

• Crimson Chakra, Gandhi Nagar, Adyar (south Indian fusion non-vegetarian/Continental)

• Tuscana, Wallace Garden Road, Nungambakkam (Italian pizzeria)

• Sandy’s Chocolate Laboratory, Wallace Garden Road, Nungambakkam (chocolate/desserts)

• Jakob’s Kitchen, Khader Nawaz Khan (KNK) Road, Nungambakkam (authentic south Indian non-vegetarian)

• Paprika, Courtyard By Marriott Chennai, Anna Salai (Sunday brunch buffet)

• Lotus, The Park, Nungambakkam (authentic Thai)

• Golden Dragon, Taj Coromandel, Nungambakkam (Chinese)

• The Great Kabab Factory, Radisson Blu (north Indian/kebabs)

• Zara, Cathedral Road (Tapas bar)

• Rayar Mess, Mylapore (authentic south Indian tiffin).

As for the cupcakes, there are plenty of choices, many of them made by homemakers. If you have time, you should ask the CFG to recommend homemakers who do customized cupcakes. If you are zipping in for a day without notice and are craving Chennai cupcakes, you would be best served by going to The Cupcake Company, Snowflake Cupcake or Cupcakes Amore in Adyar, where I grew up.

Shoba Narayan loves cupcakes—of the baked, and the big-screen kind. The best Tamil cupcake to her mind was not Silk Smitha but Jayamalini. Write to her at



Enjoyed writing this piece.  Thanks to the Mad Men of Chennai who helped me with this: Venkat, Sunil, Ranvir.  Mucho Gracias!

A space for gender-bending realities

Most sexual minorities yearn for normalcy. Talk to them and they all wish for a family

The Good Life | Shoba Narayan

Posted: Thu, Aug 23 2012. 9:50 PM IST

A beautiful young woman in a pink sari is admiring herself in the mirror. Her name is Deepika and she has been a woman for four years. Before that she was a man. Now, she is part of Chennai’s growing community of transgender women or Aravanis as they are called.

I am at Sahodaran, an MSM (men who have sex with men) intervention centre in Chennai. Its founder, Sunil Menon, a fashion stylist, choreographer and erstwhile cultural anthropologist, speaks with passion and empathy about alternate sexual lives. “People around you pick on you constantly and you end up feeling terrible about yourself. Why do you think there is such a high rate of depression and suicide among MSMs?”

Sahodaran attempts to alleviate these sorrows through its outreach programmes and drop-in centres, where MSMs can meet others like them and “have some jolly-jolly”, as Deepika says.


Step by step: The mood is upbeat at the office of Sahodaran, Chennai. Photo: Nathan G/Mint

Step by step: The mood is upbeat at the office of Sahodaran, Chennai. Photo: Nathan G/Mint


Deepika underwent an operation to have her breasts augmented and a vagina inserted. She lives with friends and learned about Sahodaran through its field officers. I ask how she makes a living. “Sex work,” she says with a disconcerting smile. “I walk on the streets. Men approach me. If they pay me Rs.1,000-2,000, we have sex,” she says in Tamil. Does she like it? She shakes her head, the smile in place, and asks, “What else can I do?” 

Transgenders are the focus of the new HIV/AIDS initiatives in India. At the recent AIDS 2012 conference in Washington, DC, India proudly documented a 56% reduction in the prevalence of the virus over the last decade. Going forward, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) working in this sector are targeting sexual minorities who, along with migrants and truckers, are a core vulnerable group.

Tamil Nadu, along with Maharashtra and West Bengal, has the largest number of community-based organizations (CBOs) working in this sector, according to a 2008 Asia Pacific Coalition on Male Sexual Health (Apcom) report that mapped sexual minorities by geography. Some transgenders are “she-males”, who feel like women inside but do not have the means or money for a sex-change operation. They may wear feminine clothes but retain male sexual parts. They too earn money through prostitution. Homosexual men “specifically ask for she-males”, says Deepika. Many are abused and beaten as they walk home at night. A car full of goons will pull up, drag them in, and do what they will. As Menon says, “There is no redress for sexual harassment against men.”

Deepika is pretty—tall and slim with an hourglass figure. She spends the afternoon in Sahodaran, playing carom, singing and dancing to Tamil film songs. The gold standard for Deepika is Malaika, who calls herself a “big party animal”.

The winner of the 2007 Miss Sahodaran beauty contest, Malaika also represented India at the 2011 Miss International Queen contest in Thailand. She meets people through the Internet and has posted her modelling photos on Facebook.

According to a 2010 United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) report, “the HIV epidemic among MSM and transgender persons…represents a major source of new infections in many countries in Asia and the Pacific”. Organizations such as Sahodaran, Sahodari Foundation (focusing on transgenders and meaning “sister” in Tamil), Solidarity And Action Against The HIV Infection in India (Saathii), Sangama, People Like Us (PLUS), Naz India, Bharosa Trust and The Humsafar Trust, all work at decriminalizing and mainstreaming sexual minorities.

Sahodari plans to hold the country’s first transgender swayamvaram on 28 September. Its founder, Kalki Subramaniam, is looking for a husband too, she says when I phone her. Her voice is male but her photos depict a pretty woman. She wants a husband who is “bold” and unafraid, who can take on society.

Most sexual minorities yearn for normalcy. Talk to them and they all wish for a family; a filmi-style joint family even. They want to cook, clean, take care of in-laws and have children. Their biggest hurdle is societal stigma, because they are so obviously different. What will it take for the general public to accept people with alternative sexual preferences?

As a state, Tamil Nadu is a little better than others, according to Karthik Lakshmanan, a counsellor at Chennai Counselling Services. The state gives voter-ID and ration cards to transgender people. Lakshmanan advocates a quota system, like the “one used for SC/ST people to provide jobs, so that sexual minorities don’t turn to prostitution or begging”.

Sandhya has a job. Clad in a shiny lavender salwar-kameez, with short hair, Sandhya proudly says she eschews “easy money through sex work”, to work at e4e, a business process outsourcing (BPO) firm. “I really fought for this job,” she says, and shows her company badge, which lists her as Santhosh Kumar. “That was before the operation,” she says. Sandhya was the first transgender to work full time at e4e and since her recruitment, other transgenders have also been recruited. When I ask Sandhya why she fought so hard to get a regular job rather than sell her body, she replies softly, “AIDS”.

Companies such as e4e are to be lauded for mainstreaming minorities. They present a potent way to prevent the spread of the HIV/AIDS virus in India. As someone who doesn’t intersect with this world on a regular basis, I am as prejudiced and/or tolerant as the next person. But given India’s commendable success in bringing down the prevalence of the HIV/AIDS virus, mainstreaming sexual minorities will provide a potent push in this area. One way to do this would be to support the NGOs that work in this area. Or appeal to your company to hire sexual minorities. Simpler still is to intersect with sexual minorities; not because they need your help, but because they are interesting.

Shoba Narayan wonders why swayamvarams fell out of fashion. Write to her at

Music and Art

  • Columns
  • Posted: Fri, Mar 30 2012. 9:17 PM IST
‘You have to hold your audience through your ability to elaborate on what you are thinking and playing’

The Good Life | Shoba Narayan

 Artist Sudarshan Shetty and I are sitting on the steps of the Pushya Mahal ghat in Thiruvaiyaru town and chatting. The river Cauvery, so resonant to us south Indians, is flowing in front of us. Flowing is an overstatement. There are islands of sand in between large puddles of water.

Behind us, art collector Lekha Poddar sits on the steps and photographs the scene. Shetty’s wife, Seema, a Bharatanatyam dancer, is beside her. Art critic S. Kalidas is standing nearby. The group has spent the day visiting the nearby temples, including Darasuram, which in my view is one of the best-preserved temples in Tamil Nadu.

Shetty waxes eloquent about the stone carvings in the temple and the fine examples of Chola architecture. “You know what I felt when I saw Darasuram temple?” he asks. “I felt proud. Because it is mine.”


Dual approach: The Festival of Sacred Music is attempting to revive the temple town of Thiruvaiyaru. Photo: C Ganesan

Dual approach: The Festival of Sacred Music is attempting to revive the temple town of Thiruvaiyaru. Photo: C Ganesan


“Ours,” I correct automatically. We smile. The Darasuram temple is as much mine as it is Shetty’s. 

“So what are you looking at these days?” I ask Poddar.

“Indian terracotta,” she replies. Can I print this, I ask, imagining hordes of collectors veering towards terracotta simply because India’s grand dame of art is collecting it. Poddar nods off-handedly. “Sure,” she says. We break off because a woman from Coorg is giving an inspired speech in front of us.

Standing knee-deep in the water and holding aloft a plastic bottle like the Statue of Liberty, or Bharat Mata, she urges the gathered crowd not to pollute the Cauvery.

“I come from Kodagu, where the Cauvery is born,” she says in a choked voice. “So please, don’t pollute this holy river.”

It is about 9pm. We walk up the steps to view the performance behind us. A tall lanky man gives an introduction in a faint Australian accent. Kalidas tells me that he is Devissaro, a classical pianist married to dancer Daksha Sheth. Devissaro has brought Asima, an all-male vocal and percussion troupe from Kerala to perform for the Festival of Sacred Music (2-4 March)—which is the reason we are all there.

Chennai-based Prakriti Foundation holds this festival every year. Friends from Bangalore have driven to Thanjavur. Others fly into Chennai or Trichy and motor down to Thanjavur. Most of us stayed at Hotel Gnanam, comfortable if soulless for Rs1,500 per night. The festival is held in Thiruvaiyaru, a holy town on the banks of the Cauvery where Saint Thyagaraja, one of the “divine trinity” of Carnatic music composers, lived and worked. Every January, thousands of musicians from Chennai, including heavyweights like T.M. Krishna, Bombay Jayashri, Aruna Sairam and Sudha Raghunathan (all of whom have sung at the Festival of Sacred Music, incidentally), gather for the Thyagaraja Aradhana and sing his Pancharatna Kritis in a group.

The Festival of Sacred Music is attempting to revive this temple town through rural tourism. The hope is to bring in more people and offer them music, temples and later, home stays. The audience that evening is both global and local. Delhi-based Michael Pelletier, the minister-counselor for public affairs at the US embassy in Delhi, has come with his wife Sujatha—a Chennai girl whose father, Manohar Devadoss, created wonderful pen-and-ink drawings for his affectionate book on Madurai. There is a tall Dutch man, Robert, who plans to ride to Amsterdam on his Enfield Bullet motorbike; musicians from France, London and Amsterdam; Shetty, Kalidas, and Poddar.

There is a young fashion crowd from Chennai: fashion-show choreographer Sunil Menon; a young model named Sahitya; fashion designers Venkat Nilakantan and Raji Anand, who make us all laugh with their acerbic observations and biting wit, all delivered in superb Chennai Tanglish, now made popular thanks to Kolaveri. There is V. R. Devika, whom we all worship from afar for her knowledge of history and crafts. At the Thanjavur museum, Devika makes the Nataraja statues come alive for us with her tales.

I used to look up to her while at college and here she is now, still clad in her khadi blouses and cotton saris, all bought from craftspeople in Kanchipuram. We take bus rides together, singing Tamil and Hindi songs, through the verdant paddy fields of Thanjavur. We drink at night and relive our college days.

The evening concerts are alive with pretty young local girls in long skirts, braided hair and jasmine flowers. They love Asima’s contemporary rendition of Kabir and Kerala folk songs. It is a nice change from the Carnatic music they are used to. Sitting in the back, Shetty, Kalidas and I are a bit less charitable. We spot mistakes in their sur as they sing the Darbari Kanada.

Earlier that week, Shetty and I had lunch together at GallerySKE in Bangalore.

Shetty’s gallerist, Sunitha Kumar Emmart, had sent over a home-cooked seven-course spread including delicacies like bisibele bhath,jowar rotis, and kosambari.

“Try the rotis,” says Shetty. “Sunitha’s cook does a terrific job.”

Shetty’s father, Adve Vasu Shetty, was an acclaimed Yakshagana artiste who could hold audiences spellbound with his renditions of Vali and Sugreeva. “I find the aesthetic strategies of that form—Yakshagana—compelling,” says Shetty. “You have to hold your audience through your ability to elaborate on what you are thinking and playing.”

In Mumbai, Shetty grew up in a culturally rich, if materially poor household, with visiting Yakshagana musicians and performers who interacted with him and his sisters. When I comment on his fluent Kannada, Shetty says he went to a Kannada-medium school and speaks Konkani with his wife Seema at home. Being poor while young was a gift, he says, because it allowed him to take risks. There was nothing to lose.

Shetty is the second person who has extolled the virtues of being poor while young to me. But money has its uses, he says, because it allows you to dream big.

Shetty’s monumental public installation, Flying Bus, now stands in the Maker Maxity complex at the mouth of the Bandra Kurla Complex in Mumbai. Over lunch, Shetty told me that his father had to confront philosophical questions about Ram’s deceit while killing Vali and make it come alive for his audience. What would Vali think and say, asks Shetty rhetorically. The same could apply to his bus: Why would a flying bus think?

Stuck in traffic, flying buses make eminent sense to Shoba Narayan. Write to her at

Also Read | Shoba’s previous Lounge columns

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