Travel Writing

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


  1. Hello Smt. Shoba,

    I enjoyed reading your blog, and it brought back memories of three Palakkad bachelors (all bank workers) living in a small flat in Abu Dhabi during mid 70’s. On one weekend, me in tow with my (late) father, who was an ardent Carnatic music lover, turned up for lunch at their place. My father along with a couple of other seniors were served first, mainly because it was getting late, and also the ‘rummy-session’ going on in one of the other room looked liked it was going to be long drawn.

    When the rest of us eventually got our plates loaded, none of us could really eat the stuff, everything from kootan, avial, rasavangi, rasam, etc., were all salty, too much chili-powder, and double dose any and every ingredients. We know they were very good cooks from past experience, but on this particular day, it was just a matter of kitchen-malfunction – all three were probably chef de cuisine and sous-chef at the same time.

    Those few who ate before us were diplomatic enough to keep mum. When one of them asked my Dad, “Mama, why didn’t you say something about the food?” My Dad responded, “Suttu pottalum pattu varadhu, eppo, samayalukkum adhe gadhi.” Every one drank a lot of water and laughed it off – just a case of bad hair day for the three musketeers of Palakkad who OD’d the cooking.

    I have a question if you can help. I have a concert (digitized from one of my Dad’s spool tapes) of Sri Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer that is labeled “Bombay 1960”. I would like to know where was this held. I ask because I believe, construction of Shamukhananda Hall started in 1960. Towards the end of the concert, Sri SSI had made a comment about how good the acoustics of the hall was, and that microphones were not really needed there. Any idea?

    These are the details written on the tape(s) and it runs into 3 hours and 40 minutes:

    Semmangudi R Srinivasa Iyer – Vocal
    V Thyagarajan – Violin
    Umayalpuram K Sivaraman – Mridangam
    Venue – Bombay (1960)

    1 – Vaataapi Ganapatim Bhajeham – Hamsadhvani – Adi
    2 – Deva Deva Kalayaami – Mayamalavagaula – Rupaka
    3 – Biraanabrovaide – Kalyani – Adi (Tisra)
    4 – Tyaagaraaja Yoga Vaibhavam – Anandabhairavi – Rupaka
    5 – Enta Vedukontu – Sarasvatimanohari – Adi
    6 – Raama Nee Samaanamevaru – Kharaharapriya – Rupaka
    7 – Teliyaleru Raama – Dhenuka – Adi
    8 – Manasu Vishaya Nata – Nattakuranji – Adi
    9 – Maamava Meenaakshi – Varali – Misra Chapu
    10 – Nenarunchinaanu – Malavi – Adi
    11 – RTP – Sankarabharanam – Adi
    12 – Slokam – Ragamalika
    13 – Bhaavayaami Raghuraamam – Ragamalika – Rupaka
    14 – Idadu Padam Tookki – Khamas – Adi
    15 – Tillana – Poornachandrika – Adi
    16 – Neenaamaroopamulaku – Saurashtram – Adi
    17 – Mangalam – Madhyamavati

    Thanks. And, yes, I am a non-Pallakad Iyer


    1. Dear Shri. S. R. Murthy. What a treasure you have! I wish I could help you with the timeline. If it was Chennai, where I grew up, I would have something to say. But Bombay is new to me. Why not upload the concert in Sangeetapriya or one of those music sites. Or here? I would be honored to host Semmangudi.


      1. I came across your (interesting) blog while searching for venues of Carnatic music in Bombay during late 50s. Why the search, because of Sri Semmangudi’s statement about the venue towards the end of the concert.

        By the time I got to the end of your article, I got side-tracked from the article’s title – Madras to Mumbai. It was perhaps the way that it is written that makes a reader think that it’s gotta be written by someone who had to be a born and brought up in Bombay (not many writers can do that), or perhaps Smt. Chitra’s statement “I grew up in Bombay,” got stuck in the head.

        About Sri Semmangudi’s 1960 Bombay concert, I would be more than glad to share it with you. Tell me how (about 200 MB in MP3 format). Do I mail it to via dropbox? I am not very familiar with Sangeetapriya or any other music blog sites (except YouTube).

        The quality of the audio is somewhat poor, could be the original recording itself or perhaps the condition of the tapes in my possession. But that becomes a trivial matter when you hear this great exemplary Vidwan’s rendition – think of the lull after a three-and-a-hour non-stop electrical thunder storm. That is how I felt when his Mangalam came to an end. This tape was given to my father in the 70’s by a certain Balan (V.A.S. Balakrishnan) who worked in Abu Dhabi but lived in Chembur – a Palakkad-Mumbai immigrée no doubt!

        You write very well, and keep pegging at it. I’m still thinking about ‘curly-hair’ ragam which is one my favorite.

        Best wishes,


  2. Hello Shoba
    Interesting blog. I grew up in the mentioned suburbs of Mumbai, went through a convent school and my profession took me around the world.I have always felt that Palakkad Iyers, ( I am one of them) are like the Jews before they homed into Israel. We have started with Palakkad and gone away all over the world, never to come back to “roots” for obvious reasons. The Jews did have and do have some special acumen at things,and from other’s perspective it is my belief that the Palakkad Iyer has some such quality.
    There used to be an old expression ( I do not know if that is valid today) Palakkad Iyers are neither claimed by Tamil Nadu,nor wanted by Kerala. Hence perhaps the geographical spread.

    But one thing that I believe in, is that next to the Maharashtrian Brahmin’s , it is the Palakkad Iyer’s pronunciation of Sanskrit words that seems to sound perfect. One noticeable aspect with Palakkad Iyers is that the “surname” Iyer is retained when living in parts of the country, other than in Kerala and Tamil Nadu. When I came to settle in Chennai, the suffix Iyer just vanished, again for obvious reasons

    R. Shanker


    1. Hello Shankar. I agree with you about the pronunciation. My father still multiplies in Malayalam. He says that Malayalam is closer to Sanskrit than Tamil. Since I read and write Tamil, I can see why it is hard to pronounce some Sanskrit syllables properly. There is just no letter for Kha in Tamil, for instance. Thanks for writing.


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  4. I think you are mistaken. Such identities are flawed, As long as they make you feel good- and cozy- it is fine. But identifying oneself like this is the root cause of all discrimination. This type of thinking is what destroyed so many people and disadvantaged countless.


    1. I agree with you Rama. Thankfully, other than using it for the (very) occasional article, I don’t propagate this view. Like that poet said, we have many layers. We contain ‘multitudes.”


  5. This article really brought back memories, esp as a Chembur native myself. Also Shoba this is a great blog and as a newcomer I am only now (after reading so many posts and arguments back and forth) getting to parse out the immigrant/returnee dilemma.

    However to be honest the Chembur and Matunga I knew have now changed a great deal. I guess in the dark ages (before 1990) the TamBrams walked to temple in dhoti and the girls played pandi in their pavadais.

    I am not sure if the modern global man or woman still defines themselves by an identity from ages ago. So in my case I grew up eating chaat and idli-sambar, in grad school I graduated (heh) to snacks from other places and now I swill wine and munch canapes too. I guess there are many layers. But “who I am” is an incomplete question: “who am I today” is everything, including the wine and cheese, not just what I was in my Bombay years. “Who am I as of 20 years ago” is another thing altogether.

    It’s interesting that those who have forged a more modern identity, mainly through their work, say as a consultant/lawyer/banker whatever, now define themselves more broadly. Some of their wives who perhaps arrived here from Ghatkopar or Gurgaon or Guindy, and did not forge a distinct identity (except as Mrs. So-and-so) probably regress to their Indian identity pretty quick. Working professionally in another land gives one the time and exposure to develop their own identity.

    More interesting, Chembur and Matunga are no longer the wet-in-the-morning pavements redolent of camphor and jasmine. A lot of the old buildings are now demolished and replaced with tall towers that attract Sindhis and Gujratis and Marwaris and just about everyone else who want the location and can afford it.

    I guess Palakkad Iyers are good musicians, but music is not a Palakkad monopoly, and certainly a country as broad and diverse as India has many excellent musicians from many different regions. Regional influence is perhaps necessary (not sure about this) but not sufficient in any sense for musical ability.


    1. Vishesh: welcome!
      I echo your thoughts about identity. But I find the topic about local versus global identity absorbing. And am constantly surprised by how it plays out. As far as the musicianship goes, no question. My claim is a pipe dream. If anything Dharwar can claim to be the seat of Indian music. And no community has a stronghold.


  6. Dear Shobaji
    Other day ie on 18th I attended your program in Unnati. It is wonderful presentation along with equally talented Ms Chitra. It combined music, video and taught a commoner significance of our Ragas and how beautifully they lay foundation for our popular songs in in our day today life.
    In fact, in a brief meeting with you I suggested that you should make a video of the entire program so that it is not only a entertaining video but also a educational material of high value.

    With Best Wishes and Regards
    Prakash H Adnur(IRS) Retd.


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