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Chennai celebrates 375 years

Chennai, Aug. 22: Chennai, the city that was once Madras, turned 375 today, marking the occasion with heritage walks, music shows, film screenings, campus carnivals, quiz contests and food festivals in which the government had no role.

Citizens’ groups, historians and music and film buffs organised the celebrations.

Chief minister Jayalalithaa was away in Madurai for a belated felicitation by farmers over a legal victory in the Mullaiperiyar dam dispute with Kerala, which will mean more water for irrigation. The Chennai mayor accompanied Jayalalithaa.

“It is typical of Chennai’s character to get things done by the people who really care for it,” said journalist Vincent D’Souza who, along with historian S. Muthiah and former UN official Sashi Nair, started the Madras Day celebrations.

“For example, the December music season gets organised by the sabhas, which essentially is a coming together of dedicated music lovers. A bunch of ‘Madras lovers’ got together in 2004 to celebrate Madras Day on August 22. It has got etched into the city’s social calendar and even got expanded as Madras Week.”

This year, too, people had started celebrating Madras Week from August 17. The city was renamed Chennai in 1996.

“The (city’s) founding date is considered August 22, 1639. It was then that a sliver of land, where Fort St George stands now, was transacted (sold) to the East India Company by the local Nayak rulers,” said Muthiah, who has authored three books on the city.

“Out of the fort grew settlements. The villages around it were brought together. The old and new towns linked up. Finally, we had the city.”

Chennai celebrates its cultural identity with its “December music season” when over 1,000 Carnatic music concerts are held over two months. The masses have their own music, called Gaana.

“Chennai has its own tradition of folk music called Gaana singing, which is basically death rap and soulful dirges sung in Madras Tamil in the slums of north Chennai during a funeral,” said “Marana Gana” Viji, a Gaana music exponent.

“The singers have no formal training. They create their own lyrics and set their own tunes while singing or lift them from popular Tamil film songs.”

Viji added: “Gradually, Gaana also came to be sung during festivities like weddings — and even birthdays. Tamil cinema then gave it a platform and it got recognised as a popular form of music.”

Historian V. Sriram, the pioneer of heritage walks, has compiled 375 nuggets to celebrate the milestone.

“During our heritage walks, the city threw up interesting facts. Its first industry was actually a tannery set up by Thomas Parry in 1805. And Mark Twain was in Madras for a day.”