Madras 375 – Not out!!!

HappyBD MAdras

I’m not a Madras boy. Not born there.  Didn’t quite spend my formative childhood years there.  Have not worked for long in that city as well. But have been frequenting Madras as a visitor since the late 80’s enough to suffer from “Madrasitis” 🙂  Ergo, as Madras, the oldest city the British built in India celebrated its 375th birthday last week I couldn’t help recount the different vignettes imprinted in me around Madras. I am aware that at best that can only be an inside view of an outsider, nonetheless an honest one I promise.

I have very foggy memories of the first 4-5 years I spent as a child in the 70’s.  So, nothing much really to recall except that we were staying few minutes away from Luz corner at Mylapore which is today stereotyped as the cultural nerve centre of Chennai.  So my account is all from the 2 years I spent in Madras when I worked in the 90’s and the few days I spend on and off every year mostly on business and at times otherwise.

Conservatism was at the heart of Madras. Keeping a low profile, being simple, not showing off and to some extent being subservient were drilled into as essential behavioural requirements for children. This drill over a period of time got into the genes and brought up Madras as a quintessential traditional society. A talented A.R.Rahman or a Superstar Rajinikant or a brilliant Maniratnam all products of this Madras would always be grounded even while flying high in their respective careers.  This conservatism had its share of problems as well.  Bachelors would find it difficult to get accommodation. Survival in Madras for outsiders if you didn’t know the language was a nightmare.  The opening up of the stock market in the 90’s and later the IT boom slowly brought what is today a cosmopolitan cut to the once traditional Madras. But there were other good things which didn’t have to wait for long. The beaches for one.

The Edward Elliot’s beach in Madras just few kilometres away from the more famed Marina beach was not as popular but had a quaint appeal to it.  With not many shops or eateries as it is today, the beach was clean and was a jogger’s delight. The sea with its characteristic rough and not so rough demeanour was inviting to even a diehard hydrophobic. As a child, standing in the water and getting lashed by the waves was an exciting pastime. Little one realized then that it would be the same even when you grew up. The mobile Aavin Van booth at the beach served the best fresh flavoured milk in town then.  The Marina beach ahead had a different flavor. More crowded, more eateries, more noise and more love birds hiding behind boats and under fishing nets only to be discovered by young boys selling ‘Manga Thenga Pattani Sundal’ a unique recipe of Sundal (Peas) generally sold only in the beach. As the evening fades and the dark sets in, the rotating light from the lighthouse gives you the signal to start packing off – and you do so reluctantly only to come again another day.

Moving away from beaches, the next thing which rings in your ear when you think of Madras is its moorings with classical music. Come December and the “Season” arrives with its characteristic charm. For the uninitiated the “Season” here alludes to the ‘Carnatic Music’ season. By the way Madras or today’s Chennai has 3 seasons. – Summer, Hot Summer and Music Season 🙂 🙂  So during this music season Carnatic musicians of all hue descend into the city and spread across 3 weeks play/sing “notes” of their lives in an attempt to get noticed. So much so even if you are a top notch Carnatic musician with acclaim elsewhere, you are a nobody until you have performed in this capital during the “Season” that too in the evening slots. Aspiring musicians pay money to sabhas to earn a slot in the mornings/afternoons just to be a part of the “Season”, I am told. Apart from performances, old mamas mostly and sometimes accompanied by mamis saunter across in the early mornings with mufflers and shawls (the only time in the year when you have to take these wear out in Madras 🙂 ) to different sabhas to understand the nuances of Kalyani Ragam and its variant Yaman Kalyani or other such purists’ lookouts in “lecture and demonstration” sessions.  For lesser mortals there is always the difference between Sada bajji and Mulaga bajji to worry about 🙂 🙂  During the “Season” for many, the filter Kapi (coffee) at the canteen outside is as important as the ‘Kaapi’ raga rendition inside the auditorium. Just cannot afford to miss both.

The filter Kapi brings us to the next attraction of Madras which is the food.  The city is a vegetarian’s paradise. For all those who get carried away by the Idli/Dosa/Vada/ Sambhar dished out at the various so called south Indian joints all over the country, you haven’t tasted the real thing yet if you haven’t tried all these in Ratna Café or Saravana Bhavan or Sangeetha or that Murugan Idli Kadai in Madras. Today joints like Saravana Bhavan are in the forefront of transporting the “Madras culture” to various cities across the globe where our bright IT Engineers are writing codes to glory.

Any talk of “Madras culture” is incomplete without reference to Mylapore located at the heart of the city.  Time permitting, I don’t miss a visit to Mylapore when in Chennai even today.  The long walks to Kapaleeswarar temple via Luz from my house, the compulsory visit to Giri Traders to catch up with latest on classical music, the mandatory check at the Ambika Appalam store for any new item ( 🙂 ), Coffee at Saravana Bhavan and the walk along Nageswara Rao Park smelling the Amrutanjan in the air and shopping at Rex Fashions are things which are etched well in my memory.

As I jog my memory further the other thing I enjoyed in the 2 years I stayed in Madras was catching up with Tamil plays in the weekends. The Mylapore Fine Arts was at walking distance and was popular with all the leading troupes of the day like Crazy Mohan, S.V.Shekhar, Y.G. Mahendran, Poornam Viswanathan,…  I am talking of a time when there were still takers for Drama.

Essay on Madras and no reference to the notorious autowallas??? I am told that “Amma” has been successful in implementing electronic meters in auto rickshaws this year and I hope the system is working. For years, one had to put up with the tyranny of autowallas in Madras. Those days when the train reached Basin Bridge, I used to brace myself for the fight with the autowalla at Madras Central Station. The autowallas knew to outsmart the passengers every time and ask for more. “Konjam Meterukku mela pottu kudunga, Sir” (Sir please pay more than the meter) used to be one jarring line one hated to hear. And the reasons for asking more than the meter were ingenious.  “Sir the destination is very far, Sir the distance is too short, Sir I will have to return empty, Sir you have 3 luggage pieces, Sir there the road is not good, Sir it is raining, Sir there is no light in that area and too dark, Sir the meter is not working, Sir prices have gone up, Sir Naan Pulla Kutti Kaaran (I have children),….!!!”  🙂 🙂 Invariably we were asked to fork out for the ills of everybody else!!! The advent of Call taxis and now the E-meters hopefully have put an end to this Autowalla tyranny.

I can keep writing on many other aspects of “Madrasitis” like the annual test match at Chepauk during Pongal, the influence of Kodambakkam aka films on people, the day long shopping by women for Silk Sarees at Mambalam, Woodlands Drive-in – the Salespeople’s’ adda, the poster culture eulogizing film stars then and politicians now (Witness “Amma” being elevated to a Durga one day Ganga/ Parvathi/Queen Mary/Radha/Kaali/Mother Teresa/,.. some other day in posters and cut-outs plastered all over the city) and so on.

This post has gone too long. But then 375th Birthday for a city doesn’t come every other day. Wishing our very own Madras (I’m not a fan of this changing names of cities when a party comes to power) while being 375 Not out many more runs and a long,…. innings!!!

Postscript:  People in Madras are known for their tongue ’n cheek wit and humour. This is one sample:

James Bond comes out of British Airways at Chennai, goes to his waiting driver and says “I’m Bond, James Bond. James to you”.

For which the driver replies “I’m Subramaniam, Bala Subramaniam. Balls to you…”

🙂 🙂 🙂

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Celebrating India’s (food) festivals!!!

It’s that time of the year in India. The scorching heat of the summer is behind us and the monsoon wherever applicable is in its last lap. Come August and the general mood in the country changes in line with the changing weather.  Though we don’t have a pleasant spring as a season in India (except may be Kashmir), in this time of the year, there is a spring in everyone’s feet.  Starting with Id and then the Rakshabandan it’s an avalanche of festivals in India from August till Feb next year.  One can see this festival spirit manifesting itself in the media, in streets, in shopping malls and where have you. What I have noticed in the last many years is that irrespective of the state of the economy, the mood of the people in this period is in a state of buoyancy.  Then it dawned on me that the day-today lives of millions of people is also linked to the economics of festivals – the increased spending on clothes, on festivities, religious ceremonies, investment in real estate, starting of new businesses, renovation/painting of homes, feasting on food,…,… So festive season is one happy season for all.

The difference is while most of the countries in the East and West and the Middle have just one or two important festivals in a year, we in India are blessed with many. Thanks to the number of Gods we Hindus subscribe to. This is one thing in which we are clearly the envy of many countries.  And thanks to our regional identities, we don’t have the concept of one important Pan – Indian festival which we all celebrate but many. If it is Diwali in the North, it is Durga Pujo in Bengal, Onam in Kerala and so on. In my earlier company, my Japanese friends were bemused and amused to see different holiday lists for our different branch offices.

In all this, one thing which cannot be missed is the connect between the Pet (stomach) and Pooja.  It is interesting to note that just like each festival has its own link with a God, it also has associated unique food items going with it 🙂 These are supposedly meant for offering to God which eventually ofcourse find its way to our stomachs. So if it is Kozhakattai (Modak) for Ganesh Chaturthi, it is Appam, Cheedai for Krishna Jayanti, Pori Urundai for Kaarthigai, Different types of Sundal for Navrathri, and so on. So much so for many years I didn’t know why Kaarthigai was celebrated but knew that Karthigai means Pori Urundai 🙂 🙂    In fact celebration of Onam festival is never complete without the traditional “Ona Sadhya” which with its array of dishes on the plate or rather leaf challenges the digestive ability of many a stomach of this generation.

Sadya

One really wonders how our elders came up with this timetable of different dishes for different festivals. Safely I inclined to conclude that they saw themselves in God and came up with things what they liked depending upon the season.

This brings me to the old or rather our youth times when at home the mother gets extremely busy during festival times trying to do justice to the “Naivedyam”(Food offering) specifications for each festival by preparing all at home.  The preparations usually start 1 or 2 days in advance. Keeping the prepared items from our prying eyes or rather mouth till the Pooja / Naivedyam are over was always a mission unaccomplished for the mother 🙂 🙂  The festival times also provided opportunities to showcase their culinary skills to friends and neighbours by distributing the home-made stuff and earn ‘likes’ in a pre-Facebook time.  Among the neighbourhood, it was always few mamis’ stuff apart from our mother’s which were in demand. I vividly remember in the 9 days of Navrathri the houses we choose to visit depends upon the cooking skills of the mamis 🙂 🙂

These days the mothers have different challenges. Since the entire process of preparing appropriate dishes for festivals has been “Adayared” (If outsourcing and losing of jobs to Bangalore is called “Bangalored” then outsourcing of the preparation of food items to ‘Adayar Ananda Bhavan’ is called” Adayared”!!!), knowing where to outsource/source what for different festivals is the biggest challenge.  At home, we as children displayed humongous appetite to polish off things prepared in quick time. These days the children have little interest and less appetite to gorge on the different offerings which come along free with festivals.  So gradually the linkage between pet and pooja is gradually dwindling I guess.

Today is Krishna Jayanti. Time to wind this up and time to finish the Pooja of Lord Bal Krishna, do Naivedyam and then launch into next Pooja i.e Pet Pooja 🙂 🙂

Postscript:  While we were discussing about Gokulashtami,… this morning, my 7 year old daughter asked her mom, “Even after eating so much butter, how is Krishna not fat???”  For GenY, Pet poojas can wait I guess.

Stir up to Sell – The New Mantra(d)!!!

 I don’t recall many ads in the recent past which have kicked off such a huge debate as the new Airtel ad which went on air last week.  If you are one to miss that, do watch it here.  Twitterati is divided in the middle as to if the ad is reinforcing male/female stereotypes or breaking. Or for that matter if the ad is trying hard to be feminist when it is not and so on. As is the wont these days, when social media buzzes on something, can the main stream media be left far behind?? I must have pored into atleast 10 columns trashing or eulogizing the ad.

This is one interesting debate on TV !!!

While the ad breaks new ground in showing a successful woman who is giving stern work instructions to her male subordinate in the 1st half, in the second half, the same lady is shown as a better half cooking dinner for her husband who is incidentally the same subordinate at office. The common critical take in the social media is questioning this apparent stereotyping of women – as submissive where the lady inspite of being a successful career woman has to don the dutiful wife role at home and cook food.  Coming on the heels of the now famous quote of Indra Nooyi that “Women can’t have it all” the response to this ad has been pretty predictable. Somehow the narrative of a successful career woman but cooking food for her partner at home has not been consumed well.

airtel ad

In all this debate on the ad what is being missed according to me is the strategy behind the narrative of the ad itself. Which is, to take a contrarian position, stir up a storm and be top of the mind for a good few days there by get more bang for the buck spent. And this trend in advertising has not started with this Airtel ad. This goes back quite a few years. In the past marketers were more circumspect in adopting this “Stirring up a storm” strategy to sell their products. So you saw this once in a while like the Liril waterfall ad of yore or the ad for Tuff Shoes where the models Milind Soman and Madhu Sapre were wearing just a snake and so on,..

But oflate, I guess marketers and their advertising counterparts have become more belligerent in adopting this strategy to hawk their wares and get their space under the Sun.  So we now get see more and more ads which go against established stereotypes.  As per me, in Indian advertising Balki of Lowe and his team has been one who have used this quite effectively and often. The Havells ads for fans usually go against the grain. Same for some of the “What an Idea, Sirji” commercials for Idea Cellular.  The Jaago Re campaign for Tata Tea also I would say fall in this category of ads.

Few months back, Tanishq the jewellery brand from Tata kicked off debate and interesting conversations in the media with their ad celebrating remarriage of a woman. Watch it here. Again clearly a story which charts new territory, (shows a dusky bride, bride walks along with a small girl to the mandap, the girl is her daughter, the groom carries the small girl along while doing the pheras,…)  sparks a huge debate and eventually garners a lot more interest for the brand. (Incidentally Lowe has been the agency behind all these campaigns!!!)

This recent ad for Brooke Bond Red label tea by Ogilvy India is another example of going against the tide to garner attention. The Hindu-Muslim plot (normally avoided in commercials) in the story is the new twist. There is always this threat of a strong over powering story shadowing the brand itself in ads. Like in this case while I remembered that it was a tea ad, had to drink few cups and wake myself up to recall the brand 😦 😦  This happens.

Recently, the series of ads for Kaun Banega Crorepati  (KBC) by Leo Burnett India have also been treading this path and have met with a lot of keen interest. The two spots I saw (see here and here) as part of the campaign shatter established stereotypes.  Not that great ads are required to evince interest in a successful show like KBC with Amitabh Bachchan as the anchor. But I guess they also have to sustain the interest after so many seasons.

Coming back to the Airtel Ad conceived by the agency Taproot India, my own view is that it is a sweet ad, executed very well. There is nothing in the ad which goes against woman as the social media debates make us to believe. As per me, there is nothing regressive in a woman cooking and as long as she wants to cook a nice meal and enjoys what she does (like it is shown in this TVC) to demonstrate her love to her hubby, there is nothing wrong.  Same is true if its vice versa – husband cooking at home.  I have to allude here to my earlier post – By hook or Cook!! here 🙂 🙂

So want your ads to work big time?  Take a contrarian position, stir up a storm and the idle armchair minds in the social media (me included) will debate and do the needful for you. As far your brand, with all the unpaid buzz around the ad, will laugh its way to the coffers.  That’s some home cooked food for thought 🙂 🙂 🙂

P.S: Now, only if Airtel can make their network as effective as their ads 😦 😦