Video – Obsessed with Madras of the 1940s

Video of Lecture hosted by Tamil Heritage trust.

Madras is a relatively new city in India which has many boasting of several thousand years in History. But the events that have happened to shape the city and its people are unique .A chronicler of the city Venkatesh Ramakrishnan speaks on its people, the city and the events that make up its history.

What The Hindu said about the speech  –

Historian Venkatesh Ramakrishnan is obsessed with Madras of the 1940s. So obsessed that he’s writing an entire book on it: 100 chapters in all.

His last big project was built around the Cooum. Ramakrishnan and a band of volunteers spent three years tracing all the historical events linked to the city’s rivers. “This was to generate some respect for the rivers which had become sewers,” he says, adding why he likes picking a theme when it comes to research. “I always like to study specific threads: you get a lot of historical snippets that way. I worked on rivers for a while, then finally ran out of stories on them. Then, I thought, why not look at a decade.”

As far as decades go, the 40s were certainly packed with drama. “The Congress had just resigned. The last phase of the freedom movement was beginning. The World War (Second) had started and there was a scarcity of everything….” he says. In an attempt to encapsulate it all, one line advertises Ramakrishnan’s recent talk at a Tamil Heritage Trust event titled ‘The Fabulous 40s’: “Powerful politics, juicy scandals, splendid debutants, movie moguls, dancing divas and singing sensations crowd this decade.”

Discussing how he excavates information, Ramakrishnan says “I go mainly into biographies of people who lived in the 1940s… They are full of weird interesting snippets.” His fascination with these stories is palpable, and infectious. The talk begins with the big fires of the decade, then rapidly guides the audience through the big events of every year. “In 1942, when Japan declared war, it suddenly came next door to us. With the threat of an attack by the Japanese, the city became lonely, empty and dangerous with mandatory blackouts. About 5 lakh people moved out. Prices dropped in Madras, and rents went up in Kumbakonam!”

He adds with a chuckle, “Every vessel dropping in the house caused a knee-jerk reaction. Every bird in the sky was suspect. People were terrified. One of the first things the Government had to stop was the 4 pm gun that was fired from Fort St George everyday for people to set their clocks.”

It wasn’t all bad for business though. Spencer’s began selling a “blackout kit.” Ramakrishnan points at a slide displaying an advertisement offering hard boards for ₹15 and black paint for ₹2!”

What the Times of India said about the speech – 

Some decades have the dullest assortment of events; others have borne witness to not just interesting events but even occurrences of seismic change.

As far as Chennai, than Madras, is concerned, the 1940s was a ink-guzzling decade that began with a flourish, said novelist and historian Venkatesh Ramakrishnan.

“Superstars were arrested for murder, movie moguls were created, singing demigods were banned from sabhas, girls from Madras became queens elsewhere and sitting judges were arrested for manslaughter,” Ramakrishnan said, speaking on Saturday on the ‘Fabulous 40s: A Decade in Madras History’, as part of the Tamil Heritage Trust’s monthly lecture.

“Lakes were dug, rivers killed, bridges built and art deco buildings crowded the streets,” he said. Of course there was Independence in the 40s too.

Many events of the 40s still control our fate; Hindi was one among them, Ramakrishnan said.

“In 1937, C Rajagopalachari made Hindi compulsory in all 120 Tamil-medium schools in Madras,”he said. “EVR took over the Justice Party. He was looking for an issue and he started his campaign against Hindi. The state erupted like a volcano.”

Afterrepeated letters by governor Erskine to the viceroy, the Hindi decision was revoked, Ramakrishnan said. 

One can never talk about the 40s without speaking of M S Subbulakshmi. “MS escapes from her mother who was pressuring her to be the concubine of a rich landlord. She walks into Sadasivam’s house. But Sadasivam was married with two children. Fortunately or unfortunately, his wife dies of a bite from scorpion. Sadasivam and MS get married. They erect a mandapam in Madurai. It’s still there,” he said.

Ramakrishnan recalled that when Pakistan’s founder Muhammad Ali Jinnah visited Madras, he was taking a train from Arakkonam. 

“He was not well so he was taken to a house on Harrington Road after the train halted at Basin Bridge,” he said. “A crowd of 4,000 waiting at Central station to receive Jinnah didn’t know about this. Mehmudabad, a landlord from north India, was on the same train when it arrived at Central. People mistook him for Jinnah and he was taken to Triplicane in a decorated vehicle!”

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