Thursday, August 22, 2013

Happy Birthday, Chennai!

Name: Chennai (Madras)
Date of birth: August 22, 1639
Place of birth: The strip of land where Fort St. George stands today

Well, Chennai is supposed to have been founded on this day in 1639 when a piece of land along the coast was bought by the East India Company from the local chieftain. Acquired with a view to get a foothold in their trading activities, they started building a harbour and a fort here. The construction went on for some years and the fort was ready on 23 April, 1644; a day celebrated as St. George's Day in England in honour of its patron saint. Naturally, the fort was called Fort St. George. Soon, it became a centre of mercantile activity, and settlements developed around it. These settlements were the seeds that grew into what we now know as Chennai. As it enters the 375th year of its existence today, its citizens are throwing a big birthday party for their beloved city. Called "Madras Day", the party goes on for almost a month.

Started in 2004 by a small group of writers, journalists, entrepreneurs and historians, the "Day" consists of a number of events like walks, exhibitions, film shows, online contests, quizzes, bicycle rides and public talks that celebrate the culture, heritage and spirit of Chennai. Many activities in this year's schedule interested me and I participated in one, namely the Fort St. George Heritage Walk. Now, the term "fort" might sound like a misnomer if one goes there expecting the grandeur of some of the best Mughal, Maratha and Rajput forts. Well, the flag post (tallest in the country at 150 ft.) and the moat at the entrance are impressive, but once you step inside, what you see is a cluster of different buildings.

The Cornwallis Cupola is the first thing you notice as you enter. It looks nice and is definitely a photographers' delight. The administrative headquarters of the legislative assembly of Tamil Nadu and the Secretariat are located inside the Fort premises. Many structures are part of military establishment. Then there is St. Mary's Church (built in 1678-1680), the oldest Anglican church in India, Wellesley House, the residence of Robert Clive and the Fort Museum among others. I was there on a Sunday morning, as part of a group led by journalist and publisher Vincent D'Souza. There were not too many people there that day, but I am told the place is bustling with crowds on weekdays...few of them tourists, most visiting the government departments situated inside the Fort. Of course even on a Sunday, the mandatory posse of policemen was there as this is a high security area.

It had rained the previous night when we went there. The streets were punctuated with puddles, but the ancient trees looked fresh and bright. Some of the buildings are maintained well, while some others are dilapidated. Interestingly, some buildings have turned into ruins because of trees growing out of their walls. They must have started as small plants which flourished, eventually eating into the walls. The structures that are still standing are indeed very solid and look good.

We did not enter the church as a service was in progress inside. But we did climb up the wide staircase inside the Clive residence to go up to the wooden-floored banquet hall. It is bare now and one can only imagine the opulence of the banquets that might have been hosted there. The chambers and verandas in this and some of the other buildings have high ceilings supported by tall columns, giving them a stately look. Had to give a miss to the museum as it was not covered in the group's activities for the day, but would like to visit it some other time.

I would think of Fort St. George not as a typical tourist destination, but as a place of interest for those who would like to take a glimpse into the history of Chennai. Meanwhile, the "birthday" celebrations go on. Definitely looking forward to being a part of the events in the future editions of Madras Day!

Thursday, August 8, 2013

A Bridge In A Garden

It is a floral extravaganza. A colourful heaven of natural beauty just an hour away from the bustling metropolis of Paris. We are at Claude Monet's Garden in Giverny. This is where he lived and worked in the later part of his life. A lovely house opening into a wonderful garden. This was built and nurtured by the master himself.

Claude Monet (1840 - 1926), one of the founders of the French impressionist movement, started painting at a time when most artists preferred to paint in a studio. He broke away from this practice by painting outdoors, using Nature itself as his inspiration. This style was called "impressionism", named after his work Impression, soleil levant (Impression, sunrise).  Before his time, it was common for artists to create artworks that were smooth. He began painting with rapid brush strokes. This gave his works their characteristic rough look (when seen from close quarters).

In 1883, he discovered Giverny when the train he was travelling in passed by this little place. Eventually, he moved to Giverny and bought land to build a house and develop a garden. He lived there pretty much for the rest of his life and painted. He painted the same object at different times of the day in different light. So this location not only provided him a comfortable residence, but it also gave him a stimulating environment to work. His property saw some bad times as a result of damage and neglect during the second world war. It was restored over a period of time and thrown open to public. It attracts about 500,000 visitors in the seven months that it is open in a year.

It is a lovely summer day and the gardens are agog with tourists. Many of them are part of groups that have descended from buses, and some like us who have arrived from Paris by train. The green arches lining the path to the house are covered with rose vines. And the whole garden is covered with flowers of different hues.

The house is open, airy and bright, with large windows looking out into the garden. It speaks of the idyllic lifestyle of its residents. All the rooms are done up well, with period furniture and furnishings. The yellow dining room with a huge dining table and the old-fashioned blue kitchen are very warm and inviting. Photography is not permitted in the house, so we do not have any pictures of these charming rooms, but we click to our hearts' content once we are outside in the gardens.

Go to the other side of the road via the tunnel and you find yourself in the water garden.This has been inspired by the Japanese gardens that Monet was familiar with through his collection of prints. This is where the piece de resistance in this complex is located. It is the celebrated green bridge which has been featured in a series of paintings by Monet. It is a small bridge, built across a small pond filled with water lilies. And then there are the weeping willows, and the bamboo grove, more bridges, and of course, the flower beds flaunting blossoms; some rare, some common, but all of them bursting with colour and energy. 

In spite of the presence of hundreds of visitors, the place is serene in its own way. I wonder if it is the collective vitality of all these flowers, the unadulterated natural ambiance, or the wondrous interplay between the water, the flowers, the leaves and the bridges that brings a soothing feel of calm to your senses.


For more information on the garden, check this.

Enjoy some more pictures from the garden and a picture of a painting by Monet from the bridge series.

All photos in the garden by Prateek