Thanks to the pandemic, you and your backpack have been homebound more than ever. It’s a good time to turn to a book that hasn’t been shrunk to a portable paperback. You can browse at leisure, see pictures and read text in multiple fonts – on that unmistakable habitat called Chennai.
Artist Manohar Devadoss’s drawings are detailed to match the architectural notes of Sujatha Shankar. These are meticulously crafted images and researched text. That should be enough for an authentic book on any place but the authors don’t stop here. Word and image complement each other in more ways than one – the writer designs and the artist writes.
To Shankar’s description, Devadoss adds his personal take on the site, suitably typeset in handwritten font. Shankar’s preface is in yet another font in full flourish. It is to collect such calligraphy that Devadoss first visited the city in 1957. He came from Madurai to Madras University to pick up his degree certificate, a document that was handcrafted back then in style.
He returned next year to work as a chemist in Oldham Company, married and stayed on. He had the urge to doodle and the city had a range of masonry to offer, from Pandian to Portuguese styles. He made pen-and-ink studies and gifted the drawings to friends, colleagues and some special ones to wife Mahema. The couple sent out sketches as greeting cards on Christmas and New Year.
Shankar noticed these year-end cards in 1980s and as an architect keen on heritage traced down the couple. From a western Indian family that migrated 400 years ago, she was more of an insider than Devadoss and quite uneasy with Madras renamed Chennai. Fewer old timers were calling it patanam. Much that was old and dear was in danger of disappearing unless stopped. It is quite unsurprising then that the architect and the artist got together to document this book-length project.
Right from the cover in inverted black-and-white, a key image of conservation hits you – the Bharat Insurance Corporation building on Anna Salai. It is a story of triumph over its own celebrated successor. For those familiar with vintage Tamil cinema, the stock shot that established the city on screen was the Life Insurance Corporation, the country’s tallest building when it came up in 1959. The insurance major wanted the older insurance building demolished. After a long court battle, the skyscraper lost out on two counts. The court as well as our chroniclers favoured heritage over high rise.
Of course, there are no sky-scrapers in this collection. Through the 60 drawings done over many years of battling failing vision, Devadoss acknowledges the vertical only once. In the sketch of the Spencer building destroyed in a fire, you can see the cursory signs of the tall structure coming up as replacement.
A glaring miss, however, is the music scene of Madras. There is no sign of even the venerable Music Academy. Devadoss, though, makes up by signing off like a Carnatic maestro with a portrait of MS Subbulakshmi on the last page. It wouldn’t have been a better valedictory invocation.