For as long as I can remember, the walls abutting the streets of my beloved Madras have been a canvas, a battleground, for all manner of posters, paintings and graffiti. Depending on my inclination and mood for the moment, I viewed those walls as riotously colorful, madly imaginative,often hilarious representations of the city's political and entertainment landscape, or as messy, garish, tasteless eyesores that defaced every inch of blank wall space. One look at those walls, and you got an instant picture - literally - of who was in power, and who was vying for it, with political party members and supporters falling over themselves to outdo one another in their fawning, often ridiculous depictions of their political leaders. Come election time, the poster madness rose to a fever-pitched frenzy, and they were often the only means by which many of the city's residents were made aware of who the candidates were, and what party they represented. Movie stars, gods and goddesses, mythological demons and revered, long-dead heroes of yore, all made their appearance on the walls of Madras, taking these already larger-than-life candidates into the glorified realms of the divine, the super-hero and the noble, or the vile, despicable and beastly. In America, television is the primary medium for election campaigning. In Madras, it was the walls.
Madras, April 2010
Then there were the movie posters, many that bordered on the obscene, with buxom, doe-eyed heroines with outlandish monikers like Silk Smitha (she of the Thundering Thighs), Nylon Nalini, Polyester Padmini and poor, plain Cotton Kamakshi. Cutouts, some almost as high as a hundred feet, soared to the skies with movie heroes and political leaders (always only the ones in power) swaying precariously from their perches, a perfect symbol of their unstable, hanging-by-a-thread status. Pimples? Piles? Fistula? Sleeplessness? Toothache? The walls of Madras pointed you to the people who could help. And there was the ubiquitous P. James, Magician, whose simple graffiti-type advertisements covered the walls of every neighborhood of Madras.
But no more. The Chennai Corporation has decreed that most wall paintings and posters are illegal. It has a dream, a vision, a goal. It wants Madras - Chennai - to acquire the status of an "international" city (whatever that means), to be elevated to the pantheon of great world cities like Singapore and Bangkok. Personally, I'd take Madras any day, posters, graffiti, hoardings and all, over Singapore, but I'm not the Chennai Corporation, and have no say in the matter. To become an "international" city, Chennai needs to be beautified, (clearly the monstrous buildings that are popping up everywhere, and the heritage buildings that are being torn down without heed are not part of this scheme) and one of the steps that has been taken towards this end is to paint many stretches of its walls with scenes depicting Tamil culture, traditions, tourist sights, and scenery. And perhaps the authorities are hopeful that the citizens of Madras, enchanted by the artwork on the walls, will stop their habit of "making nuisance" on them. It's good to dream, to have a vision, a goal.
I was in Madras just last week. Braving the blazing heat, mad traffic, stench of urine, gawking pedestrians and shop keepers, incredulous drivers and cyclists - and heartened by the cheerful willingness of so many people to have their photographs taken, and most of all, by the kindness of an elaneer vendor, who, seeing that I wanted to photograph his coconuts, removed the tarpaulin with which he had covered them, dusted them off and rearranged a few errant ones with a sense of pride and care that brought a lump to my throat, I walked along a stretch of wall near my parent's home to see for myself what this beautification project was all about.
The first stretch of beautified wall I observed was painted with scenes of nature. These were tableaux that would certainly not be encountered anywhere in India, as there was not a single person in any of them. Who knows what flights of fancy overtook the painter as he created those fantastic landscapes of soaring mountains and still lakes, leaping dolphins and a rainbow that straddled the sea, beach and mountains. There was a forest aflame with the scarlet, yellow and red colors of fall, and a hemispheric view of planet Earth set against a blue sky with a glowing moon and twinkling stars. Juxtaposed against the chaos of traffic and busy street vendors, the bustling early-morning rituals of water-gathering and temple-going, they made for strange viewing.
A little further on, the wall depicted a series of scenes from the Tamil epic, the Silappathikaram, or the Epic of the Ankle Bracelet. This, one of the most cherished and well-known works of Tamil literature, was written between 1300 and 1700 years ago, during the great epoch of the Third Sangam. Ancient Tamil literature is said to have been composed during three periods, each of which had what was called a Sangam, or Academy of poets, consisting of gods, sages, kings, and men and women from a range of professions and classes of society. Most of the literature of the earlier Sangam periods is lost, but a fair amount has survived from the third Sangam, which lasted for 1850 years and ended in the 3rd century AD.
The Silappathikaram is believed to have been written by Ilango Adigal, a Jaina monk who was the younger brother of the Chera king Senguttavan. It weaves its story with a lovely blend of poetry, prose and song, and is an invaluable source of information about the daily life, customs, arts, religious life, philosophy and politics of the Chera, Chola and Pandya kingdoms of antiquity. Unlike many other Indian epics, it is primarily about human beings - kings, traders, courtesans, lovers, thieves, drunkards, shamans, their lives, their loves, their strengths, their weaknesses, their rituals and festivals, their cities and countryside. It was written in a high form of Tamil (called Shen Tamil) that is beyond the common man, and so, in order to make it more accessible to the general public, movie and television versions of it were produced for mass consumption. One of the movie versions was written by Tamil Nadu's current Chief Minister, M. Karunanidhi. Almost every school child in Tamil Nadu is taught the story in school at a very early age.
Here I must hang my head in shame and confess that I had not heard about the Silappathikaram until my second year of college when, defying the conventional and years-old practice of staging English or American plays, the dramatics department decided to put up a Bharata Natyam-based version of the story. I had studied in missionary schools for most of my school and college years, and while there is much to be said in favor of these institutions (among which is the prized "convent accent", a much-valued commodity in the marriage market), I think they did an abysmal job in teaching and enlightening Indian children about the literature and mythology of their own heritage, educating them instead on the wonders of Greek and Roman mythology, Shakespeare, Keats, Wordsworth and Austen. I love what I learned, and am grateful to have been exposed to the great literature and mythology of other cultures, but it was at the expense of large gaps in my knowledge about Kalidasa and Thiruvalluvar, Tagore, Kamban, Kabir and Surdas.
So, it was while learning and performing the role of a minor court dancer in my college production of Silappathikaram, that I became acquainted with the story of Kannagi, Kovalan and Madhavi, and their adventures in the lands of the Chera, Chola and Pandya, about the inescapable inevitability of Fate, the power wielded by a woman of unimpeachable chastity, the ways and workings of Justice.And now, here I was in front of a wall in Madras, encountering the story again after three decades, in a completely new form and medium. I was delighted to see that I could easily follow the story, painted on nineteen different "panels" of the wall. Here is the story, as told by the wall.
In the great coastal Chola city of Poompuhar, ruled by the wise, tolerant and just King Karikala, there lived a young man, Kovalan, and a young woman, Kannagi. Kovalan, the son of a wealthy and pious merchant, was believed by the besotted young girls of the land to be no less than an incarnation of "Murugan, god of Youth and Beauty". And Kannagi, with the grace of a golden liana, virtuous, as beautiful as goddess Lakshmi, gleamed like " a tiny star in the constellation of the Seven Sages". They were the perfect match for each other, and on an auspicious day, blessed by the gods and their parents, they got married in a beautiful ceremony.
One day, Kannagi and Kovalan attended the dance of a court dancer named Madhavi. Deer-eyed, flower-scented, graceful, enchanting, beautiful. Kovalan was smitten. He forgot his wife, their love and joy, all they had going for them, and abandoned himself to the charms of the courtesan. Kannagi, oppressed with grief, shed all her ornaments, the flowers, the vermilion powder, the jewels, the make-up. Only her radiant beauty adorned her.
Kovalan lived in a rapture of love with Madhavi. They sang songs - about the great river Kaveri, about fairies, lovers, Puhar, the Sea God. Eventually, Kovalan tired of Madhavi, realized that his behavior to his beautiful, faithful wife had been deplorable, and returned to Kannagi who welcomed him back with joy and open arms.
Kovalan had squandered all his money on Madhavi. He and Kannagi were now virtually penniless. All they had was a pair of golden anklets that belonged to Kannagi. He promised her that he would make amends, that they would make a fresh start in the great Pandyan city of Madurai. They set out, guided by a female Jaina monk, on a long and arduous journey on foot.
the darkness of the night, they left,
impelled by fate that had devised
for ages past their final destiny".
At last they reached the outskirts of Madurai. Kovalan entered the city alone, taking with him one of Kannagi's beautifully chiseled golden anklets that were adorned with rare rubies and diamonds. He thought he would sell this anklet, and start a new business with the money. Walking through the bazaar, he saw a goldsmith, and asked him to estimate the value of the bracelet. The goldsmith, a man with "the face of Death's messenger" was a lowly thief, a perfidious scoundrel who had stolen the anklets belonging to the queen. Seeing Kovalan's anklet, which looked exactly like that of the queen's, this hardhearted villain thought, " Before anyone discovers that it was I who stole the [queen's] anklet, I shall accuse this foreigner before the king".
Asking the unsuspecting Kovalan to wait, the evil goldsmith went to the king, (who was himself in the bad books of his queen because of his unseemly interest in his court's pretty dancers) and told him that he had found the man who had stolen the queen's anklet, "using the power of magic words". The king, eager to please his queen by restoring her anklet to her and punishing the man who stole it, ordered the goldsmith to have the thief killed by his guards, without even calling for an inquiry. He told the goldsmith, "Should you find, in the hands of a most clever thief, an anklet ornament resembling a wreath of flowers, which belongs to my consort, put the man to death and bring me the bracelet."
The criminal goldsmith convinced the king's guards to discard their scruples and kill Kovalan. Listening to his words, one of the hangmen said, "The deeds of thieves are amazing. If we do not obey the king, we shall surely be in trouble. Brave soldiers, let's do our duty."
The guard killed Kovalan with his sword. "Blood gushing from the wound fell upon the Earth...and she shuddered with grief. Defeated by his fate, Kovalan fell, and the virtuous scepter of the Pandyas was bent".
Meanwhile, Kannagi had been waiting for Kovalan by the banks of the Vaigai river. As time passed and he did not return, worry began to oppress her, and she asked the cowgirls who were bathing in the river, "My lord has not yet returned. I fear he may be in danger.....Tell me what people who live in your city, strangers to me, have said." The cowgirls then told her that her husband had been accused of stealing an anklet, and killed. Delirious with grief, Kannagi wandered through Madurai, lamenting her fate. She found the body of her husband lying in a pool of blood and fell to the ground, weeping and moaning.
Wild with sorrow and anger, Kannagi strode to the palace of the king who had so unjustly called for the death of her husband. Clutching at her other anklet, she demanded to the guard that she be allowed to see the king. The guard told the king, "A woman is waiting at the gate......She seems filled with a mad fury, suffused with rage. She has lost someone dear to her and stands at the gate clasping an anklet bracelet of gold in her hands." The king asked for her to be let in.
Kannagi strode through the palace to the room where the king sat, with his queen.
Standing before the king and queen, Kannagi spoke sharply to them. "Inconsiderate king! I have much to say....A man named Kovalan....entered your city, with ringing anklets, expecting to earn a living. When he tried to sell my anklet bracelet, he was murdered. I am his wife. My name is Kannagi."
Kannagi told the king that her anklet had been filled with precious stones, rubies. "Woman," the king answered, "what you have said is pertinent. For ours was filled, not with gems, but with pearls."
Kannagi broke her anklet open. "A gem sprang up into the king's face. When he saw the stone, he faltered. He felt his parasol fallen, his scepter, bent."
The king cried out in his shame and sorrow, "Is it right for a king to act upon the words of a miserable goldsmith? I am the thief. For the first time, I have failed in my duty as protector of the southern kingdom. No way is left to me save to give up my life." Having spoken, the king swooned. His queen, trembling, fell near him.
Kannagi then left the king's palace. She strode through the streets of Madurai, wild, disheveled, and lay a curse upon the city. She twisted and tore off her left breast and flung it to the ground. And there appeared before her the God of Fire, and she ordered him to extinguish the city, sparing only the Brahmins, good men, cows, truthful women, cripples, old men and children. And the great city of Madurai was engulfed in flames and smoke.
Kannagi, delirious and distraught, wandered west towards the lands of the Cheras. She was swept up by a heavenly chariot driven by her husband Kovalan, and they both ascended to the heavens together.
So there it was, a retelling of the great epic Silappathikaram, a tale of Kannagi, Kovalan and Madhavi, and their adventures in the lands of the Chera, Chola and Pandya, about the inescapable inevitability of Fate, the power wielded by a woman of unimpeachable chastity, the ways and workings of Justice. Told on a wall on a busy street in Madras. I wonder how many people stop to look at it. Right next to the last panel was an elaneer (tender coconut) vendor. Several people clustered around, already hot and sweaty early in the morning, cooling off with the first elaneer of the day. None cast a glance at the story right next to them.
As I was going to take photographs of these elaneers, this man said, "Wait, amma, it doesn't look nice like this", and he removed the tarpaulin with which he had covered the coconuts to protect them from the muck of the road, and dusted them off, and rearranged them so that they looked a little neater. I was touched by his pride in his coconuts, his desire for them and his little stand to be seen and photographed at their best. It's people like him that make me love Madras so much. Gentle, courteous, simple. He wanted nothing from me, just for his coconuts to shine.
The sun was beating down by now, and the volume of traffic was growing, steadily. Madras was fully awake. But I had one more stretch of wall that I wanted to look at.
Just a few steps from the Silappathikaram wall, lies the entrance to the Adyar Poonga, the park created from the estuary and creek of the Adyar River, an ecological park being developed by the Government of Tamil Nadu and the Tamil Nadu Road Development Corporation. This project aims to restore the biodiversity of the area and to educate the public about ecological and environmental issues. Already, large numbers of birds and insects have made themselves at home there. Read about it here. For all the mess and chaos that seems to envelop Madras and choke it, there are pockets of great good in the city. This is one of them.
The walls of the Adyar Poonga were painted in muted, pastel colors, a stark change from the bright hues of the walls just a few feet away. Again, I don't know what inspired the painters - Animal Planet? a nature calendar? A zoology textbook? Members of the different phyla were represented: worms, insects, fish, amphibians, reptiles, birds and mammals. Many of which will never be seen in India, but that's merely quibbling over details.
I was getting scorched now, and it was time to return home, for a cup of my mother's coffee. Along the way, I saw a wall - ready for beautification?
And many others, that had escaped the beautifier's radar.
And near my home, this temple. On its walls, painted with fingers dipped in brick-red paint, roman numerals and palm marks. I have no idea what they were supposed to represent. Lucky numbers? A way to pray to pass that grade? Secret codes? Numerological gobbledygook? Astrological formulae? Just somebody doing mischief, gently defacing a temple wall?
Madras never ceases to amaze me.
(All parts of the Silappathikaram story in quotes are from Alain Danielou's wonderful translation of the epic, The Shilappadikaram)