With its rare photos and captions, Madras Then | Chennai Now tells us more about the city we love
Conservative yet irreverent. Traditional yet forward thinking. Steeped in nostalgia yet thirsting for change. Chennai is indubitably a city of dualities, and thus the perfect subject for Roli Book’s latest, Madras Then | Chennai Now. The fourth in the publishing house’s ‘Then And Now’ series—it previously featured Delhi, Mumbai and India—the coffee table book is packed with rarely seen or published photographs and painstakingly researched text. “The book’s not a comparison of how the city looked then and now, but rather a study of how life in the city has changed and evolved,” says Pramod Kapoor, founder of Roli Books and the book’s photo editor.
Journey of discovery
The photographs were sourced from public and private collections—from the British Library and from important families like the Mudalliyars and the C P Ramaswami clan. The three-year labour of love has unearthed rare pictures like the 1914 German bombing of Madras, panoramic shots of the construction of Madras harbour, and even a cheeky photo of veteran singer M S Subbulakshmi puffing on a cigarette. “I learned so many new things when I researched for this book,” says historian and writer Nanditha Krishna, who co-authored it with poet and novelist Tishani Doshi. “Like the fact that there was a Madras style of painting in Europe.” Krishna unearthed old newspaper reports, old letters and government reports to make the text as unique as the photos.
Past meets present
The book is divided into two halves—one featuring pictures from the British Raj era, and the other encapsulating the flavours of today. “It is easy to fall in love with nostalgia, but the challenge was to make the present as enticing,” says Tishani Doshi, who grew up in a “sleepy Madras, but came of age in the new Chennai”. Sharing her favourite photograph—the one on the cover from legendary dancer Chandralekha’s production, Doshi says, “She (Chandralekha) could have settled anywhere in the country, but she chose Chennai. This proves something I believe—this city is a place where amazing people quietly do amazing things.”
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—Surya Praphulla Kumar