India Backpacking 2017-18

Chennai

28 Dec. Chennai
To travel back to Thailand, I would have to return to the Indian mainland, but I had a choice of going via either Kolkata or Chennai as distances and costs are similar. With the recent visit to Kolkata under my belt, I chose Chennai as the transit destination. This would be a good time to visit the city because it’s now peak season for concerts of Indian classical music and dance. Also the Northeast Monsoon that hits this corner of India from October to December would be ending with the promise of pleasant weather.
 
My flight to Chennai wasn’t scheduled to depart until a civilized 2:25 p.m., so I could have slept until noon except for the hotel’s 8 a.m. check-out. So I packed up early and went up to the Downtown Restaurant & Café for the usual Western breakfast. There I met a Slovenian woman now living in Australia and traveling with her husband on a two-week trip in the Andamans. After breakfast I stayed in the restaurant and worked on writing and editing projects—I never run out of things to do! Rain started up and I was glad to be under a roof. The mostly cloudy sky dried up by noon when I flagged down an autorickshaw for the 150-rupee ride to the airport. I was early, so had time to hit the State Bank of India ATM, then do some more writing and editing. I’ll be flying with Jet Airways, the same airline I had recently flown from London to Bangkok, and years ago flew the super-scenic New Delhi-Leh flight to Ladakh; all those flights went well, and the bicycle went free. I asked for a window seat and luckily got one. Departure time for Flight 614 had changed to 3:20 p.m., so an extra hour in the airport. The long security line went slowly, then I had a short wait in the crowded departure area before a bus ride out to the Boeing 737-800 and the two-hour flight to Chennai. Clouds of many types and sizes appeared abundantly and beautifully during the first part of the flight. A short-lived rainbow flashed across a distant downpour. About half way the clouds faded away and the plane entered a brown haze—no mystery where the haze came from. Surprisingly the airline provided a hot snack despite the low fare. The approach into Chennai’s airport went over deep pits of quarries, some filled with water, then touched down as the setting sun glowed red.
 
My first visit to India began back in 1983 when I landed at Chennai, then known as Madras, the capital of Tamil Nadu state. History of the Tamil people goes far back into time, and their homeland at the southern extremity of the subcontinent gave their culture protection from invading Muslim armies. Even today, New Delhi and the north seem far away, and most people prefer to speak English as a national language rather than Hindi. I liked Tamil Nadu very much, especially the great temple complexes, on that first visit. I cycled a month in the state before heading north on what would be a four-month ride to New Delhi. In late 2006 I came back for another extensive ride in Tamil Nadu, seeing new places and old favorites, www.crazyguyonabike.com/doc/asiaoneyear. And I returned in 2011 for a backpacking trip that centered on eastern India, http://arizonahandbook.com/indian_ramble.htm
 
Chennai’s airport is good, and I heard that the new metro had just reached it. A smooth quiet ride on the metro would be much nicer than a wild taxi ride through heavy traffic! I followed signs to the metro terminal and bought a 50-rupee ticket at a machine, but the metro was so new that it lacked maps and signs! One of the staff let me photograph a map on a travel card, then pointed the way to a waiting train. A longish ride of a dozen stops on elevated and underground tracks brought me to Anna Nagar East station, just a short walk from the homestay I had reserved on booking.com. I got a large room with attached bath for 1,200 rupees/night, but its streetside location picked up a lot of traffic noise and people chatting at an adjacent food stall. Foreigners are a rare sight in this mainly residential neighborhood. My phone had come back to life with internet, and my room had wi-fi. It seemed that the phone and laptop had missed the internet more than me, as they both had a lot of updates to download! For dinner I went across the street to a multi-cuisine café for a malai kofta.
 
29 Dec. Chennai
I relaxed with reading and internet surfing most of the day. A few blocks away on First Main Road I tried the vegetarian Adyar Ananda Bhavan/A2B restaurant, which I liked. It’s a chain specializing in South Indian cuisine with some North Indian and Chinese offerings, plus a huge array of Indian sweets. I loved the South Indian thali, available only mid-day. No western breakfasts here, though I’m happy with South Indian items such as idli and masala dosa.
 
30 Dec. Chennai
Compared to India’s other major metros, Chennai has fewer sights and attracts fewer tourists, but it does have the huge Government Museum (9:30 a.m.-4:30 p.m.; closed Fri.) in nearby Egmore. I took an autorickshaw over for a visit, where entry cost 250 rupees for me and 200 for the camera. Founded in 1851 and housed in a large complex of buildings, it’s the second oldest museum in the country after Kolkata’s Indian Museum. I started in the Contemporary Art Gallery, but the works on display are too old to be ‘contemporary’! Decorative art on the lower floor includes everything from Paleolithic tools to a model of a nuclear power plant. Fine art hung out upstairs with a few sculptures and many paintings, including those of famed painter Raja Ravi Varma (1848–1906). The intricately carved stone National Art Gallery next door had closed for renovations, and I skipped the nearby Children’s Museum. I headed to the Bronze Gallery, my favorite, for dramatic centuries-old sculptures. Shiva, his consort Parvati, and their two sons Subrahmanya (Murugan in Tamil) and the elephant-headed Ganesa (Pillaiyar in Tamil) dominate the mainly Hindu and South Indian collection, though Buddhist and Jain figures appear as well. Lastly I stepped into the Main Building, a long succession of halls, where ancient stone sculptures reside, mirroring the bronzes with mostly Hindu images along with smaller numbers of Buddhist and Jain figures. I especially liked the Amaravati Gallery with extensive limestone carvings from the great stupa of Amaravati that dates back to the 3rd century B.C. Deeper into the galleries I came to the natural history displays, disappointingly faded and dusty. Despite a whole afternoon at the museum, I ran out of time and didn’t make it to the Anthropology Gallery, which has musical instruments and tribal exhibits.
 
I walked over to Egmore train station, where extremely long lines at ticket windows made me glad that I wouldn’t be traveling by train. Instead I was hoping to take the metro back toward my homestay, but this section hadn’t opened yet. During my four weeks in the Andamans, I never saw any newspapers or magazines for sale, but I figured there would be newsstands near the train station, and found a couple across the street, where I picked up The Times of India and The Hindu newspapers plus two photography magazines. The Times is good for event listings, and I was curious about venues for Indian classical music and dance. Lots of restaurants also stood across from the station, but all opened to the busy street and its traffic fumes. I took an autorickshaw back to the Ananda Bhavan restaurant for dinner.
 
31 Dec. 2017 Chennai
On this beautiful day of blue skies I probably should have done something outside, but stayed in to work on writing and editing projects. As usual, I headed to the Ananda Bhavan restaurant for South Indian food. Many people in the neighborhood drew geometric designs called ‘kolam’ with white powder on the sidewalk in front of their homes, and some filled in the designs with colored powders or flower petals. A great roar of firecrackers marked the stroke of midnight at the end of 2017! Although world politics had a great many problems over the past year, my life and travels in Asia and Europe had gone very well.
 
1 Jan. 2018 Chennai
Many cultural centers have programs of Indian classical music and dance this time of year, but the trick is to find out about them! I couldn’t find any website that lists them all, so used the daily listings in The Times of India as a starting point for internet searching. Today I headed to the T. Nagar part of southern Chennai by autorickshaw for Sri Krishna Gana Sabha www.krishnaganasabha.org and their 62nd Art Festival 2017-18. The very pretty young woman Sushmita Rajtilak performed a Bharatanatyam dance in the small theater. Bharatanatyam, traditionally performed solo by a woman, originated in Tamil Nadu perhaps 2,000 years ago and may be India’s oldest classical dance form. It’s now very popular throughout the country. The dance costume resembles that of a Tamil Hindu bridal dress with a bright colored sari and a pleated apron. Details and photos are at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bharatanatyam. On the floor to her right sat two singers, a man who narrated most of the dance and a woman who sang short fast-paced staccato passages and at other times rang a small hand cymbal (nattuvangam). A violinist played deep mournful melodies while a drummer used his hands to beat a double-ended mrindangam. The first dance served as an invocation to deities, the second illustrated a story of the every-popular god Krishna, the third depicted Shakti (goddess power), and the fourth I think was a pure dance. A Kuchipudi dance scheduled for later in the afternoon had been cancelled, so I went for a walk, snack, and shopping at nearby Pondy Bazaar, which includes the large supermarket Big Bazaar, something very common in Bangkok but a rarity in India. I returned to Sri Krishna Gana Sabha for an evening Bharatanatyam dance called “Brihadeeswara – Form to Formless” in the larger main theater. This performance required a ticket (200 rupees) that put me in the back rows, where seeing details such as eye movements was more difficult; also the music was recorded. Getting back to my homestay by autorickshaw was a challenge because drivers know locations mainly by landmarks, and I didn’t know of any. Having my phone’s GPS is a huge help in getting around because I can navigate and know if the driver is off course, which happens surprisingly often!
 
2 Jan. Chennai
I returned to Sri Krishna Gana Sabha, luckily with the same driver that I went with yesterday and now knew the way. The afternoon program had two Bharatanatyam performances, with the first having a flutist instead of a violinist and the second with a veena player. Right after that I moved to the main auditorium for a nadaswaram concert. The nadaswaram is a long oboe-like instrument and may be the world’s loudest woodwind! I grew fond of it on previous trips listening in the echoing great stone halls of temples. Commonly played in the south states of India, it’s also popular at weddings and concerts. Three nadaswaram artists played tonight, with the central man clearly the leader. Two men on the sides played the thavil, a drum with a larger and higher-tuned face played with the fingers and a smaller face struck with a short stick. Harmonium and hand-cymbal musicians played in the background. Indian musicians have great endurance, and the concert lasted two hours. In a surprising coincidence, the same autorickshaw driver I had ridden with this morning—and yesterday—saw me and knew the way back to my neighborhood and the Ananda Bhavan restaurant.
 
3 Jan. Chennai
Today is the last day of the festival at Sri Krishna Gana Sabha, and again the afternoon program had two Bharatanatyam performances. I brought my camera to capture some of the moments. A singer, K.J. Yesudas, would give the evening program, which requires a ticket, so I bought a 600-rupee ‘donor pass’ for a seat in the middle rows of the main auditorium. While the two previous nights had seen lots of empty seats, tonight had a nearly full house. A check on Google revealed that K.J. Yesudas has recorded more than 100,000 songs and performs classical, devotional, and cinematic songs in many Indian and other languages! Born in 1940, he has a long white beard yet possesses the stamina of someone decades younger. On stage, a violinist accompanied him, often with an echoing refrain. Percussion came from players of a mridangam (double-ended drum) and a ghatam (clay pot). A tanpura (long-necked string instrument) provided a continual background drone. The concert lasted three hours, with a break for solo and duet performances by the mridangam and ghatam players. Toward the end the singer took requests from an enthusiastic audience.
 
4 Jan. Chennai
In the afternoon I headed to performances of the Fine Arts Society at Ethiraja Kalyana Nilayam in Alwarpet, southeast by autorickshaw, for what would be the last day of its festival. Three Bharatanatyam dancers and their singers and musicians gave fine performances. A handy restaurant adjacent to the auditorium dished out flavorful snacks. In the evening a huge cast of youth presented a dance drama “Shadaksharam” about a great battle between demons and Hindu gods. I thought the demons especially cute with their large painted-on mustaches. The goddess Kali looked fierce even if her fangs had also been painted on. And being an Indian production, the drama had many pretty young women dancers!
 
5 Jan. Chennai
Today I tried the lunchtime Special North Indian Thali at Ananda Bhavan restaurant and found it very good, though my favorite is still the South Indian version. Afterward I got an autorickshaw for the long ride southeast to the Mylapore Festival, held just east of Kapaleeshwarar Temple, a large and colorful Hindu complex with an impressively large and ornate eastern gopura (gate tower) covered in tiers of colorful statues of gods and saints. The festival began with a pair of men on nadaswaram and another pair on thavil drums. Although these instruments are super loud, the musicians had a sound system to make the performance extra deafening! Next three children played Indian music on electronic keyboards. (I’m not so fond of these instruments, but when I visited Chennai in 2011 a group of 109 children performed on keyboards to an appreciative audience, then a representative from the Guinness World Book of Records presented a certificate proclaiming this the biggest concert of keyboards ever!) Next a student group performed a high-energy Bollywood-style dance with a central Shiva character and a large ensemble of dancing girls. Then for what I thought the most impressive performance of the evening, folk dancers from Kerala wore enormous headdresses, yet could still jump and spin around dramatically to the beat of their musicians. The day’s events ended with a Villu Paatu (‘Bow Song’) concert, which sounded very odd to my ears. It’s an ancient form of musical story-telling from parts of Kerala and Tamil Nadu with narration interspersed by music. A woman sang and struck a giant ‘bow’ (the age-old weapon of warriors) decorated with bells and attached to a ceramic pot. Next to her, a man sang and struck the pot. The concert began with a devotional song, then the woman gave a long narration punctuated by strange vocalizations from the man. I quickly tired of this and headed into Kapaleeshwarar Temple, a pleasant spot with many shrines and courtyards in addition to the main central temple. People swung by the shrines and entered the temple for a blessing from a priest or just sat in a courtyard and enjoyed the night air. Cows, looking well cared for, inhabited a stall. I could see a Shiva lingam deep in the main temple, though only Hindus can enter.
 
Afterward I had tasty South Indian snacks at a branch of Hotel Saravana Bhavan just north of the temple before heading back to my homestay.
 
6 Jan. Chennai
I took a rest day and didn’t accomplish much other than reading the news and updating this journal. For lunch I headed to Ananda Bhavan restaurant for the wonderful Special South Indian Thali. At night I returned for a masala dosa snack and piece of chocolate cake.
 
7 Jan. Chennai
I got to work writing postcards, then strolled once again to Ananda Bhavan restaurant for its super-tasty Special South Indian Thali. In the afternoon I caught an autorickshaw southeast to Brahma Gana Sabha in Mylapore for a trio of beautiful dance performances. Aarabhi Badri gave a Barathanatyam recital and, unusually, there was a written program that briefly explained each of her dances. The first one honored the elephant-headed god Ganesha and included the phrase (in Tamil), “With His blessings, problems become powerless and obstacles are driven away with the mere utterance of His name.” The second and central dance was the Nrithyopahaaram about a heroine who asks a friend to bring her lord to her. The third dance told of foster mother Yasoda playing with the child Krishna. In the fourth dance, a poem tells of Krishna’s lady friend Radha, who has a fit of jealousy after being stood up by the god. Lastly, a dance uses lively footwork and poses in praise of Krishna.
 
The second performance also had fine Bharatanatyam dancing. The third performance featured Mohiniyattam style of dance from Kerala state. It had a slower rhythm along with its own set of movements and gestures, most notably some lively eyebrow up and down motions. Most dances honored Hindu gods, such as Vishnu and his man-lion incarnation Narasimha, but one dance portrayed a lullaby with a mother and child. I finished the day with tea and chocolate cake at Ananda Bhavan restaurant, then sent out a Facebook posting and e-mails.
 
8 Jan. flight Chennai-Bangkok
The flight to Bangkok wouldn’t depart until 10:30 p.m., so I headed over to the Music Academy https://musicacademymadras.in/ on T.T.K. Road for two beautifully performed Bharatanatyam performances in the morning, the first by Meera Sreenarayanan and the second by Aishwarya Balasubramaniam. Afterward I headed over to the Pondy Bazaar area for a South Indian thali at Hotel Saravana Bhavan, then to the post office to send off a bunch of postcards. Lots of clothing stores line the street, and I got a new pair of dress pants. Lastly I headed to Big Bazaar supermarket for soap and snacks to take with me to Thailand. Back at my homestay, I retrieved the backpack and took the metro to the airport, again glad to avoid the fumes and crazy driving that plague Chennai’s main roads. Check-in went smoothly and I climbed onto an Airbus A320-200 for Air Asia FD 154, then headed into the night skies over the Bay of Bengal.

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