Marco Polo to Mark Twain, many a celebrity came calling to Madras

Madras has attracted millions of visitors during its tenure as well as before it.
Marco Polo; Mark Twain
Marco Polo; Mark Twain

CHENNAI: A city which is less than four centies old and has for almost as entre life been a throbbing habitation does evoke the interest people worldwide.

Madras has attracted millions of visitors during its tenure as well as before it. Explorers like Marco Polo even visited Mylapore, a part of the city, 350 years before it was formed.

Featured here are some of the interesting visitors to the city.

THE ROYALTY OF ENGLAND

Though three future kings came to Madras as Princes of Wales, only one ruling sovereign visited Madras twice. Elizabeth II, whose father was the emperor of India, would visit the city a decade after they had lost it.

But the citizens of Madras would line the streets by the thousands (a local holiday having been declared) and cheer her all the way to the banquet hall.

Many of those in government, including then Chief Minister late K Kamaraj, who had been imprisoned by her father’s government, would gladly forget the past and join the chorus of welcome.

A photo of Elizabeth at a reception in her honour — where she was presented a cake to mark the first birthday of her son Prince Andrew, the Duke of York — was presented by Prime Minister Narendra Modi to the Queen half a century later. In 1997, the Queen, on her second visit to Madras.

The Queen, on her second visit to Madras, evinced interest in Kollywood affairs and visited the sets of Kamal Haasan’s later shelved film Marudhanayagam.

MUHAMMAD ALI HAD NONE OTHER THAN MGR TO CHEER HIM

Muhammad Ali
Muhammad Ali

Muhammad Ali was a boxing legend everywhere, especially in places like Madras, where boxing was a way of life. Tamil Nadu State Amateur Boxing

Association decided to bring him to Madras in January 1980, to fight an exhibition bout with Jimmy Ellis. They were surprised when MGR, the Chief Minister, evinced interest to attend the match. MGR, known to be a bodybuilder himself, seemed a fan of Muhammad Ali. After the match, a veshti-wearing MGR got into the ring through the ropes and then posed for photos holding Ali’s hand up.

Nehru Stadium was packed to its capacity to watch the match and an elephant stood near the entrance as an added attraction.

Amidst a host of local boxers who got a moment of fame with boxing with Ali, a 10-year-old boxing enthusiast was let into the ring as well. Ali was at his humourous best toying with the boy.

When he went around the stadium in a jeep for the audience to get a close look, people were chanting “Muhammad, the black superman” from the song.

He floats like a butterfly and stings like a bee

Muhammad, the black superman.

Who calls to the other guy.

I’m Ali Catch me if you can

EDWARD LEAR’S BOAT RIDE AND TELLING SKETCHES

The famed limerick writer who showed the world what pleasure could be derived from nonsensical lyrics was also a skilled artist and, would come to Madras as a part of a sketching project.

He would take a bumpy ride on a long boat on the Buckingham Canal up to Mahabalipuram and make some wonderful sketches.

His description of the canal in the days, much before the ECR and OMR came up, is a wonderful record of the area just south of Madras.

WHEN AMERICAN SOLDIERS TOOK FANCY TO TEMPLE STATUES

A time when a substantial amount of outsiders visited the city was during the great war when Singapore fell to the Japanese.

Madras became the headquarters of the Allied forces and thousands of American and British soldiers moved to Madras. Though they were stationed in the high secret base at Avadi, they ventured into the main city on their days off.

While some hotels in Mount Road welcomed them with jukeboxes and dances, others put up a board saying “Army personnel not allowed”.

Some temples in Madras were very popular amongst US service personnel, mainly for their erotic statues. Non-Hindu visitors were not allowed inside the premises and for a few annas, local urchins could produce a ladder and a visitor could look over the wall.

CHINESE PREMIER ZHOU ENLAI’S VISIT TO MAHABS & GEMINI STUDIOS

One of the prominent revolutionaries of the 20th century, Zhou Enlai, the Chinese premier would come to visit.

A lot of interest was generated because China and India were going through a phase of kinship and the Hindi-Chini Bhai-Bhai slogan sounded everywhere.

He visited Mahabalipuram where he was greeted by panchayat presidents all along the way. On his visit to Gemini Studios, to watch a film being made by Ramanand Sagar and danseuse Padmini’s dance, he would pose for a group photo with all the leading stars of Tamil cinema including Sivaji Ganesan and MGR.

He would also visit the ICF factory in Perambur and compliment it as being a star development of the third world.Janaki Krishnan, the protocol officer who headed the reception committee, told Premier Zhou that her eight-year-old son Ejji collects stamps.

The next day, his support team presented her with a complete set of unused mint condition Chinese stamps released in that whole year, beautifully packed.

WHEN TAGORE LEFT KALKI AND BHARATI IN AWE

Rabindranath Tagore
Rabindranath Tagore

Rabindranath Tagore would give a series of fundraising lectures. Writer Kalki mentions that Tagore was keen on raising funds for his university project and charged a princely amount of Rs 5 to attend. (Tagore would also pose as a model for hair oils and soaps to raise funds.) Tagore was so impressed with Theosophical Society and its giant banyan tree that he first decided to start a university here. After it fell through, he would go back to Bengal to initiate Vishwa Bharathi.

It was here that Tagore would also meet Margaret Cousins who would later set his Janaganamana to tune. His attire would be described as a fawn-coloured robe and biretta-like cap.

Such an impression Tagore created that both Kalki and Bharati were in awe of him. Bharati would even publish translations of Tagore’s essays and short stories.

TWAIN AND MAUGHAM

Mark Twain
Mark Twain

Mark Twain made a lot of money on his writing but mismanagement and a bad investment in a typesetting machine development put him in debt. He went on a worldwide lecture tour to make money to repay the loans.

After lecturing in Calcutta and en route to Colombo, he would spend a couple of days in Madras. But he was decidedly sick and has little to write about his sojourn here. Somerset Maugham, the biggest money maker in literature between the wars, would visit Madras.

But all the writing about his visit concentrates on his trip to Tiruvannamalai to see Ramana Maharshi. Maugham would create two characters based on his visit to Madras — a swamiji based on Ramana and a character called Ramasamy Iyer based on CP Ramasamy.

MOST SPIRITUAL OF THE BEATLES, GEORGE HARRISON FLEW IN ALONG WITH FRIEND PANDIT RAVI SHANKAR

George Harrison
George Harrison

The most spiritual of the Beatles, George Harrison never ceased trying to send a spiritual message via music out into the world. George Harrison and Pandit Ravi Shankar were friends for three decades. In April 1996, long after the Beatles were dissolved, George flew to Madras with Ravi Shanker.

The top secret recording had the busy studio in Royapettah booked with a nudge from a government office. The result of five days and nights of recording was the ‘Chants of India’.

The album, which, in his words, allowed listeners to “listen to something that has its roots in the transcendental & beyond intellect”, featured 16 tracks with Indian mantras and sold more than 1,00,000 copies.

MARIA MONTESSORI DEVELOPED HER WORK ‘EDUCATION FOR PEACE’ IN MADRAS

Maria Montessori
Maria Montessori

Montessori challenged the prevalent system of education and came up with her own method that is still followed by millions of schools. It was in Madras that she developed her work ‘Education for peace’ and was nominated twice for the Nobel Peace Prize. It was also in Madras that she was arrested within a year of her arrival.

Just before the outbreak of World War II, Maria Montessori and her son were invited to visit India by George Arundale of the Theosophical Society, who was convinced there were links between Theosophy and the Montessori method.

In 1939, 69-year-old Montessori arrived in India and started the first official training centres for teachers in Madras at the Olcott Bungalow in the Theosophical Society. However, as part of the British Empire, India was at odds with the Italian fascist state.

When Mussolini’s Italy declared war on Great Britain in 1940, Maria and her son Mario were identified as “enemy aliens”. While in deference to her advanced years Maria was placed under house arrest, her son Mario was imprisoned in Pallavaram along with prisoners of war.

JINNAH CALLED FOR DRAVIDASTHAN, TRIFURCATING INDIA, SPEAKING IN CITY

Muhammad Ali Jinnah
Muhammad Ali Jinnah

Muhammad Ali Jinnah had a pretty sore relationship with the city and its Theosophical Society. Jinnah’s marriage with his young wife collapsed when she turned Theosophical.

But ever ready to spread his wings, Jinnah, in 1941, readily agreed to preside over the Muslim League’s 28th session at the Madras People’s Park in an enclosure named after him — Jinnahbad.

However, Jinnah fell sick and had to alight at Basin Bridge Station, from where he drove to the Harrington Road Beverly Hills House. Not knowing the change of plans, huge crowds had gathered all the way from Central Railway Station to Big Mosque Triplicane. But to the relief of the organisers, Jinnah was fit by the time of the public meeting. He salaamed to the crowd and spoke extempore for two hours. He announced his determination to establish an independent Muslim state.

He also threw a surprise, asking for a trifurcation of the country. Other than Pakistan, Jinnah demanded Dravidasthan as a third nation after trifurcating India.

VALENTINA TERESHKOVA’S PEP TALK TO CITY GIRLS

Valentina Tereshkov
Valentina Tereshkov

Valentina Tereshkova, a Soviet textile factory worker, who was also an amateur parachutist and skydiver, was chosen from amongst 400 applicants for a place in history.

She became the first woman to go to space. Who better than her to inspire the girls of a city to dream big? Six months after her trip to space, Valentina, on a goodwill visit, came to Madras in 1963. She would wear a saree for the State function, interact with school girls and inspire them to take up science careers.

MARCO POLO’S VISIT TO APOSTLE THOMAS’S BURIAL SITE IN MYLAPORE

Marco Polo
Marco Polo

The Venetian explorer, famous for his travels to Asia in the 13th century, came calling during the reign of the last great Pandya in Madurai (soon thereafter the empire was destroyed by the Delhi sultans).

Polo moved north to see the site where he had heard of an Apostle of Christ being buried.

After a strenuous journey to Mylapore, where he saw plentiful peacocks, he would write: “The body of St Thomas the Apostle lies in this province of Malabar at a certain little town having no great population. It is a place where few traders go, because there is very little merchandise to be got there, and it is a place not very accessible. Both Christians and Saracens greatly frequent it in pilgrimage and take sand from the area as medicine for the sick.

THE UNWELCOME VISITORS — EMDEN, THE RAIDER & JAPANESE BOMBER

Invaders are visitors too, though surely unwelcome. In the 18th century, the French would fight battles all over Madras, on the Polo ground near Kathipara, on Quibble Island (MRC Nagar), around Kapaleeshwara temple and eventually shell the fort from the sea and subdue it. They would rule the city for three years.

During World War I, the German light cruiser SMS Emden came visiting. Emden, a lone raider choosing its own targets, approached Madras one Navarathri night and hurled 130 shells on the unsuspecting city.

Shrapnel hit several parts of the city and Burmah Oil Company tanks, containing 3,50,000 gallons of oil, were aflame. Though only three died and 13 were injured, the city was scared out of its wits. People left the city in fear and in a great hurry.

During World War II, Japanese radio propaganda threatened to annihilate the city and Madras promptly emptied itself. And in a day of anticlimax, on a day of a cyclone, when there was no power to even blow the air raid sirens, a lone Japanese bomber dropped its load of bombs in the area north of the fort, injuring a shepherd and some cattle.

SWAMI VIVEKANANDA WAS STOPPED ON HIS THIRD VISIT OWING TO STRICT QUARANTINE RULES

Swami Vivekananda
Swami Vivekananda

Swami Vivekananda made three visits to Madras. The third was the most interesting when he was not allowed entry into Madras. That was because his ship’s port of origin was Calcutta. And the plague was rampant there. Madras had serious quarantine rules and the ship was not allowed to dock.

But his disciples were not to be cheated and bravely took a boat to the vicinity of the ship.

While the boatman held the boat steadily next to the ship, Vivekananda preached, to be heard above the sound of the waves. He also lowered a pot of Ganges water which the disciples accepted gratefully. The water is still worshipped in a shrine in Madras.

MAHATMA GANDHI VISITED MADRAS 15 TIMES

Mahatma Gandhi
Mahatma Gandhi

Gandhi visited Madras 15 times. The first, as a lawyer in a full suit from South Africa in 1896 and he gave a rather tedious speech as papers reported.

Over the decades, the major changes in his strategy and approach happened on trips to Madras.

Gandhi was welcomed by crowds of lakhs at times and sometimes was shown black flags and ‘go back’ placards.

His earlier meetings were welcomed wholeheartedly by the British government of Madras with the entire set of Madras High Court judges attending his People’s Park meeting.

Later, there were ban orders and restrictions. However, on his last visit in 1946 with freedom in sight, the British Governor would send a car to pick up the Mahatma for a dinner at the Governor’s house.

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