With love, from Chennai: An ode to the city through art, verse, postcards - Hindustan Times
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With love, from Chennai: An ode to the city through art, verse, postcards

BySukanya Datta
Jun 15, 2024 02:51 PM IST

Dr Nirosha Shanmugam’s work captures the city through her eyes. This year, for Madras Day, her plans include songs too.

What does the word ‘Marina’ remind you of? Dr Nirosha Shanmugam asks.

The Marina Beach postcard that Dr Shanmugam created. Last year, about 500 people around the world received her postcards of mornings at the beach. (Dr Nirosha Shanmugam) PREMIUM
The Marina Beach postcard that Dr Shanmugam created. Last year, about 500 people around the world received her postcards of mornings at the beach. (Dr Nirosha Shanmugam)

For her, it’s a salty air-filled time capsule. One that immediately transports her to warm Chennai mornings in 2015. A flurry of children running with cricket kits bigger than them, the clatter of long broomsticks, the vroom of the auto she and her friend would take along the 13-km Marina Beach as they raced to reach their early morning National Eligibility-cum-Entrance Test (NEET) preparation classes.

Between July and September last year, about 500 people scattered around the world — in Ireland, Russia, Japan, US, UK, Germany, the Netherlands, India — got a fleeting glimpse of this Chennai beach coming to life in the morning, through Dr Shanmugam’s postcards. Each featuring an illustration of the sea, reimagined from her daily auto rides, and a note describing the part Marina played in her journey of becoming a doctor. It goes:

The days I miss the view of my sky’s palette changing colours, I’m pretty sure I’m late to my class.

If it’s sunny, I’m late.

If the uncle’s association in white has crossed Ezhilagam, I’m late.

If I see a bunch of army suits, I’m probably on time.

These postcards were arguably among the most special that the 26-year-old physician sent to her pen pals, a community she’s been part of since she began swapping mails with strangers in 2016. The postcards were created as an ode to her native hometown, one that she longed to visit every weekend while she pursued a degree in medicine (MBBS) at the Vydehi Institute of Medical Sciences and Research Centre in Bengaluru.

She sent them out between July and September to mark Madras Day, which is annually celebrated on August 22 to honour the city’s foundation. “For me, Chennai is not just home; it’s also the place where I, and perhaps many like me, first began to dream.” Dr Shanmugam says. It’s also what prompted her to share it with people across the world. “I kept imagining someone on a farm in Texas or a hamlet in Ireland opening my mail and reading about the city I love. Just the idea of it made me happy,” she adds.

Along with the Marina Beach postcard, she decided to throw in a few other goodies and created a Madras Day kit for Chennai-lovers. It comprised some illustrated stickers of the Chennai autorickshaws, postal stamps of the Madras High Court’s 160-year anniversary and of the Integral Coach Factory (ICF; one of the first coach manufacturing units of the Indian Railways), photo postcards of the Chennai Central railway station shot on her 35-mm analogue camera, and a polaroid print of the photograph on request.

Priced at 350 (plus delivery charges), she sold about 45 of these, primarily via her Instagram page (@nishusarticles_).

A photo postcard of the Chennai Central railway station that was part of the Madras Day kit. (Dr Nirosha Shanmugam)
A photo postcard of the Chennai Central railway station that was part of the Madras Day kit. (Dr Nirosha Shanmugam)

The city has always featured in her art and writing, says Dr Shanmugam. An art journal practitioner, she’s been documenting every aspect of her life — her hopes, wins and losses, yes, but also the more mundane. What she got from the hot chips seller who zips around the neighbourhood on his scooter, why a cup of coffee made her smile, bus tickets from dates, flowers she collected on her way to college.

Alongside her words, each page features bits of tangible memorabilia: a scrap of cloth, a stray ribbon, sometimes a postcard, odd bills, a polaroid of a friend or a building. She’s dedicated one journal, which she calls Madras Journal, entirely to her notes about the city. Pages from it often feature on her Instagram handle.

This love for the city, and the need to document everything around her, is something she possibly inherited from her late thatha (grandfather, in Tamil), K Perumal, who was a Southern Railway officer, she says. He would only write in the diaries that Dr Shanmugam’s father gifted him on January 1 every year.

For years, she watched her thatha take copious notes — of what he ate, did and read every day, of new buildings and roads that cropped up around the city, of dental appointments and shoes he bought. Often, there would be a photograph tucked into the pages of these diaries, or a random receipt or a newspaper clipping. “He took me to my first bookstore in the city; told me stories of how the city offered education, opportunities and freedom to him as a young boy from Salem. At some point, I too picked up this habit of documenting my life and the city — through words and visuals,” she says.

For this year’s Madras Day, Dr Shanmugam plans to combine her love for writing and sketching with something else that excites her: chatting up absolute strangers. In July and August, she will host the Madras Busking meets. She’s been a part of a busking community in Bengaluru; their meets feature amateur writers, poets, caricature artists who meet in a public place, interact with passersby, and create art for them. Some, like her, show up with their typewriters and offer free verse notes to strangers; others use paper and pen.

Dr Shanmugam has multiple typewriters in her collection. At busking meets, she interacts with strangers and types out verses for them.
Dr Shanmugam has multiple typewriters in her collection. At busking meets, she interacts with strangers and types out verses for them.

As she focuses on her private practice, she’s working with other amateur writers in Chennai to organise busking events at public spaces such as beaches, libraries, cafes in the run up to Madras Day. As the cityscape changes — “as it always seems to do, every time I come back home from Bengaluru” — Dr Shanmugam sees her art journals, analogue photographs, typewriter notes as small efforts to record parts of Chennai that might soon be lost or altered.

The Marina postcard by Dr Shanmugam last year, brought back nostalgic memories of his college days for Zubein Khan, 26, an account manager at a Chennai-based SaaS (software-as-a-service) company. “The sliver of the sea and sand that she’s depicted instantly reminded me of my auto rides down that stretch about five to six years ago,” he recalls. “The promenade used to be quieter back then. Now, that stretch is dotted with eateries and small shacks. It’s always buzzing,” he says.

Dr Shanmugam finds the most joy in the idea of connecting strangers bound together by their love for the city. That everyone who’s once lived in or still resides in Chennai has a story of being welcomed and comforted by the city, is what keeps her going, she says. “That’s what makes the city so great, isn’t it?”

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