Language Found in Transition

As old as the city, Madras Bashai is possibly the only language that has constantly evolved over the years, mirroring the evolution of the masses. Janani Sampath traces its origin from the slums to cinema, which popularised it over the years

Published: 20th August 2014 06:00 AM  |   Last Updated: 19th August 2014 10:42 PM   |  A+A-

CHENNAI: If you have lived in Chennai long enough to know that words like naina, bejaar and abuses like kasumalam and somari form Madras Bashai, it is also likely that you may not know that the language’s lexicon is borrowed heavily from Telugu, Urdu, Sanskrit and a sprinkling of Tamil. An eclectic mix of languages, Madras Bashai that spans three centuries forms an indispensable part of the city’s history and culture.

City-based historian Sriram V says, “Madras Bashai had its roots in North Chennai — in areas like George Town. Today, it has seamlessly spread to other parts of the city. It began with the Telugus settling down in the city. Gradually, the Nawabs and Tanjore Marathas followed suit. The language, therefore, is an interesting amalgamation of words in Telugu, Hindi, Sanskrit, Urdu and Tamil. Tamil doesn’t seem to be the root of the language.”

Sriram notes that most fascinating part about the language is that after a decade or more, the language may take a completely different form. “The highlight of the language is that it is never static. A few years from now, we may even have Bengali words in its lexicon,” he adds.

Madras Bashai doesn’t leave out English either with words like OC (On Company’s Service), OB (off beat), and dupakur (fraud) having been derived from the word dubash.

A language shorn of sophistication, Madras Bashai can be frightfully crude. “Most often those who speak the language at the drop of a hat will refrain from talking in the same when they meet other people. I wonder if anyone would write a book in Madras Bashai,” he says.

With the common use restricted to a few sections, films have played the biggest role by taking it to the masses. Sriram says, “While Thengai Sreenivasan made it a rage in Kasethan Kadavulada as the tea seller masquerading as a saint, it was the legendary comedy actor N S Krishnan who was the first to parody it on screen.”

The most memorable Madras Bashai moment on screen would be the Cho Ramaswamy-Manorama song Vaa Vaathiyaarey Vootaanda in Bommalattam. “Manorama also spoke the language in the Mehmood-starrer Kunwaara Baap.  She reprised her Madras bashai speaking role in another film Samsaram Adhu Minsaram,” he adds.

Film historian Mohan V Raman says that the credit goes to actor Chandrababu for making the language acceptable to masses. “Chandrababu’s flair for the language can be attributed to his days spent in Mirsapet.

After spending considerable time in Colombo, his family moved back to India during the end of World War II and settled down in the area also known as Mir Saheb Pet, a confluence of Triplicane and Royapettah. The place is a cradle for the language. He was the first one to develop a full-fledged body language and made it acceptable for the masses,” he says.

He refers to the song Naan Oru Muttalunga (Sahodhari) that has a generous sprinkling of the Madras Bashai: Pesaadhe innaanga, poratti poratti eduthaanga piece piece-ah kiyichaanga, bejaaraa poottudhunga. Chandrababu repeated the Madras Bashai act in the Sivaji-starrer Sabash Meena and Policekaran Magal.

Raman says that another actor, who had a fascination for the language was Cho Ramaswamy, who drew it from his stage play Madras By Night and continued it with films. He adds, “Sivaji too had Madras Bashai moments in Bale Pandiya alongside MR Radha.”

In recent times, it is Kamal Hassan, who has pulled off the language with aplomb.

“Kamal has done a few even before Pammal K Sambandam — like Michael Madana Kamarajan, in which the character Raju, a fireman, speaks entirely in the language, and in Magarasan opposite Bhanupriya,” he says.

Raman compares Madras Bashai to Cockney, a language spoken in the heart of London. “Madras Bashai is to Tamil what Cockney is to English.  For film buffs, it is the language spoken by Eliza Doolittle and her dad in the film My Fair Lady,” he says.

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