CHENNAI: Did you know that the earliest Indian women’s magazine in English was established and edited by Madras’s first female MA graduate, Kamala Sathianathan? The Indian Ladies’ Magazine discussed poetry, prose, politics, medicine, religion and depression as early as the turn of the 20th century. As a newcomer in Chennai, I seek tidbits of history like this to further my knowledge and feel a little more like a part of the city. A few weeks ago, I came across this information on an Instagram post by Madrastically Yours (@madrastically_yours), a page dedicated to exploring various facets of Chennai’s history. With the knowledge to discuss people stories, politics, infrastructure and art, the administrator of the page was surely someone who had spent years studying Chennai’s history, I thought. But at the time of this interview, I came across a 21-year-old student of the Young India Fellowship at Ashoka University.
New girl in the city
Krishna P Unny shifted from Palakkad to Chennai as a class 10 student, attracted to the scope of music and dance in the city. Her introduction to its history, however, was only a few years later as a student of Stella Maris College. She was exposed to history talks and heritage walks through her institution, along with cultural performances at the Kalakshetra Foundation.
“For the first three years in Chennai, I was not aware of the city’s history at all. I didn’t think much of discovering it either. During my years at Kalakshetra, they hosted many performances and I was fascinated by the music and dance, the people who came to see them and just the festivity of it all,” Krishna shares.
She started her page in 2018 on a whim, with the intention of just sharing some beautiful pictures she had clicked during the heritage walks. But, as her interest in history grew, so did the page and the discussion on it. “Initially, I was interested in the art and architecture of the city. Then, I had a lot of college courses on history, literature, psychology and more. They gave me new ways of looking at the city and its history,” she adds. Krishna began to research and deeply invest herself in the topics. “I start by researching through books or online, and look for unheard stories not told before,” she explains. She also planned visits to various locations or came home with historical stories if she saw or heard something by chance.
It was, however, not the well-known tales of history that attracted her, but the lesser-known trivia that were just as important to the nature and culture of the city. But, there is still much more to see, especially in certain parts of the city, she elaborates, “There are a lot of small quirks you see in every corner of Chennai. But I am yet to go to a lot of parts of the city, especially in North Chennai. A lot of my friends haven’t seen that part of the city. But it is important to consciously put in the effort to explore different areas.”
Beyond the obvious
During the lockdown, she had to leave the city without a proper chance to say goodbye to it or her friends. Looking back at her most interesting posts, she shares that the most eye-opening was one about the slave trade in Madras. “This was something I was completely unaware of. It was during the Black Lives Matter movement that I began wondering about the history of the African community in India. I read a couple of books for the post and they were eye-opening. People interested in history would know of a Facebook group called Madras Local History, which is a huge archive of information, and I usually try to look it up and talk to people. Even in such a big repository that had nearly everything about Chennai, I couldn’t find anything about the slave trade. That is when I realised people had barely written about this. I think it’s usually because we only talk or write about things that we can speak of with pride,” she opines, encouraging people to scan history not just with pride but also critically, when required.
Engage & educate
Krishna started her Instagram page in 2018 on a whim, with the intention of just sharing some beautiful pictures she had clicked during the heritage walks. But, as her interest in history grew, so did the page and the discussion on it.