CHENNAI: The famous Marina promenade was built by Governor Mountstuart Elphinstone Grant Duff, who also lent his name to the Marina. The irony that the place beloved to the British became a pivotal venue for the freedom struggle, is not lost on us. Meetings, speeches, Satyagraha, the beach has seen it all, said historian Meenakshi Devaraj, who traced the freedom struggle across the Marina in a talk hosted by the Golden Connect (a community that curates experiences and events for the holistic development of senior citizens). “There were not many auditoriums or stages at that time for public speeches. Triplicane and Mylapore were happening places. Many important congressmen and freedom fighters were from there and that made Marina the best venue,” she explained.
A big stage for big names
When the beach wasn’t set up for a public gathering, it was playing the backdrop to the songs of Subramania Bharati. “When it comes to the Tamil freedom fighting scenarios, one can hear the songs of Bharatiyar. He loved the Marina and would spend hours in the evening there with friends, singing songs,” she mentioned. His friendship with freedom fighter VOC (Kappalottiya Tamizhan) also bloomed at the Marina, resulting in discussions, music and more, together at the beach.
Iconic speeches were not uncommon here. Take Bipin Chandra Pal’s, for example. Invited by Bharati to Madras, his words changed the opinions of the locals who were not initially keen on him, shares Meenakshi. “When Bipin Chandra Pal got arrested and released six months later in 1908, Bharati — who shared much of his ideologies — wanted to celebrate it like a festival. Processions left from various areas in Chennai and all met at the road opposite Marina, followed by a huge meeting,” she stated.
Celebrations for freedom fighters were juxtaposed with Satyagrahas against the British. The establishment of the Rowlatt Act took Gandhi to C Rajagopalachari’s or Rajaji’s abode, where he stayed as a part of his tour across India speaking against the act. “For this iconic speech, you could see a sea of heads. Madras took the speech well. And the day of April 6 was observed as ‘thooka naal’. Madras expressed its feelings against the act through closed stores and hunger strikes,” she informed. Another satyagraha Marina witnessed was that for the removal of the Neil Statue, the structure commemorating Colonel James Neill, known for his cruelty to the locals. “People from all around Tamil Nadu came for the Satyagraha as the statue was insulting and now, the statue is present in the Government Museum,” Meenakshi confirmed.
One of the biggest revolts in the history of the freedom struggle was the protest against the Simon Commission for constitutional reform, which contained no Indian representation. “It was a hit on Indians and the leaders took steps to speak up against it. A crowd of 14,000 people were present; intimidating enough that the British had to use guns against them. Three Britishers even lost their life at Marina during this,” said Meenakshi.
The taste of freedom
In contrast to the agitation was the silent meeting of January 26, 1930, when Gandhi and other leaders had decided to claim poorna sudhanthiram, asking people to decorate their homes with kolams, thoranams and flags. “Unlike other meetings, this one saw people coming together silently, gathering the declaration and leaving,” she explained. Then came the protests against the Salt Act that were strangely decided to be held in Vedaranyam by Rajaji. But, that didn’t stop Tanguturi Prakasam Pantulu from gathering a crowd at the Marina. “When Gandhi was arrested in Dandi, huge protest meetings were held in Marina. Since then they didn’t have loudspeakers, they laid four stages, one for every leader,” she continue,” she continued.
Finally, came the night of freedom. “This was a historic moment. My grandmother would tell me how the entire city was in a festive mood, adorning their places with huge kolams, tricolours, thoranams, serving sweets, and singing patriotic songs. In this mood, how could the Marina not be celebrating? Many leaders were then speaking on the day at the Thilagar Kattam in Marina and the beach that had seen so much agitation and protest finally saw independence,” Meenakshi concludes.