I visited Basavanagudi a few days ago – after perhaps 8 years. Since I live in the Eastern part of town, Basavanagudi doesn’t come up on my radar at all. But for a long time, I had been thinking of visiting the old eateries in that area. And finally, last Wednesday, I girded my loins and took the plunge.
Walking through the traditional markets of DVG Road and Gandhi Bazaar was delightfu; I had forgotten Bangalore even HAD such places! The air was rich with the smells of flowers, spices and food. Every other shop and eatery here is more than 60 years old.
With my food-blogger friend Sindhu guiding me, I went on a tiny food trail too. We gave the much-hyped Vidyarthi Bhavan a wide berth and went into two other eateries. Udupi Krishna Bhavan, near Ramakrishna Ashram Circle, has been in existence for several decades. Though the interiors were revamped a few years ago, the taste of the food (thankfully) has not been ‘revamped’. 😀
I had the sagu masala dosa, with liberal helpings of coconut chutney and sambar. The dosa was a smashing hit! I would have had another one, but decided to try something else and plumped for the mini idlis dunked in sambar. These too were very good.
We then wended our way through the market roads to visit a 92 year old grand dame: Mahalakshmi Tiffin Room. Here, I had the khali dosa, while Sindhu tucked into a rava idli. Some delicious filter coffee helped me chase down the dosa.
The decor of Mahalakshmi Tiffin Room is heavy on simple, old-world charm. I especially loved the wooden menu board welcoming patrons at the door. 🙂
Before returning home, I bought some aromatic coffee powder from Srinivasa Coffee, ghee from Rama Traders, Congress from Srinivasa Brahmin’s Bakery and gulkan from a tiny shop whose name I don’t remember.
I will have to visit Basavanagudi and areas nearby a dozen times to cover all the wonderful eateries there – including many less-known ones.
I loathe stepping out of home on weekends, when I should be idling in bed with a book. Weekends are when things are supposed to come to you automatically from time to time. You shouldn’t have to go out seeking anything. But this morning, I dragged myself out of home and went all the way to Malleswaram for a mini breakfast crawl. My friend is leaving town this month-end and I wanted to take him to one or two of our old eateries.
Our first stop was New Krishna Bhavan (NKB), diagonally opposite Mantri Square mall. We shared a plate of Ragi Dosai and a plate of Jowar/Jolada Dosai. They were true to form. It is always good to eat at NKB. The red onion-chilly chutney and the pure coconut chutney are distinctive touches here. I felt like asking for a second helping of just the onion chutney; it was so good!
From there, we walked up to 7th Cross Road and turned left to reach CTR. I last went to CTR nearly a decade ago. I wanted to try the much-touted benne masala dosa and see if it lived up to the hype. Despite changing its name to Shree Sagar, this restaurant has retained its simple, old-world look, which is very comforting. The fans, the colour of the walls, the framed painting of Madhvacharya, elderly women who remind me of my grandma, the tables and chairs – all seem to be unchanged.
As expected, all the tables were taken and there were nearly 50 people waiting for their turn to sit. The place resembled a stock market of yore, with much raising of hands, signalling and coded gestures. Much like the others, we took up position right next to a particular table in order to ‘reserve’ our seats. The word ‘reserved’ hung in the air. Everyone was looking at everyone else, wondering who was getting up and who was getting a seat. Furtive glances were cast at the tables nearby to figure out what was being eaten. All of us, I am sure, were mentally willing the seated customers to get the hell out asap!
We must have waited for about 15 minutes before we got a table, but in IST (Indian Stomach Time) terms, it seemed like 45 minutes. Post-ordering, our Benne Masala Dosas took another 20 minutes to come. They turned out to be good, but nowhere close to the hype generated. They were just good masala dosas that had been cooked extra-crisp thanks to a generous use of butter. Honestly, you find similarly good dosas in many places across town. It may make sense for people around this neighbourhood to visit CTR frequently, it does not make sense for me to come here again for a long time.
This is just my personal take. Die-hard fans of CTR, please continue to love their dosas.
This trip helped me bust a myth (that CTR’s dosas are out-of-the-world) and confirm a theory (that most people probably rave about old joints and romanticise them due to their heritage and a strong sense of nostalgia. The taste of the food really is actually not the major factor in these cases.)
Finding the room too stuffy (and wanting to vacate our place for the guys standing at our elbow), we paid the bill and stepped across the road to Temple Meals for filter coffee.
Over coffee, my mind kept going back to NKB. Would they think I am a madman if I were to go back there and ask for just a bowl of that red chutney?
Bombay Jayshri (aka Bombay Jayshri Ramnath) (center) sings with her ensemble during a Carnatic music concert.
The joke goes that Chennai (earlier known as Madras) has three seasons in the year: hot, hotter and hottest. It never fails to elicit a chuckle. But truth be told, there is a sliver of time – from November to January – during which the city cools down to ‘pleasant’. The temperature hovers in the high twenties and there is a mildness in the air that brings out smiles all round.
Perhaps in an attempt to make the most of this brief respite from torrid heat, the city hosts a unique celebration of Carnatic music and classical dance. Through December and a good part of January every year, the city’s performance venues (known as ‘sabhas’ in Tamil) come alive to the ragas and rhythms of music as vocalists, instrumentalists and dancers invoke Gods, Goddesses and Saints through myriad compositions. And thousands of people turn out in their ethnic best to partake of the superb fare being dished out.
Over the years, the festival has grown in scale and influence, and has come to be known as the ‘December season.’
Nine decades and counting
The genesis of this festival of the arts was decidedly peculiar. It was launched in 1927 as an adjunct to the conference of the Indian National Congress held in Madras (as Chennai was called back then). The inaugural edition in 1929, though small in scale, featured the leading musicians of the time. Subsequently, the festival severed all political ties and emerged as a stand-alone fixture on Chennai’s cultural calendar. Over the years, it has grown in scale and influence, and has come to be known as the ‘December season’ by the locals. The earliest sabhas sprung up in the areas of George Town, Triplicane and Mylapore. Today, it is estimated that more than a thousand concerts and dance performances take place during this fest, across a couple of hundred venues. To many, the Madras music and dance festival is like a pilgrimage—it’s no coincidence that it is held in the Tamil month of Margazhi, which has been traditionally dedicated to spirituality and contemplation.
Who is it for?
For seasoned as well as emerging artists, the December season is the high point of the year. Attracting diverse audiences from all age groups—scholars, students of the arts and other passionate folks, the Madras music festival is not one to be missed.
Where should I go?
Though sabhas are spread out all over the city, here is the pick of the lot. These venues are rich in atmosphere and attract the best artists. And, they serve the best food too.
The Music Academy, website, 44 28112231/28115162. Mylapore Fine Arts Club, 44 24997755. Indian Fine Arts Society, website, 44 28154360. Krishna Gana Sabha, website, 44 28140806. Parthasarathy Swami Sabha, 44 24997269/24991248. Narada Gana Sabha. Phone: +91 44 24993201/24990850. Kalakshetra Foundation, website, 44 24520836.
What should I attend?
The fest witnesses hundreds of artists in action, so if you’re stumped, see our list of recommendations. While the dates and venues of their concerts are mentioned in parenthesis, please call the respective sabhas for the timings of the performances. Detailed concert schedules of various sabhas and other information about the December season are available here.
Bombay Jayashri: An extremely talented musician, Jayashri’s mellifluous voice and meditative approach to music transport the listener. (Mylapore Fine Arts Club on Dec 24)
Sanjay Subrahmanyam: his booming and throaty voice ensures that his concerts are vibrant affairs. The audience also likes the fact that he interacts with them during his concerts. (Indian Fine Arts Society on Dec 20 and Krishna Gana Sabha on Dec 25)
Vijay Siva: he is well-respected for his adherence to classicism and a deep sense of bhakti (devotion) and bhava (emotion). (Sri Parthasarathy Swami Sabha on Dec 16)
T.N. Krishnan: one of the finest violinists in the Carnatic tradition, this octogenarian is known for his superb bowing technique and tonality of music. During his concerts, he often treats the audience to golden memories from the past, when he used to play the violin for legends like Chembai Vaidyanatha Bhagavathar and Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer on stage. (Music Academy on Dec 25)
Seshampatti Sivalingam: the Nadaswaram is an instrument of the temple, representing all things auspicious. Sivalingam has been playing this instrument for decades and is a virtuoso performer. (Music Academy on Dec 16).
Vishaka Hari: she is an exponent of the Harikatha, a traditional form of discourse that explores spiritual themes using a combination of storytelling and Carnatic music. (Krishna Gana Sabha on Dec 17 and 18; Parthasarathy Swami Sabha on Dec 25)
Ravikiran: a child prodigy, Ravikiran is synonymous with the Chitravina, the fretless, lute-like instrument that he plays. (Music Academy on Dec 18)
Shashank: another child prodigy, Shashank is known for his mastery of the flute. He is famous for his ability to make improvisations, while staying within the traditional framework of Carnatic music. (Narada Gana Sabha on Dec 28 and Mylapore Fine Arts Club on Dec 30)
Shanta and V.P. Dhananjayan: by far the senior-most of Bharatanatyam dancers, their nimbleness on stage belies their age. One of the few couples that perform together, they adhere to the tenets of chaste classicism. (Krishna Gana Sabha on Dec 27)
Malavika Sarukkai: Malavika has been dancing since the age of seven. Even today, she brings a sense of wonder and discovery to her performances. Her dance is a wonderful blend of feminine grace and linear geometry in technique. (Music Academy on Jan 6)
What should I eat?
No really, that’s a very important question. Because, the food served at sabha canteens during the season is as famous as the performances themselves. The season sees some of the best caterers in town ladle out delectable vegetarian food from the Tamil-Brahmin cuisine. Ask for these specialties at the sabhas mentioned below:
A fluffy rice-and-dal dish, served with a generous dollop of ghee on top. Best had with chutney and kotsu (a gravy dish that has a mish-mash of several vegetables).
Podi dosa & Vendhaya dosai
While the former (pictured) is dosa with a rich sprinkling of podi (chilli-dal powder) on it, the latter has fenugreek seeds mixed to the dosa batter, giving it a distinctive taste.
Salty balls made of dosa batter, but tempered with shallots, green chillies and mustard. Crisp on the outside and soft on the inside, this is a Chettinadu specialty that is served with coconut chutney.
A spicy pancake made from a mixture of lentils and rice, adaiis a favourite in Tamil Brahmin households. It is usually served with avial, which is a thick mixture of vegetables in a curd-based gravy. It is seasoned with coconut oil and curry leaves.
A traditional Tamil meal, usually served on a plantain leaf. It consists of nearly 15 items, including vegetables, dal, sambar, rasam, morukoottan, rice, papad, pickle and a dessert.
Vazhai poo vadai & Keerai vadai
These are spicy, deep-fried patties. While the former (pictured) is made from a batter of plantain flower along with lentils, the latter is made from lentils and spinach.
Ashoka halwa & Badam halwa
Variants of the popular Indian sweet halwa, the former is made from moong dal and the latter (pictured), from badam (almonds).
This traditional South Indian concoction is an excellent pep-me-up. It can be had just by itself or after a snack.
And, if you have the time…
At the digital archives of The Music Academy, you can listen to audio recordings of concerts of past masters like Maharajapuram Viswanatha Iyer, Chembai Vaidyanatha Bhagavathar, M.S. Subbalakshmi and others.
Lecture-demonstrations are held at The Music Academy and a few other sabhas every morning during the season. These academic sessions explore various aspects of music and dance, and are led by renowned artists.
The sun glinted off the chassis of the YP 2511 that stood on a short strip of railway track. As I stood looking at it, my father’s stories about the thrilling train journeys of his childhood echoed in my mind—he is a keen trainspotter. Steam locomotives, such as the one standing in front of me, played a starring role in many of his adventures.
I was at the Rail Museum in Mysuru.
Amid the railway memorabilia, my mind travelled to a city legend—and one of my favourite authors—R.K. Narayan. On this trip, my main interest lay in the RK Narayan Museum which opened last year. In The Guide, one of his most famous novels, the lead character Raju graduates from railroad station food vendor to tourist guide. It’s a story that has stayed with me. And I was keen to see where he had lived.
Leaving Bengaluru at noon, I had driven down to Karnataka’s cultural capital for the weekend. Mysuru is the starting point for several weekend getaways from Bengaluru, like Coorg, Masinagudi and Ooty, which I had already travelled to. Strangely, Mysuru itself had been off the radar.
I started my trip to the city with a visit to the Rail Museum, later taking a leisurely stroll around the century-old Devaraja Market, which has shops selling flowers, spices, fresh produce, incense and souvenirs. The rest of the day zipped past, with sightseeing stops at the Mysuru and Jaganmohan Palaces.
The house has bay windows and a red oxide floor.
Next morning, I found myself in front of Narayan’s old residence in the Yadavagiri area—the house in which he wrote many of his memorable stories. There was something comforting about the bungalow. The big trees outside, the bay windows, the red oxide floor of the portico, the rounded edges of the house, an old handpump—all these seemed strangely familiar. It was like visiting a favourite uncle’s house after a long time.
But then Narayan had been a favourite author of mine.
The house has showcases displaying Narayan’s certificates, mementos and awards. His armchair and a low wooden table are placed in front of a window. There are framed photographs of the writer and his family members hanging on one wall. The sepia-toned photographs show Narayan in some of his most candid moments. Keeping wickets at a game of cricket, standing with his wife and baby, resting on a chair, a wide grin on his face—telling glimpses of the man behind the famous writer.
Elsewhere, his favourite clothes, fountain pen, notebooks, umbrella and spectacles find pride of place. Framed accounts of his life are mounted on the walls, chronicling the rise of the journalist-turned-author. The surprise element is an account of their friendship by the late Khushwant Singh, who described Narayan as “deceptively humble and very lovable”.
A collection of the late author’s books.
Upstairs, Narayan’s study has tall windows overlooking the street. Along one side of this room is a bookshelf holding several of his best-sellers. Framed stills from the TV series Malgudi Days, based on the book of the same name, grace another wall.
The museum is unpretentious, much like the man and his writing.
On my way out, I lingered on the porch. In his memoirs, Narayan talks of spending hours there, chatting with visitors or observing the general humdrum of life outside—all of it grist for his charming stories. I asked the museum caretaker a few questions about the writer; his reply, a crusty “I don’t know.” I found it amusing that he should be ignorant of the life of the person whose memories he was supposedly safeguarding.