A bird’s eye view of Chennai: Madras Transit

Striking images of Chennai taken between 2014 and 2015 from 10,000 ft. above the ground.

As the city of Chennai turns 376 this year and prepares to celebrate this milestone with Madras Week, architect Robert D. Stephens’ exhibit Madras Transit opens at The Folly on the 22 August 2015. Madras Transit, a series of contemporary photographs, stuns us with striking images of Chennai taken between 2014 and 2015 from 10,000 ft. above the ground.

The series, 24 colour images in all, captures the beautiful geometries, topography and the urban landscape of the city, the overlapping layers of history and progress, and invokes reflection on the way a city forms intertwining networks, over centuries. Each photo in this visual archive is accompanied by a factual record of air pollution levels in the area on the corresponding day, as measured by the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board.

It is also paired with a quote found in one of many antiquarian books from Robert’s collection, part of the ‘Reading Room’ section of the exhibit, that describes Madras as it once was – inviting viewers to meditate on how much the city has changed and yet endured over time.

(1) Venetian Vadapalani
February 2015
SO2 – 21 ug / m3
NO2 – 28 ug / m3
RSPM – 68 ug / m3
“The dust of Madras rises from the laterite, a ferruginous earth of which the roads are made. The laterite is beaten down with water, and binds into a hard, smooth surface that is very pleasant to drive over. The constant wear of cart-wheels and the pounding of hoofs, equine and bovine, reduces it in time to the finest powder, so fine that it resembles an ochre paint of venetian red tint ready ground for mixing. It permeates everything, and penetrates through clothing to the very skin. It stains white material with which it comes in contact, just as powdered paint would stain it. Walking over such dust is impossible for a lady who would wear light garments and keep them spotless. As for the smells, they are indescribable.”
On the Coromandel Coast
Page 61-62
Mrs. F.E. Penny


(2) Triplicane Assemblies
July 2015
SO2 – 16 ug / m3
NO2 – 23 ug / m3
RSPM – 150 ug / m3
“Between Georgetown and Mylapore is Triplicane, the Mohammedan quarter of Madras. Through the centre of the suburb runs a wide street, which is said to have been laid out by the French in the seventeenth century during their occupation for a few years of Mylapore. The houses in Triplicane are of the same character as those in the back streets of Georgetown, insignificant in appearance and not more than two storeys in height. Their occupants are dhirzis, small shopkeepers, and dealers in wares from the north of India – the silks and stains of Indian make, embroidery, and gold thread.”
On the Coromandel Coast
Page 128-129
Mrs. F.E. Penny
(3) The Roads
April 2015
SO2 – 15 ug / m3
NO2 – 18 ug / m3
RSPM – 86 ug / m3
“I do not know anything more striking than the first approach to Madras. The low sandy shore extending for miles to the north and south, for the few hills there are appear far inland, seems to promise nothing but barren nakedness, when, on arriving in the Roads, the town and Fort are like a vision of enchantment. The beach is crowded with people of all colours, whose busy motions at that distance make the earth itself seem alive. The public offices and store-houses which line the beach are fine buildings, with colonnades to the upper storeys, supported by rustic bases arched, all of the fine Madras chunam, smooth, hard and polished as marble. At the short distance Fort George, with its lines and bastions, the Government House and gardens, backed by St. Thomas Mount, form an interesting part of the picture, while here and there in the distance minarets and pagodas are seen rising from among the gardens.”
Lady Callcott, 23 March 1810
Memories of Madras
Page 264
Sir Charles Lawson

Madras Transit is further supported by the Reading Room: “a tactile installation of antiquarian books related to Madras, dating back to the mid-1800’s”, as Robert describes it, “The Reading Room encourages people to ‘Please Touch: Feel free to sit and read a while.’ An invitation to slow down, and drift into a literary world whose histories shaped the form of our present urban conditions.”

Not only does this invite people to appreciate the history of the city, it offers them a sensory experience too – the way old libraries do, filled with tomes of books, exuding a musty smell that only a bookworm could truly appreciate.

(4) Mount Road
April 2015
SO2 – 16 ug / m3
NO2 – 21 ug / m3
RSPM – 89 ug / m3
“The only other place for the meeting of European residents at that time was the Mount Road. It was “smooth as a bowling-green, and planted on each side with banyan and yellow tulip trees.” It was then the fashion for all the gentlemen and ladies of Madras “to repair in their gayest equipages to the Mount Road, and after, driving furiously along, they loiter round and round the Cenotaph” – to the memory of Lord Cornwallis-” for an hour, partly for exercise, and partly for the opportunity of flirting and displaying their fine clothes, after which they go home, to meet again every day in the year.”
Memories of Madras
Page 266
Sir Charles Lawson

Madras Transit is not the first of its kind that Robert has put together. Prior to this, he has also exhibited Mumbai Articles:  24 aerial photographs taken from the window seat of an aircraft that tells the tale of a city ridden with pollution, from 15000 feet above the ground. He will be following up Madras Transit with an exhibition, yet again on Bombay, entitled Mumbai North: Contemporary Aerial Photographs of Mumbai’s Suburbs.

About one such future project, Robert remarks excitedly, “Although in the very initial stages, I am dreamstorming over a series on Ahmedabad – what an incredible city!”

We look forward to all of his work, and hope to learn more about our cities by zooming out. Follow him on Facebook here.


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