There are some places in Chennai you will hear about no matter where in the city you live. You've probably heard about Mylapore, Triplicane, Besant Nagar and Adyar. For most people, everything south of Adyar is the Chennai of IT parks and long drives. If you've ever waited to catch a bus at Madhya Kailash, you might have noticed that among the swanky A/C buses that roll up to transport droves of techies to their offices, there is one bus number that never seems to be blessed with such fancy features. "25G Kannagi Nagar" says the flickering board on a rickety 'regular fare' bus. This bus could, if you wish to board it, transport you over 15 km on a measly 15 rupee ticket. But no techie boards this bus and very few of them might recognise where it goes. So who goes to Kannagi Nagar? These buses are, after all, eternally packed beyond the footboards. Where is this place? The buses enter OMR, Chennai's tech highway but they don't seem to be taking people to offices. In early February, when St+art India, the country's finest public art initiative announced that this neighbourhood would become Chennai's first 'Art District', I stumbled upon an opportunity to finally answer these questions. This is my rumination, thinking about Kannagi Nagar.
The first time I saw Kannagi Nagar was on Instagram. Inevitably, the gram tends to show us the most provocative parts of whatever it chooses to showcase. In this case, it was also the most impressive. S+tart had just completed their first set of murals and they were going viral. A four storey building with a large expansive wall on one side now boasted a stunning black and white portrait of two smiling kids. The building next to it was a riot of colours, showing off an abstract of the 'Tamil woman', declaring her as the protector and creator. Overnight, lakhs of people who had never heard about Kannagi Nagar, its people or their livelihoods, now identified it with this new, incredible contemporary artwork.
St+art's work was surreal to many of us who had never seen art of this scale in the city. It was also intriguing because this was probably when a lot of people looked up Kannagi Nagar on Google Maps for the first time, as I did. In real estate terms, this neighbourhood should be a prime slice. It is sandwiched between OMR and ECR, bang in the middle of the city's scramble to build as many glass facades as possible on concrete towers. Considering that a lot of people travel for hours on these roads to reach their workplaces, it is not even too far off into the periphery of the city, sitting just beyond the first toll on OMR. The first time I entered the area in the comfort of my car, the sober reality of this area was quite apparent. Kannagi Nagar is by some accounts, Asia's largest slum resettlement project. The luxury of driving through it in hunt of contemporary art felt obscene. So I trundled through the area in second gear, admiring art while also intensely aware of my privilege. Instagram had conveniently omitted for me, the poverty that surrounded the grand murals.
If your idea of a 'slum' is an inner-city mangle of huts, narrow alleys and makeshift structures in an organic, chaotic inhabitation, Kannagi Nagar is not that. There's a certain prison-like rigidity about its existence. The whole settlement was planned in rectangular grids of two-lane roads. Each plot had a playground, surrounded by housing blocks. There are deliberately placed schools, police stations and ration shops, suggesting clearly that everything here was built first and the people moved in later. Kannagi Nagar is where the city puts poor people when it decides that their neighbourhoods must make way for more lucrative ventures. Everyone here has come from elsewhere. But Kannagi Nagar exists where it does because these people also form the backbone of the city's informal sector. If OMR's tech hubs are the Indian middle class dream, the people who live in Kannagi Nagar are the cab drivers who take them to it, the maids who clean their offices, the food cart owners outside their towers and the delivery boys enabling their many delivery apps. So when you enter Kannagi Nagar, donât let the wide roads fool you. This is still Chennai city's most crime prone neighbourhood.
When I went back to Kannagi Nagar next, it was as part of Madras Inherited and St+art's efforts to engage with the community and give them a sense of ownership over the artwork that was popping up on their apartments. This time I got a peek at the people who lived here and what their lives were like. In the schools, 10-year-old kids joked matter-of-factly about gang crime they had seen. When we asked them to draw the things they saw happening in their area, it was not uncommon to see murder, weapons and alcohol featuring in their scribblings. Clearly, these kids were being influenced by a hostile environment where people from all over the city were being assimilated into a community they struggled to call a home. But they weren't lost to these influences. Most of them were in some capacity, aware of the dangers of the things they saw hurting them and their families. They saw that the police and local authorities were all-powerful regarding the fate of the neighbourhood and this reflected in their ambitions. These kids were walking past incredible artwork everyday on their way to school. When we asked them what they would do if they could paint a building, the answers were unintentionally poignant. The kids were so much a reflection of their experiences here that most of them tried to use the mural as a sort of propaganda tool. "No Smoking", "Ban Alcohol" and "Peace" were the most common themes that they portrayed in their drawings. Some of these kids had come from Saidapet. Some had come from Parrys and others from Teynampet. Most of them agreed that they hated it when they were made to move here. One kid summed up the feelings of most of them though when he said. "It is ok now. I have my friends gang to play with."
Have I painted an extremely bleak picture of Kannagi Nagar for you? Well, this is a place where you've probably seen a murder at least once in your life if you live here. But let me step away from my dark narrative to talk about the other side. The resilient side. It is easy to drag the area's quality of life stats through the mud but when you spend even just a few days here you start to see how the people push back against the ostracisation they are literally moved into. Despite coming from different places, people try to fraternize and make things work. I found a barbershop, crammed into the ground floor of an apartment. After some bribing of local authorities and clever interior decor consisting of vinyl stickers; four enterprising youth had made a business out cutting hair in 'trendy' ways for their community. Nearby I happened to notice three men stare at an abstract St+art mural. We had an amusing and rather peculiar conversation about why the artist had "left the painting incomplete".
Picture 1: The Salon in Kannagi Nagar
Perhaps in this way, the murals are doing some good work, provoking conversations, bringing people to the community and asking questions about the way Kannagi Nagar is perceived. St+art's makeshift headquarters was in a defunct police station building. They needed someone who could be the bridge between them, the international artists and the local community. This role was fulfilled by Nila, a trans-woman who lived here and an absolute ray of sunshine. Nila would go off to get us tea and return with five cups and baby in her hand to play with. This was perhaps her greatest strength. If she could convince a mother to let her play with the baby and take it to total strangers, she could probably convince Kannagi Nagar that these artists were entering their community with all good intent. So it is people like Nila, Kumar from the barbershop and the new veshti clad, local art critics that represent what Kannagi Nagar is beyond the obvious truths of crime and grime. It is a resilient community. It is a population that has to deal with being transplanted into a new neighborhood while still fulfilling a role for the city that is essential and underrated. I cannot claim to know all of Kannagi Nagar from the few days I spent there interacting with the people but to me it represents a story of a gentrifying city that asks some of its people to build a home in a house they are given in a place stuck in limbo between the aspirational, modernising Chennai and the decay of its neglected backbone.