What Does It Mean To Be Madrasi?

Madrasi, Sterotype
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Stereotypes often frame South India as a unified 'Madrasi' whole. The truth is - South India is a thali, not a single serving.

Thomas Friedman conceptualized his paean to globalization in ‘The World is Flat’, after playing golf in Bangalore to the backdrop of a booming outsourcing industry. The city’s varied and globalized experiences convinced him that identities no longer exist in silos. He left India, convinced that borders mattered little in today’s age.

A Bangalorean, traveling northwards, would soon have found to the contrary. They would have been met with the common refrain – “You are a Madrasi, ah?”.

Madrasi, meaning ‘from Madras’, is a blanket term for South Indians that has a few historical roots. A few centuries ago, the Madras Courier would have been printed on a different set of lines in the sand. The city of Madras (now Chennai), was the winter capital of the administrative region named the Madras Presidency by the British Raj. It comprised parts of the Southern states of modern day Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh and Kerala. Aside from the kingdoms of Mysore, Hyderabad, and Travancore, the Madras Presidency represented South India and its affairs.

When India became independent, she inherited the Presidency as the Madras State. With the Reorganization of States Act of 1956, this was split up into the states we know today (with the exception of Telangana, which emerged from a bifurcated Andhra Pradesh in 2014). The states, divided into linguistic lines, charted their own histories and rivalries over the years. Yet to many in the north, they would retain only the colonial identity that was thrust upon them – that of the Madrasi. The term has since become an archetype of South Indian culture in general – an archetype that ceased to apply, and perhaps never did.

South India does enjoy a distinct set of identities, separate from those in the North. From the invading armies of the Mauryans, Greeks and Mughals to the Central Government’s failed imposition of Hindi as a national language, attempts to appropriate the South have been met with firm resistance. At the same time, South Indian states are not averse to fighting each other, over both cricket and rivers.

The Indian Premier League rivalry between the Chennai Super Kings (CSK) and the Royal Challengers Bangalore (RCB) is no small thing – as fans wearing the wrong colours in the wrong cities soon discover.Identity-based rivalries between states often escalate in the case of serious disputes – such as those over water. This led to a satirical question being posed on social media at the time, “Why is Madras fighting Madras?”

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In contemporary India today, what does it mean to be Madrasi? Madrasi as a term has been used in a derogatory sense, most notably by the Shiv Sena in its comics and tirades against ‘migrant’ culture in Bombay. In the same city, the film and advertising industries have made the Madrasi a trope.

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Shah Rukh Khan’s ‘Chennai Express’ attempts to display all these tropes in one package. South Indians are depicted as a homogenous lungi-wearing collective, speaking Tamil and worshipping Rajnikanth, dancing in lungis to a song that was named ‘Lungi Dance’.

Meant to be satirical, this stings because it is the dominant cinema that makes this parody. To many in the West, Indian cinema means Bollywood. But there is also Mollywood (Malayalam), Kollywood (Tamil), Sandalwood (Kannada) and Tollywood (Telugu) – with a total output of under a thousand films this year.

To take up all of the Madrasi stereotypes, they are a filter coffee drinking and lungi-wearing lot. They thrive on idlis, sambar, and dosai – all on banana leaves. There are always coconut trees in the background, and renditions of ‘Kolaveri Di’ or ‘Apdi Pode’ break out frequently.

Madrasi, Cartoon, Dark Sinned Madrasi Stereotype
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The Madrasi is dark-skinned and speaks with a rolling tongue.These archetypes are not omnipresent, and do not represent the South’s diversity. Even the city of Madras has been renamed to Chennai – making the term Madrasi applicable to no one.

The ‘South’ isn’t quite like the ‘North’. From economic to linguistic differences, the two halves of India are marked by difference, but also by unity. Tamil Nadu itself is a blend of contrasts – its fiery chief minister, Jayalalithaa, is from Mysore State; her predecessor, M.G.R from Kerala; its iconic superstar, Rajnikanth, from Maharashtra. Even CSK’s captain, M.S. Dhoni (who led the team to their most cheered victories against RCB), is from Jharkhand.

India’s South is also inextricably linked to the Global North. ‘Bangalored’ has become a global synonym for the outsourcing industry. It used to be said that you could tell when you were nearing Coimbatore from Kerala because everybody would be wearing jeans.

In Tamil songs today, you can hear elements of classic rock, hip-hop, EDM – to name a few. Chennai has its own funk scene, even as Bangalore has a massive following of metal fans (bands like Iron Maiden, Slayer and Metallica have played to packed crowds). Many lament this western influence, resulting in the colonial names for many southern state capitals being changed to a more local one – Madras is Chennai, Bangalore is Bengaluru, Trivandrum is Thiruvananthapuram.

Filter, coffee
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The quintessential South Indian trio, the classic dosa, idly and sambar, can be found across the Southern States, each vying to make the better version. Filter coffee flows through the land and chai varies from place to place (Kerala with spiced chaya, Hyderabad with Irani chai, the Nilgiri hill-stations each with their own blends).

Food, served on banana leafs (most often at weddings), has its own flavour and eco-friendly packaging. But one can always distinguish between the food from each state – from Kerala’s puttu to Tamil Nadu’s Idli and Karnataka’s bisi bele bath).

To put it simply, there is no one South Indian state to rule them all. We are like this only; same-same but different-different.

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