A couple of years ago, a friend and I were part of a competition that questioned the notion of a “public space” in a city in the year 2099. What made it interesting was the fact that we had to understand how a city would change in the future, plot our predictions and design a public space that would be in tune with the mindset of the society in the near future. After aimlessly tossing around Spielberg-inspired ideas for futuristic spaces in an apocalyptic world on the brink of doomsday, we chose to dwell on the notion of the public space of the present. A notion largely shaped by the largest public space in our city – the Marina beach.
The Marina beach in Chennai stretching from the Chennai Harbour to Santhome is the single largest public space in Chennai and the largest urban beach in the country. There’s hardly anyone in Chennai who hasn’t visited the beach at least once. Frequented by a diverse populace of different social and economic backgrounds, this sandy stretch has long been the go to place for Sunday evening breaks.
More than just a space to relax, the Marina, has also been a platform to voice dissent within the society. Historically public spaces have been the trigger for social and political revolution from the Jallianwala Bagh that sparked off the Indian independence movement to the recent Egyptian Revolution at Tahrir Square. Public spaces take on many roles in a city. Here, they took the role of a social lever, enabling the people to join hands and tip the balance against forces that threatened to bring the city to an urban standstill. The Thilakar Thidal in the Marina Beach opposite the Presidency College was the place where great national leaders like Balagangadhara Thilak, Mahatma Gandhi inspired more than 5000 people to join the Freedom struggle. Sadly, all that remains of this historic stage is just a sandy plaque.
A public space is truly “public” only when it is free, open to all and democratic. It is precisely this freedom to just be that makes the beach so alluringly our own. The Marina beach is the one public space in Chennai that welcomes people, rich or poor without any bias, without expecting anything in return. In spite of this, we are witnessing a steady increase in the number of malls in the city that have taken over as the new public/private spaces. While it might offer relative comforts of air conditioning, hygienic toilets and spacious food courts apart from shopping, we need to realise it has a downside too. It is world where entry is a privilege, we are policed and observed when inside, expected to act in a certain way and dress in a certain way. Yet, the very policing that strips it off its freedom is what forces us to be responsible towards the space. We consciously don’t litter, we make it a point to put the toilet seat down, we behave in a civil manner, we respect the place.
Why is it that we abandon all sense of civic responsibility and care at a democratic place where we are not policed? Why isn’t the Marina, which is far better “public” space than any mall in the city accorded the same level of respect?
Be it the early morning joggers, the bajji and balloon stall owners, the love struck couples holding hands, the impatient kids running around, fishermen pushing off to the blue sea, or the rag pickers scrounging for waste, they all lay claim to the Marina. It is home to hundreds of fishermen and slum dwellers living at its fringes, and thousands more depend on the Marina for their livelihood. It is delicate ecosystem, a microcosm of life that offers glimpses of many aspects of urban existence and social values. This microcosm invariably reflects and informs the macrocosm of the city. How we treat the Marina in the coming years will define how Chennai grows as a city.
It all comes down to whether a public space is a right to all or a privilege to some. To what degree should they be policed and regulated? Spaces like the Marina survive on minimal policing but will flourish only with our social and civic responsibility. It belongs to no one and everyone. Let’s keep it that way, shall we?
(This is the first of a six part series on elements, rituals, spaces and contexts that make the city what it is. It hopes to build urban narratives born out of this synergy between a place and its memories.)
– Photos by Siddarth PT, Vaishali Chellapa, Harini Vijayakumar, Chandiran Joseph.