Sunday, April 21, 2019

R.I.P Chief

My first proper meeting with Mr Muthiah (Chief to us at Madras Musings, in the words of MMM) was sometime in early 2009. Though I had met him briefly in Jan 2008 at a seminar organised by Chennai Heritage and had gone on to write 3-4 pieces for Musings that year, my correspondence with him had been chiefly over email till then. I was therefore surprised when I got an email requesting me to meet him regarding an article I had written for favour of publication.

I went to his residence where I was greeted with a sight of him seated at his huge table whose top could barely be seen thanks to the books, files and other papers that lay all over. Having warmly welcomed me, he proceeded to critically discuss the piece I had sent, giving me sound advice on how NOT to write articles for Madras Musings! It was indeed a chastening experience, one that promptly dispelled any notions that I had had of being a columnist. To my dispirited self however, there was a major takeaway from the conversation viz., never to make a profile of a person sound like a CV.

As my professional and theatre commitments grew, I started writing more sporadically and by 2013 or 2014, had completely stopped writing for Musings. Every time I met him at some event or the other, his first question would be to enquire as to why I was not writing any more. My reasons for the same would be met with a small grunt of disapproval followed by a comment that one should never find excuses to not write and urging me never to give up research and work on new ideas. It was however not until 2017 that I finally started to write regularly for Musings, though I must say it was my great fortune that I had the opportunity to write the introductory piece to the Arts section in the Madras Musings Silver Jubilee Commemorative Volume in 2016.

Even during the period when I wasn't writing for Musings, he would unfailingly send out a personalised mail every December wishing a Happy New Year. The short and simple message always exuded genuine warmth.

My favorite memory of Mr Muthiah is from my wedding reception. An aunt of mine saw him sitting all by himself at the back of the hall apparently waiting for the line to greet us thin down and brought him straight to the dais. He presented us with a copy of his book Queen of the Coromandel, signed in his usual style. Couple of days later, I got an email from him asking me to thank my aunt on his behalf for helping him out that evening!


Chief, you shall forever be spoken about in the same breath as Henry Davison Love, James Talboys Wheeler and Somerset Playne in the list of legendary chroniclers who have given us all that we know of our beloved Madras. You and your work shall live on through every person taking interest in the glorious heritage of our city.

R.I.P Chief.

Tuesday, February 5, 2019

From India's Digital Archives-14: Anandaranga Vijaya Champu

‘Ananda Ranga Vijaya Champu’ by Srinivasa Kavi is a work in Sanskrit composed in 1752 on the life of one of the greatest chroniclers of South India, Ananda Ranga Pillai, the noted Dubash. In 1937, Dr V Raghavan, noted scholar embarked on a project of editing this work and providing additional material by way of notes and Sanskrit commentary. This was published in 1948 and forms the subject of this piece.

Ananda Ranga Pillai was born in 1709 in Perambur. His connection with Pondicherry, where he was to make his name was a familial one, for his uncle Nainiya Pillai had been appointed the Chief Agent of the French East India Company in 1704. His father Tiruvenkata Pillai settled in Pondicherry along with several other merchants at the behest of Nainiya Pillai and became a successful businessman. While Nainiya Pillai fell out of favour with the French and died a prisoner, Tiruvenkata Pillai went from strength to strength and earned himself a respectable position. On his death in 1726, Ananda Ranga Pillai joined the government and in a span of a decade rose to become its Dubash.

As Dubash, he was a close confidant of Francois Dupleix, the Governor General and often his personal adviser. In addition to assisting the French with their trade, he carried on private trade himself and became extremely wealthy, becoming master of several villages such as Acharapakkam, Tindivanam, Bhuvanagiri etc. That he wielded tremendous power was evidenced by the fact that he was the pivot of all negotiations between the French and Indian princes. Today, he is chiefly remembered for his seminal work, the diaries he maintained which chronicle the political and other developments that shaped the history of South India in the 18th century. These were translated from Tamil in the early 20th century and published as the Private Diaries of Ananda Ranga Pillai over several volumes. He was however not a pioneer in this regard, for he had only inherited the habit from his cousin and Chevaliar Guruva Pillai, the son of Nainiya Pillai. Guruva Pillai’s diaries have not been recovered.

Like several other Dubashes, Ananda Ranga Pillai was a patron of several musicians, dancers and poets. Dr V Raghavan says that he possessed some musical knowledge too, which Francois Dupleix seems to have noted when informed by Pillai that his (Dupleix’s) glories had been composed into songs. The diaries also record that at the specific request of Dupleix, an enactment of French exploits with songs composed by Kavi Kasturi Rangayya, one of the poets patronised by Pillai was performed when the English withdrew from the siege of Pondicherry. Some of the Tamil poets who sought Pillai’s patronage were Sadasiva Desikar, Madhurakavi, Namachivayappulavar and Javvadhuppulavar. A Sanskrit poet who was patronised by him was Srinivasa Kavi, the author of this work. Nothing much is known about him except that he hailed from the North Arcot district.

In his preface to the book, Dr V Raghavan explains the significance of this work on two specific counts. One, it describes the battle of Ambur in 1749 (led by Chanda Sahib in a bid to capture power at Arcot, backed by Dupleix) and the murder of Nasir Jung in 1750 (son of Nizam-Ul-Mulk of Hyderabad) and secondly, for the fact that it explains the origins of the name Chennapatnam (held to be an abbreviated form of Chennakesavapura). Dr Raghavan notes that the pages mentioning the battles which were missing in the diaries were later recovered and published and were found to be corroborating the Champu, which attests to its veracity.

It is interesting to note that the Vijaya Champu is only one of works in three different languages dedicated to Pillai, Kavi Kasturi Rangayya’s Ananda Rangaratchandamu in Telugu (published by Vavilla Ramaswami Sastrulu and Sons in 1922) and Sadasiva Desikar’s Anandarangak-kovai in Tamil being the other two. With small stray verses dedicated to him in various Tamil anthologies by some poets in addition to the full-fledged eulogies, Ananda Ranga Pillai certainly is one of the most feted Dubashes in the history of South India.

From India's Digital Archives-13: The Madras Handbook

The 106th session of the Indian Science Congress, the country’s premier conclave of science will be held between 3rd and 7th January 2019 at the Lovely Professional University, Jalandhar. The Indian Science Congress Association, Kolkata which organises this annual convention has a Madras connect to its founding, for one of its founders JL Simonsen was a distinguished professor of Chemistry at the Presidency College. Commemorating this connect, the book featured in this issue is the Madras Handbook, published in 1922 on the occasion of the session held in Madras that year.

The idea for forming an association for advancement of science in India on the lines of the British Association for the Advancement of Science was brought about by Prof JL Simonsen and Prof MacMahon of the Canning College around 1911 or so. The main objects were to provide a forum for the interaction between scientists across the country, paving the way for a more coordinated effort in scientific research and to give a more systematic direction to scientific enquiry. Scientific research and studies in India until that point in time were solely under the domain of the Asiatic Society. In fact, the first meeting of the Science Congress was held in Kolkata under its auspices and in its building in 1914, coinciding with the centenary of the Indian Museum.

The Science Congress came to Madras in 1922 for its ninth session and was held between January 30th and February 2nd. CS Middlemiss, former Director of the Geological Survey of India was elected its President. It marked a return to the city after seven years, for the second session was held here in 1915. A handbook “to provide members with such information as to the City and Presidency of Madras and the scientific work that is being carried on there” was prepared on the occasion. It was edited by Clive Newcomb, the Chemical Examiner to the Government of Madras.
The book is divided into seventeen chapters covering a wide range of topics, starting with a brief history of Madras by Henry Dodwell, the Curator of the Madras Records Office. The other chapters include a sketch of Fort St George by the Rev C de la Bere, the Garrison Chaplain, a note on the Madras City Waterworks by one of its key personalities, JW Madeley and a brief history of the Madras Corporation by JC Molony.

Of particular interest are the chapters on the city’s premier research laboratory, The King Institute of Preventive Medicine by its Director, Major John Cunningham and the Biological Work in Madras. The King Institute, named after Colonel King, late Sanitary Commissioner was founded in 1903 as a lymph depot for the supply of vaccine lymph to the Madras Presidency and grew to become one of the largest Provincial laboratories in the country, supplying over two million doses of the lymph vaccine annually. Its Microbiological Section was responsible for the clinical diagnosis of a bacteriological nature required by various medical institutions in the Presidency. It served as the headquarters of the Kala-Azar Commission in Madras in 1912.

The chapter on the Biological Work in Madras gives due recognition to the fact that the Presidency was the scene of the earliest biological work done in India, first by the Dutch and then the British. Hortus Malabaricus a seminal work dealing with the flora of the Western Ghats published over twelve volumes between 1686 and 1703 was commissioned by Henry Van Reede, the Governor of Dutch Malabar as early as 1674. Yet another seminal work that had part origins in the Presidency was Flora Indica by William Roxburgh, dealing with the flora of the entire country. Roxburgh arrived in Madras in 1776 as Assistant Surgeon and was later transferred to Kolkata. While in Madras, his main botanical work was on the flora of the Coromandel, published in a series of colour plates.

With each chapter being written by people who, to quote from the foreword are “specially qualified to write it”, the book is a must read as a curtain-raiser for those interested in in-depth study of the Presidency.

From India's Digital Archives-12: Karunamruthasagaram

The December Music Season, one of the city’s most awaited events is just around the corner. Commemorating this annual celebration of classical music that draws audiences (and performers) from across the world, the book featured in this issue is a treatise, which is just over a century old- Karunamruthasagaram by Rao Sahib Abraham Pandithar.

Born in 1859 in the village of Sambuvarvadakarai, then part of the kingdom of Travancore, Abraham Pandithar had his early education at Surandai in Tirunelveli district and after training at a Normal school in Dindigul, became a teacher in 1877. He was from a family that was well versed in ancient Tamil medical literature and practiced native medicine and hence it was but natural that he wished to pursue the same. He became a student of a mendicant, Karunananda Swamy, who impressed with his dedication and ideals taught him the intricacies of medication and also gave him several ingredients, drugs and formulations to prepare medicines for various ailments. Pandithar went on to have a flourishing career as a practitioner of native medicine in Tanjore, with his Gorosanai pills in particular being extremely well known not only in India but also in places such as Ceylon, Burma and the Strait Settlements.

It is however for his contribution to the world of Carnatic music that Abraham Pandithar is best remembered today. He formally learnt music from Dindigul Sadayandi Bhattar and western classical music from Tanjore AG Pichaimuthu Pillai. His interest in Carnatic music led him to delve deeper into research on various theoretical aspects. He cultivated close friendships with several top Carnatic musicians of those times such as Konerirajapuram Vaidyanatha Iyer, Tirukkodikaval Krishna Iyer and Harikesanallur Muthiah Bhagavathar.

In 1912, the Governor of Madras Lord Carmichael visited Tanjore and a reception was organised in honour, where eminent musicians took part. Pandithar proposed the formation of an organisation that would undertake research and debate on various topics connected with Carnatic music. Amongst its objectives were the establishment of an academy to teach South Indian music and conduct examination for students and give them degrees and rewarding distinguished performers with medals and citations. Thus, was formed the Tanjore Sangeetha Vidya Mahajana Sangam, with several noblemen such as the Raja of Ramnad, the Maharajah of Indore as its patrons.

The first meeting of the Sangam was held in May 1912 at the Karunanidhi medical hall, Pandithar’s clinic. It was the first music conference of its kind. In all, the Sangam met six times, until October 1914. The proceedings and deliberations of these conferences were published as Karunamruthasagaram in 1917 by Pandithar at his own expense. The printing was undertaken at the Lawley Electric Printing Press which had been established by Pandithar at the Karunanidhi Medical Hall with the machinery being specially brought in from London.

Karunamruthasagaram was conceived as a series of publications, with the first book titled “On Srutis”. Divided into four parts, the book traces in brief the history of Indian music before going in depth into the structure of twenty-two Srutis. Abraham Pandithar also voiced his support for the Lemurian theory in this book and stated that the lost land of Lemuria was the cradle of human race and that the language spoken by its inhabitants was in fact Tamil. A particularly interesting section of the book contains a list of people acknowledged by Pandithar to be experts in South Indian music with a brief note about their accomplishments.

In the concluding portion, Pandithar introduces the second book in the series, intended to be on Ragas. That was as far as he got, for he passed away in August 1919. He was buried in his experimental farm, Karunanandapuram (referred to by locals as Pandithar Thottam) on the outskirts of Tanjore. The road leading to the Karunanidhi Medical Hall was renamed Abraham Pandithar Road. Today, his legacy lives on through the music conferences of various organisations, for they largely follow the blueprint laid by him in the proceedings of the Tanjore Sangeetha Vidya Mahajana Sangam.



From India's Digital Archives-11: Revived Memories

The book featured in this issue, Revived Memories by K Subba Rao (Ganesh and Co, 1933) is credited with being one of the earliest autobiographies of an Indian journalist. Starting his career as an educationist, Subba Rao later joined The Hindu and was also involved with the Indian Social Reformer as its Joint Editor. He then shifted to political administration by joining the Mysore Services. This book is a fascinating account of his life and interactions with several notable personalities of those times.

Subba Rao was born in Tanjore in the 1860s. His father Krishna Rao held several positions in the Government, starting as a Munshi in the Deputy Collector’s Office in Tanjore and rising to become Sub-Magistrate of Vedaranyam. The family originally hailed from Coimbatore. Subba Rao joined the Government College in Kumbakonam, hailed as the Cambridge of South India in 1876. He was however forced to discontinue his education following financial constraints in the family thanks to his father being relegated to the position of a Taluk Sheristedar at the behest of a rather unscrupulous Collector, HS Thomas.

Subba Rao notes that it was around this time that demand was being felt for the opening of Native High Schools across Southern India following the success of the one in Kumbakonam. On receiving several representations from his friends at Coimbatore, he moved there and started the Coimbatore Native High School in 1882. The school grew against all odds (including obstacles in obtaining recognition, primarily as the teachers though dedicated had not passed through the Training College), producing excellent results in a short span of time. Following its success, a similar school was established in Erode. While at Coimbatore, Subba Rao also started nurturing an interest he had long harboured, that of becoming a journalist. He started to contribute letters to The Hindu and after several rejections became a regular contributor.

Subba Rao moved to Madras in 1886 in search of a job that would earn him a steadier income which would help the family finances, which had further plummeted following his father’s summary dismissal from the services along with eighteen others on the recommendations of the Board of Revenue in the Tanjore Remissions inquiry. He joined the offices of The Hindu following an interview with G Subramania Iyer, its founder and Editor who had been in occasional correspondence with him and was posted as its Madurai Correspondent. He arrived in Madurai just as the Government was in the midst of active damage control following its defeat in the famous Garstin Dacoity Case which had resulted in the acquittal of the Zamindar of Bodinayakanur, who had been named as chief accused. Subba Rao’s work as a clandestine reporter reporting on the confidential enquiry commission found great acclaim with his employers and thus began a nearly decade old association.

Subba Rao was an active member of the Social Reform movement. In the book, he narrates three incidents of widow remarriage that he was closely involved with (the first one being that of G Subramania Iyer’s daughter) in the face of heavy social opposition. Along with a few others, he founded the Indian Social Reformer, a weekly devoted to moral and social reforms and subsequently the Madras Social Reform Association.
After eight years with The Hindu, Subba Rao quit to join the Mysore services. The shift in the profession came about thanks to, in his own words “a dismal financial horizon”. G Subramania Iyer was however not too keen to let him go and even left the door open for his return until the time the Mysore services had confirmed his appointment. There was however no looking back and Subba Rao left the office for good. The association with The Hindu was renewed when in 1924, he wrote a series of articles documenting his life and association with several public personalities, which form the basis for this book.

The book is a valuable documentation of public life and several notable incidents of the late 19th and early 20th century life in the Madras Presidency. The short biographical accounts of the various people Subba Rao was in close contact with, such as Sir T Muthuswami Iyer, G Subramania Iyer, Sir K Seshadri Iyer (Dewan of Mysore), Srinivasa Raghava Iyengar (Dewan of Baroda) do justice to the remarkable personalities they were, without coming across as being hagiographical. In his foreword to the book, the Rt Hon’ble VS Srinivasa Sastri commends the book as being a “good specimen of its class” and makes a special mention of how Subba Rao has steered clear of making ugly disclosures and destroying reputations. A fine line of humour throughout the narrative adds value to this must-read book.

Thursday, October 4, 2018

From India's Digital Archives-10: Kasturiranga Iyengar

The Hindu turned 140 on September 20th. Its journey from an eight-page weekly in the 1880s to its current avatar has been a remarkable one with several firsts to its credit. That it has managed to achieve tremendous success despite many odds is thanks in no small measure to the spirit of the founders and the several men who have been at its helm over the course of its journey. The book featured in this issue is a biography of one such person, Kasturiranga Iyengar.

Born in 1859, Kasturiranga Iyengar had his early education in Kumbakonam, before completing his law degree from the Presidency College in 1884. On completion of his apprenticeship under the legendary Sir V Bashyam Iyengar, Kasturiranga Iyengar rather intriguingly chose to establish practice in Coimbatore rather than in Madras. He however established himself as a leading lawyer within a short span of time in the city which was then slowly starting to gain importance as an urban centre.

Kasturiranga Iyengar returned to Madras in 1894 after a successful decade in Coimbatore. Apart from achieving legal success, he had also held several public positions, having been elected to the Coimbatore Municipal Council and the Coimbatore District Board apart from being appointed Honorary Magistrate. Even during his apprenticeship, Kasturiranga Iyengar had displayed a keen sense of public spiritedness. He was one of the founders of the Madras Mahajana Sabha in 1884, a nationalist body which would serve as a platform for the Indians to air their grievances and come together to voice their views on matters of social reform. It was a successor of sorts to the Madras Native Association, a body that had been founded by Gazulu Lakshminarasu Chetty in 1852 which had become inactive following his death in 1868.

The Hindu had been founded in 1878 by six young men, G Subramania Iyer, M Veeraghavachariar, N Subba Rau Pantulu, TT Rangachariar, PV Rangachariar and D Kesava Rao Pant, all of whom were members of the Triplicane Literary Society. It was started as a journal which would serve as a forum to represent Indian opinion, the lack of which was sorely felt when the British owned newspapers criticised the appointment of Sir T Muthuswamy Iyer as Judge of the Madras High Court. With their avowed purposes being similar, the Mahajana Sabha and The Hindu began a close association, with the Sabha for sometime even functioning out of the offices of the newspaper. It was but inevitable that Kasturiranga Iyengar too would become associated with the newspaper. Soon after his return from Coimbatore, he was appointed its Legal Advisor in 1895. His association was not confined to his legal capacity, for he was an active contributor to its columns on legal, political and social matters.

While the newspaper started to make its presence felt by being vocal on several issues of national interest, it was far from smooth sailing on its financial front. With little advertisement revenue to fall back on and a small circulation (with a good number of subscribers in arrears), it was largely dependent on the munificence of a few patrons who sympathised with its cause. The death of one such patron, Maharaja of Vizianagaram in 1897 threw the paper into deeper difficulties. Adding to its troubles was the fact that G Subramania Iyer (who was one of two remaining from the founding group) decided to withdraw from the newspaper, leaving M Veeraraghavachariar in sole charge. A failed attempt in 1901 at reconstituting the paper as a joint stock company (due to poor public response to the share issue) only made things worse.

It was in these circumstances that Kasturiranga Iyengar decided to purchase the newspaper. It was not a decision that had ready approval of his friends and relatives. Undeterred and placing supreme confidence in the growing popularity of the paper amidst the public, he along with Sir C Sankaran Nair and T Rangachari bought the paper for Rs 75000 in 1905. Thus began a two-decade association with the paper, one that would end only with his death in 1923.

Kasturiranga Iyengar faced several challenges within a short span of taking over. He lost the services of C Karunakara Menon, who had been with the paper since the 1880s and had served as its editor since 1898. M Veeraraghavachariar, who was serving as its manager and principal administrator too left due to illness. Undeterred by the challenges, Kasturiranga Iyengar brought in his nephew, A Rangaswami Iyengar who was a lawyer in Tanjore as Assistant Editor and manager of the paper and undertook several measures to put the paper in a strong financial footing. The pages were increased, which brought in more advertising revenue and arrears in subscription were dealt with by stopping supply of the paper to defaulters. On the news front, he subscribed to the Reuters and appointed more correspondents in the mofussils and North Indian centres. Under the stewardship of Kasturiranga Iyengar, the newspaper grew to become one of the country’s leading newspapers, not afraid of taking on Governors and public servants and championing several public causes, most notable amongst them being the Arbuthnot bank crash and its fallout. In many ways, it became the hub of political activity in Madras, which earned it the sobriquet “a den of conspirators” in the bureaucratic circles.

The book, written by VK Narasimhan who was the Deputy Editor of The Hindu was published in November 1963 as a part of the Builders of Modern India Series. The Series is an initiative of the Publications Division of the Government of India that dates to the 1920s. In its own words, the objective of the Series is the publication of short biographies of eminent people who have been instrumental in the national renaissance and the freedom movement. Sir CP Ramaswamy Iyer has written the foreword of this book, which is a fascinating profile of the life and times of a multifaceted personality.



From India's Digital Archives-9: The Madrasiana

The book featured in this issue, The Madrasiana (WT Munro, 1868) turns 150 this year. It is an interesting compilation of all things significant in Madras.

WT Munro was the pseudonym of Rev William Taylor, a missionary and orientalist who played an important role in the analysis and cataloguing of the Mackenzie Manuscripts in the 1830s. Some of his other works include a memoir of the Amravati sculptures titled “On the Elliot Marbles” and “A Memoir of the First Centenary of the Earliest Protestant Mission at Madras” marking the centenary of the Vepery Mission.

The book is divided into four parts. Part 1 of the book contains brief profiles of the churches and chapels of Madras while Part 2 deals with the history of public places and monuments such as The Pantheon, The Mint, Banqueting Hall, Brodies Castle, the Cenotaph etc. Part 3 is titled Archaeological Notes and contains his writings on topics of philosophy and theology while Part 4 is a miscellaneous collection.

Parts 1 and 2 contain vivid descriptions of the various structures as they stood then and the stories behind their origins. For instance, he writes that the St George’s Cathedral was constructed as a church primarily for the aristocracy or the “big wigs of Madras” as he called them, as other churches were mostly out of bounds for them, though not officially. The site chosen was suitable, being “as central as possible to the residences of those for whose use it was principally intended”, alluding to the owners of the grand garden houses on the Choultry Plain. He hails its Iconic pillars and the portico, which was then a novelty in Madras. Writing of the Luz Church, he alludes to the well-known legend of a light coming to the rescue of Portuguese sailors caught in the rough seas and guiding them to the spot where the church now stands and says that it is the first footing of Christianity in the neighbourhood of Madras. As regards the St Andrews Kirk, which came up on the site known as “Ellis’s Cutcherry” Munro strangely makes no mention of the unique step well foundation, while delving on the acoustical issues it was faced with thanks to the steep dome and calls it the “worst in Madras as to the essential point of hearing”!

Amongst the many interesting descriptions of the various public spaces is that of The Pantheon, which had a history dating to the 1770s, when it was the residence of a civil servant. In the 1790s, it served as the Public Assembly Rooms. It served as the Land Customs house from 1830, when the Government acquired it from the wealthy Armenian merchant ES Moorat, to whom they had sold it in 1821. When the Central Museum was founded in 1851, it made the Pantheon its home and several additions were made to it. “To come at the original building, you have to remove the colonade, or portico, the upper story, and lastly the two sides, leaving only a small lodge on either side; and then the old building will remain which was once called “The Pantheon;” a building by no means handsome in external appearance, but erected more for use than show”, writes Munro. Today, it is virtually impossible to make out the remnants of the old Pantheon.

By far the most interesting article in Part 3 is the one prophesising the arrival of Veera Bhoga Vasanta Raya, said to be the Kalki Avatar. Munro writes of the Chenna Basaveswara Kala Gnanam by a poet named Chennappa and a few other works, which prophesise the arrival of a messiah to restore dharma. This legend seems to have been strong enough to merit a separate writeup in the Madras Times on his arrival and characteristics.

Two notable articles in Part 4 are the ones dealing with an account of three old Madras newspapers, the Madras Courier, the Madras Gazette and the Government Gazette and the Harbour project. Writing about the harbour project, he writes of the various pitfalls of the Madras coast and the constant threats of inundation. He gives instances of encroachments of the sea (such as the drowning of the Bulwark in 1820-22) and hopes that the entire project would receive careful consideration. Seven years from the publication of this book, the foundation stone for the harbour was laid.