Wednesday, February 19, 2020

C V Swaminatha Iyer and the Viveka Chintamani

The history of Tamil journalism is a long and interesting one. While the propagation of religion was primarily the focus of early Tamil magazines (the first one being the eponymous Tamil Magazine which was brought out by the Religious Tract Society in 1831), it changed over a period of time to serve other objectives such as dissemination of knowledge on literature, science, art, culture etc. The pioneer in this regard was the ‘Dinavarthamani’, which was founded in 1855 and was edited by Father Percival. This piece is about one such magazine of general interest, the Viveka Chintamani which was founded in 1892 by a man who is not much spoken about today for his contribution to the world of Tamil journalism, CV Swaminatha Iyer.

He was born in 1863 in Tiruvaiyaru. Nothing much is known about his family except that it had once been a wealthy one whose fortunes had dwindled over a period of time. His father Venkatarama Iyer however ensured that the family circumstances did not stand in the way of his son’s education, which was completed at Kumbakonam.

Swaminatha Iyer’s tryst with journalism came about quite as a matter of chance. While on a visit to Madras in 1885, he came into contact with G Subramania Iyer, the proprietor of The Hindu, who had started the Swadesamitran three years earlier. With the job of running two newspapers proving to be an arduous one, Subramania Iyer was on the lookout for a person who would take care of the fledgling Swadesamitran. The mantle fell on Swaminatha Iyer, thus marking the beginning of a long journey in the world of journalism. Though Subramania Iyer remained the publisher and editor in name, it was Swaminatha Iyer who ran the show, as several accounts of the life of G Subramania Iyer and the early years of the Swadesamitran record. Swaminatha Iyer’s stint at Swadesamitran lasted for a decade. This experience would come in handy when he would go on bring out the Viveka Chintamani.

It was around this time that several associations such as the Triplicane Literary Society and the Madras Hindu Reform Association were founded to promote public discussions and thought on various socio-political issues prevailing at that point of time. In the early 1880s, G Subramania Iyer and M Veeraraghavachariar founded the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge on the lines of the eponymous organisation that had been founded in London in 1826. The organisation mainly aimed at the creation of political awareness and knowledge amongst the masses. It however did not last for long as dwindling interest finally led to its closure in the 1890s. The idea did not die, for it served as an inspiration to Swaminatha Iyer to start an organisation on similar lines. Thus, was born the Diffusion of Knowledge Agency on March 1st, 1892, its primary objective being promotion of the habit of reading amongst the vast rural population and creating opportunities for learning. In order to carry out its objectives, Swaminatha Iyer began a monthly magazine, Viveka Chintamani, the first issue coming out in May 1892.

Viveka Chintamani was 32 pages in size and had articles on a variety of topics such as science, moral instruction for students, current affairs etc. As early as the second issue, it had a page exclusively for children, probably the first magazine to do so. It also had a separate section for women. The magazine had several significant achievements, particularly in the field of Tamil fiction to its credit. It serialised Kamalambal Charithram by the young BR Rajam Aiyar, which was perhaps only the third novel in Tamil. The story ran for two years, between February 1893 and January 1895. The following year, it was brought out as a book by CV Swaminatha Iyer. It serialised the early episodes of A Madhaviah’s work Savithri Charithram in 1895, before it was stopped abruptly for reasons unknown. The magazine would later carry his work Muthumeenakshi. It also carried book reviews and short stories of authors such as Milton, Rabindranath Tagore etc translated into Tamil.

Viveka Chintamani also actively promoted the study of the Tamil language. It ran several articles on its literary and grammatical aspects. ‘Parithimaar Kalaignar’ VG Surayanarayana Sastriar wrote a series on the life of many Tamil poets, which was released as a compilation titled ‘Tamilppulavar Charithram’ after his death in 1903.

Very interestingly, the magazine came in two editions, a thick paper one for ‘schools, patrons, reading rooms and circulating libraries’ and a thin paper one for the masses. The office, which was in Sydoji Lane, Triplicane was shifted the Swaminatha Iyer’s residence Lalitalaya in Adam Street in Mylapore around 1908 or so.

CV Swaminatha Iyer was a man of several other interesting facets. He was a highly spiritual personality. An active practitioner of Kundalini Yoga, he was also a Srividya Upasaka, who took on the monastic name of Satyananda. He founded the Ananda Mission in 1903 in Chidambaram, whose aim was the ‘the propagation of Truth and Knowledge as the way to Health, Happiness and Life through self-help, self-control and self-culture’. It sought to work for the ‘uplift of humanity by uplifting of human thought above the considerations of the lower self’. He believed staunchly in the sovereignty of the rule of the King Emperor and led the initiative to appeal for the renaming of Black Town as George Town following the Coronation Durbar in 1905. The name change was announced the following year. His ardent support of the sovereignty however did not stand in the way of his taking an active part in the proceedings of the case that followed the Arbuthnot Bank crash in 1906. He had lost nearly Rs 20000 in the crash. It was following his petition that Justice Boddam, a preference shareholder (and therefore an interested party) of one of Arbuthnot & Co’s main assets, the shares of Arbuthnot Industrials Limited recused himself as the Insolvency Commissioner.

Approaching the age of sixty, Swaminatha Iyer handed over the reign of Viveka Chintamani to his elder son, Sadanand soon after the completion of its Silver Jubilee year in 1917. It however did not last for much longer, winding up in the 1920s. Sadanand was however on his way to becoming a legend in his own right in the field of journalism. He founded the nationalistic Free Press Journal Agency in Bombay and ran the eponymous paper in the 1930s. He bought the Indian Express from Dr P Varadarajulu Naidu in 1933 and ran it for a while, before it was taken over by Ramnath Goenka. He was also one of the seven founding shareholders of the Press Trust of India. Swaminatha Iyer’s younger son, Dr S Natarajan (more popularly known by his pen name, Najan) too would carry on his father’s legacy. A renowned Srividya Upasaka, he wrote more than 100 books in his lifetime on diverse topics.
Lalitalaya’s tryst with journalism continues till date, with Dr Natarajan’s son running a publishing unit from the redeveloped premises.

1. Various issues of Viveka Chintamani
2. Indhiya Viduthalaikku mundhaiya Tamizh idhazhgal, (Part 1), E Sundaramoorthy and Arasu M.R, International Institute of Tamil Studies, 1998.

Sunday, July 7, 2019

When Tamizh Thatha turned 80

Dr. U. Ve. Swaminatha Iyer was one the foremost scholars of the Tamil language. Born in Uthamadhanapuram in Tanjavur district on 19 February 1855, Swaminatha Iyer dedicated his life to the study and research of Tamil. One of his biggest contributions was bringing to light several literary classics such as the Jeevakachintamani, Pathuppatu, Silappadhikaram, Manimekalai etc., works that had hitherto been known only through passing references in other pieces of Tamil literature. His painstaking efforts, which involved going in search of and collecting palm leaf manuscripts from various sources, resulted in a huge body of work and earned him several admirers and dedicated followers, besides the moniker Tamizh Thatha. In 1935, when he turned 80, a group of prominent well-wishers from Madras took it upon themselves to celebrate the occasion in a grand manner.

A committee titled the ‘Mahamahopadhyaya Dr. V. Swaminatha Iyer 81st Birthday Celebration Committee’ was formed under the chairmanship of Sir P.T. Rajan, the Justice Party leader who would become the Chief Minister of the Madras Presidency the following year. Popular science writer P.N. Appuswami and noted Tamil lexicographers T. Sivaramasetu Pillai and S. Vaiyapuri Pillai were the Secretaries, while Rao Bahadur K.V. Krishnaswami Ayyar served as its Treasurer.

In its appeal calling for public donations dated February 6, 1935, the Committee noted Dr. Swaminatha Iyer’s contribution to the world of Tamil and his role in the resuscitation of the great classics of Tamil literature. It credited his work as being instrumental in reforming the prevailing conception of ancient Tamil culture and added that, in other countries, such occasions were celebrated on a magnificent scale by publishing memorial volumes, raising commemorative statues etc. The Committee proposed to express its gratitude to Dr. Swamintha Iyer by presenting an address on his birthday and installing his portrait at the Madras University.

An account of the birthday celebrations on 6 March 1935, published by the Madras Law Journal Press, makes for interesting reading. The sathabhishekam was performed by Dr. Swaminatha Iyer’s son Kalyanasundara Iyer in a grand manner, following all ritualistic traditions at their home ‘Thyagaraja Vilas’ in Pillaiyar Koil Street, Tiruvatteeswaranpet (now demolished). In the afternoon, an address was presented to Dr. Swaminatha Iyer by some of his former students, in the form of a poem of three stanzas, which paid tribute to the services rendered by him to the study of Tamil literature. The poem was composed by his star pupil, Vidwan K.V. Jagannatha Iyer (Ki.Va.Ja.). Amongst those present on the occasion were Prof. K. Sundararama Iyer, Dewan Bahadur K.S. Ramaswamy Sastri and a representative of the Dharmapuram Adheenam.

That evening, a large and distinguished gathering of citizens met at the Senate House for the unveiling and presentation of Dr. Swaminatha Iyer’s portrait. A tea party with catering by Ramakrishna Lunch Home was hosted by Kalyanasundara Iyer on its lawns, after which the public meeting commenced. P. N. Appuswamy read out a number of messages received from friends and well-wishers of Dr. Swaminatha Iyer, such as Sir C.P. Ramaswamy Iyer, Sir T. Desikachariar, the Rt. Hon’ble V.S. Srinivasa Sastri, Sir M. Devadoss and the Raja of Ramnad. Sir P.T. Rajan presented a purse containing Rs 3,001 on behalf of the Committee to Dr. Swaminatha Iyer.

Two interesting gifts received were a cheque for Rs 501 sent by an anonymous donor, with a request that it be utilised by Dr. Swaminatha Iyer towards penning his memoirs in the form of a book and a 60-year-old stylus presented by R. Krishna Rao Bhonsle on behalf of the Board of Studies in Tamil and Kannada of the Andhra University.

Addresses in tastefully done gold and silver caskets were presented on behalf of several organisations such as the Madras Tamil Pandits Sangam, the Sanskrit Academy, the Madras Library Association and the Tamil Lexicon Committee. The Old Boys Association of the Kumbakonam College (where Dr. Swaminatha Iyer had taught for 23 years) and the Tamil students of the Presidency College (where he took up employment in 1903 on his transfer to Madras) presented addresses too, as did the students of Loyola College and the Government Mahomedan College.

Sir Mohammad Usman, the Chief Guest of the evening, unveiled the portrait (executed by artist Dorai), which had been presented to the Senate by the Tiruppanandal Adheenam, a prominent patron of the Tamil language. Paying rich tributes to Dr. Swaminatha Iyer, Sir Mohammad Usman noted that it was thanks to the Tamil scholar’s efforts that the Adheenam had instituted a scholarship of Rs 1,000 to be awarded every year to the student who stood first in the Vidwan’s examination. The portrait was received by the Vice Chancellor of the University of Madras, R. Littlehailes who, in his address, recognised the scholar’s achievements and took great pride in the fact that the University had conferred a Doctorate on him a few years earlier for his services to the Tamil language.

In his acceptance speech, Dr. Swaminatha Iyer gratefully acknowledged all the praise and gifts received, and humbly submitted that these were to be attributed to the love of the donors for the Tamil language. He added that his success was largely due to his master Meenakshisundaram Pillai and recalled the help he had received from various people in the course of his journey, mentioning in particular Thyagaraja Chettiar, the Tamil Pandit who had recommended his name for the post of Tamil teacher at Kumbakonam College.

Copies of the 64-page special issue brought out by the Kalaimagal magazine, to which Dr. Swaminatha Iyer was a regular contributor, were presented to the gathering. A concert by Harikesanallur Muthiah Bhagavathar provided a fitting finale to the grand celebrations.

The celebrations were not restricted to Madras city. Meetings were held across several places in the Presidency such as Kumbakonam, Erode, Madurai and Tirunelveli to commemorate the occasion. Celebrations were also held at Rangoon and Jaffna, where a portrait of Dr. Swaminatha Iyer was unveiled at the Kala Nilayam Hall, evidencing the far-reaching impact of his work.

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.