My post today is about Dr.M.C.Nanjunda Rao, a person who was one of the city’s most influential figures in the early 20th century. When I started out researching his life for an article for Madras Musings, what little I knew about this person was about his association with the Ramakrishna Math at Madras. But further study into his life revealed an amazing personality, a patriot who came to be known as much for his philanthropy as his medical practice.
An edited version of this article appeared in Madras Musings, April(1-15), 2008.
Dr.M.C.Nanjunda Rao was born in1862 in Nanjangund, near Mysore. His father, Neelakanta Rao was working in the Royal household of the Maharajah of Mysore. Dr.Nanjunda Rao was the eighth child of his father. His early education was at Mysore where he was helped by the Maharajah financially. In 1880, he passed his Matriculation exams with distinction. He moved to Madras with his parents in the mid 1880s.
He then passed his medical examinations (M.B & C.M, as it was known then), and was appointed as Assistant Professor in the Madras Medical College. He was also the first to be appointed to the post of Chemical Examiner to the Government of Madras. An interesting incident that happened here highlighted his courage and lofty principles that he was famous for. He was refused permission to read a paper on Ayurveda at a seminar, by the then Director of Medical Sciences, an European who termed Ayurveda as a barbaric science. This did not augur well with Dr.Nanjunda Rao, who quit his post. That he had a large family to maintain and was not above want did not sit heavily on him. He believed in standing up for what he thought was right.
It was after quitting the post that he took to private practice. Soon, he became popular with many Zamindars and Rajahs. Some among them were the Maharajah of Mysore, his old benefactor, The Rajah of Venkatagiri, Zamindar of Kattuputhur. He was affectionately known as “ Dadha” of Triplicane and Mylapore,. He also made a lot of Theosophist friends in Madame Blavatsky, Col.Olcott, Mr.Leadbeater and Mr.Goodwin. He was also a good friend of Annie Besant with whom he soon fell out over the famous case of custody of J.Krishnamurthy and his brother. He treated Madame Blavatsky during her last days and she presented him with a Syrian painting of Jesus Christ, on a gold plate.
Dr.Nanjunda Rao was a nationalist at heart and was an ardent supporter of the freedom struggle. The story of the poet Bharathi and his meeting with Dr.Nanjunda Rao is an interesting one. Subramania Bharati planned to get away to Pondichery for safety as he was being tailed by the British Police. He used to move about only at night in various disguises. Subramania Bharati sought asylum in one of the cottages in Dr.Nanjunda Rao’s spacious garden for about a week. One night, the police woke up Dr.Nanjunda Rao and after apologizing to him for causing inconvenience at that hour, told him that they thought that Subramania Bharati was hiding there. Dr.Nanjunda Rao sent them away telling them that Subramania Bharati was not hiding there. The police had to move away as they could not but respect his word, as he was treating many of their families. As soon as they moved away, Dr.Nanjunda Rao planned to make Bharati escape to Pondicherry. The Buckingham canal, which was just a stone’s throw from their house had boats carrying merchandise upto Pondicherry. Dr.Nanjunda Rao bargained with a boat man to take with him Subramania Bharati, who was dressed as a fakir. Dr.Nanjunda Rao also sent his trusted servant, one Raman Nair along with Bharati to make sure that he reached Pondicherry safely. The servant returned the next evening, communicating Bharati’s safe arrival at Pondicherry.
Dr.Nanjunda Rao also developed a good friendship with Dr.Bipin Chandra Pal when he visited Madras. Dr.Pal gave a series of lectures on the Gita at Dr.Nanjunda Rao’s house on Brodies Road, Sasi Vilas. It was this friendship that got him in the bad books of the Government, who considered Pal a revolutionary.
His house on Brodies Road, “Sasi Vilas” and the nearby bungalow “Grace Lodge” (now no longer standing) had seen many luminaries in the past. Swami Vivekananda, before his tour to America in 1893, visited Sasi Vilas and met him. Another important event that took place in this house was the marriage of Dr.Sarojini Naidu to Dr. Muthyala Govindarajulu Naidu. This marriage caused quite a furore in those days as Muthyala Govindarajulu Naidu was from a different caste.
Dr. Nanjunda Rao was a great philanthropist. His association with the Ramakrishna Math at Chennai was a remarkable one. He gave one of his houses at Keshavaperumal Street to start the Ramakrishna Mission Students Home in the year 1905. Later, the Home moved to one of his residences in Kutcheri Road, “ Chamundi Vihar”. Letters by Swami Vivekananda to him show the spiritual bonding between the two. Along with Mr.Alasinga Perumal, Dr.Nanjunda Rao was instrumental in publishing “ Prabudhha Bharata “(Awakened India) from Chennai, in the year 1896 where it functioned till 1898.It is the oldest English journal of its kind in India and is currently being published from Mayawati, in the Himalayas. In his letter from England to Dr.Nanjunda Rao, Swami Vivekananda is shown to portray great support and help to this journal by getting subscribers from there.
Dr.Nanjunda Rao was greatly loved by the public. They took him into confidence whenever they were faced with problems. Dr.Nanjunda Rao opened a clinic for the poor in Triplicane and named it M.C.N. Eclectic Dispensary. Here, medicines were sold at very reasonable prices compared to other places selling foreign medicines. A broad minded soul, he went to the Harijan quarters near his place to treat his sick coachman Kandan for his typhoid. He even brought him home and accommodated him in one of the cottages in his garden. Needless to say, the Brahmin community was much chagrined. However, Dr.Nanjunda Rao believed that each soul was equal and did not mind what others talked about it. Another incident highlights the confidence people had in him. The Clergy of the Santhome Church wanted to close the narrow public passage between the Church and the Bishop’s Bungalow as according to them, the movement of the people in this passage disturbed the peace of the Church and the Bishop’s Bungalow. They enlisted the help of the police and unlawfully barricaded the passage. The people were not allowed movement and hence they took up this matter with Dr.Nanjunda Rao. After consulting his good friends Kasturiranga Iyengar of “THE HINDU”, Alladi Krishnaswamy Iyer and C.P.Ramaswamy Iyer, he decided to organize a protest by peaceful means. The residents of Mylapore collected in large numbers for a peaceful protest march led by Dr.Nanjunda Rao, Kasturiranga Iyengar, Rangaswamy Iyengar of the Swadesamitran and several other prominent persons. The police and the Clergy had to yield in the face of such strong moral pressure and the barricade was completely removed, much to the joy of the citizens.
A deeply religious person, he found his spiritual Guru in a simple Brahmin lady, Sakkarai Ammal. He even built a temple for her at Thiruvanmiyur and endowed huge lands for her benefit. The temple was recently renovated. He studied Tamil at an advanced age to study the glory of Thevaram and Thirupugazh. He also contributed in a big way towards the renovation of the Saint Thiruvalluvar temple in Mylapore. He also built a temple for Vasuki Ammal, wife of Saint Thiruvalluvar in the same compound.
He wanted to visit the sacred shrines of Badrinath and Kedharnath before he passed away. He undertook the trip along with his wife and his trusted servant, Raman. The Maharaja of Mysore along with his wife and a royal entourage joined him at Rishikesh. Before the arrival of the Maharaja, Dr.Nanjunda Rao led a peaceful protest against a sudden order by the Government of Gharwal to ban entry of pilgrims to the shrines. He even petitioned the Commissioner of Gharwal to remove this ban, for which no reasons had been disclosed. Dr.Nanjunda Rao had enlisted the support of the pilgrims and also the Gharwali porters whose livelihood depended upon the inflow of pilgrims. The Commissioner of Gharwal had to hastily withdraw the ban in the face of this sudden upsurge. He walked the distance to the shrines, not heeding the advice of a few doctor friends at Madras who had warned him against it as it would further damage his dilated heart. This left him very weak and returned to Madras an emaciated figure. After his return, he went about organizing a trip to Rameshwaram, said to be necessary to reap full benefits of a trip to Badrinath. His doctor friends were against this too. However, he insisted on making the journey. Before he left for Rameshwaram, he addressed a public meeting at the Gokhale Hall, presided over by Sir Murray Coutts Trotter, the then Chief Justice of Madras describing his pilgrimage to Northern India.
Soon after his return from Rameshwaram, he passed away. It was the year 1921. The high esteem that he was held in by the public was evidenced by the crowd of thousands of sorrowing people at his funeral.
(1)GLORIOUS YEARS- A Brief life sketch by Shri Damodar Rao, Grandson of Dr.Nanjunda Rao
(2)Shri ASHOK- Great Grandson of Dr.Nanjunda Rao, and a resident of Sasi Vilas