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(ARCHIVE) Vol. XX No. 12, October 1-15, 2010

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The first strike of professionals in India?

A fearless friend of India

Getting citizens involved...

He unveiled the mysteries of Neem

The first strike of professionals in India?
(By Pradeep Chakravarthy)

Music and dance are among the 16 forms of worship listed by ancient temple texts and those who performed that service were important parts of the temples of Tamil Nadu till the early 20th Century when the Devadasi Act came into force. The devadasi community had different ‘subgroups’ within it. Many of the women were dancers, while others performed various chores in the temple. In many inscriptions, those who sang are separately referred to as Padaliyar or Padiniyar. While the most ancient temples in what is now Chennai had members of this community, it is the Adipureeswara temple of Tiruvottriyur that seems to have had the largest and most powerful community.

Among the 200+ inscriptions from the Chola and Vijayanagar periods in this temple, several deal with devadasi-s attached to the temples and make for interesting reading and understanding of the role and rights women had in those days.

In the Chola period

A record from the reign of Rajendra I (1012–1044) mentions 12 devaradiyar who were dedicated exclusively to the Goddess’s shrine. Some of them were wealthy enough to institute poojas in their own names and must have been very important people since they had titles like the “Ainuru Talaikolli”, a title usually reserved for warriors, allowing them to carry a staff inset with the navaratna and plated with sheets of gold.

During the reign of King Virarajendra (1063–1070 C.E.), at least 22 taliyilar sang and danced before the deities. The temple had its own natuvanar who taught these dancers. The temple also had 16 devaradiyar who “recited the tirupadiyam” in a low pitch called the agamargam style. One such performance by Uravakinan Talaikolli was actually attended by Raja Raja III (1216–1256).

It is normally believed that devadasi-s were expected to remain unmarried, since they were dedicated to the Lord of the temple. But a few inscriptions in the Chola times state contrary to this and one of them is in Tiruvottriyur. Chaturan Chaturi is referred to as the ahamudayal or keeper of the house (literally wife) of Nagan Perungadan.

With these inscriptions and other such inscriptions from the 11th-13th Centuries, we can conclude that the devaradiyar community was a respected, important and tightly knit community in those times.

In the Vijayanagar period

Mention of the devadasi community in Tiruvottriyur appears again in the Vijayanagar period. What is recorded is probably the earliest documented strike in India. This inscription was published in English in the Annual Report of Indian Epigraphy in August 1913.

It records that Vitappar was appointed as the king’s treasurer in Tiruvottriyur in Saka year 1290 (1290+78 = 1368 CE). On assumption of office, he had to again settle a dispute between three groups of the temple servants – the Devaradiyar, Padaliyar and Ishabhataliyilar. All of them had struck work and this must have seriously impeded the conduct of the temple rituals. We also learn from the inscription that this was not the first occasion; in fact, it was the third time. Two earlier disputes had been adjudicated. The first time, the dispute was adjudicated and settled by the Mudaliar of Chidambaram (called Perumbarapuliyur in the inscription). The second time it was settled by the trustees of the temple.

The inscription gives us some detail about how the dispute was settled by Vitappar. A meeting was called in the Vyakarnadana Mandapa in the temple. Present in the meeting were the three groups fighting against each other – the Devaradiyar, Padaliyar and Ishabhataliyilar. Also present were Srirudras and Srimaheswaras. The last two were probably ascetics who had a say on the temple administration. We also learn that before the meeting Vitappar had discussions with the Kaikolars (artisans) and the Virasola-anukkar about the dispute. Frustratingly, the inscription does not tell us what was decided. However, within three years, in Saka 1293 (1371CE), the dispute erupted again.

This time a person no less than the Vijayanagar King, Kampana Udaiyar, ordered a settlement. The venue for the meeting was the same. The arbitrator this time was Tunai-irunda Nambi Kongarayar. Many others were present. They included the Nattar or district representatives. It appears that by now the dispute was not between just the three groups but others such as the Sokkattaliyilar, Muttukkarar and Viranukkar. The Kaikollar were indirectly involved. This time, a full account of the proceedings, and what each party said for or against, was inscribed on the temple walls. Frustratingly, the report dismisses the proceedings and condenses all of them by saying, “The points settled were many and involved details which are unnecessary to register.”

However, we have some information on how the question was settled; it appears that each community’s perception of importance was appeased by special rights and privileges given to each of them in various temple rituals. The Ishabhattaliyilar were required to serve in the shrine of the God and the Devaradiyar in the shrine of the Goddess. When the deities were carried in procession inside or outside the temple precincts to mandapa-s, tanks and gardens, or when deities were minor such as Tiruvadavur Nayanar (the Saivaite saint Manickavasagar), the rights and privileges were different. At this point, the inscription mentions dances and music specific to temples, sandikkunippam, idavu, malaippu, agamargam, sindukku and vari, however, being some terms that have all fallen into disuse today. Even this comprehensive meeting did not settle all differences. Remaining issues were settled at another meeting called for in the reign of Harihara II (1377-1404).

All these inscriptions are on the south wall of the first prakara of the temple in the central shrine for Adipureeswara. The inscriptions in Tiruvottriyur are important to historians as well as those interested in dance and music. They give us a sense of the richness of the arts in the ancient Chennai region. They tell us that the women temple servants were an important and powerful community in the Chola and Vijayanagar periods because of their unique expertise. We also get some indication of how legal disputes were settled locally with precedents and how decisions through public hearing were preferred. The temple devotees should have the full inscriptions translated and displayed as a means of preserving such rare inscriptions for posterity.

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A fearless friend of India
T.V. Srinivasan recalls a legendary lawyer, Eardley Norton District Grand Master, Madras

Eardley Norton, a leading 19th Century-early 20th Century advocate, was the son of John Norton who was the Advocate General of Madras. His cousin George Norton, also a leading advocate, was responsible for the petition that led to the formation of the University of Madras. The family lived in a massive property called Admiralty Garden in Mandaveli and the adjacent road continues to bear the Norton name. Later, the Admiralty Hotel was established in the property. When it closed, it was acquired by the State Bank of India to set up a staff training centre.

Eardley Norton was associated with the Indian National Congress right from its inception. He participated in the 1887 session in Madras, in the course of which he made a much acclaimed speech defending his support for Indian nationalists and association with the Congress. He also organised, along with the Governor, Lord Connemara, and the Sheriff of Madras, S. Ramaswami Mudaliar, a magnificent reception for the visiting dignitaries. This was how the reception was recorded by the press:

“At Madras, it was understood that Lord Connemara was personally desirous of attending the Congress, but Lord Dufferin thought it would be preferable for the Governor to receive the delegates. Lord Connemara accordingly first attended the magnificent reception given by Mr. Eardley Norton and, on the following day, himself received the delegates at Government House in a manner befitting his exalted position and fully worthy of the occasion. It was a brilliant function in which His Excellency freely mixed and conversed with the delegates and gave unmistakable evidence of his sympathies with the movement. Sumptuous refreshments were also provided for the delegates and the Governor’s own band was in attendance.”

As an outcome of the Madras session, Norton was appointed a member of the Committee which drafted the constitution of the Indian National Congress. Norton declared that the British Parliament had become indifferent to the sufferings of Indians and expressed shame at the fact that Britain had not fulfilled its promises to India. Norton also participated in the tenth session of the Congress held in Madras in 1894 and the Mysore session held in 1903.

Norton was instrumental in enlisting the support of Charles Bradlaugh, Member of Parliament for Northampton, in creating an UK chapter of the Indian National Congress. The UK wing came into existence in July 1889 under the leadership of Bradlaugh who was accorded the title “Member for India”. Norton was also part of the Congress’ first deputation to England in 1889.

Because of his involvement with the Indian National Congress, Norton was frequently accused of sedition by some of his countrymen. This was how he responded:

“If it be sedition, gentlemen, to rebel against all wrong, if it be sedition to insist that the people should have a fair share in the admini-stration of their own country and affairs, if it be sedition to resist class tyranny, to raise my voice against oppression, to mutiny against injustice, to insist upon a hearing before sentence, to uphold the liberties of the individual, to vindicate our common right to gradual but ever advancing reform – if this be sedition, I am right glad to be called a seditionist; and doubly, aye trebly, glad when I look around me today to know and feel I am ranked as one among such a magnificent array of seditionsits.”

Eardley Norton was a close friend of G. Subramanya Aiyar who founded The Hindu in 1878. It was a great friendship which lasted for decades. Within a month of The Hindu becoming a daily from April 1, 1889, Subramanya Aiyar launched the paper’s first columnist, ‘Sentinel’, whose ‘Olla Podrida’ took sly digs at the foibles of the upper class, Britons as well as Indians. ‘Sentinel’ was none other than Eardley Norton. When Norton stood for election to the Madras Legislative Council, The Hindu came out strongly in his support.

Eardley Norton was a contemporary of the legendary judge Sir T. Muthuswamy Iyer whose humble beginning continues to be narrated by middle-class families to motivate their children. Sir Muthuswamy Iyer was reported to have studied under the street lights during his schooldays. Norton had a great respect for him and wrote about him thus:

“Even when the great Sir T. Muthuswamy Iyer, as judge, sat in his ornate ceremonial chair, he was barefooted. When Mr. Justice Muthuswamy Iyer was in the process of mentally analysing the case before him and coming to a decision, his big toe and other toes of his feet would keep rubbing against each other. When the toe-rubbing ritual stopped, it was the signal that the judge had taken a decision and was all set to deliver his judgment!”

Norton also wrote that Muthuswamy Iyer was “used as the break-horse of the Bench. Each new judicial colt was harnessed to him and he pulled the neophyte round dangerous corners, forced him to trot instead of gallop in the straight, and never knew he was shaping all the while the lives of future knights.”

It was at the behest of Norton that Parry & Co was built in 1897 in its premises at the corner of NSC Bose Road and Moore Street, a building that came to be known as Lawyers’ Block. It housed the offices of several lawyers.

Norton was the Chief Public Prosecutor in the Alipore Bombing Case involving Sri Aurobindo. The eminent Chittaranjan Das argued the case for Aurobindo and his summing up left Norton deeply impressed. Das summed up his argument thus:

“My appeal to you is this, that long after the controversy will be hushed in silence, long after this turmoil, this agitation will have ceased, long after he (Sri Aurobindo) is dead and gone, he will be looked upon as the poet of patriotism, as the prophet of nationalism and lover of humanity. Long after he is dead and gone, his words will be echoed and re-echoed, not only in India, but across distant seas and lands. Therefore, I say that the man in his position is not only standing before the bar of this Court, but before the bar of the High Court of History.”

Norton was known for his fearless speeches and writings. His contempt for underperforming bureaucrats was well known. When the Viceroy, Lord Dufferin, was laying down office, Norton wrote an open letter to him saying:

“The truth is, my Lord, that you have fallen a victim to the subtle influences of your environment. The old muscularity of your mind has yielded to the fumes of official incense; you are bordering (sic) on the belief, formulated so succinctly by a member of the Civil Service here, that ‘God made the white man and the Devil made the black.’ You are effeminate in your distrust of the people. Yet you retain enough of the statesman we all so admired of yore to be ashamed to give explicit utterance to a doctrine out of tune with all that makes a man a man. Thus it is you flounder in inconsistencies, giving vent at one time to a declaration which is in keeping with your past repute, at another to a statement worthy only of a Bashi Bazouk...

“You have made your final bow, my Lord, upon the great stage of the Indian Empire. ‘Tis mercy bids thee go’. For though we all pray, and many of us believe, that in the invigorating atmosphere of a colder clime, and amid those moral surroundings which give backbone to the sentiments of an English politician, you will regain that virility of understanding which marked your adminstration of Canada as an epoch of such peculiar brilliancy, we cannot conscientiously avow that your departure is premature. You have succumbed to the flatteries of your office. In Rome or in London may be restored to you the lost vigour of your political manhood. Here it has parted company with you.”

No Indian ever used a stronger language writing to a Viceroy.

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Getting citizens involved...
(By Vincent D’Souza)

His Worship M. Subramaniam is seen as a pro-active Mayor. And his latest initiative that only reinforces this view is his authorisation of the formation of local groups for each of the wards of the city.

They can discuss local issues, debate ways in which to address them and chart local plans.

Wards are a collection of colonies in a neighbourhood. A councillor represents each ward in the Corporation Council and he/she is elected by people. Some wards are reserved. These councillors handle local issues, mainly civic, and they have a say in these affairs at the local, zonal and city level.

The system then represents democracy at the grassroot level.

But does it really work?


Elected councillors rarely interact with local communities and are often seen working closely more with officials and contractors than the local people and their representatives.

Civic works and development do not often address what the communities want. So while workers are busy relaying the pavement alongside a 30-feet bridge with fancy tiles, the pavements on either side are in a shambles. And while saplings are being planted on 3rd Avenue, bushes have over-run the sidewalks of 3rd Street.

Mayor Subramaniam says he wants people, NGOs and civic groups to work alongside councillors and his officials at the ward level.

Everyone has a role to play. But, does he or she want to?

Footnote: Mayor M. Subramaniam had stated that every ward in the Chennai Corporation would have a 10-member group to discuss / debate local civic issues.

The group will consist of the local councillor (as the head of the group), two Assistant Engineers (AEs), and the people’s representatives comprising individuals, heads of residents’ associations and groups.

This group will meet the Assistant Commissioner (AC) of the zone and Mayor once every 15 days to discuss the issues in the respective wards.

Wanted, therefore, are citizens willing to spare time for social work. People ready to take up civic issues and work on them are what these groups seek – (Courtesy: Mylapore Times).

...and an area that’s looking at itself

Binita Sashi and Gargi Advaithi love children. So they have created their world around them.

Both live in K.K. Nagar and, while they manage their own ventures in the sprawling neighbourhood still dominated by the Housing Board apartment blocks, they put their heads together to organise workshops and summer camps. The duo were also responsible for a string of events to mark Madras Day. The Green Park Hotel in Vadapalani offered them space and refreshments for celebrants who enjoyed workshops, story-telling and two talks.

The attendance at the event on a wet Sunday triggered ideas in Binita and Gargi. Of the need to create and host such events that would make their neighbourhood a happening place.

The two feel that it is time they made a real, earnest effort to provide their neighbourhood with some interesting programmes.

Public talks on fascinating subjects seem easy to think of. If a network of speakers can be built and the owners of spaces like Hotel Green Park can play host, then the talks will fill the annual calendar.

The duo have worked closely with a local school which has a large but simple auditorium. Now this space can be used to stage plays in Tamil and English or hold theatre workshops. If groups can volunteer freely then another set of dots will fill the neighbourhood calendar.

Binita and Gargi are setting out to play a role in the public space from October 2nd. And if you can help in any way, I am sure the duo will appreciate it (contact - 99404 50495 / 96000 83124).

Look at how Sadanand Menon has made available two wonderful spaces at 1, Elliots’ Beach Road in Besant Nagar to anybody who wants to host not-for-profit events – rock concerts, plays, film screenings, talks...

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He unveiled the mysteries
of Neem
(Masters of 20th Century Madras science
– An occasional article in a series by Dr. A. Raman)

Tuticorin Raghavachari Govindachari was born in Madras on July 30, 1915 and studied at Loyola College and Presidency College, Madras. He got his PhD by writing a thesis on the nuclear compounds that led to the formation of naturally occurring alkaloids, working with B.B. Dey – a chemist of distinction and the Principal of Presidency College, Madras. He went to the University of Illinois to work with Roger Adams as a post-doctoral fellow supported by a Government of Madras scholarship in 1946. With Adams, he studied the synthesis and structure of senecio alkaloids using column-chromatographic techniques, a highly primitive tactic compared to what we do today. On return to Madras, he was appointed as the Additional Professor of Chemistry in 1949 and became the Chief Professor in 1952. In the next few years, with a strong team of young colleagues, he established a committed group to study natural products at Presidency College, Madras, where several new natural products were characterised and synthesised.

T.R. Govindachari

By 1975, his research team had published more than 200 articles in professional journals, examined more than 10,000 new synthetic molecules, plant extracts, and isolated several pure compounds. Among a large number of active new chemical entities discovered and developed at the centre, 20 of them reached different levels of therapeutic standardisation.

World leaders in chemistry rate Govindachari as an eminent terpene chemist. When CIBA-Geigy set up their research centre in Bombay, they invited Govindachari to take over the directorship of this centre in 1963. Govindachari retired from CIBA-Geigy research centre in 1975 and continued his passion of studying the chemistry of plants at Amrutanjan research centre and, later, SPIC Science Foundation in Madras.

Not many would know that Govindachari was a connoisseur of orchids; he maintained a garden (roof and floor) raising a range of orchids (Vanda-s, Dendrobium-s) at his home in T’Nagar, which engaged him during his free time. Govindachari died in 2001.

Govindachari will be remembered for his work on the pure synthesis of the bioactive compound from Neem (a sesquiterpenoid: Azadirachtin A), and world natural product chemists considered this synthesis awesome. Neem (Azadirachta indica), the most wonderful gift of nature to India, is used by us in different ways because of its astonishing medicinal properties. Moreover, its insect-repellant property is attractive to biologists and biochemists the world over. Govindachari unveiled the mysteries of Neem to the world.


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In this issue

What is slowing down the the work of HCC?
An end to Adyar River
elevated road?
The Anglo-Indians of Madras
Speaking of the Big Temple...
Mount Road and me
Other Stories
Click to download the
Listed Heritage Buildings

Our Regulars

Short 'N' Snappy
Our Readers Write
Quizzin' with Ram'nan
Dates for your diary


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