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(ARCHIVE) Vol. XX No. 13, October 16-31, 2010

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A Birth Centenary Feature: He made a 12,000-foot film on Gandhi

Honoured on Gandhi Jayanthi Day: Three Grand Old Mariners

A feathered neighbour

Nostalgia: Alas! Muralikrishna!

Peafowls make a college campus their home

A Birth Centenary Feature:
He made a 12,000-foot film
on Gandhi
(Based on a recent lecture by Gnanalaya Krishnamoorthy on A.K. Chettiar.)

A journalist, interviewing a Tamil poet at his Pondicherry home, asked: “Why not write poems on subjects such as Nature? Aren’t they everlasting?” “Who will publish such works?” wondered the poet. “I will,” said the interviewer. Thus were sown the seeds for Azhagin Sirippu.

A.K. Chettiar

The poet was Kanaka Subbu Rathinam, better known as Bharatidasan. The interviewer was A.Rm.A. Karuppan Chettiar (1910-83), popularly known as A.K. Chettiar (AKC). Before the poems were collected for Azhagin Sirippu and published by Mullai Muthiah in 1944, they were published in different issues of Kumari Malar.

AKC had started Kumari Malar as a monthly magazine in April 1943, issues running from 192 to 244 pages each. No new subscriptions were considered after 1950 and the pricing strategy was quite different from the usual practice. It was priced at Re.1 a copy until 1960, after which the subscription rate was reduced to 50 paise a copy! Receiving the first issue, Rajaji commented that he was happy to see “the progress of human kind.”

Rajaji came to Kumari Malar office (on what is now the Narada Gana Sabha site with Kalki R. Krishnamurthy and requested that an article of his be published in Kumari Malar. Kalki had offered to publish it, but Rajaji insisted that it should be featured in Kumari Malar only. AKC obliged. But Rajaji returned the remuneration for the article, ‘Panpadu’. Rajaji would lend books to no one but AKC, which demonstrated his trust in, and respect for, AKC.

AKC, after much persuasion, unveiled a portrait of Rajaji in a school near Talaimalaipatti (Namakkal District). About 2000 people attended, which surprised AKC. He was also surprised to learn that the portrait had been done by a teacher who had a congenital deformity. AKC told the gathering that the teacher had done particularly good work in capturing Rajaji’s nose and ears, which many artists generally found very hard to portray correctly.

AKC had a special liking for books and would read for hours. He frequently visited libraries, particularly those in the British Council and American Consulate-General. He had travelled extensively and spoke English fluently, but never mixed Tamil and English in conversations. He preferred to speak in Tamil if his audience could follow the language. As a Gandhian, he always wore khadi and never let himself be photographed. During the freedom struggle, AKC was imprisoned for 28 days.

AKC discouraged ‘cheap’ advertisements in Kumari Malar. In 1959, the magazine was in dire straits because of a financial crisis. Rajaji said it should never be allowed to cease publication because it is “a historical repository.” Kumari Malar generally published only eight advertisements, mostly from TVS, Aruna ceeyakkaithool, and Asoka pakkuthool. AKC struggled on, never compromising on quality for revenue.

Rajam of the TVS family was a patron of Kumari Malar publications and enabled free circulation of AKC’s books to various school libraries. Some of AKC’s books – and these included Unavoo, Koita Malargal (a book of quotations) and Panbu (featuring events in the lives of freedom fighters of India) – were distributed to schools with a reply card attached, which could be used to request more books.

AKC wrote 17 books in all, the first being Japan and the last Unavoo. He translated Rajaji’s book Auvaiyar. His book on Japan was based on his stay there for two years. James Nye (Chief Bibliographer for South Asia, University of Chicago Libraries, who played a crucial role in the establishment of the Roja Muthiah Research Library) commented that AKC’s book on America was one of the best books on the topic and AKC’s description (including a pencil sketch?) of Abraham Lincoln was outstanding. That book was published by Sakti Vai Govindan.

He started his literary career with the editorship of Nagarathar magazine Danavanigan, published in Rangoon (Burma), when he was 22.

* * *

AKC travelled by air and sea to 30 countries in the five continents and collected about 100,000 feet of film on Gandhi, much of it from newsreel. He also filmed Gandhi at his Sabarmati Ashram. And this was edited to 12,000 feet for release in Tamil and Telugu.

Commenting on the midnight premiere of the film Life of Mahatma Gandhi at the Alhambra Theatre, The Straits Times (published in the Strait Settlements before Singapore became a separate country) of May 3, 1941, stated “...The picture is mostly silent, but there are many sound ‘shots’ also, including the speeches of Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, S. Radhakrishnan among others. There is some good background music and a running commentary in Tamil. The picture is the work of Mr. A.K. Chettiar who visited Singapore just before the outbreak of the War.”

November 2010 marks the centenary of AKC’s birth.


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Honoured on Gandhi Jayanthi Day
Three Grand Old Mariners
(By K.R.A. Narasaiah)

Tamil paaramparyam, a heritage group in Chennai, recently honoured three senior marinérs as part of its Gandhi Jayanthi celebrations. They were Jairaj Gabriel, Achanta Ramarao and Amirapu Ramarao.

Achanta Ramarao.

Amaripu Ramarao.

Jairaj Gabriel.

Gabriel, from Kanagavallipuram near Tiruvallur, was one of the sailors imprisoned for taking part in the 1946 Naval Mutiny. He was 18 when he joined the Royal Indian Navy as an ordinary seaman in 1943. He was trained in underwater weaponry, such as torpedo, rocket launchers and mines and, with a good record, was expecting promotions soon.

But while in service, he began to take an interest in Indian politics and became an admirer of Mahatma Gandhi. He was serving on the east coast and, while in Vizag (INS Circars), he came to know of the mutiny through the signalmen at the base. Since the mutiny was coordinated by the signalmen of HMIS Talwar, a training ship (base) for signalmen in Mumbai, information about it spread far and fast. Leading signalman M.S. Khan and Petty Officer Telegraphist Madan Singh were elected leaders, of the mutineers and they effectively controlled the communications through wireless telegraphy.

On February 18, 1946, Gabriel joined the revolt. The mutiny lasted only three days and on the fourth day the mutineers surrendered on the advice of Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel in Bombay harbour, but raised black flags when they lowered the Tricolour they had hoisted on the 18th.

Though the Naval authorities promised not to take drastic action against the mutineers, courts martial were initiated against the leaders and others were sent to jail.

Gabriel was released after 27 days in prison, but while he was being released a photograph of Gandhiji was found in his cell. The authorities asked him to remove it, but he refused. He was told that if he did not, he would have to undergo another ten days of imprisonment. Which he duly served.

Now in his 85th year, he proudly recalls those freedom-seeking days when he was 21.

Achanta Ramarao is the son of the legendary Rukmini Lakshmipathi. He is her only surviving son (her first son, Emden Srinivasa Rao, passed away as an infant). After bearing four daughters, Rukmini Lakshmipathi bore him, her last child, but she did not hesitate to send him, when he was old enough, to join the T.S. Dufferin as an engineering cadet. While she was in Vellore prison, her son was saluting the Union Jack twice a day on board the Dufferin! When asked about this she had replied, “India will sooner or later get freedom, and when India is free we will need professionals.”

Ramarao retired after having sailed as Chief Engineer with the Scindias’ fleet for many years.

Amirapu Ramarao, the third mariner honoured, was the oldest. At 90, he is as fit as he was when joining the merchant marine as a cadet on board T.S. Dufferin! Hardly had he put out to sea when, while in Calcutta harbour, he was asked to urgently replace an inebriated junior engineer on board
S.S. Malda, which was on His Majesty’s duty during the war. So desperately did the ship need an engineer before sailing that “I was pulled out of the Hatrana, then in KG Dock, and escorted by a police sergeant to Garden Reach Docks, where the Malda was waiting. The gangway was removed as soon as I boarded and the Malda, under the command of Captain H.M. Edmondson, set sail, heading a convoy.

“On the morning of May 6, 1940, the convoy was sighted by a Japanese aircraft which crossed the bow of the ship at a low height. At that time, all cargo/passenger vessels were mounted with 4.7 pounder guns and Cadet Thompson opened fire on the aircraft. A short while later, a Japanese cruiser and two destroyers came up from behind and started shelling the convoy. The first shell went past our ship, but the second hit her in the accommodation area. The situation was hopeless and ‘abandon ship’ was ordered. The ship started leaking heavily. Another shell went just past me and hit the lifeboat in which I was. I was catapulted into the air and, after what seemed an age, I landed in what was water burning with oil. I was scalded badly on my back. I managed to catch hold for a raft and turned to help the man who was with me. He was unscathed, impeccably dressed, and floating beside me, but when I tried to help him I found he was dead!

“I kept floating and, after what seemed to be hours, reached an island near False Point. We were helped by the locals and we lit a camp fire. We eventually reached Cuttack and were treated in the local hospital. To make room for us, other patients were sent away. At the hospital, Col. Hicks, i.m.s., with his limited staff, looked after all the patients, including those from six other ships. I was badly burnt and spent a few weeks there after which I was given four weeks’ medical leave.

“I was paid Rs. 711 and 2 annas by the company for having lost my personal effects.”

Amirapu Ramarao continued sailing till his retirement from the Shipping Corporation of India. He was deputed to the South Indian Railway as an Engineer Superintendent to look after the ships sailing between India and Ceylon.

Notwithstanding his experience, he sent his son too to T.S. Dufferin and Captain Suresh Amirapu, his son, is now settled in Chennai. He is married to Achanta Ramarao’s daughter Rukmini, who was named after her illustrious grandmother.


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A feathered neighbour
(By Sripad Sridhar)

We might think we know all about crows. They are the most common birds found in our cities and the most seen and heard. They are so entwined in our culture that they even play an important part in the religious ceremonies of some sections of our society.

There are so many of them near cities that they are taken for granted and not given a second glance, but if you were to stop and observe them, you will realise that they are not so bird-brained after all.

Crows are amongst the most intelligent of birds and research has shown their intelligence can be equal to that of the Great Apes. Crows are known to use tools to get food from places that they cannot reach. The woodpecker, for example, has a long and powerful beak to reach insects well-hidden in the barks of trees; the crow does not have that luxury, so it uses a stick of the appropriate length to pry insects and grubs out of tight spots in a tree’s bark. Crows are not born with these skills, they observe and learn them from much older and experienced crows; younger crows can be seen with their older teachers flying around, learning new skills and mind mapping the best sources of food in and around their environment. This is very important for them, as it’s the only way that they can learn to survive.

Now, for a bird with that much of intelligence, it needs a large brain. The brain consumes a lot of energy, so it makes perfect evolutionary sense for the crow to have versatile and adaptive features so that it can make the most of its environment. Its beak and wing shape are its unique attributes; they don’t allow the crow to specialise in any particular way of life but are great general features that allow it to do everything. The humming bird, for example, has a long and narrow beak, perfect for sucking nectar from flowers, an eagle has a heavy and downward pointing beak to pluck meat from bone, a sparrow has a hard, short beak to crack nuts to get the high protein seed. The crow has a little bit of them all. It can fly through low branches and perform acrobatic manoeuvres and, at the same time, efficiently glide high in the sky on thermals rising from the ground. It can be a voracious predator, hunting squirrels, rats and small birds, but it also forages in trees and on the ground for seeds, worms, and insects. It’s because of this combination of intelligence and adaptability that it has been able to successfully conquer the most treacherous of environments – our cities!

The under-feathers of a crow are actually white. This can be seen when it preens itself or when it gets wet in the rain. The black and white feathers are only present on the body and shoulders, not on the wings.

Crows are experts at finding water and making the most of it, be it to wash themselves or regurgitate swallowed food and wash it before swallowing it once again.

They have amazing memory and can recognise individual humans. They also have fixed everyday routines. If you make a habit of feeding crows at a particular time outside the house, make sure you keep doing it, or else there will be a huge racket outside, like hungry customers waiting in a restaurant. This will not cease until you feed them something.

The crow has many different kinds of calls and they differ from area to area, city to city, forest to human inhabited areas. Even the temperament of a particular murder of crows will differ from others; it depends on their social ranking which is relative to rival groups.

Watching the crows

What has been your crow experience?

Have you found the bird cawing at your kitchen window, threatening to fly away with an evening snack? Or providing you a wake-up call so that you can be up for your morning walk?

Everyone has a crow experience.

It may not be a favourite bird, but it is perhaps the only one that survives in our neighbourhoods.

For some weeks now, I have been enjoying crows at work. Rather watching them create a family.

Our office in Alwarpet is on the second floor and on a busy road where the vroom of traffic has become a part of our working life.

But we do have a bonus. The tall avenue trees whose branches spread across the road and into our building create a circle of green and shade.

Trees are always humming with activity and if you are up there on a second floor and choose to look closely, you can catch the whirr of the bees which time their entry into our office after dusk, the summer blooms that sail gently on to the tar below, and the crows which have made nests.

One nest is metres away from the parapet wall and there is a lot of activity in it.

It looks firm and cosy, but to me it seems to be in a precarious position – a sway of the lead branch and that nest and all the eggs or lives in it will hurtle to the tar below.

It is a foolish thought. Birds have brains and this set of crows must have had a wide choice too.

For a week, I observed the crow and saw it content to sit in the nest and keep warm the eggs in it. While one crow was in the nest, another kept watching from a branch nearby.

Curious, I spoke to K.S. Sudhakar of the Madras Naturalists’ Society who is a practising chartered accountant and has an office down the corridor. Do the male and the female take turns to help in the hatching? Do crows really care for their chicks?

They do care, Sudhakar tells me. It is the koels who ‘hijack’ the nests of the crows. These birds lay their eggs in a crow’s nest and let the latter do the rest! When they come back, they may even sideline the crow’s chicks.

In the nooks and branches of our neighbourhoods, despite all the destruction and mess, nature survives.

Do the crows trust us? – (Courtesy: Mylapore Times)

– Vincent D’Souza


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Alas! Muralikrishna!
(By T.K. Srinivas Chari)

I recall seeing the movie Mackenna’s Gold in Bangalore. I was between 5 and 8 years of age and, if I remember right, my grandfather had come along with us. Then, between 8 and 11 years, among the many movies we used to go to Bombay. I remember the hugely successful Victoria No. 203 starring Ashok Kumar and Pran.

In 1975, my family came to Shenoy Nagar in Chennai and we were proud to have in the neighbourhood a theatre with a parking lot at the ground floor level. I am referring to Muralikrishna. The first film we went to see as a family was Grihapravesham starring Sivaji and K.R. Vijaya. I think it must have been a sort of homecoming for my parents in many ways. Since then, for 35 years, the theatre has been part of our lives, screening movies all through the year with its different show times.

The second movie I remember watching was one which my sister especially liked and watched twice or thrice. It was Bharathi Raja’s Sigappu Rojakkal which had the evergreen hero Kamal Hassan playing the lead with aplomb accompanied by a child artist who went on to rule Bollywood too, Sridevi.

Next is another memorable memory. My neighbour, Mrs Venkat Rao, my sister and I went to see this Amitabh film. Though I can’t remember the name of the film, I remember a scene well. Amitabh is confronted by a knife-wielding person, and our angry young man, with his wits about him, just grips the sharp side of the knife.

Back to Chennai, that was Madras, I was glued to this Bhagyaraj-directed movie, a thriller, called Vidiyum Varai Kathiru. The climax had scenes on the Ooty mountain train with the anti-hero, Bhagyaraj, and the moustached Karate Mani playing a police inspector. Then there was Mamiyar Veedu, a euphemism for jail. Another eventful happening around the theatre was the release of the new film Naalaiya Manidhan starring Ajay Rathinam, who was my school classmate. I didn’t get to see the movie, but Ajay has charted his own career on the big and small screens from that time.

The point of this brief remembrance is that the good ol’ Muralikrishna is readied to transform itself into a wedding hall (kalyana mandapam), which entails bringing it down.

I’m not sure if my last film there was with Vivek in a second hero’s role or Sibiraj as a second generation hero in an action-packed movie called Lee. Be that as it may, we are going to miss Muralikrishna.


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Peafowls make a
college campus their home
(By P.K. Arun Kumar, Department of Zoology, Madras Christian College.)

The common Peafowl (Pavo cristatus) colonising and breeding on the 75-year-old, 363-acre campus of Madras Christian College, Tambaram, with about 90 other species of birds and about 100 spotted deer or chital, is a story only about 20 years old. The contiguity of this campus on the south with the Vandalur Range Forest, the thick scrub-jungle with undergrowth cleared by the deer, the large man-made irrigation tank, the college farm with cattle, paddy and other grains, the rich biodiversity of earthworms, centipedes, insects, spiders, snails, frogs, lizards and snakes as food and, above all, the absence of natural predators and poachesrs, as in a ‘sactuary’, must have all synergistically attracted the wild peafowls to this campus, where there now are about 30 of these birds, including 8 peacocks, 16 peahens and some chicks.

Away from the hustle and bustle of about 4000 students, the birds confine themselves to the deserted scrub, mostly around the college farm and the irrigation tank, but their beautiful and melodious calls every dawn and dusk reverberate and cheer the whole residential campus. They forage for food in the cooler hours and, when suddenly approached, the chicks dash in retreat under their mother’s wings. Sometimes, the chital and the peafowl forage symbiotically, as cattle egrets and cattle do, with the peafowls picking up insects and garden lizards disturbed by the browsing chital, and the peafowls, in turn, act as sentinels, alerting the deer of approaching intruders. The birds rest during the hotter part of the day and roost at night in the large trees near the farm and even around the staff houses that are close to the farm.

Spotted deer and the peafowl may jointly destroy the scrub jungle and its fauna, but both are such rare beautiful creatures to coexist with. After all, the MCC campus was originally designed to be a ‘sanctuary’ by its Scotch missionary founders in the early 1930s.


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In this issue

Will we follow where they lead?
Not 'no road', but one at two levels
Adaptable re-use
From on the back foot – to a turn for the better
An EPOCH begins in Madras
A group that plans to celebrate Arcot Road
Click to download the
Listed Heritage Buildings
Other stories

Our Regulars

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


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