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(ARCHIVE) Vol. XIX No. 20, february 1-15, 2010

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He searched for the stars

The birds of Vedaranyam

In the days of Dawk

Discovering Mylapore

On the Bookshelves

He searched for the stars
(‘Pages from History’ by Dr. A. Raman)

The Madras Observatory, founded by the East India Company in 1786, has played a key role in Madras history. William Petrie (1786–1789), Michael Topping (1789–1796), John Goldingham (1796–1805), and Norman Pogson (1861–1891) are some of the better recalled names associated with the Observatory.  Until 1899, the Observatory was involved only with astronomical observations. It was subsequently designated as a meteorological centre.

Not many in Chennai today are likely to be aware of the significant contributions made by Chintamani Ragoonatachary (CR) to Indian astronomy when he worked at the Observatory and towards construction of a scientifically sound almanac (panchangam), which was accepted by the then government, albeit after much discussion and debate.

 Ragoonatachary joined the Observatory as an ordinary worker during Pogson’s administration and rose to the position of First Assistant to the Director (Norman Pogson). Social historian Venkateswaran refers to CR as a keen and erudite observer and states that CR was from a family of almanac constructors. Pogson’s group concentrated on the study of variable stars and asteroids and participated in observations of solar eclipses visible from India. CR was a member of the 1871 total solar eclipse expedition and also of the transit-of-Venus-observation expedition in 1874.

CR led a team from the Observatory to observe the 1868 solar eclipse at Vunpurty (in the present Ãndhra Pradesh), while Pogson led another Observatory team to Masulipatam. CR communicated his observations of the 1868 solar eclipse made at Vunpurty, through Pogson, to the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, London, in 1871. CR is credited with the discovery of two Mira variable stars R Reticuli and B Cephei. His discovery of the variability of light output from R Reticuli is considered the first observational discovery in modern astronomy in India. It appears that he actively prepared his notes and observations of the 1874 transit-of-Venus for the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, but they obviously were never published. He was an elected member of the Royal Astronomical Society of London.

 The 1874 transit-of-Venus was a profound astronomical event, which was observed by many Indian and European teams from Indian soil. CR prepared a treatise on this subject in English and in several Indian languages in early 1874. The English and Kannada versions are archived at the Indian Institute of Astrophysics, Bangalore. CR’s treatise on the transit-of-Venus starts with an explanation of such phenomena as inferior and superior conjunctions and the transit events as conical shadows caused by Venus. Subsequent sections explain the importance of the transit event in the determination of the precise value of the astronomical unit; ‘parallax’ is introduced simply and lucidly with clear and precise illustrations. Later sections refer to details of the event of 1874. For further explanations, please refer to B.S. Shylaja (Current Science, 2009, 96: 1271–1273).  

CR popularised science in general and astronomy in particular through his communications in Tamil, Malayalam, Kannada, Hindustani, and Telugu; CR also gave popular lectures and wrote in Tamil dailies on different aspects of astronomy.

The following paragraph is adapted from Venkateswaran ( Ragoonatachary constructed a Trig-ganita Panchanga – an almanac, which not only involved the elements of a traditional Hindu calendar, but incorporated tri-modal scientific calculations (trig-ganita). It retained several practical elements for traditional southern Indian families such as festival dates, temple function dates and, in addition, it also included details of astronomical events such as solar and lunar eclipses, transit of Venus, a list of government-declared holidays and dates connected with State ceremonies, and even an abstract of a rail timetable. While retaining the traditional time and day measurements as noted in the then Madras (e.g. titi, nakshatram, nadi), the CR almanac provided equivalent values in terms of the ‘standard’ 24-hour clock and English dates and months because, by then, with the introduction of modern clocks and the establishment of clock towers in various Madras suburbs, the Western style of measurement of time had come to stay in Madras’s social life. Similar to the traditionally constructed panchangam-s of the time, the CR almanac also used the solar sidereal year, although considering more accurately the sidereal year of 365.256363004 days.

CR was able to generate acceptance for his neo-style calendar by winning over religious groups, by engaging in public debates, and by publishing popular books. The then Government accepted calendar standardisation in 1878, after the major religious sects accepted CR’s design of time calculations. CR’s initiative to construct a new almanac resulted in a change in the calendar system followed in the Tamil land. Inspired by principles of modern astronomy, his effort to modernise the calendar is an effort towards secularisation of time, with an aim of meeting the needs of changing industrial society.

CR achieved remarkable scientific and scientifically sound cultural outcomes in Madras. According to Shylaja, either he or his ancestors were from Udupi, near Mangalore, spoke Kannada, and practised Madhva Vaishnava Sampradaya. He was born in 1840 and died in 1880, thus living a short span of only 40 years.

To me, CR’s life and achievements match those of the other extraordinary Madras mathematician Srinivasan Ramanujan.


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The birds of Vedaranyam
(Courtesy: Matrix)

It’s party time at the bird sanctuary on the Vedaranyam coast in Nagapattinam district of Tamil Nadu. Thousands of colourful migratory birds land here between October and March every year.

Chemplast Sanmar, which has its salt works at Vedaranyam, partnered the Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS) in setting up a study centre at Kodiakarai. The BNHS-Sanmar centre is a boon for bird watchers who gather to watch migratory birds from across the globe swarming the swamps of Vedaranyam, thanks to the onset of the northeast monsoon.

The study centre spread across two-and-a-half acres of land purchased by BNHS is the first of its kind in the country. The sanctuary hosts a variety of wildlife including Greater Flamingo from the Rann of Kutch, Grey Pelican from Iran and Iraq, Lesser Flamingo and Grey Heron from Russia, Red and Green Shank from Siberia, Little Stint, Curlew and Sand Piper from Australia, Lesser Sand Plover and Painted Stork from Mongolia, Caspian Tern from the Caspian, Little Tern from the Arctic Ocean, Marsh Sand Pipers from Siberia, Pintail Duck, Gorcony and Plover from Siberia, Large Egret from Pakistan, and Brown Headed Gull and Black Headed Gull from Mongolia.

The sight of the migratory birds thronging the salt works of Vedaranyam is a visual treat indeed! (Courtesy: Matrix)


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In the days of Dawk
(By Muthiah Ramanathan)

... in response to requests from many well-wishers – especially from outside Chennai and abroad who receive their postal copies very late . . .”

These lines in Madras Musings, November 16-30, 2009, left me wondering how the postal system would have worked in the past – when rural areas were not as well connected as they are today. Letters were delivered by dak (a Hindi term for ‘mail’) runners, then riders on horses prior to the advent of other schemes, such as packets sent by steamers, trains and on Dakotas.

I always look forward to the hard copy of Madras Musings in the first and third weeks of every month. If I do not get to read the print version during that week, I start pestering my wife, asking whether she had missed the postman that day or whether the postman did not have anything to deliver.

The following text from The Penny Magazine of the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge (Charles Knight & Co, London, 1843, Volume 12, p. 157) indicates the glorious past of the postal system in the Presidency of Madras.

“When the Houses of Parliament were investigating the condition and position of India in 1831, preparatory to the renewal of the Company’s Charter, many evidence of points were elicited which afford us information respecting the Dawk system.”

The text continues: “Among the persons examined before the Commons’ Committee was Mr. David Hill, who, in answer to a question whether he thought the Post Office establishment of India was upon as good a footing as it might be made to occupy, stated, ‘It is better at Madras than elsewhere; the mails are conveyed at a faster rate (emphasis mine). I do not think it is possible to put it on a better footing; there is a want of good roads and a want of horses, they not being used for agricultural purposes of the country. The mails are, however, transmitted with perfect regularity and with very considerable expedition. An express is conveyed at the rate of five miles an hour .... and the ordinary post, when the runners are overloaded with newspapers and letters, is conveyed at the rate of four miles an hour. I do not think it could be conveyed faster... The Post Office is not at present used by the natives. If the wealth of the country were increased, they probably would use it. As it is, they send their communications by their friends’.”

From three deliveries in a day to just one per day, our Postal Department has marked its growth in a unique and distinct way, in this era of developed technologies! But let us look in the text referred to above. In response to a query about the distance travelled by the dak runners in a day and the type of letters and parcels carried by them, it states “... in Madras, from five miles to near ten miles in some cases. Where the distance is longest they do not return... all the men carry newspapers and that with respect to parcels, there is a bangey or box-mail for that purpose, with a different rate of postage in all roads of Bengal and on the principal Madras roads; and the parcels are sent in that way.”

Another feature that has long lost its sheen is the seal of various Post Offices that a letter is routed through before being delivered at the destination; almost always they are illegible, sometimes they do not have the complete details. This is the state of affairs in spite of claim of 21st Century technology at the ready disposal of our Postal Department.

This makes me wonder when or why the practice of affixing the dispatch information on letters was started in India. Again, we note how the events involving Madras in the past had influenced the colonial British to regulate the dak and postal system as it prevailed in the 18th and 19th Centuries. I quote Geoffery Clarke in this extract from the Public Proceedings, July 7, 1766:

“As there have been of late frequent miscarriages of packets to and from Madras without the possibility of tracing the cause, as no advice is ever sent us by the neighbouring Residencies ... it is agreed to establish the following Rules and communicate them to the Presidency of Madras, recommending the same to be circulated to the factories and Residencies subordinate to them...

“That the day and hour of despatch as well as the number be noted on the tickets affixed to the packets; that on every packet the number and date of the next preceding despatch to be noted.”


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Discovering Mylapore
(By Karthik A. Bhatt)

The Mylapore Quiz, which was a much-awaited event at the Sundaram Finance Mylapore Festival 2010, featured several intriguing questions that kept not only the quizzers guessing, but had the audience fascinated. The preliminary round (written) saw a participation by around 100 teams. The round, consisting of 25 questions, started off with a few easy teasers before moving on to ones that tested the grey cells a lot more. Here are a few samplings:

1. Which famous family does Rukmani Ramani come from?

2. Fill in the blanks: (i) Peter,_________(ii)__________ , Galicia and (iii) Thomas, San Thomé.

3. Who is the former Tamil Nadu and India cricketer who runs a cricket academy called ‘Nest’ at the Mylapore Club. (This was a visual question that had the visual of the subject.)

4. Name a former Chief Minister who lived in North Mada Street.

5. This retail ____ business was started by K.Thiruvengadam Chettiar in 1915. A showroom, an extension of his family residence, was opened in the 1930s and was called ____.

This round was quite a high scoring, the highest score by a finalist being 23.5 out of 25.

* * *

Six teams battled it out in the finals. A lot of questions helped both the finalists and the audience to learn many less known facts about Mylapore. A few sample questions:

6. Name the temple at which Rajaji placed the script of Chakravarthy Thirumagan to obtain the blessings of the deity.

7. This person came down to Madras to work as a helper, but ended up acting in a few films including Sorgavasal. Since 1955, he has been in a business which runs till date.

8. Work on the Mundakaniamman Koil MRTS Railway Station has come to a halt. What is the reason? (The answer to this question, which was answered by one of the teams, was probably the best in the whole quiz.)

9. Name the product that Millenium Synergy Private Limited has brought into Mylapore.

10. Mylapore also came to be known as this after the episode where Sukracharya regained his lost eyesight on worshipping Lord Siva following the Mahabali incident.

* * *

Amongst the other questions were two about a couple of ‘institutions’ that almost every Mylaporean must have fond memories of: ‘The Maami Kadai’ (a pavement eatery now transformed into a restaurant) on Pichu Pillai Street; and the ‘Kalathy Kadai’, famous for its rose milk.

A couple of variety rounds added spice to the event. One of them was a ‘Connect’ round that saw around 30 clues given to the teams that had a common theme running through them. These clues, which were visuals, had the common theme of being names of restaurants in and around Mylapore.

The final turned out to be a high scoring one which saw four teams entering the last round with just seven points separating them. The victory margin for the eventual winners (who were incidentally the toppers in the qualifying round) happened to be just a solitary point.

But the results did not matter in the overall picture. What mattered was the fun the audience and the competitors alike had. Add to that the knowledge gained from the quiz and it turned out to be an evening well spent. Hats off to Quizmaster Venkatesh and his research team for having conducted this entertaining and enlightening quiz programme.

Answers to Mylapore Quiz

1. Papanasam Sivan. Rukmani Ramani is his daughter; 2. (i) Vatican, (ii) St. James. These three places are the only ones in the world that are built on the remains of Apostles of Jesus; 3. V.B. Chandrasekhar; 4. M. Bakthavatsalam; 5. Silk business, Rasi Silks.

* * *

6. The Veera Anjaneya Temple on Royapettah High Road next to the Thanneer Thorai Market; 7. Nammazhwar, or Azhwar, who runs the old books store outside the Mylapore Club; 8. The contract was awarded to Maytas, which ran into financial difficulties and was, hence, unable to continue the work; 9. The automated parking meters to be found on North and East Mada Streets; 10. Sukrapuri.



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(By Savitha Gautam)

The legendary dancer

Rukmini Devi: A Life
Leela Samson (Penguin, Rs. 550).

Trend-setter, innovator, dedicated, visionary, vibrant… these are but a few epithets which have been used time and again to describe Rukmini Devi Arundale. Yet, they somehow do not capture the complete woman that this legendary figure, who graced the performing spaces of Madras and who was instrumental in founding one of the city’s landmark cultural havens, Kalakshetra, was.

Disciple and dancer Leela Samson’s tribute to the grand dame of Bharata Natyam is touching, personal and, at the same time, universal. For, Leela’s portrait of this artiste has emerged following thorough research and interviews with people close to her – family, colleagues and friends.

Rukmini’s Devi’s life was by and large an open book. Born into a traditional Brahmin family, she had radical thinkers for parents. They encouraged their children to follow their dreams. Meeting for the first time the scholarly, erudite and loveable George Arundale, whom she married when she was just 16 despite severe social opposition, and Dr. Annie Besant was a life-altering moment for Rukmini. Her eyes were opened to a world which paved the way for setting up Kalakshetra. Her association with ballerina par excellence Anna Pavlova encouraged her to take to dance, something unheard of in those days, and to transform that temple art of Sadir to the stagecraft called Bharata Natyam.

Her choreography of the six-part Ramayana series was a throwback to her childhood days when her mother would tell the children the heroics of Lord Rama and Hanuman.

Quite a number of pages in the book are devoted to the Theosophical movement and its advocates – Leadbeater, Krishnamurthy (who later divorced himself from the movement), Dr. Annie Besant and, of course, Madame Blavatsky.

The picture of a young Rukmini on the jacket of the book is but one of the many rare photographs featuring in this absorbing biography.


The ‘royal’ painter

The Painter – A life of Raja Ravi Varma
Deepanjana Pal (Random House India, Rs. 395).

Here’s another biography about the prince who became a painter. Raja Ravi Varma was a public figure. But he never had time for his family.

This book tracks the story of India’s first celebrity painter, whose romance with colour was as interesting as his zest for life and love for women.

Here was a man full of contradictions … he was a nobleman who became an artist, yet who insisted on using the false title of Raja ... he was the idealistic entrepreneur who bankrupted himself running a printing press, yet whose dream of bringing art to the masses became a reality.

Blending fact with imagination, writing with wit and lyricism, Deepanjana Pal takes you into the life of an extraordinary man and brings him vividly alive.


Two great revolts

A Tale of Two Revolts: India 1857 and the American Civil War
Rajmohan Gandhi (Penguin Viking, Rs. 599).

Two nations, one century and one common agenda – freedom. India and America sitting on opposite sides of the globe were fighting different enemies – slavery and the British. But the war cries were same: ‘We want our freedom’.

For historian Rajmohan Gandhi, the task of chronicling the two seemingly distanced historical occurrences could not have been an easy one. For, what he set out to do was also to record America’s thoughts on the Indian revolt and vice versa, besides paint a perspective on the events that saw millions die. In his own words, “Two dramas being enacted ... on two different stages. Were the characters in one aware of the other drama? Did they comment on it? Were there common features in the two?”

The voices of eight men play a pivotal role in interpreting history – Saiid Ahmed Khan, Octavian Hume, Ishwarchandra Vidyasagar, Jitiba Pule, Bankim Chandra Chatterjee, Karl Marx, Leo Tolstoy and Abe Lincoln. They show “the continuities between the 19th Century and the world we live in today.”

Riveting, scholarly and lucid, the book sets to raise new questions about the two revolts that changed the course of India’s and America’s history.


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In this issue

They’re only transferring the road congestion
Great festivals – but they need greater promotion
The Sabha that made V.P. Hall its home
A landmark that’s gone
A festival to remember
Kuppams oppose expressway
Historic Residences of Chennai - 35
Other stories

Our Regulars

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


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