Click here for more...

(ARCHIVE) Vol. XIX No. 21, february 16-28, 2010

Quick Links

Art, just one facet of Rajam’s world

Annie Besant and the Alcyone case

The Appah heritage

193 species spotted in race

Art, just one facet
of Rajam’s world
(By Pradeep Chakravarthy)

When pictures of Carnatic music composers are talked about, the paintings of S. Rajam come to the mind’s eye before anyone else’s. Rajam’s paintings of the composers are universally used today. His success in the film world is also well documented. I visited Rajam a couple of months before he passed away very recently to get to know a part of his life that is not documented as thoroughly as would have been appropriate, particularly his connection with one of Madras’s greatest institutions, the College of Arts.

S. Rajam

I expected Rajam to be, like most nonagenarians, an articulate talker. What I did not expect was his sharpness, remarkable ability to paraphrase, summarise at logical intervals, and keep checking with me if he was telling me what I wanted to hear! In the two hours I spent in his lovely house, we left Nadu Street far away and went back in time to the 1930s and 40s when Rajam was a student of what was then known as the School of Arts, or the Chithra Velai Vidyalaya. “At a time when most people thought of four colleges in Madras – Setha (dead) College or the Museum, the Uyir (living) College – the Zoo, the Meen College – aquarium, the college I wanted to join was called the Bommai (doll) College,” he recalled.

Rajam wrote an entrance test in 1937 to join the School. The test was to ensure that the student had some basic artistic merit before he was admitted. The six-year course that followed was divided into a two-year drawing course, a one-year advanced drawing course, and a three-year painting course.


Muthuswami Dikshitar

Syama Sastri

Rajam was quickly promoted to the advanced drawing class. He also showed enough promise to receive the Dr. Rangachari Scholarship, named after the famous physician. The scholarship value was a princely Rs.8 a month. “When the monthly pass was 1¼ annas and a plate of tasty idli-s cost half anna, people at home were quite impressed,” he recalled with a chuckle.

Rajam had a photographic memory of life in college! Classes were held in the third floor of the building that currently houses the library and adjoins the bridge. Morning classes were from 10 to 1 with a model (modelling was his additional subject) who was paid Rs.4 a day. Getting a model even for that amount was not easy; “only the oldest and gauntest and most uncouth-looking people were willing to model, and copying them was really difficult.” Afternoon classes were from 2 to 4. Rajam rattled off the names of the stationery and their prices! Yellow paper, called Othello and Van Dyck, was used with crayons that cost 15 annas. HB pencils from Bavaria came with exotic names like Taj Mahal, Himalayas, and Elephant. Handmade paper from England was used for water colours and the preferred brand was Whatman. Archie from France and Pelican from Germany were other paper brands. Venus erasers completed the list. The most expensive item was canvas at Rs. 60-70.

Rajam fondly remembered his teachers, Aruldass and B. Doraisami Achary. “They encouraged me to work in my own style that was inspired by traditional Indian painting. Every week, we did trips to Ennore and other places to paint with water colours, oils, crayons and poster colours. Incidentally, K.C.S. Paniker and Paritosh Sen were my contemporaries.”

The School in the 1930s had a vibrant crafts department. Rajam regretted that he did not have much contact with it, as it functioned more or less independently. But what little information he gave me was valuable as it is unlikely that even the College has this information. Carpentry, porcelain, leather, gold work, and filigree were some of the other departments.

Carpentry was a popular department from the time of E.B. Havell’s principalship in 1884. Wood was bought at concessional prices. The first teacher was an asari from Ramnad. His intricate style was supplemented by more European examples. A few tables and chairs of graceful design, inspired by the art nouveu and Chippendale styles, still grace a few classrooms in the College and may have been from this department. Rajam stored his paintings in a beautiful cabinet that was made in the School. Note the harmonious blend of art deco and Indian motifs, he pointed out, when he showed me the cabinet. The son of B. Doraisami Achary, Velayutha Achary, made the elegant doors of the main block that have very unusual spindles. V.R. Chithra, the Assistant Principal, was trained in China in porcelain skills. Rajabathar Asari was one of the famous goldsmiths in the School. The School pioneered enamel jewellery designing in India. Each of these trainers was a great craftsperson, but they were all in awe of the Principal. “Most of them referred to him reverentially as ‘Durai’. Among the students, I had studied upto SSLC and my articulation meant that I was one of the few who could speak more confidently,” recalled Rajam.

Rajam narrated a humorous incident when a very thin and lanky teacher married a plump woman. During the wedding, the Principal, who was accompanied by Rajam, teased the teacher and asked him, “You are so thin compared to her, how are you going to ‘manage’ her?” The teacher, with his limited knowledge of English, thought the Principal was conferring ‘managerial’ authority on him in college! “Naive they may have been, but they were to me the best teachers in terms of their skill, enthusiasm and dedication – a vanishing breed today,” he added.

Rajam studied at a time when the Principal of the School was Roy Chowdhury, known as much for his art as for his wrestling prowess. He was a student of Abanindranath Tagore and the School’s first Indian Principal. He was just 30 when he assumed the post. The Principal, however, was, not popular with Rajam, as he was not very supportive of Rajam drawing inspiration from ancient Indian styles and themes. Rajam also did not appreciate that the Principal on occasions attended class in a stupor. “He, on the other hand, probably thought I was conceited, having as I did a film history,” recounted Rajam.

Artists like Rajam who choose to be inspired by Indian themes and style are a minority today.

As I left his house and stepped back into the real world, I told myself that the grace of the artists who painted the walls of the Brihadeeswarar temple in the heyday of the Chola period and the artists who created the Tanjore style of painting had passed on their mantles to another descendant of Thanjavur (S stands for Srivanchiyam, a village near Kumbakonam), who bore the torch every bit as well as his artistic predecessors did.


Back to top


Annie Besant and
the Alcyone case
(Flipping through yesterday’s pages* by Karthik A. Bhatt)
* Mrs. Besant and the Alcyone Case by Veritas. (Goodwin & Co., Mylapore, 1913)

One of the city’s most sen-sational events in the early 20th Century was the battle for the custodianship of the young Jiddu Krishnamurthy (later, to become famous as a philosopher and known as the Alcyone) and his brother Nityananda (also known as the Mizar) fought between their father, G. Narayaniah, on one side, and Annie Besant, the leader of the Theosophical Society, on the other.

Jiddu Krishnamurthy (Alcyone).

Jiddu Krishnamurthy was born on May 4, 1895 in Madanapalle, where his father Narayaniah was a Tahsildar and Taluk Magistrate. When Krishnamurthy was 18 months old, Narayaniah was transferred to Cuddapah, a malaria-ridden district where Krishnamurthy began to suffer from fever at regular intervals, something he had to contend with throughout his life. As a boy, Krishnamurthy was not particularly fond of book-learning, but he displayed a mechanical turn of mind. He was religious, though, and often accompanied his mother to the temples. Narayaniah was transferred from place to place before being transferred back to Cuddapah where he remained till 1906. His wife passed away in 1905. In 1907, Narayaniah was posted again to Madanapalle, where he retired later in the same year on a small pension. It was in the sylvan surroundings of Madanapalle that Krishnamurthy spent a lot of time observing nature and its creations.

In December 1907, Narayaniah, who had been a Theosophist since 1882, wrote to Annie Besant after attending a convention in Benares, offering to serve the Society at its headquarters in Adyar. Mrs. Besant initially said ‘No’, stating that his four lively young sons would disturb the compound and that a lot of expense would be incurred in sending them to school in far away Mylapore. Narayaniah was, however, persistent and said that he would arrange for them to attend school. Annie Besant replied that there was no vacancy for him at the time. A year later, however, an assistant to the Corresponding Secretary in the Esoteric Section was needed and Annie Besant appointed Narayaniah. He began working from January 23, 1909. By then, his family, including his brother-in-law and a large number of dependents, had joined him. Krishnamurthy and Nityananda were enrolled in P.S. High School in Mylapore, whereas their elder brother Shivaram joined Presidency College.

Sitting (left to right): Dr. Nanjunda Rao, C.P. Ramaswamy Aiyar and G. Narayaniah. Standing (left to right): M. Subbaroya Iyer, N. Chandra Sekara Iyer, S.V. Subramaniam and H. Sunder Rao

In February 1909, Col. William Leadbeater, a Theosophist and a teacher, saw Krishnamurthy and Nityananda for the first time and took them to the sea to teach them to swim. He later helped them with their lessons. He was drawn by the appearance of Krishnamurthy in whom he saw the Master the Society had been waiting for. One day, he seated Krishnamurthy on a sofa in his room and, placing his hand on his head, began describing Krishnamurthy’s previous births. He proceeded to give an account of the past 30 lives of Alcyone, and these were published in the Theosophist magazine over a period of time.

Leadbeater’s interest in the boys increased. When he heard that the boys had been caned in school, he persuaded Narayaniah to remove them from the school saying that their astral bodies had been much disturbed, and stated that he would educate them. Narayaniah initially refused, but, later, with the consent of Annie Besant, put the boys in the care of Leadbeater, to be taught by him and others. Annie Besant, on learning of Leadbeater’s views on Krishnamurthy, wanted the boys to be placed in her custody so that they could be brought up in a manner conducive to their development. Narayaniah agreed after initially refusing and, on March 6, 1910, executed a letter in favour of Annie Besant, authorising her to be the guardian of the boys. Annie Besant undertook to offer them the best possible education and to send them to an English university at her expense.

On January 11 and 12, 1910, Mrs. Besant initiated Krishnamurthy into the folds of Theosophy. In April that year, Narayaniah had a serious quarrel with Leadbeater and wanted to leave Adyar with his sons. He was, however, persuaded by Sir S. Subramania Iyer, the Vice-President of the Society, to await the return of Mrs. Besant, who was away on tour. She returned later that month and, on subsequent tours to places like Benares, Delhi and Amritsar, took the boys with her. The boys also accompanied her to Europe and were joined by Arundale, who was then the Principal of the Central Hindu College and who had taken six months’ leave of absence, to act as their tutor.

The first controversy involving Krishnamurthy took place in December 1910, when it was announced by Annie Besant that he had written a book called At the Feet of the Master. Writing in the January 1911 issue of the Theosophist, Annie Besant claimed that the book was a compilation by Krishnamurthy of the teachings of Theosophical Master K.H. The book which saw brisk sales was, however, the topic of much discussion outside Theosophical circles. This was due to the fact that Krishnamurthy was known to be an ordinary student in the Mylapore school and one who knew little English, thus raising doubts about the authenticity of the claim that it was written by him. Dr. M.C. Nanjunda Rao, the well-known physician of Mylapore and a close friend of the late Col. Olcott, wrote strong letters to The Hindu criticising the book.

Further controversy was generated when Krishnamurthy was appointed the head of a body called ‘The Order of the Star in the East’, which was founded in 1911. The Order was formed to ‘prepare’ the world for the arrival of the Master, Maithreya, who, it was said, would manifest in Krishnamurthy’s body. The Society was divided over the formation of this body, and many members, especially of the German section, quit, disputing the claim that Krishnamurthy was the future Master. (The Order was in 1929 disbanded by Krishnamurthy.)

Krishnamurthy and Nityananda accompanied Mrs. Besant on a tour of England in 1911 and returned to Madras later in the year. It was at the Annual Convention held in Benares that December that Narayaniah spoke to Babu Bhagavan Das, the Secretary of the Indian section of Theosophists, about his sons and asked for his help to separate them from Leadbeater, who he felt was indulging in questionable activities with the boys and was an undesirable influence on them. He also spoke to Annie Besant and threatened her with action in case the boys were not separated from Leadbeater. Annie Besant refused to do so.

Matters came a head in June 1912 when Narayaniah wrote to Annie Besant revoking the letter he had executed earlier giving her the custodianship of the two children. This act of Narayaniah was provoked by a letter written by Mrs. Besant in rebuttal of Narayaniah’s letters with allegations against Leadbeater. Mrs. Besant accused Narayaniah of unbecoming behaviour and refused to act on his letters. In reply, Narayaniah accused Mrs. Besant of imparting training seriously detrimental to the progress of the boys and undermining their moral character by allowing them to move with “that disreputable character Mr. Leadbeater and his worthy disciples and satellites.” He gave Mrs. Besant time till August 31, 1912 to hand over the children to him at his residence at 118 Big Street, Triplicane, failing which he threatened to take legal steps. When this was not complied with, Narayaniah resorted to legal action.

In October 1912 he filed a case in the Chingleput Court praying that the custody of his two children be restored to him. Representing him was C.P. Ramaswamy Aiyar, while Annie Besant conducted her defence in person. Assisting C.P. Ramaswamy Aiyar were M. Subbaroya Iyer (who later became a well-known income tax lawyer and was the co-founder of the Vidya Mandir School and Vivekananda College) and N. Chadrasekhara Iyer. With The Hindu and Dr. Nanjunda Rao throwing their weight behind Narayaniah, the case became the talk of the town.

The case was transferred to the Madras High Court for the convenience of all the litigants. After long drawn out arguments, which saw the examination and cross-examination of several witnesses, Justice Bakewell delivered the judgement on April 15, 1913, ordering that the children be declared Wards of Court in order to protect their interests. Annie Besant was ordered to hand over the custody of Krishnamurthy and Nityananda to Narayaniah. However, Narayaniah was ordered to bear the entire costs of the case which amounted to around Rs.6000, a princely sum in those days. Being a retired Tahsildar living on a small pension, he could not meet the costs all by himself.

A book titled Mrs. Besant and the Alcyone Case was published in 1913 with a view to helping Narayaniah to pay the litigation costs. The publishers were Goodwin & Co., Mylapore. The author, however, chose to use a pseudonym ‘Veritas’. Proofread by C.P. Ramaswamy Aiyar, the book contains a vivid description of the case, complete with all the evidence presented and the cross-examinations. A public appeal, which was sent to The Hindu, was also published as part of the Preface. V.C. Rangaswami Iyengar, Secretary of the Madras Central Urban Bank Limited, Mylapore, consented to act as the Treasurer. The signatories to the appeal included people like Dewan Bahadur P. Rajaratna Mudaliar, V. Masilamani Pillai, and the Raja of Panagal, Rama Rayangaroo.

An interesting fallout of this case was the formation of a lifelong friendship between Annie Besant and C.P. Ramaswamy Aiyar.

Annie Besant was later successful in getting the verdict upturned in the Privy Council and obtained custody of the two boys.


Back to top


The Appah heritage
(By Geetha Iyengar)

Over a hundred members of the ‘First Family’ of Madras, coming from all over the world, got together recently at a dinner organised by the Appah & Co. Trust to recall their ancestor, Beri Thimmappa, one of the founders of Madras.

Family House and first business premises of Appah & Co., 125, Audiappa Naick Street, Black Town.

The present descendants of Beri Thimmappa trace their lineage to two of his great-great-great-grandsons, Ketty Thimmappah Bashyam Naidu and Ketty Narayanappah Naidu, who had contributed generously to the city and who are remembered for their contributions.

Appah and Co. Pharmaceutical Chemists, 286, Netaji Subash Chandra Bose Road.

The two brothers, left fatherless before they were two years old, were brought up by their maternal uncle, Goday Parthasarathy Naidu, who guided them after their studies to set up Appah & Co. in 1894. This provision store was started in their then family house (top, left) at 125, Audiappa Naick Street, Black Town. Two years later, it had grown into a wholesalers’ business, dominating the chillies, coriander, turmeric and groundnut trade in Madras. In 1899, it moved into handsome premises it had built at 2, Chinnathambi Mudali Street (on right), Black Town.

Produce Department, 2, Chinnathambi Mudali Street, Black Town.

As the next generation came along, diversification began. In May 1928, Bashyam Naidu’s third son, K. Alavandar Naidu, and his cousin, K. Venkapathi Naidu – who was a few years later to qualify as a pharmacist – and two others in the two families who had, like them, just passed out of college, started the business of Appah & Co., Pharmaceutical Chemists (top, right), in newly built premises at 286, China Bazaar Road (today’s NSC Bose Road). The premises were re-modelled in 1934 to cope with the firm’s increasing popularity.

The last vestige of the Appah & Co. businesses was the Narayanappah Pharmacy in Nungambakkam. But that too passed out of the hands of a member of the family. Today, the family comprises mainly of professionals.

At the Appah family get-together, what they all had in common was the initial K and it would perhaps be more accurate to call them the Ketty family. But it is a well-recorded fact that the family descends from Beri Thimmappa. The link with Thimmappa is explained by Thimmappa not having any sons; he had only one daughter, she married a Ketty (Ketty being the family’s ancestral village), and all those who gathered that evening had descended from that line.


Back to top


193 species spotted in race
(Courtesy: Madras Naturalists’ Soceity Bulletin)

The 3rd Chennai Bird Race was an enjoyable day of birding for all those who participated in it. 41 teams registered and 33 teams came back with their log books on time! A record ten teams did the Green Birding. The Bird of the Day was a Ruddy Breasted Crake spotted by the team Hoopoe (Gita, Roshan, Sanjay, Shekar). The Green Birding Category was won by the Crested Bunting team (Hopeland, Nina Simon, Siffi Kumods, Dharani) with 106 birds. The third prize went to the team Great Cormorant (Dhurga S, Partha Datta, Ekshika and Shreekar). They had actually tied for second place with 110 species, but were awarded the third place as the team that won the Second Prize, Rajali (Kailash, Sripad, Gnanaskandan and Varun) had spotted some interesting rare birds (Red Munia, Lesser Whitethroat). The First Prize went to Neer Kagam (N. Ramjee, Siluvai Amalam, Arun Shankar and Pandi). Arun Shankar and Pandi had come all the way from the Palani foothills to participate in the Race!

Some statistics from the Race – Total number of species spotted: 193 (up from 190 in 2009). Top five places where most people birded: Pallikaranai Marsh, IIT, Guindy National Park, Nanmangalam Reserve Forest and ECR. Top five places where the maximum variety of birds were spotted: Pulicat, Pallikaranai, Vedanthangal IIT, Nanmangalam RF.


Back to top


In this issue

Planning for better days for the Cooum
Pedestrian safety – a matter of low priority in Chennai
Three men, a sidewalk and a morning Tamil paper
After the SVS days – the slide
Historic Residences of Chennai - 36
Other stories

Our Regulars

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


Back to current issue...