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(ARCHIVE) Vol. XIX No. 22, march 1-15, 2010

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On the Bookshelves

Nostalgia: Moments with Tagore and Rukmani Devi

Vincent D’Souza suggests: Recording that interesting life of yours

A nun arrives in Mylapore

When QMC could be seen

(By Savitha Gautam)

The politician, the traveller, and the entrepreneur

Anna: The Life And Times of C.N. Annadurai
R. Kannan (Penguin, 550).

He was one of the most influential men to shape Tamil Nadu politics. When Conjeevaram Natarajan Annadurai became Chief Minister of Madras State in 1967, a new chapter was written in its history.

Born in a humble weaver’s family, Annadurai’s was a meteoric rise to political stardom. He was exposed to the Justice Party as a college-goer and was impressed by certain ideals of social reformer Periyar.

The book, in as candid a style as possible, puts together events that led to Annadurai’s ascent to power and the disillusionments that set in along the way. It is as much a biography as it is a chronicle of the Dravidian Movement and Tamil Nadu politics in general.

As for Anna, here was a man whose simple demeanour and charismatic persona made him a darling of the masses. His oratory and writing skills are legendary and his love for literature comes through in this poignantly painted portrait. The book has a few black and white photographs for pictorial presence.

The author, who had served in various capacities with the United Nations, digs into Anna’s writings and works of other leaders such as Kannadasan, Jayakanthan and P. Ramamurti to present the reader the story of a man who “showed the way for the democratic expression of regional aspirations within a united India.”

To sum up, in the words of N. Ram, Editor-in-Chief, The Hindu: “The book admirably fills an intriguing gap, the absence of a reliable biography of one of the most interesting, attractive, and consequential of modern India’s political leaders, whose legacy is no less than the permanent transformation of Tamil Nadu’s socio-political landscape, the ascendancy of the federal idea, and a whole new democratic language of connecting with the masses… This accessible and lucidly written work is an invaluable read on the Dravidian Movement…”

* * *

My Friend The Fanatic: Travels with a Radical Islamist
Sadanand Dhume (Tranquebar, Rs. 395).

Any book that touches upon Islamic fundamentalism is bound to attract attention. And there are many books that base the theme on this hot issue. Dhume, a U.S.-based journalist, too takes up this burning topic. And gives it a funny twist.

The story is set in Bali, after the twin bombings at nightclubs that left more than 200 dead. This book is an account of two unmatched travellers –Dhume and Herry Nurdi, whose idol is Osama Bin Laden. Dhume paints the picture of Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim country, and a fascinating land which is much more than a handful of exotic tourist destinations.

If you love travelogues and are into social history, this one is a sure-fire read.

* * *

Simply Fly
Captain G.R. Gopinath (Harper Collins, Rs. 499).

This is the journey of a boy born in a remote village in Karnataka, who dreamt big and had the courage and conviction to turn his dream into reality. And even more important, he changed Indian aviation history when he introduced low-cost flights across important cities.

From riding in a bullock cart to owning an airline, Gopinath’s is a proverbial rags-to-riches story which makes for a good read.

Full of anecdotes that describe Gopinath’s everyday struggles and joys, this inspiring story narrates the incredible journey of a young man who quit the Army, converted a barren piece of land into a sustainable silkworm farm, and the obstacles he encountered in his determined effort to launch an airline (which touched a crazy market cap of US $ 1.1 billion in less than four years) that gave middle class Indians a chance to fly. By setting up India's first and largest low-cost airline, Deccan Air, this ambitious entrepreneur made that possible.


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Nostalgia: Moments with Tagore and Rukmani Devi
(By Santosh Sahni)

From my childhood, I had been interested in folk and classical music. We were encouraged and instructed in music by our parents. My brother-in-law, Chandragupta Vidya lankar, would often say to me: “If you promise not to eat sour plums climbing up trees, also give up eating salad with vinegar, I will persuade your father to send you to Shantini ketan. There, in Sangeet Bhavan, you will get excellent training to become a musician.

Oh! To study music in Shantiniketan, Gurudev’s Vishwa Bharati! It was a dream!

I made a solemn promise to my brother-in-law not to eat sour plums and salad with vinegar. I kept my promise. But my brother-in-law forgot about it, being away in some other part of India.

After finishing college (taking literature and other subjects) I did a master’s degree and got a teacher’s training diploma. The dream of studying music in Shantiniketan remained unfulfilled.

I was about to join a school as a teacher, when my brother-in-law reappeared on the scene. He informed me that he was going to Calcutta and would be visiting Shantiniketan. He asked me if I would like to join him on this trip. We remembered the pact and I postponed joining the school and set out for Shantiniketan.

My first visit to Shanti niketan was only for a couple of days. We stayed in the institute guest house.

My brother-in-law took me around to see the small, one-storey buildings of the various departments, like Kala Bhavan, Sangeet Bhavan, Hindi, English, Chinese, Arabic study departments, the library and research department.

Chandraguptaji himself was a well-known literary figure. He introduced me to the heads of some departments and great artists, like Nandlal Bose, C.F. Andrews and Khiti Mohan Sen, a renowned scholar and father of Amrartya Sen.

I was drawn to Shanti niketan’s simplicity and applied for admission. In a month’s time I received a letter of admission. Soon, I was at Sangeet Bhavan, studying vocal Indian classical music, Rabindra Sangeet and Israj instrument.

I was told that Gurudev had earlier lived in the institute along with the other teachers and students, but that he now lived in Uttarayan, a small, beautifully built house close to the ashram due to his indifferent health. He occasionally visited Shantiniketan in a small old car. In the days after my arrival, I never got the oppor tunity to see him.

In our hostel, I shared a room with Kumud, a student from South India. She was studying veena and was very good at it. She was the grand-daughter of national leader and scholar C. Rajago pala chari. She and I became good friends.

One day, Kumud told me that the great Bharat Natyam dancer Rukmani Devi and her husband Dr. Arundale, both well-known Theosophists from Adyar, were to visit Shanti niketan and meet Gurudev. Kumud also informed me that Rukmani Devi would one evening perform a small portion of Kalidasa’s Vikram Urvashi in ballet form, choreographed by her, before Gurudev at Utta rayan. Kumud was going to play the veena as accompaniment. She was going to meet Rukmani Devi that evening in the ashram college for a rehearsal. I was happy to go along with her to see Rukmani Devi and Dr. Arundale.

I was struck by Rukmani Devi’s classic beauty and poise. She and Dr. Arundale were unassuming but imposing.

Two days later, I went along with Kumud and her veena to Uttarayan. It was evening. From the entrance we were ushered in to a not so big sitting-cum-study room. I barely had a chance to see the books, paintings and other unique artefacts adorning the walls and shelves.

There were some people already seated on the carpeted floor.

Kumud was requested to sit with her veena in the left foreground by an organiser, she being the accompanist. In the small open space, close to the front wall, there was kept an armchair, waiting for Gurudev to grace it. Everyone quietly awaited his arrival.

Gurudev then slowly walked in, frail and old, but graceful and impressive. He sat down in the chair.

The lights of the hall were dimmed. Only the front portion was somewhat brightly lit for the artistes. There were some moments of quiet expectations and then Rukmani Devi walked through the invitees, came close to Gurudev and bowed before him. She was in a beautiful Bharat Natyam costume.

In low tones she said a few words to him, perhaps about the portion of the dance she was going to perform and sought his blessings. There was a gentle smile of blessing on Gurudev’s lips. Rukmani was emotional and nervous.

Then she began her performance as the dancer Urvashi in the court of the ancient king Vikramaditya. Both the dancer and the accompanist were enveloped in the magic circle of artistic-aesthetic creation and we the spectators were transported into a magic world for a brief fifteen or twenty minutes. It was a lifetime experience.

The performance ended. There was no clapping. But these were moments of deep joy and fulfilment for all of us.

With dewdrop-like perspiration on her forehead, Rukmaniji stood near Gurudev with bowed head. We heard Gurudev saying:

“Rukmani Devi, watching your inspired, superb performance I felt transported to king Vikramaditya’s court when Urvashi, the heavenly dancer, performed!”

And we saw Rukmani Devi who, while performing, was so poised and confident in Urvashi’s character, now trembling like a leaf in the supreme joy of acceptance and fulfilment, on receiving the blessings from the Great Poet! As she gently smiled with quivering lips, we were all overwhelmed at being part of this joyous experience.

Decades have passed, but those moments are still as fresh as dewdrops on a flower in my memory.


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Recording that interesting
life of yours
(Vincent D’Souza suggests... Courtesy: Mylapore Times)

When you are in the right place at the right time, a lot can happen. C.P. Venkata raman was one such man who was in the middle. Working in the Telegraph Department may appear to be an unexciting job. It was not.

Ask any telegraphist of the old days and a nudge will produce a string of ‘believe-it-or-not’ stories. Venkataraman found himself in some exciting spots that his job took him to in the Madras of the 1930s and 40s. Cricket matches, for example.

He was in charge of setting up and running the communications for this sporting event and when the Aussies came visiting they found in Venkataraman a reliable man who ensured they could talk to their wives and families uninterrupted and assure them back home that Madras was not overrun by snakes and elephants.

In return, the Aussies posed for keepsake pictures that the proud Telegraphs person showed off to his colleagues. There was also a wartime assignment when he had to co-ordinate the job of setting off the air raid warning sirens in the city.

He was the sort of man who made friends easily and when he grew roots in the Mylapore area he came to know of the biggest and brightest lawyers of the land, like Sriman Srinivasa Iyengar. (His family says that he pushed the agenda to have a road in the area named after this towering personality.)

At Pachaiyappa’s, he had rubbed shoulders with C.N. Annadurai who went on to become the leader of the DMK and a Tamil Nadu Chief Minister. Recently, his family celebrated C.P. Venkataraman’s centenary, making a handsome donation to city-based voluntary bodies which are doing immense service to less fortunate people. Dr. C.V. Geetha, Venkataraman’s daughter, had spoken to me when she was making preparations for this milestone. I took that opportunity to make a suggestion.

A suggestion I made after I heard some of the anecdotes that made Venkataraman who he was. Create a PowerPoint or a slide show on the person and present it to the family, relatives, guests and wellwishers at the centenary event. Dr. Geetha called me soon after the event, keen to share some pictures of the celebration. And she told me that she had worked on my idea and the presentation was appreciated.

I am hoping this adds to the social history record that some of us are building today. Celebrations, compilations, books and records are not meant only to be on the famed and the successful. They have to be on people who have led interesting lives. There should be one or two people in your family tree who have made a mark or contributed immensely.

An engineer who designed the bridges of our city. A doctor who set up a free clinic and ran it for 50 years. A teacher who changed the face of a school. Please compile pictures and records and jot down information on them. Circulate them amongst your family and relatives. Create social records.


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A nun arrives in Mylapore
(Flipping through yesterday’s pages* by Sriram V.)
* Days in an Indian Monastery by Sister Devamata
(Sri Ramakrishna Math, Chennai 600 004))

To most Indians, the name of Sister Nivedita would be a familiar one as she was one of the better known women disciples of Swami Viveka nanda. Not so the name of Sister Devamata. Born Laura Glenn in a well-to-do American family in Ohio sometime in the 1860s, she met Swami Viveka nanda in 1899 in New York and became inspired by his teachings. In 1909 she became a part of the monastic order, taking on the name of Devamata.

Travelling to India the same year, she arrived in Bombay by ship and then took a train to Madras. After staying for the better part of two years in Madras, she moved to Calcutta and from there returned to America.

While in India she maintained a journal and in 1927 she published it as Days in an Indian Monastery. The pages are filled with observations of daily Indian life and of Madras in particular. Sister Devamata passed away in 1942. This being the centenary of her stay here, we publish excerpts from her journal, with the permission of the Sri Rama krishna Math, Mylapore. Wherever required, we have added a few comments which are in italics.

The Editor

Sister Devamata

As we were due to arrive in Madras at an unseasonably early hour, I had wired the Madras Monastery not to meet me. Great was my surprise therefore to hear my name spoken outside the window of my compartment before the train had ceased moving; and still more surprised was I when I stepped from the railway carriage and found a group of twelve to fifteen Indian gentlemen waiting to greet me, with the majestic figure of Swami Ramakrishnananda at their head...

At Swami Ramakrish nananda’s request, our carriage went by the Marina, one of the beautiful parkways of the world. It extends for many miles along the ocean front. On one side are luxuriant tropical gardens with here and there a government or university building, rising out of tall ferns, high palms and blossoming forest trees. On the other side is a narrower strip of green, where arid sand has been replaced by soil and growing things. Then comes a rolling beach and beyond, a pounding ocean with a relentlessly deadly undercurrent. As we drove along beside it, over the wide stretches of combing waves hung a low mist, grey with the greyness of early morning. Suddenly out of the water rose a glowing southern sun, transforming the dull haze into an opalescent sea. The first rays were tipping the top of the high temple tower as we turned from the Marina and entered the village of Mylapore. The carriage skirted two sides of the temple tank, a large body of water filled with pink lotuses, passed beside a coconut palm grove and drew up at the monastery gate.

Accommodation for Sister was provided in what she referred to as a “large house obliquely across from the monastery on the edge of the palm grove we had passed”. It belonged, she wrote, to a wealthy judge. Sister also mentions that from the verandah she could look out across the temple tank to the temple. She also adds that the family next door was that of the son of an ex-Prime Minister of Mysore. This almost certainly meant the family of Dewan V.P. Madhava Row who lived on Brodie’s Road (present day R.K. Mutt Road). The Mutt authorities have since established that the house in which Sister lived was called Sundara Vilas which stood on the same road. Almost four pages in her journal are devoted to a description of the house where she lived and it gives a picture of the Madras style residence at its best.

Timekeeping in Mylapore

I learned to mark off the day’s routine by the various sounds that came from the temple. The tinkling of numberless tiny bells told that the temple gates were opening or closing and that it was seven in the morning or nine at night. Certain special strains of music would tell of other hours in the 24 hours. One melody would be played at noon, another at four, still another at six.

My watch seemed to give me very poor service. By the village clock sometimes it was fast, sometimes slow. I found the cause one evening when I was walking with a boy who came daily to see if he could be of help to me. We passed a small suburban bank. On a recessed verandah hung a large gong and beside it slept an old man on a narrow wooden bench. “That is the town clock,” the boy remarked. Then he explained that the old man was supposed to follow the bank clock and strike the hours; but sometimes he overslept and would be five or ten minutes late; at others he would wake with a start, think he was late and strike the gong too soon. Once while I was there, he struck thirteen for twelve; he waited a moment, then gave another blow to subtract the extra one.


Sister on her arrival lived for a month in what she calls the Primary School Building. She was able to observe the Indian style of education which had in the previous century inspired the monitorial system in England.

The first grade scholars had their recitations. Most of the classes were in Tamil and represented only sound to me; but the English lesson I followed with relentless regularity. The instructor would begin at one end of a long row of pupils and repeat over and over these same sentences: “Gopal, come here. What is your name? Where do you live? What is your age? Go to your seat.” Each question was answered in hesitating English, then the sequence began with the next boy.

When the end of the line had been reached, the first boy took the teacher’s place and questions and answers were gone through once more down the row. Then the second boy became the teacher and so on and on and on.

Fish and curd

There were two fishing villages on the beach near Mylapore and sometimes I went to one or the other for my daily walk. Every one in them seemed untiringly busy – mending nets, building boats, or going out for the day’s catch. They constructed their boats in the shape of catamarans and I used to marvel at their balance and skill in launching their ungainly craft on the high, combing breakers. I was told that sooner or later nearly every fisherman meets his death in the sea, but they were nonetheless venturesome and fearless.

It was contrary to the law to carry fish through the streets during the hot hours of the day because of the strong odour, but after five o’ clock a continuous line of fishermen and fisher women passed before my door. The men usually bore their load in two evenly balanced baskets suspended from a stout wooden yoke over the shoulders. The women carried theirs in a flat round basket on the head. It weighed sometimes forty or fifty pounds. Both trotted with short, rapid steps to lessen the time of exposing the fish to the air, still destructively hot even at that hour.

They kept up this quick pace with enduring persistence mile after mile, for the market was several miles from their village; and the women as they trotted, waved long sticks over the baskets on their heads to keep the birds from swooping down and stealing the fish. It must have required great concentration of effort to make the feet trot, the uplifted right arm swing back and forth above the wide basket and at the same time to balance their burden in rhythm with the two motions. When they saw a bird called Garuda, which has a sacred symbolism, they would throw a fish into the air and the bird would catch it in its beak.

Still greater endurance have the vendors of sweet curds. They belong to a pastoral community and in order to procure pasturage for their cattle they have to live ten to fifteen miles from Madras. They set out at three in the morning, walk the long distance, distribute their curds and walk home, covering twenty-five or thirty miles before eating their first meal; and all the time they are carrying on their heads a heavy earthen jug filled with clotted milk, with a thick blanket in tent-shape falling down over jug, head and shoulders to protect the curds from the sun and heat.

At Madras distances are great and there is little money for tramfares and so the poor go everywhere on foot. As I watched them, again and again I saw husband and wife share their load. One mile the mother carried the babies and the father the bundles, the next mile the mother took the bundles and the father the babies. The caressing tenderness with which he held the wee ones was touching to see.

(To be continued)


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When QMC could be seen

Queen Mary’s College – the Madras College for Women when it opened in July 1914 – was the second women’s college in the South and Madras’s first. It became Queen Mary’s College for Women in 1917 and the bust (see inset) of the Queen whom the College honoured in its name is still prominently displayed.

The College has, over the years, followed the example of the founder-principal, Miss de la Hey, and played a significant role in the emancipation of women in South India. But its beginnings were small. It opened with just 37 students in what had been known as Capper House Hotel. Col. Francis Capper’s once-beautiful, isolated house, the first on the Marina, was a run-down hotel on the verge of closure when Government first rented, then, in 1915, acquired the building and made it both a college and hostel (see picture on right). Capper was a soldier and geographer and it is significant that QMC remains one of the few colleges in India paying more than passing attention to Geography.

Capper House, facing QMC’s eastern gates, was pulled down in 2002/3, but the other buildings have fortunately survived a plan to pull them down and build a new Government Secretariat and Legislature. Now there remain on the campus: Pentland House built in 1915, Stone House in 1918 and the central Jeypore House in 1921 (all seen in the rare Willie Burke view above); by Edward Elliot’s Road, Beach House, used as staff quarters (Beach House, built by Justice S. Subramania Aiyer when he retired from the High Court, was the first private Indian residence on the Marina); and opposite it the slightly younger bungalow that belonged to another judge. Beach House and this bungalow were bought by the college in the 1920s, a little after most of the other buildings on the campus had been built in classical style, harmonising with Capper House, through the efforts of Miss de lay Hey, who was Principal from the beginning till 1936, and Governor Lord Pentland.


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In this issue

One small step towards preserving heritage
Can’t we leave natural heritage alone?
Mall-grazing in Chennai
A legend in his lifetime
Monotonous post-match presentations
Historic Residences of Chennai - 37
Other stories

Our Regulars

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


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