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(ARCHIVE) Vol. XIX No. 5, june 16-30, 2009
From shorthand
to surukkezhuttu
(By Sriram V.)

Shorthand in English developed in the 16th Century and was refined continuously thereafter, reaching a stage of advanced development when Isaac Pitman launched his eponymous method in 1837. But how, when and why did shorthand come to be deve­loped for the languages of India, and in particular Tamil? Bernard Bate, Associate Professor for Anthropology, University of Chicago, who has been studying Tamil as a political language of expression for some years now, has some answers.

Professor Bernard Bate

The use of Tamil for political oratory, he says, began in the late 1800s, perhaps with men such as G. Subramania Iyer who embarked on a speaking tour of Madras Presidency in 1883 to promote the cause of the Congress. But it was the Swadeshi movement, which took birth following the partition of Bengal in 1905 that made Tamil and other vernacular languages the chosen media for oration. In Madras city itself, public meetings were conducted at Marina Beach, Moore Market and the maidan opposite Pacchai­yappa’s College (then located by the Esplanade). While the beach meetings often featured Subramania Bharati, the Moore Market meetings were in Telugu and presented E. Suren­dra­­nath Arya. In Tuticorin and Tirunelveli, speeches were given by V.O. Chidambaram Pillai and Subra­mania Siva. This was a period of oratorical incandescence.

Swadeshi struck at the very foundation of the commerce on which the Empire had been built. The Government, therefore, needed to know what was being said in order to take appropriate action. Officials, largely English, did not understand what was being said. Taking it down in longhand was impossible and many of the words were lost. This was spontaneous oratory, free from the pre-written sheets of paper. If the speeches had to be taken down as they were spoken so that they could be analysed later for seditious content and the speaker subsequently arrested on that basis, a technique had to be evolved that would enable police inspectors to attend meetings in mufti and take down the speeches verbatim. In the words of Prof. Bate, shorthand in vernacular (known as surukk­ezhuttu) was developed as a new political communicative technique to counter another new political communicative technique, namely the use of Tamil and other vernacular languages for oratory.

By 1907, when the Swadeshi movement was being actively suppressed, the Government of Madras was considering the use of shorthand for reporting political speeches. A technique of shorthand in vernacular had to be developed. L.D. Swami­kannu Pillai, considered an expert on languages, submitted a “memorandum on application of shorthand to South Indian vernacular”. Around this time, independent of the Government initiative, V. Krishna­machari, a local scholar, developed a system based on the principles of phonography, namely the recording of words on paper as they sound and not as they are spelt, which formed the basis of the Pitman system as well. Krishnamachari decided not to publish his work and, in 1907, submitted it to the Government for due consideration as an official system of shorthand. There appears to have been some kind of rivalry between Krishnamachari and Swami­kannu Pillai, with the latter weighing in favour of ­another shorthand researcher, M. Srini­vasa Rao, who was an employee of the Police Academy and had worked on an ­independent system. So while Krishna­ma­chari received high praise for his work, it was Rao who was asked to conduct classes in shorthand for the ­Police sub-inspectors of Madras. In 1908, examinations were conducted in shorthand and eleven candidates appeared. Nine passed; the two who failed had been trained by Krishnama­chari! With that, any possibility of using his techniques faded.

In 1910, the second examination was conducted and ten students appeared. Five were proficient in English shorthand and the results in Tamil showed that they could take down 80 to 90 words a minute which was considered excellent. Encouraged by this, Srinivasa Rao went on to produce a Telugu manual for shorthand in 1912 and in 1914 the first examination for shorthand in Telugu was conducted. In 1915 shorthand became a part of the syllabus for the SSLC examination.

The benefit of the training received in the system became evident in 1919 when the Home Rule League and the Labour Movement reached their zenith. Use of local languages for speeches had become common by then and these were taken down rapidly by the trained police personnel. Prof. Bate’s research points to E.V. Ramaswami Naicker, later known as Periyar, being the first person to be arrested based on shorthand notes taken by the police. This was after his speech on February 4, 1919 at Uttama­palayam near Coim­ba­tore. A record sixty pages of notes in shorthand were taken during the speech and produced as evidence. Surukkezhuttu had come of age!

From being a tool of surveillance, it later became an integral aspect of commercial and governmental day-to-day activity. The Stenographers Guild was inaugurated in Madras in 1937 by C. Rajagopalachari. It flourishes to this day.


Once upon a time at Loyola...
(By S. Ketharaman former Managing Director, Indian Oil Corporation)

Loyola College, Madras, is a hallowed institution, which invariably finds a place at the top in the listings of the nation’s scholastic establishments our business magazines are fond of bringing out every now and then. But, even decades ago, when such ordinal stratifications were not in vogue and business magazines as such were non-existent, the College had a unique standing thanks to Principals like Rev. Fr. Murphy and Rev. Fr. Jerome D’Souza, illustrious educationists both. The number of courses then on offer was very few. As an alumnus, my mind goes back to my days there in 1938-43 doing my Inter and Economics Honours.

Loyola College in its early days.

The Jesuit Fathers in Loyola at that time were mostly foreign nationals and the care and interest they took in their students was truly remarkable. The College itself was housed in a magnificent building complex at the end of a stately avenue, with the railway track in the rear giving it a certain character. The large classrooms had no windows, but were lined with widely-spaced, open doors all over, flanked by spacious verandas, with ample breeze and ventilation, thus rendering fans unnecessary. It is difficult to believe that the Madras climate of those days was not the trying and inhospitable horror it is today. During breaks, we would stroll down tree-lined Scholar’s Avenue and a few would seek amusement at the Father’s Lodge to stare at the boa constrictor kept there as a pet by Father Leigh. He would often sport the boa around his shoulders like an angavastram.

It used to be said that the Loyola College believed too much in the unwholesome encouragement of success in examinations, making ‘slaves’ out of its wards. Pedagogy was moulded not towards creative thinking and self-help, but the uncompromising aim of guiding students to come out with flying colours in the exams. But is that not the universal hallmark of our entire educational system even today, where success in exams is what counts first and last?

Curiously, our Economics Hons. course in Loyola was comparatively easy and leisurely, quite in contrast to the common impression to the contrary. Our classroom lectures accounted for barely 13 or 14 hours in the week, with innumerable holidays thrown in between. The idea was that an Honours student was a special category scholar who was expected to spend a good deal of his time imbibing knowledge on his own in the well-stocked library. I think it was a bit of a joke that at the end of a long three-year course, all we were called upon to do was to answer just five three-hour-long question papers altogether, one of which was a general essay which was a bugbear to most. Left to themselves, they might have been all at sea in writing an unknown essay, but some vague and helpful rumours of possible subjects would have been floated around, often not far off the mark.

The head of our Economics faculty was the unforgettable Father Basenach, an extraordinary character, almost a maverick. A German national, he had come out from the famed ­London School of Economics. His teaching methods, if teaching it could be called, were unconventional in the extreme. No regular lecturing, least of all any orientation towards equipping students for exams, or coverage of any subject in all its ramifications. The idea was to provoke and needle us to think for ourselves through discussions, questions and answers. Unfortunately, the effect was marred because of the Father’s sharp tongue, which would lash out at the slightest indiscretion on our part.

At the beginning of each course, Father Basenach would order his students to come on a specified date armed with their own copies of large volumes on General Economics like Marshal, Taussig, Canan, Meade, Benham, Robinson and many other names I cannot recall. (Books like Jather and Beri, akin to guidebooks, were anathema.) It would require a special conveyance to cart these un­wiedly volumes to College, but each bundle would be carefully scrutinised by the Father to make sure everyone had all the books on the prescribed list. Speaking for myself, not in a position to afford such costly tomes and not adept at robbing libraries, I sent a leave application on the appointed date. That was not going to let me off the hook and I then adopted the simple expedient the next class day of borrowing the books from class fellows who had already finished their ordeal and presenting them for inspection as my own. The good Father ­perhaps knew what I was up to, but showed no sign of it and scribbled my name furiously at random on each and every volume.

Father Basenach’s class would go something like this. We would have been asked to bring a nominated book, usually Meade. For some reason, he had selected me as ‘reader’ and had given me the sobriquet ‘Frenchman’ because of my habit of rolling my ‘R’s. I had to stand next to the great man near the dais and read out loudly a few sentences from the book (which I would have hastily borrowed from a friendly neighbour in class). Then would follow some comments from the Father by way of elucidation, whereafter he would look around and call out: ‘Any doubts?’ A pin-drop silence would follow, with every one of us trying to avoid the Father’s piercing eyes. On previous occasions, we would have found that any brave ventures to raise a doubt or make a point would have produced some withering admonition like ‘Go and boil your head in a pot’, ‘Tell that to your mother-in-law’ and so forth. It was far safer to play dumb and the Father in mocking frustration would remark ‘No doubts, No brains’, tapping his head. It should be said, however, that although we were always kept on tenterhooks, there was never a dull moment in class. Our attention was never allowed to wander and we felt privileged to be under the tutelage of a mastermind. The Father well knew his classes had nothing to do with our final exams, and for that purpose the job would be entrusted to a competent tutor, complete with regular lectures, notes and examination-aids.

The Economics faculty in Loyola, in fact, had very eminent lecturers like Dr. A. Appadorai, one of the pioneers of Political Science education in India, later to become the Secretary-General of the Indian Council of World Affairs, and L.N. Govindarajan, a specialist in Public Finance, Banking and International Trade. Despite what I have said about Father Basenach, the stamp of his class and the general handling of his Department was evidenced by the excellent turn out of his student flock. In my own group, many of us went on to do well in life in positions of responsibility. Damodaran Nambiar joined the Imperial Bank and ended up as the Chairman of the State Bank of India. Suarez was head of SBI International. Stanley Satur, a mild-mannered and soft-spoken individual, my neighbour in class, was perhaps a misfit in the IPS. I met him when he was Police Commissioner in Hydera­bad. He later found his natural niche in the Church and took up the priesthood. The Abdullah Brothers (or was it Abdul Qadir) were brilliant and one of them went into the IPS and was our Ambassador in Saudi Arabia when I used to visit that country for our oil deals. Kannan and Subramanian joined the Superior Services of the Indian Railways, where I later followed before switching on to oil, our sunrise industry. Others in our class of around 20 I have lost trace of.

Thinking back on my Loyola days, I ask myself if I enjoyed them. The answer can best be put in Mark Tully fashion:

“An inner voice that calls, ‘Be fair, be fair’,

It was not quite as awful as you think”.


Adyar Poonga gets active
(By our Staff Reporter)

The managers of the Adyar Poonga, the nature reserve in Raja Anna­malaipuram which is being restored, had a programme in April-May to link up with the local community. They launched a series of summer workshops at the park for school students.

Short lectures and talks and a variety of hands-on ­exercises and practicals were organised.

Children got to learn the art of pottery, got close to medicinal plants and learnt their many uses, took a close look at select reptiles, sat through a session of bird watching, created masks and went for a nature walk around the Adyar Poonga campus. There was also a trip to the Guindy National Park.

Each camp ran for three days, from 10 a.m. to about 4 p.m. and lunch and refreshments were provided free to the participants.

While the core work is carried out at the Adyar Poonga, one of the objectives of the managers is to connect with the community, especially the people who live around it – the residents of San Thomé, MRC Nagar, Foreshore Estate, Manda­veli, R.A. Puram and Adyar.

Students of schools in this neighbourhood have been visiting the Poonga to take part in nature camps and workshops.

Volunteers have been going out to meet residents and discuss garbage disposal and clearance issues to ensure waste and dangerous materials do not lead into the Poonga areas and thus affect plant and animal life here.

The rains during last occurrence filled up the low lying areas that had been cleared of the muck, and birds flocked to this oasis in larger numbers than in earlier years. (Courtesy: Mylapore Times)


Want to make a docu-film?
(By Simeon Mascarenhas)

Madras Week, built around Madras Day, August 22nd, will, as already announced in these columns, be celebrated from August 16th to 23rd. The coordinators of the programme have been in touch with several organisations and individuals and a host of events is being planned. Watch these columns for programme announcements. First off the mark was the call for participants to design a logo for a T-shirt. Now the coordinators announce a competition for young docu-film-makers.

If you are passionate about making documentaries, you must join this project. A project which is about producing films on Madras that is Chennai. About its people and places, its landmarks and its institutions, its lifetrends and its communities.

We produce films through the year and screen the best at a festival during the Madras Week celebrations in August.

The project for 2009 is open to students of Vis Comm and Media, Film and Botany and History, to young film-makers, artists and writers and journalists... to anyone who loves Chennai and is capable of making small films.

First comes the Selection. If you are selected, then you will be invited to a full day workshop to be conducted by well-known film-maker, Ms Soudhamini, who also teaches at the Film Institute, Pune.

To qualify for this, you can submit any form of creative material that proves your interest in the city (film/documen­tation/media). You can send us rough cut film material or just photos or articles. You must also tell us in 100 words the kind of subjects on Chennai you would like to document on film. You should submit your application by June 25, 2009.

Bonus – Those who qualify can then submit a film plan, and will also get a stipend of
Rs. 2000. This year, we propose to select eight people.

Extra Bonus – After the shooting of your film, Soudha­mini will guide you on how best to use the ‘rushes’ at the second meeting we will hold in July 2009.

Note: Only one person who plans to produce/direct the documentary should apply and he/she will be trained and guided. He/she in turn can employ others for shooting / editing / sound design, etc.

Contact – Vincent D’ Souza at 98410 49155

Email –


Family welfare, green mist
& Ellis
(LITERATURE ON MADRAS (an annotated bibliography from the Web)
compiled by Dr. A. Raman)

Medical history

Hodges S. (2008) ‘Health citizenship among colonial subjects.’ In: Imagining and Practising Imperial and Colonial Medicine, 1870-1960. The Wellcome Unit for the History of Medicine, University of Oxford, Oxford, UK. book.pdf

This paper takes up the case of the Madras Neo-Malthusian League (MNML), South India’s premier birth control organisation in the 1920s and 1930s. The paper explores how, despite not enjoying formal political sovereignty, colonial Indians used their engagement with health voluntarism to enact relations of governance among themselves and, at times, attempted to govern the health of others. In the Madras Presidency, the state did not pursue a health policy with any notable vigour. As a result, health was appropriated both discursively and practically by the voluntary organisations of the Indian middle classes. Although the 1920s and 1930s was a time of significant nationalist mobili­sation across India, many South Indian health advocates did not promote health as part of a broader anti-colonial agenda. South Indian contraceptive advocacy was not one battle among many in a larger war for national self-determination. ­Instead, the MNML’s founder–members shared common cause with the leaders of the birth control movement across the globe. They held as self-evident that in the mass uptake of healthy practices lay possibilities for improving maternal and infant health and ameliorating the plight of the poor. Not only did MNML members see themselves as participating in an ­international movement, but internationally-recognised birth control advocates eagerly sought to create links with the Madras-based organisation.

Ramusack B.N. (2008) Professionalisation, politics and gender in the Madras Child Welfare Centres, 1917-1940. In: Imagining and Practising Imperial and Colonial Medicine, 1870–1960. The Wellcome Unit for the History of Medicine, University of Oxford, Oxford, UK. http://www.wuhmo.

Available research on Indian women trained in biomedicine has delineated their subaltern position within the structure of colonial medicine. The discrimination of British male and many British female physicians towards Indian medical women has been documented. Little attention, however, has been ­directed to situations where ­Indian male politicians and medical personnel have been in positions of authority over ­Indian women medical personnel. This paper analyses the evolution of child welfare ­centres that the Madras Corporation began to establish in 1917 to provide ante-and post-natal care for women in slum areas. Based on the rarely used proceedings of the Madras Corporation and the reports of the Lady Superintendent of Child Welfare in Madras, it documents how professional prejudices, party politics and gender infected the relationships of ­Indian male physicians, es­pecially some who were members of Madras Council, toward the Indian women physicians and midwives who operated the child welfare centres. The ­research indicates that Indian male physicians could be as denigrating of the work of these Indian medical women as their British counterparts. Thus, the argument is that ­significant continuities of prof­essional and gender biases ­existed within the biomedical profession well into the period when Indian physicians and politicians explicitly began to develop medical institutions that would nurture future citizens of a self-governing India.

Science history

Young A.T. (2003—2008) Annotated ‘green-flash’ and ‘mirage’ bibliography.

Includes the following ­details: Charles Michie Smith observed: “The green flash at sunset,” [Nature 41, 538 (1890)]; Charles Michie Smith was Pogson’s successor at Madras, and established the Kodaikanal Observatory in 1899. [“The green flash,” Symons’s Met. Mag. 41, 91 (1906)]; “Probably closely allied with this phenomenon is one which I have seen here [= Kodaikanal] on two or three occasions, when the whole sky became filled at sunset with what seemed to be a green mist, which produced the most lurid effects.” J. Evershed observed, “The green flash, [Nature 95, 286 (1915)] seems to me very probable that the phenomenon is in some way connected with the abnormal conditions which at sea produce mirage effects.” Evershed succeeded Smith as Director at Kodaikanal in 1911.

Social history

Trautmann T.R. (2006) Languages and nations: the Dravidian proof in colonial Madras. University of California Press, Berkeley, California, USA.

British rule of India brought together two different traditions of scholarship about language, whose conjuncture led to several intellectual breakthroughs of lasting value. Two of these were especially important: the conceptualisation of the Indo-European language family by Sir William Jones in Calcutta (1786) – proposing that Sanskrit is related to Persian and the languages of Europe – and the conceptualisation of the Dravidian language family of South India by F.W. Ellis in Madras (1816) – the ‘Dravidian proof’ showing that the languages of South India are related to one another, but are not derived from Sanskrit. This book examines these developments from the vantage of Madras, focussing on Ellis, Collector of Madras, and the Indian scholars with whom he worked at the College of Fort St. George, making use of the rich colonial record. Trautmann concludes by showing how elements of the Indian analysis of language have been folded into historical linguistics and continue in the present as unseen but nevertheless living elements of the modern.


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A need to learn...
Tiger! Tiger!...
A priceless collection...
Where they see, hear...
Historic residences...
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