In conversation

Memories of Madras

Print edition : September 05, 2014

The historian S. Muthiah. " I collect every scrap of information I can find about Madras in newspapers, magazines, books, etc.," he says. Photo: V. Ganesan

A Madras sepoy of the early 19th century. The sepoy wore a scarlet coat and drawers fringed with blue. He wore sandals or travelled barefoot. In his pouch slung on the shoulder were rice and condiments. At times even his spacious cap was used to carry supplies. Photo: THE HINDU ARCHIVES

The Darbar Hall in Amir Mahal, the residence of the Nawab of Arcot, situated in Royapettah. "From the time I started writing in the 1970s on Madras, there has been an immense growth in interest in heritage issues, but immense is purely a comparative word," says Muthiah. Photo: V. GANESAN

S. Muthiah shares his thoughts on the city he has chronicled extensively from its origins.

FOR S. MUTHIAH, called Mr Madras by some and the Mad Man of Madras (MMM 1 with which he once used to sign a regular column) by others, the city of Madras, its history and its heritage buildings are a passion. He is committed to conserving and restoring heritage buildings in Madras and making people aware of the city’s splendid past. Muthiah has authored over 35 books, most of them on Madras. The seventh edition of Madras Rediscovered will be released on August 22 in Madras, now Chennai, together with a new version of Tales of Old and New Madras written for the city’s 375th birthday; the first version came out for its 350th birthday. His other books include Madras: The Gracious City, Madras: Its Past and Its Present, Madras that is Chennai, Parrys 200 (with the late N.S. Ramaswami), Getting India on the Move, The Spirit of Chepauk, Down by the Adyar, and A Madras Miscellany, a compilation of his weekly column in The Hindu written over a decade. He is in his 25th year as the editor of Madras Musings, a fortnightly journal that is devoted to the city and its heritage. He was made a Member of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (MBE) by the Queen of England in March 2002 for his work on heritage and environment conservation in Madras.

Despite these accomplishments, he does not call himself a historian. “I am not a historian. I am a chronicler” of facts found in the records on the history of Madras, he says.

What bothers Muthiah most these days is the present-day education system, where there is no focus on the humanities or even an attempt to develop pride in the city through a specific humanities syllabus.

In an interview given to Frontline on the occasion of the 375th anniversary of the founding of Madras, which falls on August 22, Muthiah said: “If you are taught while you are young to treasure your heritage and to know about where you live, you will care much more for it. On the other hand, if your education does not teach you that and looks only at science and technology and commerce, then the heritage of your home town, State and country will mean nothing to you and you will never take pride in it.”

Muthiah was educated in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), India and the United States. Armed with a BSc degree in engineering and an M.A. in international affairs, he began his career as a journalist and worked with The Times of Ceylon from 1951 to 1968. He was its Foreign News Editor and then Features Editor and was later in charge of its Sunday Times and magazines. From 1954 to 1968, he represented in Sri Lanka first News Chronicle of London and then Daily Mail. He also represented The Observer, London, and its Foreign News Service from 1959 to 1968, besides working for two other British features services.

From 1968 to 1990, he was in charge of T.T. Maps in Madras, which published maps, atlases and tourist guide books. Since then, he has been a full-time writer and editor.

Excerpts from the interview:

Which exactly is the founding day of Madras, July 22, 1639, or August 22, 1639? Some articles have said that it was on July 22, 1639, that Francis Day was granted the piece of beach on which Fort St. George was built. But August 22 is being celebrated as Madras Day. Was July 22 a scribal error?

The official document which had Venkatadri Nayak granting a three square mile spit of what I call no man’s sand to the East India Company was dated July 22. But Francis Day’s and Beri Thimmappa’s travels to meet the Nayak are listed in the logbooks for later in July (27th) and early August. So it is presumed that July 22nd was an error in writing, which in those days was quite common in documents. Col. H.D. Love, who has written the most authoritative history of Madras up to 1800, has checked all the records and feels that July was an error and August 22, 1639, must be the correct date. So that is the date we have accepted.



Why did Venkatadri Nayak agree to sell that strip of beach in Madras to Francis Day of the East India Company? Was it because he was fed up with the fighting between the Dutch in Pulicat and the Portuguese in San Thomé and wanted the English to act as a buffer between the two?

Not really. He wanted to be able to benefit from peaceful trade and the customs duties it would bring. The British outlook also was purely commercial at the time. There was also Beri Thimmappa’s advocacy that the British would be a non-interfering power, that they were focussed on trade, that they would boost commercial activity, and that the area would be developed by them. I think the link was more commercial than political at that point of time.

You are an authority on the history of Madras. How did you get interested in the subject? Did the late N.S. Ramaswami’s articles on Madras in his column “The Coral Strand” in Indian Express get you interested in the history of Madras and prompt you to undertake the enormous amount of research and legwork needed to write so many books on the city?

If you will leave Madras for a minute, let us go back in time…. In Colombo in 1938, when I was eight years old, an Englishman called W.T. Keble started a preparatory school with about 40 of us. Two things he emphasised were reading and learning the history of where we lived. He did both by encouraging us to read all that was in a fiction-packed library and by telling us the history of Ceylon in story form. When I was 11, Keble wrote a book called Ceylon, Beaten Track. Whenever I re-edit my Madras Discovered/Rediscovered, I find the influence of Keble on every page. Madras Discovered came out of my discovering the stories of Madras from 1971. At that time, I was in charge of T.T. Maps. The first publication of T.T. Maps was a map of Madras, and this needed to be supplemented by text about the city. While researching information about the city for this text, I discovered that several persons, who went on to fame, fortune or notoriety, had begun their careers in the East India Company in Madras. There were names like Warren Hastings, Robert Clive, Elihu Yale, Arthur Wellesley (who became the Duke of Wellington) and many others whom I had only briefly read about in history books and long forgotten. They had started their careers in Madras and gone on to make headlines.

I became fascinated with the stories of these people. As the material kept piling up, my wife threatened to throw it all out unless I did something with it. So there came out a small book called Madras Discovered in 1981, thanks to K.S. Padmanabhan of East-West Publishers—the first non-academic title he published after coming to Madras from Delhi. East-West has remained the publisher of my books on Madras ever since.

Once the first edition came out, I kept looking for material about Madras in everything I read and that included the writings of N.S. Ramaswami and Harry Miller. It also included spending two weeks in the India Office Library in London almost every year after going to the Frankfurt Book Fair.

As I began collecting more and more notes, I began discovering how important Madras was in the history of modern India. Modern India to me is post-1498. The British story in India begins in 1600. With the Portuguese and the Dutch failing to build on the base of the establishments they had laid the foundations for, it was left to the British to start the institutions which spread throughout India in the 17th and 18th centuries. With most of the institutions having sunk their first roots in Madras, I began to think that Madras was the first city of modern India. That is what I have been talking and writing about ever since.

I am not a historian. I am a chronicler of the facts that have been recorded in the records as well as in numerous books written by authors who have had access to the earliest records of the city. To this day, I collect every scrap of information I can find about Madras in newspapers, magazines, books, etc. This and my continued reading of old texts on Madras are the sources for my material, which keeps growing every day.

You had mentioned that the first engineering college in India, the first general hospital in India, the first municipal corporation in the country, the first Western type of school in India and the first regiment of the Indian Army were all set up in Madras. The Great Trigonometrical Survey began from Madras. Then why did it lose out to Calcutta and New Delhi? Why could not Madras become the capital of India after all these contributions?

I don’t have the faintest idea. But let us go back to the beginning. Madras was founded in 1639 and Calcutta had its beginnings 50 years later, in 1689. Bombay was 30 years younger than Madras. These three are coastal cities, favoured by nations with ships. The British and others established themselves on the coast; they did not move inland till much later. For the English East India Company, Surat and then Masulipatam were where they first attempted to settle. But it was in Madras that they began to put down firm roots and establish a permanent settlement from 1640. But the hinterland of Madras did not offer the British sufficient commercial opportunity. Textiles, timber, spices from the west coast, hides and skins were not enough to make Madras attractive. The climate too was harsh. The soil lacked fertility. There was also no safe shelter for ships.

Calcutta was a well-established textile centre. It had a rich hinterland. The climate in Calcutta was felt to be more friendly than in Madras, which could be hot during summer and dangerous during the monsoons because of regular cyclones. Calcutta was a much more protected place. And it was also a move which took them closer to the riches of the Mughal Empire. As far as I know, there is no record of why the British preferred Calcutta to Madras.

Let me digress for a minute here and give you my view of modern history. To me, modern Indian history can be broken into three phases—particularly looking at it from the East India Company’s point of view or the British point of view. The first phase from 1600 till about 1750 was the age of trade. Commerce was all that the British were interested in. They did not even have an army of any sort to back any imperialistic ambitions. It was only when such ambitions were first shown by the French in Pondicherry, by Dupleix and his wife, Jeanne Begum, that the British began to feel that what the French could do they could do better. So the British raised an army. The beginnings of the Indian Army were in Cuddalore and Madras. The Madras Regiment is the oldest regiment of the Indian Army. The British began to show, and more successfully, the same ambitious dreams of the French after the battle of Plassey in 1757. They moved to Calcutta in 1773. Then began the second phase, which went on till 1857.

The Company, not the British government, began to expand in India, not so much by military force—though by now it was strong militarily—but by threat as well as by signing treaties with local powers offering them protection, which gave them the opportunity to have influence over these powers or acquire land.

After 1857, it was the age of the Raj, and they ruled through viceroys, the first imperialists.

Looking at this three-part scenario, Madras’ greatest significance was in the first phase when it was a trading post and at the heart of all British activities from the Red Sea to Manila. But once the army had been raised in Madras and the official East India Company policy backed by this force began to be acquisition of territory or influence over satraps further north, Madras’ importance diminished. Yet, at the same time, institutions outside the military and political pale began to sink roots in what was considered friendly territory, the south.

The first technical school [the Survey School, which was established in 1794] grew into an engineering college [the College of Engineering at Guindy]. A survey school and a civil engineering school were first established in India in Madras. The first Western-style hospital was established in Fort St. George. The first Western-type school, which offered an educational form not too different from today’s, was established in Madras. The first municipal corporation outside Britain was established in Madras. You can go on and on in this vein. Many of these were established in the 17th and 18th centuries and some in the 19th century, but all of them made Madras an important place in Indian history. And that is what I wish to present by focussing on the city’s heritage. I try to do this with Madras Musings and my column “Madras Miscellany”. Some of us also try to do it with Madras Week.

What is the genesis of Madras Musings, the magazine focussed on Madras’s past and its present? You seem to have been editing it with some success.

Madras Musings is 25 years old. Lokavani [Southern Printers Private Limited] wanted to bring out a journal to use their spare capacity. I was just retiring from T.T. Maps. They [Lokavani] were talking to me about this and asking me whether I would be interested in helping them. Their thinking was that free journals were popular with the public and brought in a lot of local advertisements. So they thought they could fill up their spare capacity and make a little money at the same time. I said I was interested provided they brought it out as a serious magazine and gave me a free hand with it. We started on that basis.

Unfortunately for us, it was too general a magazine in that it had a scattered readership throughout the city and we had to compete with the mainline newspapers for advertisements. It was unlike Adyar Times and other journals which came later. Adyar Times, Anna Nagar Times, etc. are very area specific and local in content and can get local advertisements, which market The Hindu and News Today are tapping only now. So we were losing quite a bit. But Lokavani kept it going because the magazine was good and they [Lokavani] were gaining a good reputation. But after 10 or 12 years, they felt it could not go on any longer, and they wanted to close it down. So I wrote the lead story in one issue announcing we were closing down.

Within hours of the magazine reaching readers, N. Sankar of the Sanmar group called me for a meeting. I had never met him before. He said he liked the journal very much and wanted to know what the cost was. I gave him the figures. He said he would speak to a few other corporates closely bound with the city and get them to contribute towards keeping the paper going. He said he would get back to me in a month and asked to me to keep the journal going for a couple of months. Within three days, he called me and said 12 corporates had agreed to contribute an equal amount each. We now have 25 corporates supporting us. Only their logos are published on the back page. I must say that none of them has interfered with the journal or its content. We are going to celebrate the 25th anniversary of Madras Musings next year. We have a little surplus now and we use it for Madras Week programmes, for organising small seminars or workshops connected with heritage.

You have been organising Madras Week every year.

Neither Madras Musings nor I am organising Madras Week. It is not even being organised by the dozen or so of us who call ourselves the coordinators or the catalysts. Madras Week is purely a voluntary celebration. We do not seek financial support or sponsorship. If you want to do something for the Week, you do it yourself. If your apartment block or if a school or business house wants to do it, let it go ahead and do it.

Would you like to say something about any of the important aspects of Madras?

Madras is the first city of modern India. We should take pride in it because it is a city which has made major contributions to all of India. If you are going to take pride in that, you have to be taught about the city right from school so that right from childhood you begin to realise what the city is all about, why you should take pride in it and care for it.

Are you hopeful about saving Madras’ heritage buildings and inscriptions and murals in temples with the awareness you are creating through your books, your weekly column in The Hindu, and Madras Musings?

Compared with when I started 40 years ago, there is considerable improvement in the situation. When you start from zero, even one is an improvement. Progress has been made. At times, the government shows some interest, as in the case of Ripon Building and the Victoria Public Hall. It promised to restore Khalsa Mahal. But once restored, these buildings must be put to building-friendly use. There has been awareness created. I would like that awareness to spread elsewhere too. Some private buildings have been restored, Madras Club, for example. But many more are not.

What people fail to realise is that there are a lot of corporates, particularly from abroad, who are willing to pay good rents for such buildings. The Senate House was restored. But after restoration, it is not being put to use and it is deteriorating again. And then there are people who pay lip service to heritage and the environment and do what they want even if it affects heritage or the environment. So the job is far from done. But there has been a beginning in awareness creation. Let us hope that by the time Madras celebrates 400 years, the city will be restored to a great extent, its heritage proudly on display.

Footnote: 1. It was actually "the Man from Madras Musings".

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