Chronicler of Chennai

S. Muthiah (1930-2019), through his writings, lectures and other endeavours, instilled a sense of history and heritage in the people of Chennai.

Published : May 08, 2019 12:30 IST

S. Muthiah

S. Muthiah

I have not met Roja Muthiah of Kottaiyur, the bibliophile and the man who was responsible for the original collection of the Roja Muthiah Research Library (RMRL), which is dedicated to Tamil studies. Fortunately, I have known S. Muthiah and have worked closely with him. I first met him in 2000 when he phoned to ask me if we would be interested in taking the TTK Memorial Library collection. T.T. Vasu himself handed over the material to RMRL. Indian Review , edited by G.A. Natesan, was part of the collection.

RMRL’s first acquaintance with Muthiah was in 1996, immediately after the Roja Muthiah collection was moved to Chennai from Kottaiyur. He sent Rajind N. Christy, a freelance journalist, to the library to cover the move, which was featured in Madras Musings , a fortnightly founded and edited by Muthiah. Since then we had been in touch.

Early education

Muthiah was born in British India to Subbiah and Chittaal before the Second World War in Pallathur in the Chettinad region. The family moved to Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), where he went to school. He continued his schooling in Montford School in Yercaud and Lawrence School in Muree (now in Pakistan). He then went to the United States where he took an engineering degree, which did not interest him much. He then chose to go to Columbia University and did a course in international affairs. He returned to Sri Lanka, by which time India and Sri Lanka had got Independence.

He had given a hint of the career he would pursue during his schooldays. Encouraged by his teacher, he used to write for his school newspaper, and he edited his college magazine. Writing became his passion. He later became a journalist with The Times of Ceylon. He loved the country. He had also picked up a Sri Lankan accent, which persisted until the end.

When he came to India, he joined the Maps Division of the TTK Group—called the TTK Maps and Atlases Publications Pvt. Ltd, which was founded in 1965 in collaboration with Bertelsmann of Guthersloh in Germany—in Madras, which is now Chennai. As a leader and pioneer in the field in India, TTK Maps undertook cartographic and educational publications for the government and for tourism purposes. He gave a new perspective to the ways maps were represented.

After we at RMRL got acquainted with him, he would call and provide us valuable tips about collections that were either going on sale or being trashed. Our staff would go and secure such valuable items and bring them to RMRL for preservation. Once, he alerted us about a collection in the Chettinad region belonging to the MSMM family. Since the building was being renovated, we needed to be quick. Our staff collected old papers, letters and correspondence in 40 gunny bags. This material related to the Second World War years. We organised it, and when we showed it to Tamil film studies scholars, they said it was an invaluable source material for research as it contained correspondence between film producers and film-related people.

In 2004, RMRL had a change of guard. A new, independent trust had to be formed. We approached Muthiah and invited him to be on the trust. He believed that any growing institution should have a sound financial policy, and therefore we should have the right people on board. He always advised us to be meticulous with accounting procedures. We have been publishing our annual reports with the balance sheets on our website annually.

I cannot forget the way he introduced RMRL to people. He would say that Roja Muthiah was a magpie collector and quickly add that Roja Muthiah was no relative of his. He also told people how RMRL was the most accessible collection for users and how willing the staff were to help its users. He wished that RMRL was well endowed with a corpus to take care of its activities. He introduced many potential donors to RMRL. As a board member of the RMRL trust, he demonstrated that he was a great team man. He made valuable suggestions in every single meeting. For instance, when we discussed establishing the Indus Research Centre at the initiative of Iravatham Mahadevan, there was some initial hesitation. He finally saw the importance of the subject and supported it. Working with him was always a delight though it was difficult to keep pace with him.

He used to teach at the Asian College of Journalism and at the Press Institute on the Taramani campus. He would tell his students that there was a place nearby that was close to his heart. He would tell them about RMRL and consequently many students would visit the library.

A few years back, he advised me to apply for a travel grant through the Association of British Scholars, Chennai, to visit the British Library, London, for a brief training in paper conservation. That grant helped us build a conservation laboratory at RMRL. He believed that if one person got the training it would benefit an entire community.

Madras Day

He hit upon the idea of Madras Day to observe the founding day of the city. It then became Madras Week and is now celebrated for over a month in August. This is an important idea, and it instilled the consciousness of heritage and history amongst the people of Chennai. I think it a successful idea as it has been celebrated continuously for more than a decade. Since he became a trustee of RMRL, we have been organising exhibitions and lectures regularly for Madras Day celebrations. In fact, RMRL has been organising lectures and exhibitions on various aspects of the Tamil language and culture and history.

He, along with a few heritage enthusiasts, launched a major programme to preserve one of the oldest buildings in Chennai, the Senate House of the University of Madras. During private discussions, I have seen him arguing in favour of an India that is modern, liberal and inclusive but that did not forget its vast heritage of monuments. For him, heritage did not mean just ancient historical monuments; it also meant people’s houses, cinema houses, railway tracks, man-made canals, and so on. He identified the right people working in the areas of heritage, conservation and history.

He anchored the Madras Book Club meetings, where books were introduced, released and reviewed by a dedicated group of individuals. He worked with the late Padmanabhan of East West Publishers. He continued to work with P.M. Belliappa, a retired bureaucrat, and other trusted friends.

When it came to his writings, he was often criticised by scholars for his preference for English sources. The people of Chennai are divided into an English-speaking group and a Tamil-speaking group. His knowledge of Tamil was limited to speaking. He identified himself with the English-speaking group but balanced that by his association with RMRL, essentially a library dedicated to Tamil studies. He was keen that the Tamil collection in the library grow and that it was preserved. Whenever he had to consult Tamil sources, he took help from colleagues and friends who translated them into English for him.

He was a disciplined man. He walked every day, he read every day, he wrote every day and he met people every day. He allocated time for everything. He enjoyed his time at the Madras Club. He also liked to take us to Y Cook (now Kandyan) restaurant, a small Sri Lankan food joint in Besant Nagar.

The table in his house was always stacked with papers and books. He would sit on one side of the table with a table lamp. That was his chosen place to study and write. Sometimes, he also used to have his breakfast there.

If he got a call for his wife sitting in one corner of his house, he would give it to her saying: “Darling, it’s a call for you.” He was really affected by the passing away of his wife, but he did not give up writing. He began working immediately after the rituals for her were completed. I have always felt that it was not possible for me personally to maintain this kind of discipline. He was committed and had conviction in what he was doing. He was a no-nonsense person and a soft activist.

He started Madras Musings in 1991, in association with the Lokavani-Hallmark Press, to document the history and culture of Madras. The initiative had problems getting off the ground, and it was taken over by a non-profit foundation called Chennai Heritage. He engaged RMRL to index Madras Musings and also archive the back volumes both in physical and digital formats so that the entire archive could be searched. For instance, if someone wants to research the Buckingham Canal project, one can refer to this archive. Together, we searched for a neighbourhood newspaper called Sidewalker that was in circulation in the early 1990s. We were unsuccessful in that effort.

Prolific writer

He was a prolific writer, and his first book was Madras Discovered . He has authored more than 25 books. He brought in a new genre of historical research that documented corporate and institutional histories. He documented some of the oldest business houses in Chennai such as Parry’s, Spencer’s, Simpsons and Ashok Leyland. His uniqueness lay in documenting the histories of Ango-Indians, Armenians, Punjabis and the Chettiar community. One of his most important contributions is the Madras Chennai gazetteer project, a 400-year record of the first city of modern India. The four-volume history comprises 53 articles and was published by Palaniappa Brothers. As an editor, he chose meticulously the people to write these essays. One could not have missed his “Madras Miscellany”, the column he had written in The Hindu since 1999. He would also add a section called “Postman knocked” as part of this column in which he would cover things written to him by his readers. As an author and writer, he knew the importance of libraries and archives and hence was sympathetic to them and patronised them. He sincerely believed in the importance of heritage and lived his life celebrating it.

The history of printing and publishing was one of his passions. The German missionary Bartholomaus Ziegenbalg set up the first printing press in Tamil Nadu in Tharangambadi, a small coastal town near Nagapattinam. The Francke Foundations of Germany wanted to set up a museum there. In 2015, RMRL hosted an exhibition curated by the foundation. It showed the history of the Danish Halle mission and its role in the print culture. This exhibition has found a place in the museum in Tharangambadi, called the Ziegenbalg House, which was inaugurated in July 2017.

He shunned mobile phones and never used a computer to type anything. But he used a computer by taking help from trusted people. He had a vintage Premier Padmini with bucket seats and used to come to RMRL in that. The car got ruined in the 2015 deluge, and he acquired a new car.

He was in and out of hospitals for about a year. Yet, he missed only one trustee meeting, which took place in March. He was always available. Recently, he called me and my colleague Subbu, whom he liked very much. We went to his house to see him. The first question he asked was about the library and how the funds situation was. He gave me the names of a few people and asked me to meet them and talk to them. He was very much concerned about the future of the library. He told me once that his books would come to RMRL and that we could keep them in a section called Muthiah’s Corner. He has already given the library a portion of the material.

I met him last when the final volume of the Madras Chennai gazetteer was released in March this year. He came dressed in his suit for the function but was quite frail and had to be assisted onto the podium. He said he was glad to see me there. In about a month’s time the news came that he had passed away. Civil servants, consuls, artists, writers, publishers, his readers in addition to his relatives attended the funeral. I even spotted the elderly politician Kumari Ananthan.

Muthiah is survived by his two daughters, sons-in-law and grandchildren. He has also left behind a legacy in addition to the band of people who love and care for history. We are now looking forward to setting up Muthiah’s Corner.

Sundar Ganesan is the Director of the Roja Muthiah Research Library, Chennai.

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