As Madras Christian College steps into its 175th year of existence, there is a sense of excitement and enthusiasm all around. What started as a modest school in North Madras as Chennai was known in those days, the college has expanded into a strong and glorious institution.
The handsome buildings at Tambaram, home to the college since 1937, still bear testimony to the doyens who have walked through its portals. The lush green campus, mostly unchanged, is an example of the deep sense of care generations of students have been extending to life forms around them.
From a modest strength of just 59 students then, today there are more than 6,000 students. Students from MCC have left their mark in the fields of governance, politics, armed forces, agriculture, economy, sports, the corporate sector and other walks of life.
The legacy of MCC
Students and teachers, both former and current, always have words of praise for the healthy relationship they enjoy with the institution. It is difficult to summarise the history of this prestigious institution in a few paragraphs. Says D. Joshua Kalapati, Associate Professor of Philosophy: “Any attempt to capture the essence of Madras Christian College in a few lines is akin to the desire of mastering Shakespeare in one class or of describing the beauty of Taj Mahal in a single phrase.”
Dr. Kalapati, who along with Ambrose Jeyasekaran, formerly with the Department of History, authored Life and Legacy of Madras Christian College: 1837 – 1978, says the lives of the missionaries who toiled for over a century, generations of Indian faculty members who carved a niche in the hearts and minds of their wards, the alumni all over the world who have been goodwill ambassadors of the institution and many other factors have gone on to make this “good old college so unique.”
Inception of MCC
The history of MCC began in June 1835 when two Scottish Chaplains in Madras — Rev. Lawrie and Rev. Bowie started a school in the vicinity of St. Andrew's Kirk, Egmore. On their request the Church sent Rev. John Anderson, who, on April 3, 1837, relocated this General Assembly School with 59 boys to Armenian Street in Black Town. With the arrival of his friends, Rev. Johnston (1839) and Rev. Braidwood with his wife (1841), Rev. Anderson was able to run many branch schools successfully in Madras and its suburbs.
A Swiss lady Margaret Locher, who arrived in Madras in 1847 as a missionary, married Anderson and was instrumental in starting the first girls' boarding home of the mission. Anderson not only introduced high quality English medium education, but dared to admit “untouchable” students into his school. The tombs of Anderson and Margaret in the Old London Mission cemetery at Thana Street in Puraswakkam form an integral part of the story of MCC.
A visionary par excellence
Rev. William Miller who arrived in 1862 strode like a colossus for the next 45 years. A visionary par excellence, Miller upgraded the school into a college in 1867 and affiliated it with the Madras University. The hostels he raised, initially with his own money, were the first of their kind in the entire south India. His other contributions include starting of a reference library, several associations, MCC magazine, and an alumni association in 1891, the first one in the whole of India. Miller believed in the spirit of unity and co-operation, and therefore succeeded in making fellow missions in Madras to be partners in the educational enterprise, thus the Central Institution was renamed Madras Christian College in 1877, says Dr. Kalapati.
Rev. Miller was so venerated by his students that his statue was installed in 1901 when he was still alive. Miller left Madras in 1907 and died in 1923. The baton of Miller was carried further by some outstanding principals such as William Skinner (1909-21), E.M. Macphail (1921-23), William Meston (1923-30), and A.G. Hogg (1930-38), who were ably assisted by many Indian teachers such as Rungiah Chetty, Joseph Muliyil, O. Kandaswami Chetty and others. Illustrious Tamil savants like Suryanarayana Sastri (Parithimal Kalignar), Maraimalai Adigal were on the faculty. Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, on a visit to the college as the Vice-President of India in 1962, paid this tribute to his teachers who taught him during 1904 – 1908: “It is difficult to imagine a better team of European and Indian members of staff.”
A path-breaking decision was made in 1919 to relocate the college to a more spacious location. Missionaries such as Meston, Moffat, Gordon Matthews and Barnes meticulously planned and executed this Tambaram scheme. The Government, recognising the services of the institution for the cause of education, alienated nearly 400 acres of Selaiyur reserve forest in Tambaram in 1930. Life in Tambaram commenced with a thanksgiving service on January 30, 1937. The famous International Missionary Council meeting was organised in 1938.
The Hall culture
Selaiyur, St.Thomas' and Bishop Heber became much sought-after halls of residence for boys.
The hall life brought out the best in their inmates. No wonder Heber Hall shaped an Olympian-Rhodes scholar like Eric Prabhakar, an eminent economist like K.N. Raj from Selaiyur and a pioneering scientist like Raja Ramanna from St. Thomas Hall. Teachers' influence extended beyond the classrooms. Some of the great guru-shishya relationships included: Miller-Ramakrishna Pillai; Hogg-Radhakrishnan; Kellett-Alladi Krishnaswami Aiyar; Ross-S.R. Ranganathan; C.T. Kurien-Prakash Karat.
Women students were regularly admitted from the year 1939, and the first woman faculty member-Eliza Mammen joined the Botany Department a year later.
From Cadambi Minakshi, well known historian and the first woman Doctorate from the Madras University until Indra Nooyi, several alumnae have distinguished themselves in several walks of life.
What Miller was to the Black Town era, Alexander Boyd was to the Tambaram era. He was a legendary principal for 18 long years between 1938 and 1956. Dr. Boyd left an indelible personal impression on each of the 800 students, especially by remembering their names and even their family names. J.R. Macphail was the last of the Scots to lead the institution with great dignity and distinction.
The Indian leadership took over in 1962, when Chandran Devanesen became the principal. Educated at Cambridge, Dr. Devanesen was a great visionary, who initiated several new projects, and broadened the academic horizons of the institution, by involving the neighbourhood community in the educational process. Eight other principals, all former students of the college, have contributed in their own way to the growth of the institution. Scores of dedicated Indian professors carried forward the legacy left behind by their predecessors from overseas.
The college was a pioneer in conducting the self-study programme in the mid-1960s in order to assess the institutional goals and objectives. These steps of self-appraisal received fillip with the status of autonomy conferred in 1978. Autonomy has since helped the college to carry out several academic innovations through design and development of contemporarily relevant courses, including the self-financed ones. The award of Grade A+ by the National Assessment and Accreditation Council (NAAC) in the year 2004 confirmed the successful implementation of autonomy in particular, and the overall academic status of the college in general.
The alumni of the college remain the lifeblood of the institution. For over seven generations, thousands of students demonstrated their affinity to their alma mater. Their services in the wider arena of life enhanced the reputation of the college. On the occasion of the college centenary in 1937, Dr. Radhakrishnan's message from Oxford, which perhaps is not out of place on this historic occasion too was:
“South India's debt to Madras Christian College is incalculable, and the influence of the college on other faiths has been great. Long may it spread enlightenment and spiritual power,” Dr. Kalapati recalled.