Two persons whom it was my privilege to know passed away recently, within days of each other. Both octogenarians, they made signal contributions to Madras till their last days.
The first was G. Dattatri, the first Chief Urban Planner of the Madras Metropolitan Development Authority, who was deeply involved with the first and second master plans for the metropolitan area. It was as part of that involvement that he valued the heritage of the city and it was in that connection that I first met him.
Long before INTACH, EPOCH - the Society for Environmental Protection and Conservation of the Historical - was founded in Madras. That was in October 1978. The founders were three persons from the MMDA - M.G. Balasubramaniam, I.A.S., vice-chairman, Louis Menezes, I.A.S., member secretary, and Dattatri. The non-governmental side was represented by Nanditha Krishna, Abraham Eraly, Editor, Aside, myself ( I was then a columnist for Aside), and Prof. Raj of the School of Architecture. Those were the days when the MMDA and other Government organisations recognised as equals those from the non-governmental sector and valued their inputs. I remember one or the other of the MMDA triumvirate ringing me up regularly on some heritage issue or the other. And they were as keen to save Moore Market as the rest of us in EPOCH were. That EPOCH never grew and that it got overtaken by INTACH in 1985 is another matter.
Dattatri’s appreciation of the valuable services NGOs did was translated into action when, after retirement, he enthusiastically threw himself into the founding of SUSTAIN (focussed on urban improvement) and Nizhal (bent on saving and planting tress). It was in connection with the activities of the latter that we used to meet in later years. Tree-planting and park-renovation really took an upward swing when he encouraged persons such as Shobha Menon to dedicate time to greening the city.
A slight, soft-spoken person, willing to listen to everyone’s views, Dattatri’s concern for the environment was exemplified by two stories his son, Shekar, the wildlife photographer narrates. Shekar remembers wanting to quit school and spend time on what had become his passion -- the environment and wildlife. And all his father said was, “Follow your heart,” a thought echoed by his mother. So Shekar wound up with few educational qualifications but with an international reputation for trying to save the forests and wildlife, particularly the tiger. The other story he relates is that even when his father was the Chief Urban Planner, every morning, he would sweep a large stretch of their street, not just the bit in front of his house, despite neighbours saying that a senior official should not be doing such work. ‘If I don't set an example, who will?,’ Dattatri senior would often say.
Dattatri will be remembered at a memorial meeting today at the School of Architecture and Planning.
In the world of printing
The other friend who passed away has had scores record his eminence over the past ten days and all I can contribute is the thought that I can’t add anything more to every glowing word that has been written about him. But there was one contribution that G. Kasturi made to this city that few knew about and fewer are likely to remember. And that was to printing education, the area where our paths crossed a little more closely than usual.
A few of us in the Madras Printers’ and Lithographers’ Association who felt that by the late 1970s, printing was becoming high tech, felt an engineering course focussed on printing was necessary. Anna University Vice Chancellor V.C. Kulaindaswamy agreed and the first degree course in Printing Technology in the country was started at the University in 1982. Kasturi was delighted to accept the chairmanship of the steering committee organising the course. I got involved with the committee framing the syllabus and met Kasturi several times to discuss what we were doing. I have always been a traditionalist and felt strong foundation courses were necessary. He felt printing technology was racing ahead and that just as he had not only kept pace with it but was often looking ahead, the course should focus more on modern technology and how it was going to develop. Many of those developments were foreseen by him in our discussions.
In the end, what emerged was a course probably stronger on foundations than on modern technology and when he recruited the first graduates, he would always tell me that they needed to go a long way to catch up with The Hindu’s technology. Some years later, both of us drifted away from a changing Anna University and its Printing Technology course which from the Millennium began to pay more attention to the 21st Century computer world. When I met Kasturi a couple of years ago and we recalled the beginnings of the course, it was to remember that more of the graduates those days got into the printing industry and to regret that the graduates of today were straying away from printing and into IT and allied industries. So we’re back where we started, he said; training people on the job. And that training for Kasturi was not merely to get the job done but to get it done to the best quality possible while thinking about how to get it done still better the next time around.
Kasturi was one of those rare journalists who knew the Production Rooms just as much as he knew the Editorial Rooms. It was knowledge he used to get those who worked with him to produce publications with better content and higher production values. He may have been a newspaper proprietor, but it was as a journalist and a production executive that he helped develop a paper of quality. It was a twinning rarely found anywhere.
A centenary long past
Much in the headlines recently has been about the University of Madras wishing to celebrate the centenary of its Library -- belatedly. But given the history of the library, several dates could have been chosen -- all of them, however, long before the date zeroed in on.
The first mention of a library for the University is to be found in the will of a William Griffiths (whoever he was) dated September 9, 1897. He left the University Rs.25,619 with which to start a library. This would indicate that for at least the first 40 years of its existence, the University did not take steps to establish its own library. It was to be several years more before the University decided to use this amount that was lying with the Government for the purpose it was meant. This was in 1903, by which time it had received the Col. Mackenzie Collection, the C.P. Brown Collection and a substantial collection from the East India House in London after the Company had been wound up. With no building of its own for all these collections, the University got permission from the Government to house them in the Connemara Library and have the Connemara look after them.
Then, in December 1905, Government sanctioned Rs.13,600 for additional bookcases to be made for these collections in the Connemara Library. And in 1907, it sanctioned Rs.100,000 and the University Rs.6000 a month for the maintenance of the University’s Library. (For some reason or the other, this date has been long accepted as the founding date of the University’s Library, despite the claims of earlier dates.) This happened during the Vice Chancellorship of Justice Sillery Benson who urged the University to shift its library from the Connemara Library. A separate building for the Library was proposed. It was, however, June 9, 1928, before the Library moved out -- not to its own premises but to Senate House. Supervising the move was the legendary ‘Father of Library Science’, S.R. Ranganathan, who was appointed the University’s first Librarian in 1924 and who, after training in the U.K., took charge the following year.
On September 3, 1936, the present Main Library building was opened and the Library at last moved into its own home. By then, the Mackenzie, Brown and Leyden Collections had all been transferred into the Government’s hands. Today, the Library with a collection of over 600,000 items, including over 100,000 theses (I’m told they are being digitised), is spread over four campuses: the Main block adjacent to the Teaching (Tower) Block, the University Annexe on the Marina, the Postgraduate Institute of Basic Medical Sciences in Taramani and in the Advanced Centres of Science in Guindy.
This column is delighted that even at this late stage, a thought is being spared to celebrate the Centenary of this Library -- whatever the date of its genesis -- but I’d be much happier if the celebrations took the form of cleaning up the University’s libraries and rearranging the books as they should be than merely staging a speech-filled tamasha.