Whatever the environmentalists may say about the felling of forests in the Nilgiris and the Western Ghats, there's no gainsaying the fact that it was coffee, first, then tea, rubber, and spices that sustained the economy of the Madras Presidency in the first half of the 20th Century. And of them all, tea was the most important. I was reminded of this when I heard that the golden jubilee of the first tea auction in the Nilgiris was celebrated on March 23rd by the Coonoor Tea Traders' Association at its Tea Community Centre.

That first auction in 1863, soon after the Association was formed that year, was 15 months after the first tea auction to be held in India. It was on Christmas Day 1861 that the “First public Sale of East Indian Tea… (was held) at No.2 Mission Row (Calcutta).” Tea produced by two companies was auctioned. This headstart in Calcutta reflected the slower development of the tea industry in South India.

South Indian preoccupation with coffee and its decimation led to tea getting into its stride only from the 1870s, even though the South Indian tea story began in 1832. Further experiments were attempted in the Nilgiris in 1835, also with plants from China as in the first instance. But the credit for the first manufacture of Nilgiris tea goes to a planter called Mann who, using imported Chinese seed, opened a plantation near Coonoor in February 1854. That plantation is today called the Coonoor Tea Estate. With South Indian tea having its beginnings near Coonoor, it was only appropriate that the United Planters' Association of Southern India set up its headquarters there and that tea auctions were conducted there. At that first auction in 1863, 70 lots of tea from 43 factories, amounting to a little over 20,000 kg, were sold.

The chief way of marketing tea grown and, in most cases, manufactured by the growers themselves, is by public auction. The auction is recognised as a time-honoured Chinese way of selling a product that is not uniform. An old account of the tea trade says, “For the teas of a certain description certain prices are given. These prices are not determined according to the character of the tea given by the …merchant, but according to the real character which it is found to deserve after inspection.”

It is in determining this price that the tea-taster plays the most important role. Of the tea-tasting process it has been said, “A tea-taster spends his day just sittin', spittin', and lookin' wise.” But in fact he “uses his sense of sight, touch, taste and smell to judge the quality of a particular batch of tea…A tea-taster feels the leaf for crispness…inhales the aroma from a dried leaf…checks an infusion of the leaf for colour and brightness...then sips a little of it and swirls it around in his mouth for taste.” Based on his judgement of these qualities, he will recommend to his firm the price it should pay for a particular lot at the auction.

Prices paid at the auctions determine the prices the buyer offers batches of tea to manufacturers abroad or in India who make the tea for you and John Doe.


An organ-builder in Madras

Making a handsome contribution to Madras Christian College's 175th anniversary celebrations has been an alumnus from the U.K. who has donated the College's chapel its first organ. The 1863 organ by Charles Brindley comes fully restored from a church in Sheffield and will be installed in Tambaram shortly by Christopher Gray, from Leicestershire, on organ builder, restorer and maintenance provider.

Gray, who has been in and out of Madras for the past decade, was my most recent visitor and from him I learnt that, after Independence, it has been only in the last 15 years that there has been some restoration of church organs in India. And the interest in such restoration has led to him setting up a workshop in Madras and training a couple of local technicians to help with this work, which often involves turning out parts locally.

It was to take a look at the Hill & Son's organ, dating to 1894, that is in St.Mary's in the Fort that Gray came out to Madras and in 2004 worked on restoring it. This was followed by working from 2005 on the 1895 organ by Conacher & Co. that is in St.Andrew's Kirk, Egmore. Gray's next restoration work was on the organ in Zion Church, Chintadripet, which he completed in 2007. This organ, Gray thinks, was assembled locally by Wallace Misquith c.1900. The casework, frame and pedal chests were made in Madras, while the main soundboard, keys, action-components and pipes were imported from London by Misquith &Co., then the leading importers of musical instruments in South India.

The latest restoration that Gray has completed in Madras is of an 1890 Conacher & Co. organ in the Egmore Wesley Church. Commenting on this work, which he finished towards the end of last year, Gray says, “This organ has had a much greater scope of work than others in India, having been reconstructed to almost its original form after it had been altered over the years in its two previous homes.” Organs, it would appear, move from church to church. In fact, Egmore Wesley's previous organ, around 135 years old, is now in the Adaikalanathar Lutheran Church in Purasawalkam, I am told.

Gray has also restored an organ in Bangalore and another in Goa. But what fascinates him as much as working on such reconstruction is the tracing of the history of the organs he works on - and that's why he landed on my doorstep, though I don't think he benefitted too much from my inputs.

When the postman knocked…

Reader N. Ramanathan writes that I have been concentrating on the “first lady Ph.Ds” too much and goes on to point out that “in the University of Madras it has not always been a man's world in the Department of Music” and the first man to earn a Ph.D. for work done in the Department should be recognised by this column. It was in 2005 that Dr. Madhumohan Komaragiri became the first man to be awarded a Ph.D for music. The award was for his “fundamental research in Pitch Analysis”. The subject is understandable, given that he is an electrical design engineer with the nuclear power industry in Canada. Despite his professional workload, Dr. Komaragiri has successfully pursued a career as a vocalist. Trained in both Carnatic and Hindustani classical music, he is now a full-time advanced trainee of M. Balamuralikrishna. He has also been empanelled with the Gandharva Maha Vidyalay, a premier pan-Indian music institute, for its Carnatic music and doctoral programmes. An experienced performing Carnatic music vocalist, he has several albums in different genres to his credit. Reader Ramanathan, however, does not forget the ladies in his correspondence and concludes that the first woman to earn a Madras University doctorate in Music was M.R. Alamelu (later Alamelu Govindarajan). She received her Ph.D. in 1962 for her dissertation on the `Musical instruments in the sculptures of South Indian temples'. She was later associated with Kalakshetra. All the other Madras University Ph.Ds in Music till Dr. Komaragiri got his - that is in a period of over 40 years - were women!

Here's another Rajaji story. This one is from Reader N. Dharmeshwaran. He writes that soon after Rajaji “demitted the office of Governor General of India” and settled in Madras, the Corporation of Madras sued him for not paying Professional Tax. Rajaji contested this and, appearing in person, contended that he was a pensioner and that “Pensioner is not a profession, hence not liable for tax.” Once again, I've not been sent the end of the story.

Are the streets in Fort St George named, asks reader M. Subburaman. Well, they were certainly named in the 17th Century when the Fort was a residential settlement, `White Town'. The important streets at the time were Middle Street, where Elihu Yale had a home, St. Thomas Street, of whose 21 houses most were owned by Portuguese, James Street which hosted a temporary hospital and where Maria Madera (Madeiros) owned a house, and Choultry Street, York Street and Charles Street. York Lane, Choultry Lane and Glochester Street - where Madam Paivia, the widow of Madras's leading diamond merchant to whose business she succeeded and made Yale a partner - were other streets which had, except for exceptions like Mrs. Paivia, English house-owners. Church Street, James Alley and St. Thomas Lane, on the other hand, were mainly Portuguese. All the main streets were parallel to the coast and developed around the core, `The Castle', where the Agent/President lived and his Council met. There were c. 1690, 128 private homes in the Fort and at least half of them were Portuguese-owned.