It was at The Hindu's ‘Lit for Life' literary festival that I ran into a Tamil studies scholar who told me that I had told only half the story of the Tamil Lexicon when I wrote about it on March 28, 2011. He urged me to explore the subject further and was sure I would find much more of interest in it. I duly followed his advice — and found that all was not smooth sailing for many key figures in the project.

When Sir Frederick Nicholson, of the Government, and the Rev. Canon Sell and Sir S. Subrramania Aiyar of the University of Madras Syndicate pointed out to Government in 1905 “that there should be for so ancient and important a language, with a classical literature of so unique a character, a dictionary worthy of its subject,” subsequent deliberations led to a request to Dr. G.U. Pope, then at Oxford, to supervise a project that would combine his subsequent work with Dr. Winslow's dictionary of 1862 in an up-to-date dictionary that, it was hoped, the Clarendon Press, Oxford, would be willing to publish. Clarendon, however, found it was unable to meet Dr. Pope's financial estimates and the project fell through in 1907. It was when Pope passed away and his son gifted his material to the Government of Madras that the Rev. J.S. Chandler began actively urging the Government of Madras not to drop the project but to draw up plans to undertake it in the Presidency. Whereupon Government named a committee for this purpose comprising a nominee of Government (Rao Bahadur M. Rangacharya), of the Tamil Sangam, Madura (P. Pandithorai Tevar), of the University of Madras (Rao Saheb T. Ramakrishna Pillai), of the missionary bodies in Ceylon (the Rev. A.C. Clayton), and of the missionary bodies in South India (Chandler).

Rs.1,00,000 was sanctioned, for the five years the project was to take, after the Government of India had justified the amount, emphasising that “the need for a new Tamil Lexicon is a matter of urgent public importance.” The Secretary of State, authorising the expenditure in August 1912, however, warned, “…in schemes of this character there is often a tendency to exceed the original estimates. It would be advisable, therefore, to issue such instructions as will ensure that the expenditure from Government funds shall not exceed the amount specified.” Chandler, with this brief and timeframe, was put in charge of the project as Editor and Chairman of the Tamil Lexicon Committee.

The first meeting of the Tamil Lexicon Committee was held in Senate House on December 17, 1912, with a member of the Syndicate present to watch the proceedings. Meanwhile, the Syndicate appointed its own Committee to deal with the business side of the Tamil Lexicon. The Rev. G. Pittendrigh was named the convener of the committee and the other members were Mark Hunter, J.H. Stone and Justice P.R. Sundara Aiyar. To get the project under way, a few sample pages were prepared and circulated to universities in the U.K. and the U.S. The only Asian scholar to look at these samples was D.E.Z. Wickramasinghe, a Ceylonese with the Indian Institute, Oxford. Their views suggested that a much more comprehensive dictionary than had been planned was needed.

Work on the project began in January 1913, with Madura chosen as the Committee's first headquarters because the town hosted the Sangam and was close to Jaffna. But the office was shifted to Madras in May 1915 — no doubt because the Syndicate Committee and Government sat there and, perhaps would have liked to keep a closer watch on the administration of the project. This was a sign of things to come.

Differences of opinion

At the end of 1916, when about 80,000 words had been collected and about 9000 of them made press-ready, the Syndicate Committee decided to review the work. Even though only Rs.38,000 had been spent till then, the Committee felt that, as the preparation itself would take about five more years at the rate it was progressing, and there would thereafter be the cost of production, the fears of the Secretary of State were not unfounded: The project would cost more than the Rs.1,00,000 sanctioned. Then, in a reflection of the obviously widening gap in the views of the two committees, the Senate noted, “There (is) good ground to fear that, even were financial difficulties to be surmounted, the Lexicon, if completed on the present lines and with the present staff, would not be a publication worthy of the University.” The Syndicate felt there was no cogent plan for the preparation of the dictionary and no clear understanding of the roles of all the players and their relationship to each other. Regarding these relationships it rather pointedly wondered what the Chairman's role was — though it did not mention him by name. Whether Chandler being an American had anything to do with this rather harsh reaction, by a British dominated set-up, can only be a matter of speculation.

In a letter to Government on April 11, 1917, the Syndicate emphatically stated that unless the whole Lexicon organisation was “reorganised and reconstituted,” it would have nothing to do with the project. Government asked the Syndicate to submit its own proposals, and the first thing it did was to recommend a new Committee: Sir P.S. Sivaswami Aiyar, Chairman, V. Swaminatha Aiyar, S. Anavaratavinayakam Pillai, S. Kuppuswami Sastriar, T. Ramakrishna Pillai and Mark Hunter. It also named three Editors, Chandler being one of them. On March 31, 1918, this Committee took over the work, the Syndicate Lexicon Committee was abolished, and an additional Rs.13,000 was sanctioned.

The cost, however, kept escalating and the University told the Government of India that it would help to meet the increasing bills only if Government transferred the copyright for the work to the University. After much debate, this was agreed to. Meanwhile, between 1919 and 1926, Chairmen and Editors kept changing. Chandler himself resigned in 1921, then, in 1927, the printer was changed from Diocesan Press to the Madras Law Journal Press. Eventually, the 1,04,405-word Lexicon came out in 1936 after an expenditure of Rs.4,10,000! Rao Bahadur K.V. Krishnaswami Aiyar was the Chairman of the Committee and S. Vaiyapuri was the Editor at the time of its release.

Electricity in Madras

Work on one of my projects had me searching for information about the arrival of electricity in Madras — and what I've discovered is that there's not much information readily available about the early history of this facility in the city.

I did find that a Frenchman, Amedes Verne (any relation of Jules, I wonder), had in 1879 demonstrated a kind of generator that lit up a few lights in People's Park, then in its heyday. The Corporation bought the equipment, but seems to have done little with it. Little is heard of electricity after that.

In 1905, a private company, the Madras Electricity Supply Corporation, was registered, but its main generation station at Basin Bridge got started only in 1907. Sometime after this, the Corporation seems to have got into the electricity business, either by taking over the MESC or starting its own generating station. Its first supplies were to the Buckingham and Carnatic Mills and the Mount Road Post Office. But when this happened is not very clear.

1920 is then mentioned as the date when street-lighting was electrified. But there's surely more to the story of electricity in Madras than that. I look forward to readers coming to my rescue.

When the postman knocked…

*Pas. P. Pasupathy, who introduces himself as a Professor Emeritus of the University of Toronto and who obviously, to judge by his letter, keeps up with this column through the Web, has an appeal to make. He says that all of Devan's stories have not been published — by Alliance (Miscellany, September 19) or by any other publisher (I have heard of at least one other). He feels that there are several other stories in the hands of different people. He urges anyone who has an unpublished Devan story to give it to Devan Endowments who, he hopes, will bring out all Devan's stories under one imprint.

*Long before I got to see last Monday's column in print, there were messages from the U.S. and Australia informing me that the printer's devil or the gremlin in my Olivetti must have been at work, pushing Kamaraj into the 19th Century! Mea culpa; Kamaraj visited Malabar in 1954-55 and not before he was born.

*******

RELATED NEWS

MetroplusJune 28, 2012