The Pope who was a ‘Pandit'

‘Pandit' was the nickname they gave George Uglow Pope when he demonstrated his Tamil on board ship as he sailed for Madras in 1839. He was only 19. With neither higher studies nor theological ones in his background, he nevertheless was on his way to becoming a missionary in South India, sent out by the Wesleyan Methodist Missionary Society. How apt the nickname bestowed on him was to be, Tamizhagam was to discover over the next 40 years.

A brief biography of him sent to me by Dr. D.B. James, following my reference to Pope in connection with the Tamil Lexicon and Sawyerpuram (Miscellany, March 26 and May 16), sheds much light on this remarkable Tamil scholar who fell in love with the sound of the language when he heard a missionary on leave from a Madras Presidency posting speak a few words of Tamil while addressing the 17-year-old Pope and his fellow-schoolboys in Oldham in the U.K. Judging by his later career, Pope appears to have been more inspired by the language than mission when he decided to become a missionary and seek a posting in India's South. Certainly once he made up his mind, he began learning Tamil with the Wesleyan missionaries even before he left the U.K. He was to later say that “all his higher education was in Tamil”.

In Madras, Pope, like Myron Winslow, C.T. Rhenius and other missionary-Tamil scholars, learnt the language in greater depth from Ramanuja Kavirayar (1780-1853), a Tamil pandit of the time (about whom I would like to hear more.) It was a period of scholarship that cultivated in Pope a greater love for Tamil. It was a time when he also began to learn Sanskrit and Telugu.

Then began the Sawyerpuram era (Miscellany, May 16), when he was ordained a Deacon (1843) and Priest (1845) but discovered his love for teaching. ‘Good food, good teaching, and good caning,' is what he offered his wards in Sawyerpuram who went on to become successful lawyers, teachers and officials.

After home leave in England in 1850 he was posted to Tanjore where, side by side with his passion for teaching, his love for Tamil flourished with his regular interaction with the pandits of the language in the Kaveri Delta. This was when he began translating Tamil literary works into English. It was also when he discovered that he was better cut out to be a scholar and teacher than for missionary work and, so, he resigned in 1857 from the Society for Propagation of the Gospel (SPG) whose missionary ‘beat' was southern Tamizhagam.

Pope moved on to Ooty the same year, to establish a British-style boarding school there, the Ootacamund Grammar School, and College in Stone House, which had been Sullivan's home and the first house built in what was to become the major hill station of the South. With Bangalore proving a much more accessible destination for parents at the time, the Ooty school never proved the draw Bishop Cotton's was in Bangalore. And so Pope closed down his Ooty school in 1870 — not for a moment dreaming its home was many years later to house another educational institution, the Government College of Arts and Science, Udhagamandalam. Pope moved on to head Bishop Cotton's in 1871 and developed it into a first rate institution before he retired in 1880.

On his return to England, he was appointed Professor of Tamil/Oriental Languages at Balliol College, Oxford, which he also served as Chaplain till his death in 1908. They were appointments that gave him time to read, research and write — and inspire several young men to become missionaries or administrators in South India.

Tailpiece: Pope's grave in Oxford gradually passed out of memory till in 1961 M.P. Somasundaram of Kalki found it and noted that the inscription described Pope as being “of South India” and that it had been placed by his family and “his Tamil friends in South India in loving memory of his long labours in the cause of Oriental Literature and Philosophy.” The Tamil friends were led by Prof. Selva Kesavaraya Mudaliyar of the Tamil Department of Pachaiyappa's College who spearheaded the collection in accordance with Pope's last wish that there should be a Tamil contribution together with his family's to perpetuate the memory of his contribution to Tamil.

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Another landmark comes down

For over half a century it was an Egmore landmark. It was also known for the challenge it offered Woodlands with its food as well as its 100 rooms. It was also a popular venue for weddings. For a couple of decades it had been slowly sinking. Now Hotel Dasaprakash, its art deco building opened in 1954, is no more. In its place will rise a multi-storied, gated community, whose promoters are promising every luxury but not a memorial to the hotel that was a landmark in the city at a time when it had few hotels, vegetarian or otherwise.

Started by K. Seetharama Rao in the 1920s in Mysore, Dasaprakash hotels built landmarks in Mysore, Ooty and Madras, the last the most striking looking of them.

My memories of Dasaprakash are intertwined with the numerous meetings the Indo-American Association held there. Everyone who turned up came as much for the outstanding masala-dosai and Dasaprakash ice-cream as they did for the meeting. And that those dosais were something special was ensured by manager P. Ananda Rau who was only too glad to play host in the grand manner.

Ananda Rau was someone you remembered for something besides his hospitality. And that was his cricket commentaries when radio ruled the media scene. A university and league cricketer in the 1940s, Ananda Rau turned his passion for the game into commentating in 1943 when he realised he wasn't going very far as a player. He was commentator for over 50 Tests and scores of Ranji Trophy matches, teaming with Balu Alaganan for most of them. A career highlight was when the BBC invited him to do commentary from Lords.

He passed away in 1991, the Indo-American Association moved out from the Dasaprakash a couple of years ago, and the Dasaprakash of Egmore too has passed on. But those who enjoyed its masala-dosais and ice-cream will remember it every bit as well as those who haunted Woodlands Drive-in, also now only a memory. I can't think of any of the new restaurants in town having the same character — or food and service of their quality — as these oldies.

Some of the restaurants of this vintage are still around. Like Ponnusamy's, Buhari's, Palm Grove (for the best breakfast in town) and a couple of others. But in moving up-market they've lost that character that was as much their attraction in yesteryears as their food.

Time marches on.

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When the postman knocked…

*My reference to Wellington, New Zealand, last week had K.R.A. Narasiah recalling that Wellington has long had another exhibit from Tamizahagam. It is a bronze bell 15 cm. in diameter and 16.5 cm in height. Around the middle of the bell's trunk is an inscription comprising seven Tamil words, 24 letters in all. It states, in transliteration, Mohaideen Vakkusa udaiya kappal mani. Obviously the bell belonged to a ship owned by a Mohideen Vakkusa, but unfortunately from which Marakkayar port on the Coromandel or Fisheries Coast we don't know. The bell, very likely washed ashore from a shipwreck, was found in a Maori village by an itinerant preacher who presented it to the museum with the information that it was being used as a frying pan in the village! A.N. Arumugam, who lives in New Zealand, wrote in an article in Kalvettu, the Tamil Nadu Archaeological Department's journal, that the bell was from an 1875 shipwreck between Auckland and Raklan. My question is whether the Raj was allowing Indian-owned ships to do anything more than coastal trading in the late 19th Century, just as the age of V.O. Chidambaram was dawning?

*M.Y. Osman, referring to my statements that there were no deaths in South India during the 1857 Revolt (Miscellany, May 30), tells me that he has heard of a story of a European couple being killed in their home during the scattered disturbances in Madras. He wonders whether anyone can verify the story. I certainly can't — and Dr. Sundar Raj (Miscellany, May 30) makes no mention of it. Could it have been murder for gain that had occurred taking advantage of the uneasy situation?

*Writes G.H. Winston, “You explain Elephant Gate. But another of those seven gates was Pully Gate. Were there tigers on the prowl or does ‘pully' in this context signify something else?” An answer to that is beyond me; I leave it to a reader to come up with an answer. Certainly I have never heard of tigers in Madras — except at the zoo.

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Arts, Entertainment & EventsMay 14, 2012