When the postman knocked…

While wishing all my readers a Very Happy New Year and thanking the many among them who sent me greetings, I must tell them that the year started on a particularly colourful note, with two readers sending me column-worthy pictures, even if one set of them was particularly distressing. I hope pictures become a trend.

It was nice to hear from reader K.R.A. Narasiah that a group of citizens led by social activists Kamakshi Subramaniam and a Dr.Babu took it upon themselves to remember the drowning on December 30, 82 years ago, of Kaj Schmidt, a Danish sailor who lost his life trying to rescue a young woman from Britain who was holidaying in Madras. Then as now, the waters off the Marina Beach and Elliott’s Beach are not the safest for swimming, particularly during the latter part of the year, when, with the monsoons, the currents can become particularly treacherous. This young woman and a friend of hers, another young woman, found this out too late. Schmidt, who was also testing the waters, succeeded in rescuing them but the effort proved too much for him.

Legend has it that at the Governor's Ball that evening - or was it on New Year's Eve? - the young women arrived dressed in all their finery only to have Governor Sir George Stanley frostily tell them when they reached him in the receiving line that it was hardly the done thing to come to a Ball after a life had been lost on account of them. The two, it is said, fled in tears.

Be that story as it may, admirers in Madras of Kaj Schmidt’s act raised money for a huge memorial that was built on Elliott’s Beach - which serves both as remembrance for courage as well as a warning to swimmers here. It was here that the group of social activists lit candles in Schmidt’s memory the other day and spoke of how badly we keep such markers of the city’s heritage. Reader Narasiah who sent me a heap of pictures taken on the occasion included the one I feature today showing a seriously threatening crack in the arch and the memorial scrawled all over with graffiti. He adds in his message to me that the original plaque as well as a recent plaque that the Corporation of Madras ‘implanted’ after carrying out some renovation work on the memorial have also both been defaced.

The whole episode is typical of Madras. A few who feel that heritage and the stories of the past need to be respected, a few who comprise the Heritage Conservation Committee who don’t even seem to be aware of what is going on around them, and the great majority who say tut-tut to both and carry on with their lives, indifferent to both vandalism and negligence.

The other set of photographs came from as far away as Australia. The reach of this column constantly surprises me.

A Sri Lankan cricket buff and archivist - an old-timer, naturally - refers to my items on Sathasivam (Miscellany, December 24) and Ben Navaratne (Miscellany, December 31) and says “you'll find these two pictures of particular interest.” One is of the captains going out to toss in that whistle-stop match in Colombo the Australians played in 1948 on their way to England for the first post-War Ashes series. The captains seen are Don Bradman and Sathasivam ‘the debonair.’ The other picture, my correspondent writes, shows “how close to the stumps Ben Navaratne stood to receive the bowling of Ceylon’s fastest paceman at the time, Sathi Coomaraswamy. The batsman watching the ball whiz past his off-stump is Bradman.” Coomaraswamy too was on that 1947 tour of South India by what was perhaps the best Ceylon/Sri Lankan cricket team ever.

A reader writes to remind me that 2012 marked the centenary of the birth of Dr. A. Saradha Raju. She was the first woman to receive a Ph.D. from the University of Madras. Given the position of women at the time, this was a remarkable achievement. Her thesis on Economic Conditions of Women in the Madras Presidency was published by the University in 1941 and reprinted twice, being much consulted by economists and social scientists. But what happened to Dr. Saradha after this, wonders my correspondent. If memory serves me right, she featured in a small item in this column some years ago, but that too had not much to narrate about the story of her life. I wonder whether any reader would like to send me that story.

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A Wrangler to remember

It was during a conversation with friends the other day that the topic of the University of Cambridge overtaking American universities such as Harvard, MIT and Stanford came up. And an old Cantabrigian was quick to point out, “What’s new about that? We were ahead even before they were born!” Before the man from Oxford had anything to say about that, a mathematician butted in to ask why we were no longer hearing anything about Wranglers.

Wranglers, in the context of this conversation, were neither American horse-breakers nor disputants but mathematics scholars. Students of Mathematics at that citadel of Mathematics, Cambridge, were called Wranglers if they obtained a first class in Maths. Top of the Maths class was called the First Wrangler, the second the Second Wrangler and so on. The designation went out of practice at the University in 1909, the Cantabrigian said in answer to the question.

And then the question came up whether there had been any Indian Wranglers. One answer that came up was a Dr. Savoor, who was long associated with Madras. No doubt there would have been others and I’d be glad to hear about them. But the name mentioned set me on the trail of Dr. Savoor.

S.R.U. Savoor, I learnt, was born on January 14, 1893, in Mangalore and after his B.A. (Hons.) went to Cambridge in 1914. There, he not only became a Wrangler but also got a first in his M.A. (Mathematics) and recognition as a Sir Isaac Newton Scholar. A D.Sc. from London followed in due course. Trapped in Britain by the Great War, he was pushed into second rate teaching assignments. In 1921, he returned to India and was promptly accepted into the Indian Education Service and assigned to Presidency College.

In due course, Prof. Savoor became the second Indian Principal of Presidency in 1945, after heading the Kumbakonam Government College and the Victoria College. Palghat. In 1946, he was appointed the Director of Public Instruction, Madras Presidency, the first Indian to hold the post. He was simultaneously appointed the Director of Meteorology, again the first Indian in the post.

Generous to a fault, he supported many a needy student and contributed liberally to education and educational institutions. When he passed away in February 1950, it was said that all he left behind were a well-educated son and daughter for whom he had arranged good marriage alliances.

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Dancers in ‘dual meets’

When Eric Prabhakar, the scholar-athlete, wrote his The Way to Athletic Gold in 1995, a book the country should have paid much greater attention to if it wanted to improve its athletic performances on the world stage, we had several discussions on various aspects of the book while I edited it for the publishers.

One of the subjects was something in which I had a few years of experience: the dual meets that remain the bedrock of development of American excellence in sport. High schools and colleges competing against each other in their region on a one-to-one basis in whatever sports they offered their students ensured anywhere from a dozen to two dozen contests during a season for an institution’s team in a particular sport or in such activities as Debating. It is only then that the best go on to compete in regional and, later, national championships.

Regular coaching for these dual meets ensures not only a long season of training but also greater competitiveness developed through inter-institutional rivalries.

I recalled this the other day when a couple of grand-nieces from the U.S. visited me and told me how Bharatanatyam was progressing in America. Speaking about the north-east part of the country, they told me that there were about 25 colleges in that region staging Bharatanatyam competitions against each other. Three-person teams were selected in these colleges from among those (about 15-20 students) who practised the dance form seriously to stage a dance-drama in a college-versus-college competition which is judged by a team of dance teachers. The West, and the Texas and Chicago areas, they thought, had even more competing colleges. A regional champion is arrived at and, presumably, a national champion eventually.

If this is the route the Americans are taking with Bharatanatyam, don’t be surprised if, one day, dancers from there - be they of Indian or South Asian descent - do better than ours.

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