Going through some old papers the other day, I came across some of Theodore Baskaran’s writings that I had marked here and there for use in this column on the occasion of the centenary of the birth of that renowned naturalist, writer and photographer, M. Krishnan, in 2012. I had, however, mislaid them — and lost then the opportunity of writing about his contribution to the Tamil world of letters, something I had then known little about. Now that I’ve found them, better late than never in spreading the message.

As the son of the well-known Tamil writer P.A. Madhaviah, it was almost inevitable that Krishnan would write as well in Tamil as he did in English. In fact, that appears to have been true of all of Madhaviah’s children. Indeed, a collection of short stories titled Munnila (1944) had contributions from six of Madhaviah’s children, including two by Krishnan.

When Krishnan started writing in the 1930s, his contributions were to Tamil magazines and focused on short stories and essays. Nature was not something he wrote about; that was not something anyone did at the time in Tamil. As Baskaran writes, “… writings on natural history are rare in contemporary Tamil. Magazines and dailies publish very little on the subject. Even in the scanty news coverage that appears on wildlife, there is confusion over nomenclature, words and phrases dealing with creatures and habitats. So a special terminology for the subject has not been developed, there is practically no discourse on the concepts and ideas of conservation, and ‘Green’ literature is simply absent.”

The exception to this trend was when, at a later period in his writing, between 1947 and 1957, Krishnan wrote a series on Nature and wildlife first for Kalaimagal and then for Kalki. He strongly believed that a country was something more than just people. Its natural terrain, all the fauna and flora that flourished in it, and nature’s contribution that affected both were as important to study and write about as those who lived in it.

In writing about wildlife and the environment, Krishnan drew much from traditional knowledge, according to Baskaran. He used ancient names for the fauna and flora and natural features, names which even most Tamil speakers had forgotten. If his Tamil writings on natural history were an effort to change this situation, I must say it was not very successful; protecting wildlife and conserving nature remain issues to which mainly Western-oriented, English speakers pay greater attention. I wonder whether this is why Krishnan began to write less in Tamil on these subjects from the 1960s.

Besides being an outstanding wildlife photographer, Krishnan was also a good illustrator, specialising in pen-and-ink line drawings; he had had a stint at the School of Arts and Crafts in Madras. A man seated, with his Kombai dog by his side, was an illustration of his for the cover of a book that is considered his last work in Tamil, Kathiresan Chettiyarin Katha. Described by Krishnan as “a thriller”, it was published posthumously, shortly after his death in 1996.

The striking picture by Krishnan that accompanies this item appeared in c.2000 in Blackbuck, the journal of the Madras Naturalists’ Society. Sadly, that very readable and informative journal called it a day a few years ago. It’s a magazine deserving revival. Is there someone out there generous enough to help?


1950s’ banking in George Town

Recalling his days as a banker in George Town in the 1950s, A.M.V. Alagappan draws attention to a few banks of his time there that have closed or got new identities.

Banks now missing from the George Town scene are the Pandyan Bank, Eastern Bank, Indo-Commercial Bank, Lloyd’s Bank, National Bank of India and Mercantile Bank of India.

The Pandyan Bank, started by Madurai businessman S.N.K. Sundaram, had its Madras branch on Armenian Street, opposite St. Mary’s Hall. It attained considerable success within a few years through such innovative schemes as providing plastic pouches for savings bank pass-books, a novelty which induced many to open savings bank accounts — with just Rs. 10. More significantly, it pioneered in India an all-women’s branch, establishing one in Madurai in 1947. There were ten women ‘manning’ the branch, including Kamala, Sundaram’s daughter. The Pandyan Bank with its 80 branches was merged with the Canara Bank in 1963, when several of the major banks that had only then recently been nationalised took over many of the smaller regional banks and acquired greater local area spreads, particularly in rural areas. Another such bank that merged with a bigger bank was S.N.N. Sankaralingam Iyer’s Indo-Commercial Bank, founded in 1934, that merged with the Punjab National Bank. The Madras branch of Indo-Commercial was at the Errabalu Chetty Street-Armenian Street corner. Sankaralingam Iyer was the father of K.S. Narayanan, founder of the Sanmar Group.

On Armenian Street, opposite Binny’s, was the London-headquartered Eastern Bank and on Esplanade Road, near Parry’s Corner, was another British bank, Lloyd’s. The Lloyd’s branch was closed down after Independence and the Eastern Bank was taken over by the Chartered Bank in 1957.

The large British banks that slowly changed their identity in phases, retaining bits of their old names in their new avatars, before vanishing altogether, were the Chartered Bank of India, Australia and China, the National Bank of India, and the Mercantile Bank of India. The first-named had its own building at the corner of Esplanade Road and Armenian Street. The National Bank built a handsome Indo-Saracenic building on First Line Beach (now Rajaji Salai), just behind Parry’s, and moved into it in 1915. The Chartered Bank of India, Australia and China became the Chartered Bank, then, after merging with the Standard Bank of South Africa in 1969, the Chartered Bank. The National Bank merged with Grindlay’s Bank on Armenian Street and became the National Grindlay’s in the new building that was a far cry from the dignified Indo-Saracenic building that was a landmark on First Line Beach. Further down the road was the Mercantile Bank of India’s handsome building into which it moved in 1893. The London-headquartered Mercantile Bank, in the city from the 1850s, was taken over by the Hong Kong and Shanghai Banking Corporation (HSBC Bank) not so long ago. A neighbouring building was till recently the Indian Bank’s headquarters. On this site was the infamous Arbuthnot bank, whose property its successor institution, the Indian Bank, acquired.

Also no longer on First Line Beach is the Reserve Bank of India which shared space with the Imperial Bank of India in what is now the main branch of the State Bank of India.

In how many of these old banks that remain are there memories of their beginnings or of those they took over?


When the postman knocked…

• Descriptions short of stupid were part of the several letters the postman brought me on the correct spelling of that railway junction ‘Kazipet’ (Miscellany, December 9). All you had to do was Google the Indian railway map and you would have had your answer, many wrote. Unfortunately, as many know, I’m computer illiterate so have to rely on the printed or spoken word. And the atlases I referred to did not have Kasipet or Kazipet — and they’re pretty good atlases. Be that as it may, my correspondents, after referring to the railway map, tell me that it is Kazipet, not Kasipet — Kazi is a Muslim law officer and Kasi is Varanasi or ash-gourd, one adds — and it is the junction near Warangal on the Grand Trunk Chennai-Delhi route from where a branch line heads to Hyderabad.

• Kumaran Sathasivam, referring to the restoration of the Madurai Palace (Miscellany, December 9) tells me that William and Thomas Daniell had found it in a terrible state of repair in the 1790s, “….. (of) little more use than affording shelter to cattle.” The Daniells, who painted various views of the Palace as they found it, go on to add, “The ruins of the palace at Madura show evident marks of its former grandeur; many of the buildings appear to have suffered much by time, and not inconsiderably….by the destructive effects of war; a few, however, are sufficiently in repair to be converted into use by the garrison as granaries, store-houses, powder magazines.” My correspondent wonders whether there are any records that describe the Palace as it was when it was newly built. In this connection, G. Muhammad points out that Philip Davies lists it as an Islamic monument of India in the two-volume Monuments of India published by Viking.