Here’s wishing all my readers a very happy 2014 and my thanks to them in advance for the material they are sure to contribute to this column in the year that’s just getting underway. The last events I attended before seeing the old year out both contained chunks of music and the fact that I sat through both of them surprised many who know that music and I are worlds apart. In fact, a statement or two that follows may have all my readers agreeing that I don’t know anything at all about music. But that’s the price I’ll be paying for being contrary.

That Sunday morning music-oriented session I went to because that irrepressible storyteller Sriram V. was telling the story of K.B. Sundarambal and I knew I would enjoy listening to him narrate a rags to riches tale of great love, moments in Ceylon, a tragic life, sacrifice, politics and the creation of a legend called Avvaiyar. The musical interludes, I was sure, would be brief and that I would survive them. I did. One interlude, however, made me feel let down — but no doubt my reaction to it would be seen by all music lovers in Tamil Nadu as a demonstration of my lack of appreciation of music.

I’m talking about that one clip of a song S.G. Kittappa sang. It followed almost instantly after a clip of Sundarambal singing. And even though Sriram smiled beatifically and swayed almost ecstatically to Kittappa’s singing, I couldn’t help but feel that to my untuned ear Sundarambal was streets ahead. Perhaps it was the recording, perhaps it was the sound system, perhaps it was some other reason, but Kittappa’s almost effeminate voice did not seem to justify all the accolades that were heaped on his singing and continue to be so in the written or spoken word. To me the woman who loved him till she died, and long after he had passed away in his youth — despite the way he had treated her — was a much better singer. I now await the brickbats.

The second musical interlude was that same evening at the release of a collection of short stories by the late Prabha Rajan that had been translated into English. Showing keen powers of observation that a veteran reporter would have been proud of, she focuses on what interests all of us, life across the wall in neighbours’ homes. Simple stories, occasionally moving ones, there’s a moral to each of them in Shyama and Other Stories.

To say a few words on the occasion, veteran ad-man R.V. Rajan had asked me to come an hour and a half early. Tea was fine, but I wouldn’t mind coming later if it involved an hour’s musical recital, I pleaded. But Rajan wouldn’t hear of it; “This you must hear,” he insisted. And I’m glad I went — and listened. I haven’t seen such confidence in a 12-year-old as Utthara Srinivasan, Rajan’s grand-daughter, displayed singing non-stop for an hour with only a pause or two to tell a tale out of school. That was a confidence born out of the knowledge that she sang well — in fact, she sang so well that she had even me listening. And predicting, if you go by the opinion of a person who knows nothing about music, that she will one day be among the top-flight South Indian voices.


The students of insects

When a zoologist who regularly contributes to this column Dr. A. Raman from Australia, was here recently for the Christmas break he gave a couple of fascinating lectures on scientists who had contributed to Madras in the 18th and 19th Centuries. Topping his list were the doctors Edward Balfour and James Anderson. The only Indian in that list was Raghoonatha Chary, the astronomer. But concluding his second lecture he presented a collage of Indian scientists who had made significant contributions in the 20th Century. While chatting to him after that, he posed a question: ‘The first definitive book on South Indian insects will celebrate its centenary in 2014 and its successor came out in 1940, the author of the latter featuring in my collage. Who were the authors?’ The answers, for quizmasters Navin Jayakumar and V.V. Ramanan’s notebooks, are T.B. Fletcher and T.V. Ramakrishna (Ayyar).

Thomas Bainbrigge Fletcher was a Naval Officer who was, in time, appointed Imperial Entomologist, Government of India, succeeding Harold Maxwell-Lefroy, who also made a significant contribution to Indian entomology, the study of insects. Fletcher, who studied the insects and birds of India, had his classic Some South Indian Insects And Other Animals Of Importance Considered Especially From An Economic Point Of View published a hundred years ago by the Government Press in Madras.

Fletcher’s 565-page tome and Lefroy’s work remained the last word on South Indian insects till Ramakrishna came along. Tarakad Vythianatha Ramakrishna started his career as an Assistant in the Surat Experimental Farm which was headed by Leroy. When the Farm moved to Pusa (now in Bihar) in 1905 to become the Imperial Agricultural Research Institute, Ramakrishna moved with it. Three years later, the Madras Agricultural College (MAC) opened in Coimbatore and TVR was posted to it as Lecturer in Agricultural Entomology, reporting to Edward Ballard the Madras Presidency Entomologist. When Ballard left for war service in 1914, Ramakrishna officiated as the Presidency’s Entomologist till Ballard’s return. He, thereafter, till retirement, taught at MAC, wrote prolifically, and, then, spent some time developing entomological research in Nizami Hyderabad in the 1940s. It was during the years between Coimbatore and Hyderabad that he wrote his 1940 classic, Handbook Of Economic Entomology Of South India.

One unique aspect of TVR’s career was his doctorate. At a time when anyone in India bent on higher studies was going or being sent to Britain — Oxford, Cambridge, or London — he applied to Stanford University, California. His application stated that he had a BA and MA from Madras University (Victoria College, Palghat, and Madras Christian College) and was keen, “as an Indian, to get myself acquainted with the entomological work in the West — chiefly the methods of applied entomology with special reference to Horticulture and Pomology.” The application was supported by Prof. H. Reynolds of MCC. When he received his Ph.D. from Stanford in October 1927, TVR would have been one of the first Indians to have an American doctorate. His subsequent work in Coimbatore and Hyderabad led to his being called the ‘Doyen of Indian Entomologists’.


The banks that were

Another of my regular correspondents, Ramineni Bhaskarendra Rao, has sent me a heap of information about banks of yesteryear that no longer survive in Madras (Miscellany, December 23). An intriguing feature of this information is that most of them were headquartered or had Madras branches in Armenian Street. I wonder why.

One of those headquartered on Armenian Street had a founding Board whose members would come as a surprise to many. This was the Commercial and Land Mortgage Bank founded in 1885. The Chairman was R.G. Orr of P. Orr’s and another Director from P. Orr’s was S.T. Wood. W.H. Oakes of Oakes & Co and James Brown of the Murree Brewery (now in Pakistan) were two others. The only Indian on the Board was a merchant, Sathrasal (Sadras?) Vencatakistnamah Chettyar. If I recall right, this bank did not survive long.

Where the 19th Century Agra Bank’s Madras branch was Rao does not mention, nor is there mention of the address of the Madras branch of the P & O Banking Corporations, though I would guess it would have been near Binny’s on Armenian Street or McLean Street, seeing that it was an Inchcape institution founded in 1920.

The Bharata Lakshmi Bank, founded in 1929 in Masulipatam, had its central office in Madras. In 1964 it merged with the Andhra Bank. Also founded in 1929 was the Hindustan Bank with Govindoss Chatoorbhujadoss as chairman and the Board including V. Thiruvengadathan Chetty of Perumal Chetty & Sons and K. Nageswara Rao Pantulu of Amrutanjan.

The Alleppey-headquartered State Aided Bank of Travancore (1930) had the office of its chairman K.C. Pandalai in McLean Street, while the Standard Bank of India (1934?) had its head office on China Bazaar Road and the Esplanade Bank (1934) was in Loane Square. The Indo-Carnatic Bank opened in Armenian Street in 1935, with N. Subba Rao Pantulu, one of the founders of The Hindu, Justice Bashyam Iyengar and Rahim Khaleeli among its directors. The Bank went into liquidation a year or so later. Founded at that time, was the Madras People’s Bank, also on Armenian Street; it claimed that it was the only bank in the city run by Andhras, but its Board included a Khan Bahadur M.A.A. Badsha Saheb and a Rao Saheb V. Krishna Menon. A mofussil bank, Dindigal Sri Kannikaparameswari Bank (1930), opened a Madras Branch in Georgetown in 1941.

Headquartered on Second Line Beach was the Tiruchinapalle Bank, its date of founding uncertain. Its directors included several Nattukottai Chettiars. Another bank whose founding date is not traceable as I write but was yet another to be established on Armenian Street was the Andhra Cooperative Central Land Mortgage Bank.

Three Travancore-Cochin Banks with branches in Georgetown were the Palai Central Bank, with its branch on Esplanade Road, the 1919-founded Quilon Bank and the Travancore National Bank dating to a 1912 beginning, with which the Syrian Christians were closely connected. A fourth Travancore Bank was the City Bank (1926) whose branch was on Esplanade Road. Also with a Georgetown branch was the Bank of Mysore founded in 1913 with the principality’s patronage and Vishveswarayya’s guidance. The Canara Banking Corporation (1906) had its Madras office on Thambu Chetty Street and the Canara Industrial and Banking Syndicate on Broadway.

Where have they all gone? More importantly, why did they fail?


Several readers have pointed that a printer’s devil must have been at work to have the nationalisation of banks (Miscellany, December 23) in 1963 instead of 1969. One certainly was.