Friday Review » History & Culture

Updated: October 25, 2009 12:23 IST

The House of Natesan

S. Muthiah
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G.A. Natesan
G.A. Natesan

I rarely get around to doing any housekeeping — but this year, for a couple of days before Deepavali, I was pushed into it as much by my wife as the need to find some pictures I was looking for midst the welter of books, journals, clippings, notes and manuscript pages that fill a couple of rooms in the house and spill over into other rooms. I eventually hit pay-dirt, but a much happier surprise was finding copies of a column on Asian affairs that I had written for a couple of years in the early 1970s for a monthly that TTK was shepherding from behind the scenes at the time. The magazine, Indian Review, had been a legendary one in its time, but at the time I am referring to, T.T. Vasu was trying to revive it under the stewardship of veteran journalist M.C. Subrahmanyam, who worked closely with TTK on the editorial content.

The discovery of those yellowing clippings took me back to not only all this but also to the person who had started and made Indian Review one of the most respected journals in the South India of the Gandhian era. That person was G.A. Natesan, who was 21 years old and just out of college when he joined the Madras Times and was put through his paces by the legendary Glyn Barlow, its Editor. After his stint with the Times, from 1894 to 1896, Natesan moved on to start the next year what became known as the House of Natesan, G.A. Natesan & Company, Booksellers, Publishers and Printers.

Over the years, Natesan was to prove a prolific publisher of low-priced books. Work by S. Radhakrishnan, Srinivasa Ramanujan, and Justice Muthuswami Aiyar, among others, was published. So were the biographies of eminent Indian personalities, the great Indian classics, and material from the Vedas and the Upanishads. The House of Natesan’s Bhagavad Gita, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata — including miniature-sized English versions —were perennial bestsellers. And, there were a host of publications looking at the Indian political scene, starting with Indian Politics in 1898 and becoming more Gandhian focussed after the publication of Gandhi’s Hind Swaraj on his return from South Africa in 1915.

In between these two titles came the publication Natesan was best known for. While at the Times, he had become a friend of V.S. Srinivasa Sastri, Prof. K.B. Ramanatha Aiyar, known as “the walking encyclopaedia of Triplicane”, and V. Krishnaswami Aiyar who was to found many a Madras institution that survives to this day. The three encouraged him to start Indian Review and the House of Natesan published the first issue in 1900. The journal aimed at reflecting Indian thinking on all aspects of national progress, particularly the ups and downs of the Freedom Movement. Its office became the meeting place of Congressmen and the literati of Madras, Natesan playing genial host to all of them, whether he agreed with them or not. After his death in 1949, the family kept the journal alive till 1962, and then it faded away till that revival in 1968 that lasted till 1982.

Natesan started his publishing career while living in Thambu Chetty Street. It was here that Gandhi stayed on his first visit to Madras on his return from South Africa. Thus was born a lifelong friendship. Later, Natesan acquired a garden house in Luz (behind Nageswara Rao Park) and named it Mangala Vilas, after his wife Mangalam. Here, he would meet leaders such as Nehru, Rajaji, Annie Besant and S. Radhakrishnan, among others. There is a Natesan Road near the Mambalam Railway Station and a Natesan Colony in Luz. The former is far from this house, the latter quite close to it. I wonder whether either commemorates the man who founded the House of Natesan.

Though a friend of Gandhi, Natesan did not agree with his Home Rule strategy and broke with the Congress when Gandhi started the Non-Cooperation Movement. He helped to found with Sastri the Indian Liberal Party in 1922, and was its Founder-Secretary. The members of the party were generally described as the Moderates.

Of Natesan’s friendship with Gandhi, many stories are told. It is said that it was he who was responsible for persuading an unwilling Gandhi to attend the Second Round Table Conference in London; that Gandhi wanted Natesan to go to South Africa as the Indian Agent, but when he regretted his inability to go, Gandhi requested Srinivasa Sastri to accept the appointment; that when Devadas Gandhi was ill in Madras, it was to Natesan’s care that Gandhi entrusted him; and that when Gandhi started learning Tamil, the first letter he wrote in Tamil was to Natesan. That letter is in the Gandhi Museum, Madurai. In that Museum and the Gandhi Museum in Delhi are several memorabilia of the Natesan-Gandhi friendship and the Natesan-India political connection that the Natesan family has donated to them. But many of the early copies of Indian Review are not available; if anyone has them, he is sitting on a treasure trove that researchers would covet.

I’m sure the Roja Muthiah Research Library, Taramani, would welcome them.

When the postman knocked….

* L.T. Thangavelu points out, apropos my statement that “looking around for large-scale manufacturing operations…abrasives is not it, Murugappa was definite” (Miscellany, October 5), how ironic it is that abrasives manufacture is today one of the biggest operations in the Murugappa Group and that, even more ironically, A.M.M. Murugappa Chettiar’s grandson, M.M. Murugappan, has long been associated with the still-expanding abrasives unit, Carborundum Universal, and is now its Chairman. Carborundum Universal of Madras, India (CUMI) was floated in 1953 and went on stream in 1954 in the expanded facility in Tiruvottriyur where sandpaper and emery cloth were being manufactured from 1942 under the brand name Ajax and with the logo an aeroplane. M.K. Ramaswami, whom I, on October 5, had inadvertently described as AMM’s cousin — he is a nephew — was closely associated with Ajax.

* It’s still going strong, the Eleanor McDougall Nursery School (Miscellany, October 5), tells me Susan Abraham. Now Government-aided, it is still run by the Alumni Association of Women’s Christian College at Nawab Ghulam Abbas Ali Khan Road, off Shafee Mohammed Road in Nungambakkam. I wonder how many in that Thousand Lights area realise who Eleanor McDougall was.

* R. Narasimhan states that there could be some confusion over who S. Parathasarathi of Prithvi (Miscellany, October 12) was. He was the son of S. Srinivasa Iyengar, Congress President, and brother of S. Ambujam Ammal. A contemporary, S. Parathasarathi Iyengar IPS, was Commissioner of Police, Chennai, and had nothing to do with Prithvi.

Narasimhan also recalls there was a major disaster when the Prithvi building in George Town collapsed, killing 33 persons. This was a major setback to Prithvi, after which Parthasarathi became a sadhu and set up an ashram. He was called ‘Sadhu’ Parthasarathi. The brief biography I had referred to of T.S. Swaminathan mentions that after this accident, Swaminathan went into deep depression and, taking personal responsibility, wanted to resign. Parthasarathy persuaded him otherwise, sent him on long leave to recover in the hills, and welcomed him back to lead the organisation to greater heights.

N.S. Parthasarathy adds another postscript to the Prithvi story. He tells me that S. Rangarajan, nephew of two knights, Sir N. Gopalaswamy Iyengar and Sir A Rangaswami Iyengar, and one of the early Indian actuaries, went on to become the Chairman of LIC in the late 1960s. He, too, was from Prithvi.

* Another visit of Gandhi to Madras Province that I did not record (Miscellany, August 24) was to the Nilgiris in 1946, writes C.P. Kandaswamy. Apparently, Gandhiji stayed with Rao Bahadur H.B. Ari Gowder at Mount Pleasant in Coonoor, and addressed a public meeting in Upper Coonoor. “There was hardly any transport then,” yet a large crowd turned out for it, walking miles from the various villages and estates around just to see Gandhi.

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