In the past year, as the Madras High Court celebrated its 150th year of existence, there have been some valuable contributions on the history of that august institution and memories of those associated with its Bench and Bar. Suresh Balakrishnan and N.L. Rajah have added much to the contribution made by the first of the recorders of the Court’s history that I know of, V.C. Gopalaratnam, who told his stories to mark the centenary of the institution. Memories of the years in between were added by Justice W.S. Krishnaswami Nayudu in 1977. And, of course, Randor Guy, more journalist than lawyer, had a host of tales to tell about famous cases the Court had listened to. That, I must confess, was virtually the sum total of my reading about the Court, its luminaries and the cases heard in it. I seem to have completely missed the contributions of an advocate on the civil side who, after my catching up with some of his work recently, I am inclined to think is the best writer of the lot. I refer to the late V.N. Srinivasa Rao.

That I’ve been able to catch up with his writings and his exemplary turn of phrase is entirely due to advocate Suresh Balakrishnan who has collected several of the essays of V.N.S. Rao and edited them for an easy but informative read under the title Lives of Chief Justices of Madras — During the British Rule and Other Essays. Not the most catchy of titles nor the most attractive of covers, but behind both is possibly the best read amongst all that I’ve mentioned before.

Rao’s writing on the 19 British Chief Justices of the court and its predecessor, the Supreme Court, and his eight essays reflect his Oxford education (after Presidency College) and journalist training in that then well-known, pre-World War II institution, London’s Regent Street Polytechnic, where he was mentored by Langford Reed of the Daily Mail. His interest in history that his Oxford degree nurtured, his knowledge of the law gained as a Barrister of Lincoln’s Inn, and his writing skills honed by Reed all contributed to his dedication to research and polishing again and again what he then wrote about the Law, legal institutions, and judges and lawyers. Regrettably, he wrote only one book, on Administrative Law, but, as Balakrishnan indicates, the articles in the book just out are only a sample of hundreds of others all waiting to be published in a series of anthologies. And such anthologies on subjects ranging from Astrology, History and Law to Literature, Sexuality and Travel might be well worth waiting for.

A descendant of C.V. Ranganatha Rao, who was a master of 14 languages and the first Indian Judge of the Small Causes Court, V.N.S. Rao had several other kin who were writers, but no one as prolific as him. And he encouraged many others to follow his lead by editing a journal called Freelance Editor (1941-48) he started. While wondering where I might lay hands on copies of it, I can’t help but think that many who contributed to it would have benefitted from what he kept writing in a notebook he titled ‘A Book of Wisdom’. Some of that advice was: “If you write to publish, weigh every word”, “You must take pleasure in polishing a phrase”, and “Avoid stuffiness and affectation, hard words, and long unusual couplings of syllables and sentences.”

The advice is reflected in this passage when Srinivasa Rao looks at the first Bench of the High Court that succeeded the Supreme Court. Rao writes: “Sir Colley Scotland shrewdly saw his curious role in the new set up. He felt that he was a co-ordinative functionary put in charge of a judicial show. Incongruous forces and clashing interests baffled him time and again. To start with, he and his brother Judges were nothing but a distinguished medley. He himself was a recent recruit from the British Bar and felt a stranger in Madras. Sir Adam (Bittleston) was a seasoned Supreme Court Judge who had screwed himself up into angularities. William Ambrose Morehead was the most successful civilian with more than three decades of service. Sir Thomas Strange conjured up the first Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. Henry Dominic Phillips was noted for his diplomatic management of the ‘late Tanjore Raj’. Hartley Frere was soaked in the tradition of Company service. If there was nothing in common among the Judges, the position of the Bar was even worse. The Bar of the new High Court was not even a medley, it was almost like a collection of persons under the shade of a tree on a summer day…”

*****

Of footpaths and designer roads

When Vikram Kapur, the Commissioner of the Corporation, spoke to the Indo-American Association, Chennai, recently on ‘Namma Chennai’, he candidly presented the problems the Corporation faces. Like the hugely extended area and substantially increased population it has to handle, the multiplicity of agencies responsible for various inputs resulting in uncoordinated governance, the long gap from one Master Plan to another (from 1975 to 2008), and the unrestricted growth of vehicles.

The good news, however, is that the Corporation has decided to make the city more pedestrian friendly and less private vehicle friendly. Within a year, Kapur said, citizens will see a lot more footpaths and encroachment-free ones at that. These, together with dedicated bicycle lanes, will be aimed at encouraging walking and the use of non-motorised transport and public transport, like buses and trains. To promote use of public transport, the Chennai Unified Metropolitan Transport Authority (CUMTA) is working on a priority basis to integrate train and bus services supported by feeder services. Congestion fees and new parking policies are also being looked at to reduce use of personalised vehicles.

Simultaneously, the Corporation has been working with architects, landscapists and transport experts to develop designer streets. The ‘befores’ he screened certainly reflected Chennai today. The ‘afters’ certainly made you want to feel proud of ‘Namma Chennai’. But the question that did not crop up was how the Corporation intended to develop a civic consciousness in its citizens that will keep these creations close to the vision. Starting with the politicians who deface walls with posters and graffiti and hog what few pavements there are, or road verges, with their hoardings, all without a licence or a fee.

However much I appreciated the Commissioner’s commitment to make Namma Chennai a city friendly to its citizens, as well as beautiful, I’m afraid it will only happen if there is a political will. And if the posters and hoardings defacing the city and the patronage that impede implementation of the host of laws we have are any indication, there’s little sign of that will. And so the planners will continue to plan, but will also continue to wait for the execution of their plans.

It’s rather like the Heritage Act. It’s been drafted and has been hanging fire for the last 15 years and more. But despite all the promises, the political will has not seen to it that it is enacted.

******

When the postman knocked…

This is something the postman brought and it is not something I’m going to paraphrase. It sounds better the way Kannan S. Adityan presents it. He writes, with reference to the palm leaf manuscripts with drawings of the Konarak Sun Temple that appeared in this column last week:

“The best maintained palm leaves last up to 300 years, according to what the curator of Saraswati Mahal Library told me many years ago. According to him, people reproduced them when the old ones were near the end of their life. So, if that is true, what is at BHU may not be the original. This is reinforced by Dr. Iyengar’s statement about climate rapidly destroying perishable items in India.

“As for the construction of the Brihadeeswara temple in Thanjavur, there are inscriptions on the temple walls that mention the names of sculptors, architect, the date of consecration, about its administration and even where the temple dancers lived. But of course nothing is mentioned about how the temple was built.

“If someone goes to the extent of recording all this, it wouldn’t have taken long to write something about how they built it. But what if they didn't want to? I believe that it was their version of IP protection!

“There is a painting on the ceiling of one of the temples inside the Chidambaram temple complex that shows the plan of a temple and a construction method. I took the accompanying picture about twelve years ago. It could be from the Vijayanagar period. This is the closest I have seen to any record on construction of temples.”

While I’m glad to hear there is at least one illustration in Tamil Nadu on ancient temple-building. I can’t help but bemoan the knowhow we have lost. And if this has anything to do with intellectual property rights, I’m afraid it doesn’t speak too well of those who fought shy of passing on knowledge.

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