Getting ready to mark next year the 225th year of the arrival of Thomas Parry in Madras, is the Company he sowed the seeds for, Parry’s, which became such a landmark institution that it gave its name to the neighbouring junction which for years now has been known as Parry’s Corner. While many know something of the history of the company, few know the circumstances under which Parry arrived in Madras.
The ancestral Parry family comprised prosperous farmers near the Welsh market town of Welshpool and lived in some state in a large mansion called Leighton Hall. Here was born Thomas Parry in 1768, the seventh of eight children.
Why a boy of this background, comfortably off and reasonably well educated, should seek a career abroad is not known, but that’s what he decided to do when he was 20 years old. In 1788, he sailed from England in a troopship called the Manship, arriving in Madras Roads on July 14, 1788, after one of the fastest sailings till that time. The Manship’s log reads: “Run from the ship Thomas Parry and James Dixon, Seamen.” The words in the log, however, did not mean that he jumped ship, deserting it in Madras. Apparently, in the vocabulary of old English seafarers, it meant signing on as crew but with the captain’s knowledge that he (the signee) would leave the ship at a particular port of call. In other words, Thomas Parry worked as a seaman for his passage. Indeed, he collected £3 12s 8d before leaving the ship on July 17th for the work he had done during the 110 days of its voyage to Madras. The normal wage for a seaman at the time was £2 12s a month, all found. But Parry worked for £1 as a supernumerary; why, I wonder, was Parry in such a hurry to leave England that he chose this means of travelling in a ship with no accommodation for civilians when he could have taken a later sailing East Indiaman? However that may be, he must have had influential sponsors in the East India Company who could have wangled this place for him aboard the Manship. It rather reminds me of my getting a bench seat in a converted RAF Liberator bomber flying from Colombo to London in 1946 with British officers returning home; it was a six-day adventure for a 16-year-old trying to get to college in the US!
Parry’s voyage was not an uneventful one, though he was not involved in any of the incidents. The ship had aboard it 117 recruits for the Company’s ‘army’ in Madras. One of them fell overboard and was drowned even before the ship sailed. A few days into the voyage, two of the recruits, one “a young black boy”, started a minor riot after going for each other. Then, 16 weeks later, the ship was pounded by a heavy gale which laid low everyone aboard. Three weeks or so later, one seaman attacked another with a knife, badly injuring him, and received “3 dozen lashes for his transgressions.” Six days later, yet another recruit was lost aboard. Thereafter it was a quiet voyage to Madras. A friend familiar with British naval history tells me that there was nothing unusual about the Manship’s voyage; it was par for the course in those days.
When Parry landed in Madras he came with recommendations from his brother-in-law. He was met by Thomas Chase, his brother-in-law’s Madras representative. He then met a relative of his brother-in-law, Captain Patrick Ross, who was the Chief Engineer and had much to do with the rebuilding of the fort. The engineer soon got him the ‘Governor’s Permission’ to trade as a free merchant in Madras. Thomas Parry’s licence for this was registered on February 12, 1789, and he was on his way -- to setting up what is today the second oldest business house in India.
I first met Siva – S.Sivapathasundaram – at the Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan’s Madras Kendra where I was teaching journalism and where he arrived in the early 1980s to take radio broadcasting. Remembering him, I can hardly believe that if he was alive today he would have celebrated his 100th birthday on August 15th; he was so full of interaction and knowledge exchanges when he was with his students in and out of class! We struck it off well together because both he and I had Ceylon journalism backgrounds and, though he was a decade my senior, we had several common friends in the Island’s media.
Siva was the right man to take radio broadcasting at the Bhavan. After doing his Law degree in Colombo and editing Eezha Kesari, a Tamil journal with a scholarly touch, he joined Radio Ceylon’s Tamil Service. In 1947, the BBC was seeking his services to strengthen its Tamil programming. In London, he started Thamizhosai, which soon became BBC’s hit Tamil programme. After three years in London, he returned to Ceylon where he became a much sought after freelance writer and radio programmer. But by the mid-1950s, the Tamil problem was hotting up in the Island and Sivapathsundaram decided to move to India with his wife and three children. Settling in Madurai, he become an Indian citizen and began to concentrate on his writing and taking a greater interest in Tamil studies. But there was always the call of radio. He was particularly good at live commentary and answered AIR’s call for this many a time, including agreeing to do the commentaries during the final journeys of Annadurai and Kamaraj.
He moved to Madras around 1980 but by then he was well-known in Tamil literary circles for work on different levels. His first book was a travelogue that came out in 1947, Manickkavasagar Adichuvattil (‘In the footsteps of Manikkavasagar’). Then came a book in Tamil on The Art of Broadcasting; Rajaji in his Foreword to it suggested that it would have been better named Radio Vadiyar. In 1960, he was following in the footsteps of Buddha and in 1978, in those of Sekkizhar in two other well-received travelogues. But from the mid-1970s his greater focus was working with ‘Chitti’ Sundarajan on two books that are classic surveys of Tamil writing. These magnum opuses looked at 100 years of the Tamil novel (1977) and the history and development of the Tamil short story (1989). Today, they are the foundations for any research in either field.
With two of his children settled in London, he decided to spend his last years with them and moved from Madras. He had by then lost in tragic circumstances in Madras a third child, Prasannavardani, a favourite pupil of Rukmini Devi. In October 1975, she had figured as the Bharatanatyam dancer in the Postal Department’s stamp series on traditional Indian dances. After her death, Sivapadhasundaram slowed down and in his last ten years, when he lived in London, he spent more time in reading than writing.
The first Madras theatre chain
At what the Bengalis would call an adda, where a few of us were recently chatting about the cinema theatres of Madras, someone pointed out that the first permanent cinema theatre in the city for full length film screening, was built a hundred years ago. It was the Gaiety that was pulled down only a short while ago to make way for modern high-rise alongside the Cooum and next door to the Casino. Whereupon another pointed out that it was the first in the first chain of theatres Raghupathy Venkaiah established in South India. The Gaiety was followed by the Crown on Mint Street, which was pulled down a little before the Gaiety, and then the Globe on Purasawalkam High Road which was later renamed by Venkaiah as Roxy. This too has vanished. His fourth theatre was Imperial in Madurai; I’m not sure whether that survives.
From being a film exhibitor to becoming a film-maker is only a hop, skip and a jump and, to keep it all in the family, he sent his son Prakash to Europe for training. The moment Prakash returned, they got started on their first silent movie, Meenakshi Kalyanam, but the gods appeared to be against them – and two ‘shoots’ failed. After abandoning the project, they built a studio called the ‘Star of the East’ behind the Roxy. To allow sunlight and prevent dust, they roofed the studio with glass – and the ‘Glass Studio’ it became in the public voice. Here they made their first film in 1922, Bishma Pratigna or Bhishma Vadam, and reaped a profit four times the Rs. 12,000 cost.
With this film, Venkaiah and Prakash pioneered the South Indian film industry.