The intriguing story of a collection of ancient coins, a temperamental scholar and a museum’s ignorance of its own history.

A catalogue of coins is the last place to expect a story of intrigue. But the Chennai Government Museum’s book of Roman and Byzantine coins belies that. Beneath its deceptive appearance as a clerical list of objects, the catalogue carries an absorbing story of a temperamental scholar and the museum’s shameful ignorance of its own history. It is also a sad account of the falling standards of Indian museums and raises the question whether they are reliable repositories of the past any more.

The story begins in 2002 when the museum decided to publish a catalogue of Roman and Byzantine coins. The Government Museum, Chennai, holds the largest collection of Roman coins outside Europe — a fact not known to many. In March 2002, the book was released and R. Kannan, then Commissioner of the museum, explained that it was a reprint of the 1942 catalogue compiled by T.G. Aravamuthan, curator of numismatics between 1932 and 1942.

What Kannan and his staff did not know was that the museum had never printed the book and that the publication had actually been abandoned during World War II. Following the government’s decision to divert type-metal for war purposes, the press removed the types from the frames of the composed pages and melted it to make ammunition.

Then, what did the museum print in 2002? To answer this, one has to cut to 1942.

First, the story of Aravamuthan. T.G. Aravamuthan was born in 1890 in Thirukannangudi, a small village near Nagapattinam, Tamil Nadu. After completing postgraduate studies in English and then law in Madras, he tried many jobs: a proof reader in The Hindu, briefly took charge of the Connemara Public library, appraiser of diamonds for a jeweller, taught English at Pachaiyappa’s College and practised law in the High Court. His heart, however, was in history. He knew he was an amateur among the professionals, but nothing dented his supreme self-confidence. Supported by his legal acumen, sharp language skills, deep analysis and ability to conceptualise boldly, Aravamuthan wrote prolifically on various topics in history.

One of his books on Maukharis, a royal family in North India, published in 1925 earned him peer respect and visibility. He followed it with many other scholarly works such as the Portrait Sculpture in South India, still cited as an important book. In 1932, probably on the bidding of F.H. Gravely, the superintendent of the Madras museum, he worked as part-time curator for numismatics when the courts were closed for vacation and holidays.

Among the first things he did was to compile a catalogue of Venetian coins. He then took up Roman coins. In 1941, Aravamuthan completed the draft manuscript of the new catalogue, but decided to send only the introduction for printing. He withheld the rest because he was keen to get the correct page layout and typeface first. By then Gravely had retired and Aravamuthan had lost a friendly mentor. In 1942, Aravamuthan resigned.

By the end of 1942, the government press sent two sets of galley proofs of 82 pages of the catalogue to the museum. The museum retained one copy and gave the other to Aravamuthan to verify. The proofs upset Aravamuthan, who was unhappy with the layout. He also wanted to update his manuscript and began a correspondence that continued for two years.

In 1944, Mortimer Wheeler, the renowned British archaeologist, took charge of the Archaeological Survey of India as its Director General. Aravamuthan, knowing Wheeler’s reputation and interest in Roman archaeology, wanted him to comment and endorse his work. He posted the only proof pages he had to Wheeler since the government turned down his request for additional copies. Wheeler was all praise for Aravamuthan’s work and wrote that he could not refrain from appreciating it. “I hope it may be possible for the Madras government to issue it at an early date,” he added. But the Government had other plans.

In June 1944, citing severe war conditions, the Government stopped printing and diverted type-metal to make bullets. The only concession it made was to allow the press retain a limited quantity of the type-metal sufficient to print just one book. The museum had to choose between two projects — Aravamuthan’s catalogue of Roman coins or the book by A. Aiyappan, the new superintendent. It decided to print Aiyappan’s book and deposited the proofs of the incomplete catalogue in its archives. Aravamuthan disapproved, but moved on.

In 2002, when the museum found the proof pages in its files, instead of reading it in full or checking the history, it assumed that it had the entire book and printed 1000 copies. The incomplete proof pages are still sold as a professional catalogue. Senior museum officials insist that the catalogue was completed and published in 1942. A letter dated January 7, 1960, from the assistant superintendent of the museum to Aravamuthan states clearly that the museum had the proofs to only the first part of the catalogue printed in 1942 and nothing was set to print after that.

What the museum officials also did not know was that the museum tried to complete the catalogue in 1952 and again in 1965. By then, the relationship between Aravamuthan and the museum officials had soured. When the irritated superintendent sent a caustic reminder and issued a veiled threat, Aravamuthan, who was almost 70 years old, dared the museum to take action. Why ‘hunt out one who had ceased to be its employee’ and whose work the museum had ‘sabotaged,’ he retorted.

Aravamuthan later relented and promised to complete the catalogue. The trail of the correspondence with the museum, which his family generously shared, ends in 1967. Three years later, in 1970, Aravamuthan died at the age of 80. The catalogue was not completed.