The highlight of Madras Week for me was attending an all-day seminar on ‘Pigot, Wallajah and Tanjore’, a conjunction that led to the second coup in Olde Madras and the takeover of the Carnatic by the British, leading to Empire. I have mentioned something of this in my columns dated July 1 and August 12. But what I hadn’t reckoned with was that I would listen to the proceedings in royal splendour.
The seminar was organised by the British Council, and the Prince of Arcot very kindly agreed to host it at his stately residence, recently renovated Amir Mahal. Now, Amir Mahal has a large hall on the ground floor that is used for dining space and this is where I thought the seminar would be held. But Nawabsaab Abdul Ali surprised all of us by throwing open the opulently refurbished Darbar Hall on the first floor. It was a stunning setting for the discussions. When I commented, “Why the Darbar Hall for a seminar of this type, Nawabsaab?” he replied with a wry smile, “Darbar Hall it may be, but where’s the Darbar?” whereupon one of the participants, a young lady standing nearby and who had heard this exchange, gallantly intervened, “Why, Your Highness, aren’t we your Darbar?” And this time it wasn’t a smile but a hearty laugh that was the response.
But what struck me more than the Prince throwing open the Darbar Hall for exchanges on history was his sitting through them throughout the day, even when some of the statements made of the past might have been a bit uncomfortable. An excellent presentation on the interaction between the trinity of the seminar’s title was made by Stephan Roman, a history buff who happens to be the Regional Director, South Asia, British Council, and this was supplemented by S. Anwar, now researching the Muslims of South India, making an information-rich presentation on the Arcot family. In both there were moments in the past that did not show the family at its best, but Nawabsaab took it in his stride and displayed that tolerance he has exhibited in founding and running Harmony India. No wonder Sujatha Shankar, Convener of INTACH Chennai, said at the end of the proceedings that she had “never seen such graciousness at any discussion” she had been to. Unfortunately, the Nawabsaab had left the room to see off one of his guests when she made this ‘thank you’ statement. This, I hope, gives him the opportunity to ‘hear’ an opinion that was loudly cheered in the Darbar Hall.
As for the proceedings, two things emerged from them as far as I was concerned. The need for well-researched histories of (1) the Arcot family from whom the Wallajah family descends, and (2) Paul Benfield, the villain of the piece whose actions changed the course of modern Indian history. And as Anwar pointed out, that since besides the British records, there is much Muslim writing, particularly on the Arcot family; both needed to be studied to get balanced histories of Wallajah and Benfield. It is truly strange that modern Indian history has not really looked at the role of both in the creation of modern India, the India we know.
Cousins continents apart
The recent purchase of a mansion in London by an Indian billionaire had an eagle-eyed reader, Chris Desmond, enquiring whether the General who had the house built for him in 1770 was the same Burgoyne remembered in a plaque in St. Mary’s in the Fort. No, he wasn’t. The two Burgoynes were cousins but achieved fame (or was it notoriety?) in continents far apart.
The London house-owner, Lt. Gen. Sir John Burgoyne, was the man who surrendered his army on October 17, 1777 to the American independence fighters at Saratoga. He was taken prisoner and after his release faded from the scene in a degree of disgrace. The Madras Burgoyne too had a headline-grabbing story. But all that the plaque in St. Mary’s says of him is: “Sir John Burgoyne. 23 September 1785.” He was apparently buried in the Church but no one knows where.
Sir John Burgoyne was the 7th Baronet of Sutton in Bedfordshire and came out to Madras in 1782 with the 23rd Light Dragoons he had raised the previous year. The corps arrived in the capital of the Southern Presidency unmounted and was quickly supplied with horses from Bengal. It was then quartered in Luz and established a strong outpost in, it is believed, what is now the campus of St. Ebba’s School. Burgoyne’s Dragoons were the first European cavalry to arrive in Asia.
Under a changed name, 19th Light Dragoons, it soon saw action with General Eyre Coote and his deputy, James Stuart, and earned itself a high reputation. Burgoyne was, as a consequence, promoted to Major General and posted to the Madras Staff in 1783. When Coote died, Stuart was asked to take command of the army of the Madras Presidency, but insisted on the same powers that had been given to Coote. (This in effect meant being in charge of the booty from battle.) In the ensuing disagreement with the Council, Stuart was arrested and Burgoyne offered the commander-in-chief’s post. He not only turned it down but also gave evidence in favour of Stuart. Whereupon Burgoyne too was arrested and court martialled. He was eventually honourably acquitted.
All this, however, had taken a toll of Burgoyne and it wasn’t long before he passed away at the age of 46. The fact that the Council never really made its peace with him may have been the reason that he was buried in the church in an unmarked grave. The minimally worded plaque is likely to have come up later, more as a historical marker than a memorial to an honoured soldier.
When the postman knocked…
*I was at a wedding recently in one of those suburbs that is the back of beyond of Madras — or are the suburbs doing that to Madras — and was introduced to a successful lawyer turned even more successful caterer. My host introduced me to him as the person who writes a column for The Hindu every week. And back came the enthusiastic response, “Oh, When the Postman Knocked?” I’ve heard this said so often I think my readers should take over the task of meeting deadlines!
*Referring to my item on Sir P. Rajagopalachari (Miscellany, August 12), Dr. R K Balasubramaniam, a parliamentary law consultant, tells me that the first President of the Council and his successors till the 1935 Government of India Act, were appointed by the Governor. Thus, the President (Speaker) was not responsible to the House, not being elected by it. Rajagopalachari, my correspondent continues, was followed by L.D. Swamikannu Pillai, who was the Secretary of the Legislative Council, Prof. M. Ruthnaswamy, C.M.V. Narashima Raju, and B. Ramachandra Reddi. Then came the 1935 Act under which Legislative Councils were converted to Legislative Assemblies with the power to elect their Speakers. The first Speaker to be elected by Madras Province was Bulusu Sambamoorthy, who had been a successful criminal lawyer in what was then Cocanada (Kakinada), writes Dr. Balasubramaniam. My records, however, list the first Speaker elected by the House as Dr. U.Rama Rau. Which is correct?
*Letters on novelist A. Madhaviah continues to keep the postman busy. Joshua Kulapati of Madras Christian College says that the Madras Christian College Magazine “spurred the literary zeal of Madhaviah when it published his early poems in English.” In March 1892, he praised his alma mater in these words:
Hail my Alma Mater,
And of thousands more,
Earlier, now and later,
Nurtured on thy lore,
In mighty thoughts and words,
grow thou, forevermore.
Later, he dedicated a collection of poems to the Rev. Miller, his mentor, in these words:
O thou with great and noble deeds encrowned!
This fading wreath of dull, unfragrant flowers,
knit in intervals of busy hours
I offer thee with reverence profound,
And seek to link this with thy deathless name
That so my verse too may endure with fame.
The Miller-Madhaviah role in women’s reform movements is at present the subject of research by Kirsten Bergman Waha who is doing her doctorate at the University of California, Davis. She was in Madras recently.
A tidbit on Madhaviah is added by T.S. Venkata Ramani who tells me that in a song competition Bharati’s famous Senthamizh naadeennum pothinile got second prize. The first prize was won by a poem by Madhaviah. I wonder whether there’s someone out there who has any idea about this prize-winning poem.