There passed away last week, little noticed, yet another path breaker in Madras. May George was the State’s first woman to be given the designation ‘Chief Engineer’ and I am not sure whether there has been anyone since. It was a few months ago that we last met and at 88 she was sprightly as ever, looking forward to attending the release of the third volume of Madras/Chennai: A 400-year Record of the First City of Modern India. She had contributed the chapter on ‘Housing’ which appeared in the second volume.

Housing was really the specialty of May George who caught public attention — and, more importantly, that of organisations like HUDCO — with the Radial Plots she designed for the poor in Padi Eri. I wonder whether they are still there, those dozen or so, large, vadai-shaped buildings, each segmented into 16 small homes with, in the open core in the centre, the sewage disposal and other services. Of this scheme it was said wastage of open spaces was practically nil and the circular configuration ensured greater privacy.

It was as its first engineering officer that May George joined the City Improvement Trust, later the Tamil Nadu Housing Board whose Chief Engineer she became. When the first women’s polytechnic was established in the State, she became its first Principal after planning its campus and buildings in Taramani.

May George was the fourth woman engineer to graduate from the College of Engineering, Guindy. That was in 1945. The first two to graduate were Leela George and A Lalitha. They entered the College in 1940 and passed out in 1943. Who the third graduate was I have not been able to trace. Leela George too blazed a trail; she was the first woman designated ‘Chief Engineer’ in Kerala.

In a curious coincidence, I received about a week before her passing away an appreciation written some years ago based on inputs from May George on her grandfather, L.D. Swamikannu Pillai, the second President of the Madras Legislative Council. In a second coincidence, I discovered that he and the first President of the Madras Legislative Council, Perungavur Rajagopalachari, had both been Registrars of Co-operative Societies. And in the context of what I have been writing about in the past few weeks and adding to today, a third coincidence is that Rajagopalachari was connected with a bank too — one no more. Read on….

A tale of two Presidents

The first President of the Madras Legislative Council (Miscellany, August 12, 2013) had been the Dewan of Cochin and then Travancore, but in today’s context in this column he had been Registrar of the Cooperative Credit Societies of Madras. And it was in that role he helped found the first cooperative credit bank in the country, the Salem District Union Bank. When the Bank was inaugurated, he had it present a one rupee note to every one of its constituents together with a ‘piggy bank’ for savings. This ensured the popularity of the Bank, but this popularity did not sit too well with the British banks and sufficient pressure was exerted ensuring the closure of the Bank before long. But the trend for cooperative banking had been set and in October 1905 the Madras Central Urban Bank was established with Rajagopalachari’s blessings. This was to grow into the Tamil Nadu State Apex Cooperative bank, its head office now on NSC Bose Road in George Town.

Rajagopalachari’s successor, Louis Dominic Swamikannu Pillai, had also served as a Registrar of Cooperative Societies, but his passion was Indian Chronology. It was a fascination he developed as a student and teacher at St.Joseph’s College, Negapatam. His interest in science led to applying Astronomy to the investigation of Indian Chronology and writing the Indian Ephemeris, a colossal work that had the Government recognising that “his works on Indian Chronology, which involved much original research, are of great value.” His seven-volume Indian Ephemeris was published in 1922 by the Government of Madras; it was a publication that connected Chronology, the study of establishing dates of past events, with the calculated positions of celestial objects at various intervals.

Long before this, he wrote a book with a friend that caused quite a stir. It was while teaching at St.Joseph’s that he had got interested in memory and the systems of mnemonics that helped memory. Out of this came The Secret of Memory in 1909. And it was his memory that was the proof of his theories.

He once asked his students to prepare a list of 50 “nonsense” words like ‘abracadabra’ and ‘rococo’. He then asked them for ten minutes to study the list. When his time was up, he handed the list back to his class and proceeded to recite the words in order from first to last, then from last to first. And then he recited every third word from first to last and then from last to first. There wasn’t a single mistake in his recitation nor when he asked the awe-struck students to test him on the words in any other way they could think of.

Yet another interest of Swamikannu Pillai, who died young and therefore didn’t have enough time to make it from Diwan Bahadur to a knighthood, dying as he did in Presidential office, was religion. He was a pillar of the Catholic Church and helped found with M Ruthnaswamy, who was to succeed him as President of the Madras Legislative Council, that strong layman’s body, the Catholic Union of India.

Swamikannu Pillai was born on February 4th, 148 years ago.


When the postman knocked…

My item on George Town hosting numerous banks (Miscellany, December 23, 2013) continues to draw responses from readers. One of them, V. Swaminathan, tells me that the Indo Commercial Bank was founded by Rao Bahadur Subramanyam (MLA Delhi). T R Venkatarama Sastry (the first Indian Advocate General), A. R. Vishwanathan (the father of my correspondent), Sir T Sivaswamy, and A Venkataraman “to inculcate the saving habit in the spendthrift mirasdars of Tanjore District.” Its first branch was opened in Mayavaram in Vishwanathan’s home near which there later rose “an imposing building, built by Gannon & Dunkerley”, for the Bank’s registered office. Still later, the Bank’s main branch was shifted to Armenian Street, George Town. S N N Sankaralingam, a Kumbakonam financier, was appointed Manager of the Bank and, developing its business substantially, established several branches in the Madras Presidency. After Sankaralingam had been elevated as Managing Director, differences arose between him and the Board and he moved on into industry. The Bank was amalgamated with the Punjab National Bank in 1957.

Another small bank which merged with a bigger one was what was founded as the Reliance Bank by N.S.Ar.Arunachalam Chettiar. It had its offices on Second Line Beach, near Post Office Street, writes reader A M V Alagappan. The Bank was later taken over by the MSM family of Karaikudi and renamed, and here I am getting different names, the Bank of Karaikudi or the Karaikudi Banking Corporation. Whatever the name, it was taken over by the Bank of Madura in the 1950s. The Bank of Madura was in turn taken over by the ICICI Bank.

Receiving mail from a friend the other day, I discovered there is a Brewery Road in Aminjikarai, where he lived. But of brewery there is no trace these days. There are a couple of breweries on the outskirts of Madras, but in the city there is none. Brewery Road, now leading off Anna Arch Road and into Shenoy Nagar, through post-1960s development, would once have been in the middle of nowhere, an ideal site for a brewery whose odours would have permeated the atmosphere around. Madras, I’ve found, got its first brewery only in 1913, long after T Leishman set up Bangalore Breweries in 1889. The Madras brewery was established by British Beer Breweries of London and was therefore called Madras B B B Brewery. Its Managing Agents in Madras was McDowell & Co, then renowned for its cigars and cigarettes. W.R. Prosser was its brewer and manager when Madras Breweries was set up. Was this the brewery that gave Brewery Road its name?

Augustus Daniel Imms (Miscellany, January 26) undoubtedly contributed significantly to our knowledge of insects, writes Dr. A. Raman from Australia, but adds that Imms’ work in India (1911-18, mainly in Dehra Dun) was neither directly nor indirectly linked with Madras. But his 2-volume book, Textbook of Entomology, was, however, “the first formal text I read to learn the basis of Entomology,” recalls reader Raman.