A number of tributes have been paid to M.Vasudevan, better known as M.V. Devan, artist, writer, cultural activist and architect, who passed away recently in Kerala. All of them have focused on his memorable work in Kerala, but it was left to S. Nandagopal of Cholamandal to remind me about Devan’s seminal contribution to the Madras Movement, which, sadly, can no longer be memorialised in what till recently was a virtually derelict building on the campus of Ewart’s School, Vepery. That building has now been pulled down, but the site still holds memories for many a Cholamandal artist, particularly of Devan.

Devan arrived in Madras from Tellicherry (now Thalassery) in 1946 to come under the influence of Debi Prasad Roy Chowdhury and K C S Paniker, who not only made him an artist of quality but also inspired him to become a cultural activist, a role which was further encouraged by M.Govindan, a Malayalam writer then working in Madras. From Madras, Devan moved to the Mathrubhoomi in Calicut as an illustrator and there, from 1952, for the next nine years, his sketches started “a movement of sorts, that brought a certain seriousness to illustrations for stories in Malayalam journals” that had till then been little better than caricatures. He returned to Madras in 1961 to work successively, till 1968, in two significant institutions in the city, both of which have now been virtually forgotten.

The first, where he spent a year and a bit, was at the Southern Languages Book Trust. He was Art Director and Malayalam Editor there, in an organisation that had a large publication and translation programme in the southern languages. When American funding ran out, rather typical of India, but rather tragically, the four southern states could not get together to maintain the programme. The Government of Madras, however, in 1962 promoted what was called the Madras Lalit Kala Akademi, supported with funds from the Central Government’s Lalit Kala Akademi, and it survived till 1976, when, the Tamil Nadu Government decided to re-name it as the Oviya Nunkalai Kuzhu and locate it as part of the Department of Art and Culture in the Tamil Nadu Government Music College in Adyar where it has lost touch with most of the artists of the Madras Movement. But from its start till 1968, Devan, who was its first Secretary, made the Akademi a memorable institution, literally nursing the young artists and their talent that he drew to it.

The Madras Akademi that Devan presided over was housed in the old three-storied building seen in my picture today (seen when some of the Cholomandal artists visited it a couple of years ago.). Located as it was in Ewart’s School, it was not far from the School of Arts and Crafts. And to many a student who came there, Devan became a father-figure, though he wasn’t much older than them. The students would come seeking guidance as well as to work feverishly till late at night creating batik and other crafts that would be put on sale there and enable them to make that extra bit of money they so needed. They would then sleep there before heading out to the School in the morning.

As more and more students flocked to the Akademi, Devan could not host them but helped them get inexpensive accommodation as near to the Akademi as possible. And, so, in and around the Akademi were sown the seeds of community living, an artists’ colony, that was to point the way to the establishing of Cholamandal Artists’ Village and lay the foundation for what became the Madras Movement.

Devan, for his part, moved back to Kerala in 1969 where among his many contributions are the Kerala Kalapeedom in Ernakulam, a school that encourages much young artistic talent, Malayala Kalagramam, in Mahé, an artists’ village, and Perumthachan, an architecture consultancy that promoted environment-friendly Kerala architecture well before Laurie Baker. He was also known for his outspokenness, his caustic remarks, his trenchant critiques, and his fiery oratory.

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A 77-year-old typewriter

This column thrives on what the postman brings from its readers. And often what arrives comes as a pleasant surprise, arriving as it does with material about a totally unexpected subject. The latest arrival is on a unique typewriter. Most readers of this column are by now aware that I still favour a typewriter that is nearly fifty years old. So it’s no surprise to receive from time to time information about a typewriter with a story to tell. But a mini-thesis on one? That completely bowled me over. But I suppose such a paper from “an experimental cosmic-physicist and X-ray Astronomer” was only to be expected. Reader S Naranan will, I hope, therefore, forgive me for skipping the science here, and sticking to the historical and human elements.

With reader Naranan is a German typewriter that belonged to his father, K N Sundaresan (KNS), who was a professor in Berhampur (now in Orissa) from 1921 to 1967. But though Mathematics is what KNS taught, his passion was writing Tamil poetry, in the Sangam style, and plays based on famous persons of the Sangam period. And he did most of this on a unique Tamil typewriter he had bought on January 19, 1937 from the The Typewriter Mart, 118 Armenian Street. It was named Erika by the manufacturers, A G Vorm Seidel Nauman (later VEB Schreibmaschincn Werke, Dresden) but was branded in British territories as Bijou. (Are there any other Bijou-s around, I wonder.)

This maroon coloured typewriter cost Rs.200 plus Rs.5.50 delivery charges and Rs.13.50 for nine customised keys. And it is those keys that make KNS’s typewriter unique. It’s a complex description of the 42 keys for the letters of the alphabet, five control keys and two for punctuation marks that make reader Naranan’s submission go into pages. If anyone wishes to read them, it is the last of nine articles on his website www.vindhiya.com/ anaranan/ index.

For the purposes of this column, however, what interested me in KNS’s design of the keyboard was his using just four keys for the prefixed or suffixed ‘vowels’ in vowel-consonants, splitting those letters which have additional hooks or ‘legs’, the handling of six Grantha letters, and, particularly intriguing, his approach to punctuation marks and numerals. As he felt eight more punctuation marks than the keyboard had were needed, he sacrificed the numerals 1 2 3 4 5 7 8 and the vowel-consonant gnu that is little used. For the missing numbers, KNS used the classical Tamil equivalents, so a year, for instance, would have a couple of Indo-Arabic numerals combined with a couple of classical Tamil numerals. I hope the picture of the keyboard makes all this clearer.

The various changes KNS introduced made this typewriter unique. And no doubt the only two to use it, father and son, became experts on it.

For the record, reader Naranan adds, that it was a Ramalingam Muttiah of Ceylon (no relation, I assure readers) who “designed, manufactured and distributed the first ever Tamil typewriter” sometime in the 1920s, according to the Internet. It was only in 1962 that Chief Minister Kamaraj introduced Tamil typewriters in Government offices. After the international Tamilnet99 conference in 1999, Tamil99 came into vogue based on the PC keyboard.

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When the postman knocked

Not far from my house on Dr.Radhakrishnan Salai was a signboard reading International Yoga Institute, writes reader G.Sundaram. Dr.Sundaram’s wife told him that it was run by Rm.Avudaiappa Chettiar (Miscellany, April 24) whom her family had known in Burma; in fact, her father, Dr,R.Venkateswaran, had often flown with him in Rangoon much to the trepidation of her mother. Avudaiappa Chettiar also was interested in growing organic vegetables which he would distribute to friends. Reader Sundaram writes that he was always intrigued by the eclectic mix of Avudaiappa’s interests, aviation, financing, yoga, and organic farming.

The European in the picture (Miscellany, May 5), explaining the design of the University’s Centenary Building to Prime Minister Nehru, is indeed J R Davis the architect, reader S.L. Chitale, perhaps the doyen of architects in Madras, informs me.

The Fenn who became Pithavadian (Miscellany, May 5), was really a Fenn Thompson and ran a well-known printing press in the city called Fenn Thompson & Co., reader P.Unnikrishnan tells me. All Madras Christian College and School notebooks and stationery were supplied by this press which also ran a bookstore on the campus in George Town. Legend has it that before a trip to the US Fenn Thompson changed his name to Pithavadian, but no one really knew why.