As Madras heads towards celebrating its 375th birthday in August, St. Mary’s Anglo-Indian Higher Secondary School in George Town is into celebrating its 175th year. And next year, as Madras marks its 375th year, St. George’s Anglo-Indian Higher Secondary School in Shenoy Nagar will begin celebrating its 300th year. Both have their roots in the oldest educational institutions teaching English in Asia.

A little remembered fact is that the saintly Fr. Ephraim de Nevers, a French Capuchin missionary, was granted permission to build a church, St. Andrew’s, in the Fort in 1642. And in this Roman Catholic Church, where he allowed the Protestants to also conduct worship, he established a school that taught Portuguese, the lingua franca of the Coromandel at the time, English, and Arithmetic.

St. Andrew’s was closed by the British in 1749 (and later demolished), after it was felt that its priests had helped the French during their occupation of Fort St. George from 1746. Fortunately for the Catholics, Father de Nevers had sought, and been granted, land in what is now George Town in 1658 where the Capuchins built a second church and ran a school in the premises. It is that church, built and re-built, over the years, the last major expansion dating to 1817, that has become St. Mary’s Co-Cathedral in Armenian Street. And in its campus, the school de Nevers had started became, after a stop-start-stop history, St. Mary’s Seminary on its founding in 1839 by the Rt. Rev. Joseph Carew.

The Seminary became a second grade college of the University of Madras in 1882 and was re-named St. Mary’s College. Under subsequent regulations, it became St. Mary’s European High School in 1906. After Independence, the ‘European’ became ‘Anglo Indian’ in the name of the school and, in 1985, higher secondary classes were added. It wouldn’t be too far off the mark if the School claimed to be the oldest English language Roman Catholic school in the country; only the gaps in its history deprives it of being considered the oldest English language school outside Britain. That claim finds greater merit in St. George’s.

It was in Fort St George that Preacher Pringle in 1673 established a Portuguese and English language free school for English, Portuguese, Eurasian and Indian children resident in the Fort. In l678, this school was more formally recognised by the Council of Fort St. George with the appointment of Ralph Orde as ‘Schoolmaster’. Arithmetic, ‘Merchant’s Accounts’ and Tamil were introduced in the curriculum. It was this school that St. Mary’s in the Fort took over and, under the stewardship of its chaplain, the Rev. William Stevenson, ran from 1715 as St. Mary’s Charity School. In 1787, the School merged with the Male Orphans’ Asylum and in 1954 took the name St. George’s School and Orphanage. By then it had been 50 years at its present location on Poonamalle High Road. Like many of the other pioneering institutions, it became a Higher Secondary School in time. The unbroken continuity of the institution since 1715, only additions being made to it, makes it the oldest English medium school in Asia.

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Little heard of Art Akademi

When I wrote of the Madras Lalit Kala Akademi, a Government-supported institution that promoted art in Madras (Miscellany, May 12), many a senior artist appeared to know little about its successor institution, the Oviya Nunkalai Kuzhu (ONK), and wondered whether it even still existed. Intrigued by whether what the Tamil Nadu Government started to promote arts and crafts was still being sustained, I did a little digging around and found that it was still active but did little to promote itself.

The first thing I heard was from a professor of Fine Arts who told me that the ONK annually offers scholarships to graduate and senior undergraduate students of the Government Fine Arts Colleges in Madras and Kumbakonam. It also offers some financial assistance to young artists wishing to hold one-man shows or group shows. When all this started I’m not certain, but I’m told about 750 scholarships have been given to date and about 200 exhibitions supported.

The ONK’s major activities, however, are conducting two annual state-level exhibitions. One is an exhibition of Traditional Art, the other of Contemporary Art. And at each, monetary awards are given to the best five senior artists and to the best 10 junior artists exhibiting. It also has two permanent art galleries, one in Ooty and the other in the Regional Cultural Centre in Madurai.

From what little I’ve been able to piece together it would appear that after M.V. Devan left for Kerala in 1972, the Madras State Lalit Kala Akademi was reconstituted in l975 as the Oviya Nunkalai Kuzhu. A Government officer was appointed its secretary and it moved into two small rooms in a building on the Government Museum campus in Egmore. Some years later, in l99l, it was brought under the wing of the newly constituted Directorate of Art and Culture and moved to the Government College of Music in Brodie’s Castle, Adyar, where it is headed by the Commissioner of Art and Culture. I wish the Commissioner would do something about getting the ONK better known by making it, like the Lalit Kala Akademi, a major exhibition centre of arts and crafts.

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When the postman knocked…

* Responding to my request about any others who might have Bijou typewriters (Miscellany, May 12), Bhaskarendra Rao sends me a news item that appeared in the Andhra Patrika of February 1, 1930. It reported that a typewriter dealer, Y. Narayanan, exhibited Bijou Tamil typewriters at the Park Fair in Madras during the Christmas-New Year Season and captured the attention of the public through an exhibition of the Tamil and English typewriting skills of his 11-year-old daughter, Y. Janakamma. Crowds flocked to his stall to marvel at the speed with which she typed in both languages.

* Referring to the lectures the mill workers attended in their numbers, which led to the birth of trade unionism in Madras (Miscellany, May 5), T.S. Gopalakrishnan writes that classes in Tamil reading and writing and grammar were also held at the venues of the lectures. These classes created a level of literacy that enabled the workers to read newspapers and journals as well as translated material on trade unionism elsewhere, increasing their consciousness of their rights.