The 155th Convocation of the University of Madras, one of the first three modern universities in Asia, was announced with full-page ads in all the newspapers in the city — and all of them featured a soaring picture of Senate House, purpose-built between 1869 and 1873 for convocations of the University to be held in. But as in the case of all other convocations held at the University in the last few decades, this year’s convocation too was not held in Senate House. And this classical bit of Indo-Saracenic architecture remains closed to both students and the public, opened only when anything needs to be stored in it.

If it was considered too small for the convocation, surely it could have been used to host the tea for the Governor, Chief Minister and other VVIPs. But that could certainly have not been on the cards, given the sad state the interior of the building is in today. A sensitive job of restoration between 2004 and 2007 had brought the building that had been allowed to deteriorate from the 1970s back to almost what it had been like a hundred years earlier when it was the pride of the city’s architectural masterpieces. But University politics at the highest levels and indifference on the part of the scores who guide the University’s fortunes have seen the building gradually head towards what it had been pre-2004. No wonder the University does not want to show this splendid but sorely neglected building to its Chancellor, the Chief Minister, Minister for Education and others!

But how long is this sorry state of affairs to continue? How long is an architectural masterpiece to remain closed? How long more is it going to be allowed to crumble? Surely an institution dedicated to enlightenment should want to set an example to the public on heritage conservation? And if it doesn’t, surely this is a fit case for the Heritage Conservation Committee to act on and insist on public restoration?

The Corporation of Madras has committed itself to the restoration of Ripon Building and the Town Hall (Victoria Public Hall). The Chief Minister has committed herself to the restoration of Khalsa Mahal. Perhaps the Government should turn its attention to Senate House before it is too late, taking it from the University and making it public space.

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The Telugu navala

My recent item on the early Tamil novel (Miscellany, August 12) had reader Saraswathi Rao wondering whether or not Sri Ranga Raja Charitra by Narahari Gopala Krishnamma Chetty was the first Telugu novel. No authority on the subject, I did some checking around and discovered that it had been written in 1872, was dedicated to Lord Mayo, and had been described by the Fort St. George Gazette as being “ apparently the first attempt ever made… at novel writing in Telugu prose.” The author was at the time the Deputy Collector of Kurnool District and undertook the work in response to a notice by Lord Mayo, the then Governor-General, that had appeared in the Bengal Gazette.

The notice had stated that a work of fiction featuring the customs and rituals of the Bengalis would be rewarded. Lord Mayo saw this as a means of getting the British administrators, who till then had only to learn the language, better acquainted with the customs of the people. Krishnamma Chetty decided to do this on behalf of the Telugu people of Madras Province. He called it a “navina prabandham”, emphasising that it was an original story — not a translation — and re-emphasising that it was ‘new’. Set in the 15th Century, it tells the story of Sri Ranga Raju of the Vijayanagar dynasty and describes the customs and rituals prevalent at the time. These customs have not changed at all, Chetty points out in criticism. Was this then an attempt to urge society to change as well as break caste taboos, wonders a later commentator.

What intrigued me in this commentary, however, was the use of the term navala, the word used in Telugu today, I’m told, for ‘novel’. Kasibhatta Brahmayya Sastry, a scholar, is quoted as saying, “In English, the word ‘novel’ has come out of ‘nav’ which means ‘new’. It is not clear that this ‘nav’ is related to ‘nava’ of Sanskrit. Therefore, ‘navala’ means that (literary form) which has new features — navan visesan lati grihnati iti navala. In English too the word bears the same meaning. Therefore, I am using here the word ‘navala’ for this (literary form) instead of attempting to coin another Sanskrit word.”

Sastry’s use of ‘navala’ came in a commentary he wrote c.1900 on the second Telugu novel, Raja Sekhara Charitra by Kandukuri Veeresha Lingam, which was serialised in 1878 in the author’s own journal, Viveka Vardhani. The word has apparently stuck since then.

No doubt, there’ll be more on this, one of these days, from readers.

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When the postman knocked…

*As briefly mentioned last Monday, A. Madhaviah had kept the postman busy. And there’s more about him this week too. His grandson, Ambassador A. Madhavan, writes from Mysore that his grandfather’s early stories on social reform were printed in The Hindu, as Kusika’s Short Stories, early in the 20th Century. My correspondent re-emphasises to readers what I had said, namely that Madhaviah should be remembered for his social concerns. His writings campaigned for the rights of women, appealed for widow remarriage, urged the abolition of dowries and called for the abolition of caste barriers. Writes reader Madhavan, “He was a true liberalist of the Victorian Age, who lauded the good in Christian ethical teachings, but remained an adherent of Vedantic Universalism and advaita.” He adds, “His work for education in Tamil is not realised.” In fact, it was immediately after speaking on this subject at Senate House in 1925 that he collapsed and passed away. He was only 53.

Reader Madhavan goes on to write that apart from his father, Justice M. Ananthanarayanan, I.C.S., and his uncle M. Krishnan, the naturalist, another distinguished member of the family was their sister, M. Lakshmi Ammal, who was Principal of Lady Willingdon College and then Queen Mary’s College in the 1940s and 1950s. With Queen Mary’s getting to celebrate its centenary next July, perhaps we will hear more about her in the next few months.

*An officer who retired from the Salt Department, S. Satyanidhi Rao, adds to the Madhaviah story (Miscellany, August 12). He writes that Madhaviah was an Inspector of Salt Revenue, a Gazetted post, in the Government of India’s Salt Department. “With time on his hands,” he turned to writing. He wrote under the name ‘Pamba’, adds my correspondent, a pseudonym derived from “P.A. Madhaviah, B.A.”

*My item on Dr. Senjee Pulney Andy (Miscellany, March 11) has brought an enquiry from Elaine Charwat, a librarian of The Linnean Society of London, asking whether the readers of this column or its writer could provide more information about another Indian Fellow of the Society, Dr. P.S. Mootooswamy Modeliar of Tanjore. I’m afraid I have no answers, but my item on Pulney Andy had brought in quite a bit more of additional information and perhaps Mootooswamy Modeliar will be as lucky.

The information Charwat provides notes that Pulney Andy was the first Indian Fellow of the Society and he was followed by Bhau Dai Lad of Bombay and Modeliar, who was admitted to the Fellowship in 1875. Among those who nominated him was Dr. John Shortt, Deputy Surgeon-General, Madras Army. Shortt was known for his writings on snakes, tribals and forestry.

Modeliar was attached to the “Monargudi (Mannargudi) Station (local dispensary?) in Tanjore in the 1870s. He had qualified for the diploma of Graduate of the Madras Medical College (LMS?),” but outside the world of medicine, his main interest was Botany and his writings on that field led to him being cited in some pages of the Pharmacographia Indica (a history of the principal drugs of vegetable origin found in India). One of the three authors of this classic published in London in 1890 was David Cooper who was the Quinologist of the Government of Madras, Ootacamund.

The Linnean Society was founded in 1788 and is considered the most prestigious organisation in the world focused on Natural History and classifications in the fields of Botany, Zoology and Biology.

*Referring to New Town (Miscellany, July 22), Dr. M. Krishnan, who says it is now called Periamet — I’m not too sure of that; I think it was a part of Periamet — recalls the Nurses’ Association that was on Rundall’s Road (now E.V.K. Sampath Road), which was staffed by Anglo-Indian nurses who were “the mainstay of private nursing care in Madras”. He wonders whether the association still exists; in its heyday, the nurses provided excellent care, “taking pride in their profession”. Krishnan also mentions a Clarence Hotel and the Hooghly Ink Company on the same road. Of Clarence Hotel I had not heard and would welcome information. Hooghly Inks, however, I was familiar with; it was a Calcutta-based British firm whose business (including manufacturing the printing ink it sold) in Madras was first managed by a John D. Barton and then by a Donald Mascarenhas.

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