A friend from Colombo recently informed me that there was a book about Mahadevan Sathasivam (Satha to all) that had just come out and was sure that I would be interested in it. When he told me that Sathasivam of Ceylon - The Batting Legend was by Prof. Ravindra Fernando of the Department of Forensic Medicine, University of Colombo, I was even more interested. For, I thought, it would shed further forensic light on the murder of the wife of that legendary South Asian playboy cricketer whom many an old-timer in Madras still remembers for an innings at Chepauk in 1947 that they still consider the finest they ever saw played on that turf.
Writing back to that former colleague for more information about the book, I got the reply that it was only about Satha’s cricket. And with it came a couple of quotes that my correspondent was sure I’d be able to use in this column. But before getting to them, there’s the reason Dr. Fernando, a cricket enthusiast, gives for writing this book. “Sathasivam,” he says, “was perhaps the best batsman Sri Lanka produced. The great Frank Worrell, captaining a Commonwealth XI against Ceylon, and his teammates clapped Sathasivam off the field during a ‘Test’ in 1950. Satha had scored 96 out of Ceylon’s 153 against a high class attack on a bowler-friendly wicket, leading Worrell to describe him as ‘the best batsman in the world; my first pick as a batsman for a World XI’.”
Those who watched that 1947 innings in Madras would be inclined to agree with that assessment. Certainly two Indian sportswriters who looked back on his life and that innings said as much in the words that follow:
Sriram Veera, the chief cricket correspondent of the Mumbai Mirror, recalling that innings for All-Ceylon against South India wrote: “In 1947, a slim figure glided to the centre of the wicket with a ‘bewitching elegance’, his cap worn at a rakish angle, a white handkerchief tied around his neck, and proceeded to dispatch the ball to all parts of the ground while making 215. If the old-timers are to be believed, that knock from Mahadevan Sathasivam, the legendary and flamboyant Ceylonese batsman, was the finest innings ever played at Chepauk.” And an obituary in The Mail, Madras, stated, “…Ever since, as a lanky stripling, Sathasivam made his mark in the cricket-crazy island, he had been a regular member of the Ceylon team that visited India until his wife’s death involved him in a court case, which ruined his career. Probably because of this, he left the island and worked in Malaysia, which country also he had the distinction of captaining…
“Such had been the name and fame that preceded the Colombo run-getting machine that he was the cynosure of all eyes…He had by then blossomed into one of the world’s greatest batsmen of the time. He emphasised his rise to the highest class by making mincemeat of an attack that comprised the pace of M.J. Gopalan and C.R. Rangachari, the latter in his heyday, and the spin of N.J. Venkatesan, Ghulam Ahmed, C.P. Johnstone and B.C. Alva. He was on dancing feet as he proceeded to erase the Chepauk record of 213 by making 215 in almost even time before a spellbound crowd.
“From Jack Hobbs to Joe Hardstaff and Dennis Compton… from Gary Sobers to Vijay Hazare, batsmen have enthralled the intelligent and knowledgeable Chepauk crowds and enriched Chepauk’s history with their batsmanship of varying styles. But no one has played an innings like Sathasivam’s record-making double century - 215 dazzling runs - that contained the fireworks of Nayudu, the footwook of Weekes, the subtlety of Hassett, the driving power of Sobers and (all) the (other) ingredients of batsmanship of the highest class. A great batsman… one whom Chepauk will never forget.”
Whoever has seen Satha bat would have views about his batting not very different from these. He was a cricketer who would spend all night carousing and score a most elegant century the next day. Madras saw him only too often in that form.
More than a film-maker
I had, long ago, marked in December 2 to remember Bommireddy Nagi Reddy, but somehow what I had noted escaped my attention when the time came. But that 100th birthday of one of the greatest film-makers of South India also missed the notice of many others.
When you recall Nagi Reddy, what do you remember him for? For the 50-plus films he produced and the stars that emerged from them? For Vijaya Studios, which he created, then Asia’s biggest film studio? For Vijaya Productions, in which he teamed with his alter ego, script writer Chakrapani, to score success after success? For giving up films later and focussing on medicare? For founding Vijaya Hospital (1972), Vijaya Health Centre (1987) and Vijaya Heart Foundation (1996), one of the biggest hospital complexes in the city that began with what was the city’s first multi-specialty hospital with corporate overtones? For starting the newspaper Andhra Jyothi in 1945 and that ever-popular multi-lingual children’s magazine Chandamama in 1947? Or for his connection with the Tirumala Tirupati Devasthanam and inspiring it to build the Vaikuntam Queue Complex that helped bring shelter to pilgrims and a great degree of order to worship?
Strange that apart from the Dada Saheb Phalke Award in 1986 for a lifetime contribution to the film industry, other National awards did not come his way.
It was in 1950 that Vijaya Productions got underway producing Sahukaru, the first of several films with social content and aimed at conveying a message. Two years later, humour was introduced to liven up the message and grab a larger audience. N.T. Rama Rao and S.V. Ranga Rao were put on the road to fame in these early Telugu films the ‘Vijaya Twins made. And Sahukaru shot a young female star into the limelight, eventually to become known as ‘Sowcar’ Janaki. The ‘Twins’ made films in all the southern languages and Hindi - and won acclaim in all of them. But by the 1970s, Nagi Reddy pulled out of the film business, as much because film-making had moved out of the studios as for the fact that that inseparable friend of his, Chakrapani, had passed on. Nagi Reddy now began focussing on Vijaya Hospital, Chandamama and the numerous trusts, charities and contributions to society he was involved with. But when he passed on in 2004, it was as a ‘movie mogul’ that his biographers focussed on and not so much on his numerous other interests.
When the postman knocked…
Reader D.B. James, referring to P.Orr’s (Miscellany, December 10) recalls that when Mihir Sen swam the Palk Strait, from Talaimanner to Dhanushkodi, in 1966, “we at the Marine Biological Association of India presented him the Sethu Cup.” It was made by P.Orr & Sons. So were almost all the other trophies competed for in South India till the l970s. Curiously, Orr’s were also leading gunsmiths and armourers for a long, long time. As they were also sellers of surveying and scientific instruments.
A reader wants to know what I can tell him about Butt Road. The only Butt Road that still exists, as far as I know, is the road from Nehru Circle (Kathipara Junction) leading to the foot of St. Thomas' Mount. I, however, vaguely remember a Butt Road that used to exist somewhere near Police Headquarters, but I’ve not been able to find any traces of it today. ‘Butt’ in this context derives from shooting ranges that used to exist here for rifle practice by soldiers and policemen. The long earthen mound at one end of a shooting range against which the targets are placed is called a ‘butt', explaining the name.
Why was the Electric Theatre that Warwick Major and Reginald Eyre built in 1913 and which is now the Philatelic Bureau on Mount Road called by that name, another reader asks. I haven’t the faintest idea, unless it was due to the fact that it ran on electricity. I’m however told by one of my helping hands that there was an Electric Theatre in the U.S. and another in the U.K. But both of them were part of “electricity works”. Maybe Randor Guy or Theodore Baskaran will come up with answers to this one. My correspondent adds that Venkiah’s Gaiety (Miscellany, November 12) was predated by the Lyric, a hall built for variety entertainment that in 1913 began to be used for cinema screenings at the Wallajah-Mount Road curve, the Bioscope (1911) in George Town, and the Electric in 1913. But only the Gaiety survived into modern times.