Much of my daily life is beginning the day researching on one subject and finding myself totally absorbed in another. Just the other day I was looking into the Rev. J.S. Chandler's (Miscellany, November 7, 2011) connection with Kodaikanal and found myself being side-tracked and following the trail of Johann Philipp Fabricius, of Tranquebar and Vepery, who pioneered a more formal study of the Tamil language than other Western linguists.

Fabricius, a German, arrived in Cuddalore in August 1740 and worked in Tranquebar till 1742 when he moved to Madras to replace Benjamin Schultze who had founded in Vepery, in 1728, a mission of the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge. There, Fabricius was to spend the next 50 years of his life, ministering to his flock as much as labouring over the Tamil language. Working on Bartholomaeus Ziegenbalg's simple Tamil prose dictionary of 1708, Fabricius not only formalised it as a Latin-Tamil dictionary in 1744 but followed it up with an English-Tamil dictionary. When these were printed in 1779 and 1786 respectively, they were the first Tamil dictionaries to appear in printed form. They were also the dictionaries which all subsequent lexicographers — including Chandler, for the University of Madras — followed. Fabricius also compiled and had published a Tamil grammar explained in English. Malabar Grammar, as it was known, was published in 1778 and then again in 1793. Besides these projects he worked on translating the Bible into Tamil, introducing in the translation a language that could be sung.

All this activity needed funding and the SPCK was not the most generous of paymasters or financial backers. The otherworldly Fabricius then resorted to borrowing. And that led him straight to the debtors' prison. And death.

His successor in Vepery, the Rev. Christian William Gericke, wrote to the Government of Madras in June 1791:

“In answer to your Letter of the 2nd Instant, by which I was desired to report the State of the late Mr. Fabricius's Concerns… in consequence of …. Madam Haenicke's claim upon the said Mr. Fabricius for the Sum of Pagodas 2877-16-40 with Interest, I beg to observe in the first place that…. ever since the year 1780 when his salary was detained by the Honble Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, in London, to refund a Legacy to the Tranquebar Mission which by his means was lost, (he) has been subsisted by charity untill his Death, which happened in January last, two months after I had found means to liberate him from Jail, in which he had then been confined two years, and that his Funeral Expenses were defrayed by his Friends….The late Mr. Fabricius made all his Friends sufferers, but in point of Trouble none had more on this account than Mr. Swartz and myself…..”

And, so, there ends the story of the Tamil scholar who had officiated at the wedding of Robert Clive in 1753 in St. Mary's in the Fort and who lies buried in an unmarked grave in the St. Matthias' Church cemetery in Vepery.

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The pioneering cameraman

As Indian cinema marks the centenary of its first full-length feature film, Raja Harischandra, will it remember the man who ten years later began a journey that was to take the Indian film industry to very much greater heights than what Raja Harischandra promised? That pioneer was a cameraman who over the years was to have many Madras connections, not the least being he was the father-in-law of R.K. Dastur, one of the leaders of the Parsi community in the city today..

Adi Merwan Irani's career as a cameraman began when he joined his uncle Ardeshir Irani's film studio in Bombay, The Imperial Film Company, and learnt his skills working with his elder brother Rustom. Adi Irani made his first mark when he shot India's first newsreel in 1929. His subject was the first electric train in India being flagged off from Bombay to Poona. Two years later he was shooting India's first full-length talkie, Ardeshir Irani's Alam Ara. Then, in 1937, India's first colour film, Kisan Kanya. When the Quetta earthquake devastated the town and its surroundings in 1935, Adi Irani shot the devastation from the air in what was said to be the first aerial photography in pre-Independence India.

In 1939, he moved to Madras and over the next two decades he worked with Pragati Studios, Vel Pictures, Gemini Studios, Vauhini Studios, Nagi Reddy Studios and Central Studios in Coimbatore. Amongst the memorable films he shot were Kamadhenu, Bala Nagamma, Haridas (which ran for three years!), Malleswari — which had the first crane shot in India — and The Prince and the Pauper. Then illness overtook him in the 1960s and in 1967 he passed away.

If the Indian film industry is one of the biggest in the world today, Adi Irani had a role in making it so with his camera work in the days when it was trying to get off the ground.

His second son Melhi Irani did much work in the Malayalam film industry and was an award-winner in it.

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When the postman knocked…

There have been several brief inputs from readers this fortnight that have kept the postman busy.

* A reader informs me that it was not only Ram Singh's sons (Miscellany, April 23) who played cricket for the University of Madras; his grand-daughter and Kripal Singh's daughter Malvika (now Malvika Mehra) played for the University's women's cricket team from 1980 to 1983. While at Stella Maris College, she also played for the Tamil Nadu Junior women's team in the inter-State championships from 1979 to 1982. Another reader tells me that P. Rathnavelu Thevar of Trichinopoly, to whose munificence many a Madras/Tamil Nadu Cricketer owed much, was also a benefactor of Ram Singh. Rathnavelu, apparently, was the major figure behind cricket in Trichinopoly District. May I expect more inputs on him?

* K. Vedamurthy recalls the influence M.C. Subrahmanyan (Miscellany, April 30) had on his life and that of many other young men fifty years ago. He writes how MC inspired them, then in their twenties, to do shramadan by helping out every morning from 6.45 to 8.45 at the Public Health Centre's outpatient departments in West Mambalam. “We would then have to rush to our workplaces after the forenoon meal,” recalls Vedamurthy who goes on to imply that, watching that rush, MC must have, in a way, been responsible for the Doraiswamy Road subway being built “through the good offices of T.T. Krishnamachari”. That subway, linking the two halves of Mambalam — West Mambalam and T. Nagar — is today a boon to thousands of office-goers.

* G. Rangarajan, Editor, Free India weekly informs me that MC worked with Free India and not with the Free Press Journal, as I had stated. Free India had been founded by E.R. Govindan after he left the Sunday Times and MC too left the Sunday Times to join him. MC used to write under the pen name ‘Kumar' and it was as ‘Kumar' that he wrote a lengthy “masterpiece” for Free India's Independence Day supplement in August 1947.

* Searching for Ar(a)ni House, which I had wondered about in Miscellany, March 5 S. Satyanidhi Rao says that he has found that it did not exist in Madras but was built in “Satya Vijaya Nagara (PIN 632 317), Arni Taluk, Tiruvannamalai District” and is now being used to house a Government Engineering College. There have, however, been callers stating that they remember an Arni House in the Kilpauk-Vepery area. Perhaps the Jagir of Arani did live there and the house in which he lived was given the name Arni House.

* Is there a building called Marine Villa in Madras, wonders L. Kumar. I don't know whether there is a building with that name in today's Madras, but it certainly was a landmark from the second half of the 18th Century till well into the first quarter of the 20th Century. Marine Villa was an octagonal-shaped building on the site where the University of Madras's Clock Tower/Departmental Block came up in the 1930s, being opened in 1936. Marine Villa, also known as the Nawab's Octagon, was pulled down in 1930 for the University to develop its first teaching block. As the Nawab's Pavilion, it was meant to serve as the bathing pavilion of Nawab Wallajah and his successors, the Cooum their recreational bathing space! When the University expanded in these grounds, the pavilion served as the first home of its Zoology Department. The pavilion had also served as a temporary home for Lord Edward Clive when he had to move out of his quarters in the Fort to make way for the Governor-General, Lord Mornington, who had arrived from Calcutta in 1799 to oversee the final campaign against Tippu Sultan.

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