Of all the Associations of British Scholars (ABS) in India, the first of them, the Chennai chapter, has been the one that has made perhaps the most significant contribution of them all to its home city. This, in Madras, has taken the form of a three-volume history of the city titled Madras/Chennai - A 400-year Record of the First City of Modern India.
The first volume was sub-titled ‘The Land, The People and Their Governance’ and the second ‘Services, Education & The Economy’. The volume due to be released at the end of the year will be on ‘Communication, Culture & Entertainment’. The 50 articles for this five-year project have been about equally divided between the volumes. Each chapter deals with the history of a particular aspect of Madras, such as History, Politics, Technical Education, Social Welfare, Media and Sport. Most of them have been written by ABS members specialising in the subject of his or her choice. Many of these subjects are related to fields the authors studied in the United Kingdom, either as scholars or as professionals upgrading their knowledge through international experience.
To disseminate the contents of the books wider, the ABS recently started a series of lectures by the authors, each one speaking on, as well as adding to, his or her contribution. And it was at the last one I attended that the grist for today’s column cropped up. Speaking on ‘Social Welfare’, Prof. Vidya Srinivasan recounted how institutionalised welfare in Madras had its beginnings in St. Mary’s Church in the Fort where the congregation initiated a charity school and orphanages that led to what is known as St. George’s H.S. School today and poor relief measures that sowed the seeds for the Monegar Choultry and the Friend in Need Society.
It was at the question and answer session that followed that the Nawab of the Carnatic’s name cropped up. A member of the audience wondered whether anyone had heard of a langarkhana that the Nawab had started, probably in the 1770s after moving into Chepauk Palace. The speaker went on to say that it has also been reported that besides this poor feeding centre to the southwest of the Palace, there were several other ways Muhammad Ali Wallajah generously helped the poor. Neither he who raised the subject nor anyone else in the audience could add anything to this, but I couldn’t help but cynically wonder whether this was not one more expenditure that added to the enormous debt the Nawab had incurred by borrowing from the British in Fort St. George to support the huge number who were family and kin, the large army he maintained (more it seemed to provide employment than to serve as a capable military force), the lavish entertainments he organised every day, the magnificent gifts he gave the British and other VIPs who called on him, and the building of Chepauk Palace and a host of other buildings raised on land he acquired at the drop of a suggestion. What this led to was the Carnatic Debts and the Carnatic becoming the first major British possession in India.
The next lecture in this series will be on June 20 at 6.15 p.m. at the British Council and will have Theodore Baskaran speaking on the ‘Wildlife of Chennai’ that is badly in need of saving.
Tsunamis and music
The reach of this column constantly surprises me. This time it is a reader from New Jersey (U.S.), Dr. K. Ramaprasad, writing to offer a rather different perspective to the one that Rajendran offered (Miscellany, June 10). But one of Ramaprasad’s first comments had me wondering why I hadn’t heard from that regular correspondent of mine, Sriram V., about what he was being quoted on in these observations by Dr. Ramaprasad.
Writing about ‘Music, Muthuswami and Tsunamis’ in a magazine called Shruti published by an organisation called ‘Sruti’ in Pennsylvania, Ram Ramaprasad says:
“A natural disaster of the magnitude of the December 26, 2004 tsunami could not but affect, in some degree or other, the mood and music of the season. The hardest hit was Nagapattinam, which all the members of the Carnatic Trinity had visited, as they had neighbouring places, at one time or the other. Sriram has mentioned two kritis composed in Nagapattinam. One is Thyagaraja’s karmamE balavanda mAyA in Saveri, where he says, vAridhi madi garvinci yIvasudhaku tA rAnEncaci ninnu (when the sea spurred by arrogance threatened to overwhelm the land, you humbled his onslaught). The other is Dikshitar’s kriti in Brindavana Saranga, soundara rAjam Ashraye, in which the line ambudhi garva nigraham (suppressed the pride of the ocean) appears. Sriram, after quoting V. Raghavan (from his Spiritual Heritage of Thyagaraja) that possibly the composers were speaking of a local legend, asks the question whether any such tsunamis occurred on the Carnatic coast during the period 1800-1835.” Both lines sound very much like what was in the Pandya copper plates I referred to on June 10.
Taking a closer look at these tsunamis, Ramaprasad states in his article: “The major dates of reported tsunamis relevant to the time of the Trinity are 1737, 1762 and 1819. The 1762 event was in the Bay of Bengal. But T.S. Murty, an adjunct professor in the Department of Earth Sciences, Ottawa University, Canada, formerly tsunami advisor to the Canadian Government, and one of the leading authorities on tsunamis, thinks that they were probably storm surges.
“Murty, after leaving the University of Chicago with a Ph.D., joined the Canadian Oceanographic Service. His first assignment was to find an explanation for the damage pattern of the tsunami caused by the 1964 earthquake in Alaska. The largest amplitude was at an inland place called Port Alberni in British Columbia, which was not in accord with the thinking at the time that the amplitude would be greatest at the open coast. Murty, who knows something about Indian music and string instruments like the veena and sitar, which work on the principle of quarter-wave amplification, extended this idea to tsunamis and explained the paradox in tsunami behaviour, winning many awards for this view of his.
“As for whether there were ‘authentic’ tsunamis around the time of the Trinity, Murty feels that, probably, what were observed were storm surges, which are identical to tsunamis as far as coastal effects are concerned. ‘The only difference,’ he writes, ‘is that while tsunamis occur due to under-ocean earthquakes, storm surges are due to cyclones. Tamil Nadu is hit by a cyclone, on the average, at least once in four years.’ The great composers would certainly have heard of, or seen, these cyclones and their impact. Murty estimates that during the 1800-1835 period, the Nagapattinam area was struck by at least five cyclones, and probably up to seven. There was even a super cyclone in 1831.
“Thyagaraja and Dikshitar might not have known the difference between a tsunami and a storm surge, but the fury of the ocean waves and their impact on coastal and inland life that they heard about or were witness to would surely have aroused imageries in the minds of these composers, resulting in the lines Sriram refers to.”
When the postman knocked…
Another reader from the U.S., Viswanathan Venkataraman, reminds me that S. Narayana Iyer, who in some ways mentored mathematical genius Ramanujan, was another with a L.T.(M.A., L.T) (Miscellany, June 10). He taught mathematics for some years at St. Joseph’s College, Trichinopoly, which is where he met Francis Spring, who was then in charge of the South Indian Railway’s Golden Rock Workshops just outside what was its headquarters town. Spring, when he took charge of the Madras Port Trust, persuaded Narayana Iyer to join it as Assistant Chief Accountant and there the two helped Ramanujan take the first steps towards international renown.
Like me, N.S. Parthasarathy misses Spencer’s (Miscellany, June 10) catering in its railway refreshment rooms and on the trains in the South, its immaculately liveried waiters, and well-appointed rooms for overnight stay attached to its refreshment rooms in several big stations. But while I was enjoying Elephant House ‘Ice Palam’ in Colombo, he was lapping up Spencer’s ‘Ice Fruit’ of different flavours in triangular cardboard sleeves bearing a check design. Tricycles with the Ice Fruit (or was it ‘Frute’, I wonder), and bearing the Spencer’s logo (a name signed with a flourish, that the Company happily still retains) would visit many a lane in the city and always at specified times. Another popular offering was its sodas and ‘colours’, like Orange Cloud, Lemonade and Ginger Beer. Spencer’s were “pioneers in this field”. And like Parthasarathy, I miss those soft drinks of yore, mine being Elephant House Cream Soda, Ginger Beer, and, later in life, Ginger Ale.