The tragedy at Vembakkam

The other day, someone bowled me another googly. There isn’t a day that passes without someone asking me a question about Madras, imagining I have all the answers. In fact, almost every question is a googly and I have to search for many an answer - and more often than not, do not find one. The latest loaded question was: Who was the first Indian to be appointed a Member of the Madras Legislative Council? When I discovered the answer, it was someone I had not heard of: a brilliant lawyer called V. Sadgopacharlu who practised successfully even before the High Court Act was passed in 1861. Sadagopacharlu died young -- when he was only 35 -- but by then he had written a book that was considered the final word on Mohammedan Law. He was a member of the Vembakkam clan which had many distinguished luminaries in the 19th and early 20th centuries, among them Sir V. Bashyam Ayyangar.

While searching for this information, I discovered that there was a Vembakkam Lake which was the site of a tragedy involving another member of the clan. This was V. Rajagopalacharlu, said to have been an even more brilliant lawyer than his eldest brother, Sadagopachalu. But Rajagopalacharlu tended to spread himself thin by having a whole slew of interests he spent time on. He was a staunch reformist, a member of the Brahmo Samaj, an expert at mesmerism and hypnotism, an authority on music as well as a composer, a good photographer, and an out of the ordinary marksman with a rifle or a revolver.

Walking on the Vembakkam Lake bund one day with his sister’s husband, he playfully aimed the gun he was carrying at his brother-in-law and pulled the trigger. He hadn’t loaded the gun - but someone else had… and Rajagopalacharlu found himself with a dead man at his feet. He, it is said, ran the eight miles to the Collectorate in Chingleput and sobbed out his story to the Collector. The Englishman refused to believe what he was hearing and, calling for his horse and carriage, he set out for the spot with Rajagopalacharlu. When he saw the dead body, heard the story again and listened to witnesses, he pronounced that it was an accidental death and Rajagopalacharlu was not to blame. But six months later, a shattered Rajagopalacharlu passed away in his mansion in South Mada Street, Mylapore, a house called Vasantha Vilas.

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Musical life in early Madras

It was several years ago that I had written about a 19th Century civil servant in Madras, Josiah Andrew Hudleston, who became an accomplished guitar player and composer (Miscellany, May 21, 2007). That frequent contributor to this column from New South Wales, Dr. A. Raman, has been on Hudleston’s music trail ever since and recently sent me a whole heap of material which finds place in today’s column in summary.

Josiah Hudleston, the fourth of five sons of John Hudleston who had served in the East India Company’s Indian Civil Service, was one of three brothers who followed in their father’s footsteps; the other two joined the Company’s China Service. He passed out of Haileybuy, the Company’s college where its civil servants were trained, in 1816, and arrived in Madras the next year. It was at the College that he took up the guitar, inspired, it is believed, by Fernando Sor’s first performance in London on the Spanish Guitar in 1915 and others by him that followed over the next 18 months. And it was with a guitar that Hudleston travelled to Madras, no doubt entertaining those aboard the East Indiaman.

Madras was his first posting and he was to spend most of his time in India there, eventually becoming the Collector of Madras in 1843, serving in that position till he retired in 1855. With work done for the day – the day was 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. with a break from 11 to 2 for a compulsory siesta -- Hudleston had plenty of time to practise and, in time, to entertain with his guitar. He was a member of an orchestral group, perhaps a chamber ensemble, called the ‘Society of Amateurs’ and led by T. Recontre, a violinist.

The southern capital appears to have had at the time several shops selling musical instruments and sheet music. These included James Hogg, who sold sheet music; as for John Eastmure’s and Franck & Co., they sold musical instruments as well. Eastmure’s, for instance, regularly advertised the arrival of ‘Panormo guitars, expressly manufactured for this climate’ at Rs.100 each and Wrede guitars for Rs.50 each. There were also concerts where professionals from Europe and local amateurs performed. All of these are places where Hudleston would have caught up with the latest in music from Europe.

It was, however, in St. George’s Cathedral that he got the nudge to become a composer and an arranger, for which he became better known than as an instrumentalist. Frederic Zcherpel, the organist and music director of the church in the 1840s, encouraged him to spend more time on composing and arranging music. Hudleston’s original compositions are exclusively for solo guitar and are mainly variations of popular songs and airs. His arrangements are said to be better, most of them being of the work of Handel, Mozart, Beethoven and other well-known composers. All of the arrangements, it was said, required a high technical proficiency from the performers.

In the year he spent in London after retirement, before moving to Ireland to put down his last roots, Josiah Hudleston was very much a mover in the highest guitar circles in the British capital, befriending such leading guitarists as Giulio Regondi, Carl Eylenstein, Ciebras, and the Huertas. Hudleston dedicated his works to them and they reciprocated in the same manner.

Hudleston’s collection of music is in the Royal Irish Academy of Music in Dublin and includes more than 1,000 pieces of printed music for the guitar and more than 800 pieces in manuscript, one of the largest guitar music collections anywhere in the world.

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When the postman knocked…

* A couple of readers have contacted me to tell me that Thamotharam Pillai’s initials were C.W. and not C.N. as they appeared. I’ve used C.W. in the past, including in this column, but this time the devil in my Olivetti ran away with the keys. His father was Wairavanatha Pillai and his village was Ciruppatti in Jaffna, accounting for the C.W. There is, however, a story that under the Rev. Percival’s influence he became Christian and took the name Charles William. But Arumuga Navalar, who had earlier broken with Percival on the dictionary project, brought him back to the fold, it was narrated.

* A reader sent me a couple of pages from a slim book titled ICS Collectors of Malabar: Jottings from Memory by P.K. Govindan and published in Calicut, to provide a couple of more insights on Collector Connolly (Miscellany, August 20 and September 10). The Connolly Canal became a reality, this account relates, with land for it being voluntarily surrendered by their owners when he met them from time to time. Then, he would invite the Village Headmen to the rest houses along the way, instilling “in them a sense of commitment” and getting them “to muster free labour” in return for a “sumptuous noon meal.” Villagers, Govindan adds, “used to volunteer enthusiastically in the name of the new project - in a sense, a harbinger of the Sramadan of the present day.” As for the Nilambur teak plantation, this was apparently a response to teak being in short supply for the Bombay ship-building industry. The first 50 square miles of forest land he got on lease from the Trikkalur Devaswom in Nilambur in 1840. He then got down forestry experts from England in 1844 to start planting 1500 acres with teak.

* Reader Bharath Yeshwanth, following up on my recent references to the Mahrattas of the Tamil country, states that there used be a Tanjore Commissioner’s office in Royapettah and wonders in which building it was and whether the building still stands. I reckon it does, because I think it was Amir Mahal. The Commission was instituted in 1798, the year Amir Mahal was built to house Government offices and the Commission could well have been one of its first occupants. A few years later, it became the home of the Sadr Adalat, the Chief Court of Civil Judicature, which was established in 1802. When the Court was abolished, the General Police Office moved into Amir Mahal and stayed from 1872 to 1875. The building was later restyled and refurbished by Robert Chisholm when it was decided by the Government to make it the home of the Princes of Arcot after it bought Chepauk Palace. The British set up the Commission in 1798/99 to administer Tanjore.

* Further to my request for information on Edward Norton, who was on Mallory’s team to Everest (Miscellany, September 23), I’ve received from a reader the information that Norton was accompanied on that 28,000 feet climb by a would-be medical missionary, Dr. Theodore Howard Somervell, later an FRCS. It is related that, after the 1922 Everest expedition, Somervell decided to explore India from the Himalayas to Cape Comorin, and the poverty he saw on the trip got to him. He decided to help out at the Southern Travancore Medical Mission Hospital in Neyyoor, now in Kanniyakumari District, that had only one missionary doctor and a minimal nursing staff but a large number of patients turning up every day. For the next 24 years (1925-49) he stayed there, making it one of the largest missionary hospitals in the country. Over the years, the Mission has grown and expanded its activities. A hospital and medical college named Dr. Somervell Memorial CSI Medical College and Hospital was established in 2002 in Karakonam, 30 km south of Trivandrum and on the road to Kanniyakumari. Meanwhile, in 1949, Somervell moved to Vellore Christian Medical College as Associate Professor of Surgery and worked there till he retired in 1961. Besides medicine, painting was a passion and he painted hundreds of Himalayan scenes as well as scenes in other parts of India. Many of his paintings were done during his two Everest climbs and featured the mountain in all its glory. Some of these paintings now hang in the Royal Geographical Society’s premises. He was also a good arranger of music. By the time he died in 1975, he was a much-honoured doctor but what he would have felt that honoured him most was the mourning in Neyyoor.