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Monday, May 28, 2001

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Madras miscellany

A doctorate at 80

IN A State where honorary doctorates, deserved and undeserved, are generously given and happily flaunted by a whole lot of people in the headlines and where others proudly display such 'acquisitions' from letterhead American 'universities', it's nice to find such honours being earned through sheer hard work and scholastic achievement with age no handicap. Two who have had doctorates conferred on them by the University of Madras this year are 60-year old ex-Air Force Officer, R. Ranganathan, who passed away shortly afterwards and, more recently, 80-year old Sarojini Varadappan.

Sarojini Varadappan, the daughter of former Chief Minister, M. Bhaktavatsalam, is better known as a Gandhian, a renowned women's activist and a dedicated social worker, than as an academic. Yet it's her path to that doctorate that seems to me the most inspiring. Born in a conservative family whose elders stopped her from going to school the moment 'she came of age', she was encouraged by her parents to study at home. She took her SSLC exam sitting alone in a room and her Hindi Prachar Sabha exam at home when the Examiner decided to make her home the examination centre on learning that she would not be allowed to go to the Sabha for the test. It was to be fifty years later, when she was in her sixties, that she sat for her B.A. examination and she was in her 70s when she did her M.A. The past five years, midst her hectic schedule of other activities, have been spent on her doctoral dissertation, 'Social Service in the Swami Narayan Movement'. Even the two vice-chancellors who heard her defend her paper recently could scarce forbear to cheer.

Her Hindi and willingness to volunteer found Sarojini Varadappan serving at the Hindi Prachar Sabha's Silver Jubilee Celebrations and the Avadi Congress sessions, coming under the influence of Gandhiji at both. It was an influence that was to commit her social service ever afterwards. A member of the State Social Welfare Board, she went on to become its national chairman. She was the president of the All India Women's Conference and the All India Women's Central Food Council, was appointed Sheriff of Madras and is the president of the Red Cross Society. Her years with the Social Welfare Board were memorable ones. When the nation called for gold to meet its defence needs, she persuaded women to part with their gold ornaments, setting an example by gifting her 22 sovereign oddiyanam, and eventually presented a 2,000 sovereigns worth collection to the Gold Bond Scheme. As chairman of the Central Board, she persuaded the Centre and the Panchayats to jointly build 303 Mahila Mandal buildings in rural areas to foster local leadership by women. And she helped start numerous women's consumer cooperative stores throughout the State.

But what many - this writer included - will associate her with is the Annapoorna Cafeterias. The brainchild of Leelavathi Munshi of the Women's Food Council, these no-profit cafeterias were planned to give employment to women, serve as models for hygienic food service, encourage wheat and non-cereal food habits, and offer wholesome, inexpensive meals at prices that would serve as benchmarks for commercial restaurants.

When the first Annapoorna Cafeteria in Madras opened in the Guild of Service courtyard in 1951, a tea cost one anna, a savoury another anna and a sweet two annas, - a 'meal' for four annas! Later there was a 'Janatha' meal for Re. 1. The Standard Meal today is served at Rs. 14 and other dishes continue to be inexpensively priced. Where else in Madras can you get wholesome food served at such prices?!

In 1954, the cafeteria moved to the premises in Government Estate, abutting Wallajah Road, where it still survives. But the cafeterias opened elsewhere in the city and State have had to close down, particularly due to the wholehearted use of their services by Government Departments not forthcoming in later years. Today, Raj Bhavan and some of the Government Departments in Chepauk still patronise the surviving cafeteria and help keep it going, but no more is it the popular destination it was in the 1950s. Meanwhile, Sarojini Varadappan, has moved on... to solar cookers, cyclone shelters and from the welfare of women to their empowerment.

Garden houses to concrete jungle

BACK IN the headlines again in Poe's Gardens, Teynampet, the proper noun pronounced Pois, Powys and even Poys when all it should do is recall Edgar Allan even if it has nothing to do with him and everything to do with an unremarkable 19th Century civilian or merchant. No sooner had the area become a frequent part of the local language again than I got a call asking me whether all this mispronunciation was not on account of the correct name of the area being 'Pugh's Gardens', and how do you pronounce that?!

Indeed it was once known as Pugh's Gardens at a time when a huge house built there in 1816 was occupied by the Anglican Bishops of Madras till at least 1822. The 1837 map of Madras, however, marks the house as being owned by "Mr. Poe or Col Waugh." A Poe had owned a house in Sudders Gardens, Luz, according to the map of 1822, but the map of 1837 indicates that this property had by then become the Sadr Udalut Court.

As for Pugh, there was a Joseph Pugh who, ironically in the light of the previous paragraph, lived in Bishop's Gardens, Adyar, though this property had nothing to do with bishops of any religious denomination. Pugh, head of the mercantile firm Pugh & Breithaupt, which became Pugh & Co., by 1837, has to his name a house in the map of 1837, 'Pugh's Gardens', Adyar, on Pugh's Road which still links Chamiers Road with the Adyar river.

"Poys Garden", which, according to in The House of Binny, was the name the Teynampet area retained when it became "a vast new multi-coloured cement concrete housing estate," was Binny's property from 1921 when the firm acquired for its Managing Director a large house and gardens called "Waterton." In the gardens were added "Greystoke," "Westbourne", "Hornton" and "Halsboro" for other directors. When "Binny's elite joined the rush to Adyar" in the late 1950s, the Waterton property was sold for Rs. 3.3 lakhs and the concrete jungle took over.

"Waterton," a huge John Company style garden house with pillared verandahs and vast halls, was often the scene of Binny Directors doing their bit for the World War II effort. Once, when a Managing Director living by himself invited a group of British Other Ranks for drinks and dinner, he was rather taken aback when one of his guests remarked, "Wotcha, Guv' nor, not a bad place, eh? Can't be doing all that well, though. Looks to me as if us and you is the only ruddy guests in the 'otel!'' The "otel's" made way for at least one building that's significantly more important today.

The dancer as principal

FROM A CHILD playing on the Kalakshetra campus where the KFI's The School now functions to principal of the Rukmini Devi College of Fine Arts, in Tiruvanmiyur, still Kalakshetra to the world, has been the journey of A. Janardhanan, one of Rukmini Devi's prized pupils. It was a journey that began when Asan Chandu Panickar was invited to join Kalakshetra to teach Kathakali. In 1959, Rukmini Devi, who had been watching the father teach his young son Kathakali, called on the Kathakali guru and persuaded him to let his son join Kalakshetra and learn Bharatanatyam. And as Janardhanan says, "I became a member of the family, never to leave its home despite all the opportunities that beckoned over the years."

Equally skilled in Kathakali and Bharatanatyam, Janardhanan, his student days over, joined the Kalakshetra faculty whom Rukmini Devi "looked after, fed, respected, and, most important of all, gave a world of their own to, in which to live and create," in the words of Sankara Menon. He now heads a college just emerging from a crisis that began after Kalakshetra had been taken over by the Central Government by an Act of Parliament when there existed an unsettled state of affairs following the death of Rukmini Devi.

Today, Prof. Janardhanan looks forward to bringing back the happy atmosphere that he grew up in and taught in for so many years. yet, a year ago, he was wondering whether he was really a Professor in the College of Fine Arts that he had been officially appointed in 1993 or whether he was "as told by the management, actually a school teacher".

But the bitterness of the 1990s is behind him and he looks forward to restoring to Kalakshetra the identity that Rukmini Devi had developed for it over fifty years.

In what he now says there is an echo of what the faculty had stated at the height of the crisis. "We adore this institution, we do not know any life outside it. Many of us have served it 24 hours a day for over 40 years. We are willing to break our back for it. All we want is the dignity and respect we deserve."

As one of their spokesmen during the crisis and as a dancer and teacher Rukmini Devi had encouraged, Janardhanan more than anyone else is very likely what the College needs to bring back the old Kalakshetra ethos that had made it an institution of excellence.


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