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The college on College Road

IT WAS at a dinner the other night that a former student of Women's Christian College told me how wrong the piece she had been reading was. College Road, she angrily insisted, was NOT named after the `Seththa College' (the Museum) but after WCC. Now at a safe distance, I can say the road got its name from neither institution, but from a venerable one long forgotten.

What is now the campus of the Directorate of Public Instruction was once the home of the College of Fort St. George. Established in 1812, long before the Museum and WCC, the College was founded to train British civilians, just out of the British Isles, in the vernaculars. I am not sure whether it was founded before Haileybury, the East India Company's college, but it certainly was closed down in 1854 when it was felt that a Board of Examiners testing the Haileybury graduates would suffice. During its brief life of 42 years, however, the College of Fort St. George's Board did yeoman service in "pursuing in depth" Dravidian language studies.

The College's students, the munshis and other scholars subsidised by the Board teamed together with the institution's press and publishing house to bring out an imperishable body of work on the Dravidian languages. Men such as Charles Brown, the Telugu scholar, and a host of others made an immense contribution to the South Indian languages. Miron Winslow's Tamil dictionary, A.D.Campbell's Telugu grammar, T.C. Morris' Telugu dictionary, M.C. Kerrel's Kanarese grammar, Reeve's Kannada dictionary and C.M. Whish's Malayalam grammar and dictionary were only a few of the publications the College brought out.

By getting them into print, the College made available to a larger audience what had hitherto been oral traditions or palmleaf inscriptions. Father W. Beschi's `Low Tamil' Grammar was probably the College's first publication and was followed by A Brief Exposition of Tamil by Chidambaram Pandaram, the head Tamil Master of the College, and Andhra Dipika, a Telugu dictionary by Mummudi Venkayya of Masulipatam, the copyright of which was acquired by 1000 pagodas (about Rs.25,000 in today's money).

I don't know whether the College's buildings still survive, but I'd visited one some years ago, a splendid, red brick building that once housed the CARE offices and then was occupied by some wing of the Education Department. The College's two splendid entrances, however, still stand tall _ the one on a College Road curve just before the Pantheon Road junction better noticed and the other, little known and hardly noticed by anyone, on the Cooum bank. The latter, the more striking construction, was the gateway through which the Governor entered the Convocations; he would be rowed up the Cooum from the fort and then make his entrance in state through this magnificent gateway, truly a heritage landmark, at least to the memory of the Cooum being rowable!

The College of Fort St. George and the Madras Literary Society, founded as India's first subscription library, the same year as the College, both shared a library and museum. The books were tended by the Library Society, but its museum collection was in 1851 handed over to the Government Museum founded that year and which began functioning on the first floor of the College. With Literary Society and Museum and College all sharing space here, it was obvious the College was looking at an impending end to what had been a short but glorious era focussed on linguistics. Certainly, that era deserved remembrance in the road name that still survives, but it's a pity the origins of the name are attributed to other surviving institutions.


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