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Crusader for Chennai

A voice announced, "The British Deputy High Commissioner", and at once silence descended on the hall of Cottingley. What followed was a short and simple ceremony where the British Deputy High Commissioner in Chennai, Michael Herridge presented Subbiah Muthiah, historian, writer and editor, the Award of Honorary Member of the Civil Division of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire. The award was in recognition of "all that he has done to promote a wide and objective understanding of the past and his outstanding service to Heritage and Environment Conservation".

S. Muthiah is a name that most Chennaiites are familiar with. As the editor of Madras Musings. As the author of several books on Madras and its culture. As a columnist. As the man who tried to initiate the people of the city to its rich heritage.

Ask him about the award and he replies, "the award is for valiantly losing battles regularly! For never being able to save the buildings that we talk about. Or trying to clean up a city, something we have never been able to do!" Talk about frustration!

For Muthiah, Pallathur (Chettinad) born and Colombo bred, his passion for heritage was triggered by the book "Ceylon: The Beaten Track: by W.T. Keble, "which brought alive the history of Ceylon in an anecdotal form. And I've been interested in history ever since," he says.

His weekend breaks with friends into the wild of Ceylon, while he was working for Times of Ceylon, were more often than not converted into travel articles for his newspaper. And when he became in charge of the Times of Ceylon Annual, his love for tourism intensified.

However, following some glitches over citizenship, Muthiah moved to Madras and then began his long association with TT Maps. His contribution to cartography too has been significant. In fact, he was responsible for changing several Government rules pertaining to publication of maps/atlases, especially the one concerning royalty. "It was a constant battle with the Government officials and the Survey of India," recalls the 70-plus historian.

In 1971-72, the first map of Madras was printed and Muthiah wrote the text for the guide. In that process, he discovered that Clive, Hastings, Wellington and Yale started their careers in Madras. "That aroused my curiosity and I started reading more about the city and its origins and realised that the foundation for modern India was laid in Madras... it all started here."

Talking about the various books he has written, he laughs while reminiscing, "Actually it was my wife who was responsible for my first book being published. She threatened to throw away all the material I had collected over the years, unless I did something with them." That was the genesis for Madras Discovered! Also to his credit are books on successful corporate stories of Chennai... Simpsons, Spencer's, Parry's, Madras Cricket Club, UPASI.

Not to forget his association with Madras Musings, which he says "was catalytic for other newspapers to look at the city once again." It has been a "satisfying experience" for Muthiah, who also is involved with INTACH (Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage).

Returning to the subject of the award, he feels he would have "been happier with an academic recognition. But I am very happy the British recognised something that the others have not!"

"We have it all... the Railways, roads, the museum, the Medical College. Yes, the Cholas and the Pallavas began it, and the British, Dutch and the Danes contributed. But today, all that belongs to us. As citizens of Chennai we have to take pride in all that is Chennai today and try to maintain what remains. After all Madras is the pioneer of modern India," concludes Muthiah.

* * *

Interesting firsts

CHENNAI HAS several firsts to its credit. Here are but a few...

* The oldest Corporation outside Europe is the Madras Corporation.

* The Guindy Engineering College is the oldest engineering institution outside Europe.

* The first modern library was started in Fort St. George. (now known as the Connemera Library)

* The St. George School and Orphanage was the first Western education institution in the country.

* The oldest regiment in the Indian Army is the Madras Regiment.

* The Justice Party, the first non-Congress party to rule, has its origins in Madras.

* The Ophthalmic Institute is the oldest in Asia (founded in 1819).

* The first hospital was established in Fort St. George in 1664, the first in India.


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