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The `old lady' of Mount Road

Started by six young men, The Hindu has many firsts to its credit, reflecting the appreciation that technology, management and content need to team together for success.

I'M A LITTLE early remembering the 125th birthday of the institution Jawaharlal Nehru called `The Old Lady of Mount Road' and which others dubbed `The Maha Vishnu' of that road, but since the site on which The Hindu's offices are located is next on my progression down the road to the Mount, I don't intend to wait for September 20. This site, as I mentioned in my last column, was acquired from Spencer's in 1935 and The Hindu's present home inaugurated here on November 24, 1939. That home of hundreds of journalists, administrators, printing house personnel and others necessary to bring out daily, using the most modern technology, a paper whose circulation is well over half a million, is a far cry from those 1878 beginnings in Srinidhi Press on Mint Street in what was then still Black Town.

Six angry young men founded The Hindu, printing 80 copies in that press and paying the Rs. 1-12-0 bill with money they had borrowed. The six were angered by the fact that the British-owned press of the day was campaigning against the appointment of T. Muthuswami Aiyer as the first Indian Judge of the Madras High Court. The blatantly unfair way this campaign was being waged, with no "native organ in the metropolis of Southern India" to challenge it, spurred `The Triplicane Six' into action. The six, now virtually forgotten, were led by two schoolmasters, the active 23-year-old G. Subramania Aiyer and the stolid 21-year-old M. Veeraraghavachariar, both friends from their Pachaiyappa College days. The rest of the team were four law students, T.T. Rangachariar, P.V. Rangachariar, D. Kesava Rao Pant and N. Subba Rao Pantulu. The four, before long, became lawyers and prudently saw a future away from the fiery editor Subramania Aiyer and his staunch though more businesslike supporter, Managing Director Veeraraghavachariar.

In that first eight-page issue, a quarter of today's page size, the founders promised a four-anna weekly every Wednesday (later Thursday) that would "(think) for the people and (give) shape to the nebulous ideas of leaders who were willing to strike but were reluctant to wound the foreign rulers." The founding fathers were Anglophiles to a great extent, "indebted to British rule for everything that makes human life worth living," but were equally convinced that the Anglo-Indian (British-owned) Press should be challenged, despotic bureaucrats condemned and the abuse of power exposed. And, so, from its birth, The Hindu collided head-on with the Administration.

By 1883, Veeraraghavachariar had established the paper on a sound footing, capitalising on Subramania Aiyer's trenchant views that attracted a growing readership. The two that year decided to make the now prospering paper a tri-weekly evening newspaper, coming out every Monday, Wednesday and Friday. They also, with the help of a wellwisher, acquired 100, Mount Road, and established their own printing press in these premises. Here, the paper stayed till 1939, when the move was made to the present art-deco style building. The 100, Mount Road building survived till 1996 - rented out even as home of The Indian Express from 1940 to 1948 - when it was rather sadly pulled down to be rebuilt as Kasturi Centre and leased to the Asian College of Journalism when it moved from Bangalore. By the time 100, Mount Road was to be pulled down, there was a greater heritage consciousness in the city and I had hoped the old building, in the curve of Wallajah Road-Mount Road and between Bell's Road and Mount Road, well hidden by hoardings, would be restored and serve as The Hindu library made into a more public access institution. Sadly it did not happen. What an institution that could have been! One of my Bibles is R. Parthasarathy's "A Hundred Years of The Hindu", subtitled "The Epic Story of Indian Nationalism". Yet that book only offers a glimpse of that story and The Hindu's - details of which and much more, anyone interested would have been able to find in plenty if that library had been established. I wonder whether to celebrate its 125th birthday, The Hindu will not only republish that book - adding the subsequent 25 years to it - but will also set up that library in a way the public could access a treasure house of information.

It was on April 1, 1889, that The Hindu became a daily - but still an evening paper, still a paper of eight pages - though it was, before long, to become a 12-page one, but by then a tabloid sized paper, half the dimensions of the present paper. A Sunday supplement was introduced in late 1898. In October that year, Subramania Aiyer's commitment to making "righteousness readable" and the backlash it generated in a conservative society led to the parting of the ways. Veeraraghavachariar, firm in his belief that Subramania Aiyer's outspokenness - typified by encouragement from such advertisements as `Wanted Virgin Widows to Marry' - found no favour with the readers — took over the struggling paper and Subramania Aiyer moved on to the Tamil language weekly, Swadesamitran, he had founded in 1882 and which, now able to concentrate on it, he made a daily in 1899.

Veeraraghavachariar tried his best to keep a more moderate paper going, by even renting out a portion of the building and undertaking commercial printing at `The National Press', the company they had established when The Hindu moved to 100, Mount Road. He even thought of going public, offering 1200 shares in the hope of raising Rs. 1,20,000 capital. But when has a newspaper ever been an attraction for the public investor? When sole proprietor Veeraghavachariar found himself with less than half the offering sold and circulation down to 800, he decided to sell out. And his legal advisor, S. Kasturi Ranga Iyengar, whose ancestors had been closely connected with the Maratha court of Thanjavur, took over, on April 1, 1905, The National Press and its publications. The lawyer, who had migrated from a Kumbakonam village to Coimbatore and then to Madras, paid Rs. 75,000 for it. Before he died in 1923, Kasturi Ranga Iyengar had turned the paper around, increasing the pages, single-mindedly pursuing advertising as much as he did news and forthright comment, and taking the circulation up to 17,000. To make all this technically possible, he had, between 1921 and his death, installed the first rotary printing press in Madras and modern type-composing machines, setting the trend the paper follows to this day of being first with modern newspaper technology in India. Accepting the challenge of what his friends called "a mad venture", taking over a paper with "a high political reputation and as low a financial outlook as possible", Kasturi Ranga Iyengar made "readable righteousness" a remunerative business.

His heirs built on what he had revitalised. By 1925, The Hindu was a broadsheet publication, the size it is today, with at least 12 pages daily, including Sunday. That year, sport got a page for itself and, before long, there was a weekly women's page, a pictorial page, and a Literary Supplement. In 1928, it started an illustrated weekly that became the Sunday Magazine Section in 1941. In 1930, it started the first `morgue' - or reference library - in an Indian newspaper, which I hope before long will become an institution more accessible to researchers. By the mid-1930s, a Cinema Page and a Gardening Page were introduced. And in 1938, it was the first newspaper in India to have a direct teleprinter connection with the Central Telegraph Office to receive news. All this helped The Hindu enter the era of Independence with a circulation of 45,000, challenging its neighbour and elder, The Mail. By then, it had become a morning paper, the War hastening that change in November 1940. But its first page changed from an all-advertising page to a news page only on January 14, 1958, breaking an 80-year tradition only when its role model, The Times, London, finally decided to swim with the tide. Typically, it was a decision taken after its readers were polled.

As independent India entered a new world of progress, The Hindu too took giant steps. It was in 1962/63 the first and only Indian paper to own a fleet of aircraft to distribute the paper. In 1969, it commenced electronic facsimile reproduction for the first time in India.

The next year it was first with photocomposition. And then, in 1977, colour. There have been a long line of firsts, reflecting the appreciation that technology, management and content need to team together for success. And that combination keeps The Hindu, like Ole Man River, just rollin' long.

** Many have wondered about The Hindu's rather communal name. Yet from its very first days, it has had a completely secular outlook.

Its wellwishers included Surgeon Major Nicholson of St. Thomas' Mount, Subramania Aiyar's friend, philosopher and guide, Maharajah of Vizianagaram and Nawab Humayun Jah Bahadur, a descendant of Tippoo Sultan.

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