Subramania Bharati, VOC, T.V. Sundaram Iyengar… they were all students of MDT Hindu High School, Tirunelveli.
The characteristic turban peeps out from behind a row of pavement shops. Get a little closer and you see the trademark moustache, and you realise that in that busy commercial area of Tirunelveli, you are looking at a statue of Subramania Bharati. To the right of the statue is the entrance to the M.D.T. Hindu High School that not only donated land for the statue, but also has the distinction of being the alma mater of the poet from 1894-97.
The Headmaster of the school takes me to the classroom in which Bharati studied. The wooden gallery that was used to seat students in Bharati’s days is in tact, and a class is in progress. On the arched doorway outside the classroom are painted in Tamil, the words: “This is the room in which a distinguished pupil studied.”
An interesting incident
I recall an interesting incident mentioned by P. Mahadevan in his biography of Bharati, published in 1957. Bharati used to compose verses at the drop of a hat even when he was in school, and once when he had not done his home work, his teacher in the Hindu High School, sarcastically said to him, “I hear that you are like the poet Kalamegam. Compose a verse now.” (Kalamegam is the name of a famous Tamil poet, but megam also means cloud.) Bharati, punning on megam, replied cheekily, that clouds did not rain whenever someone commanded them to!
The school is also the alma mater of V.O. Chidambaram Pillai, who, in his autobiography, refers to the school as “azhagurum Hindu Peria Kalasalai” (the beautiful Hindu High School), Pudumaipithan, Carnatic vocalist V.V. Sadagopan, T.V. Sundaram Iyengar, were some of the other students of the school, who excelled in their chosen careers.
How and when did this school, that had on its rolls so many bright students, come into existence? In the 19th century, a group of Nellaiites, fired by patriotic zeal, decided to start a school, that they hoped would match the quality of education offered in the missionary schools. Thus was born the Anglo-Vernacular School in 1859. In 1861, the school moved to Veeraraghavapuram, a sleepy suburb then, but now well known as ‘Junction,’ because of its proximity to the railway station. But when the school moved there, a train connection to Tirunelveli was still 15 years away.
The first headmaster of the school was Vedanayagam Pillai. In 1867 the school sent its first batch of students for the Matriculation examination. In 1877, P. Sundaram Pillai became the headmaster. He was none other than the composer of Tamizh Thai Vazhthu – ‘Neerarum kadaludutha.’ ‘Manonmaniam,’ the title of the poetic drama that he wrote, became a prefix to his name, and a University now has the name Manonmaniam Sundaranar.
In 1878, Sundaram Pillai made the school a second grade college affiliated to the Madras University, and it came to be known as Hindu college. In 1924, it became a first grade college, an elevation that was not an unmixed blessing, for it imposed a huge financial burden on the college. Things got progressively worse, and in 1932 Hindu College had run up a debt of Rs. 33,000 rupees.
It was at this hour that one of the most dynamic principals of the college took charge. His name was Alexander Gnanamuthu. He summoned the staff, and urged them to give up a month’s salary every year for the next few years. His tenacity of purpose was infectious, and they agreed.
Faculty and students went round the streets of Tirunelveli asking for donations. The money collected helped clear the debts, but the college was still not out of the woods. Kumaraswami Mudaliar of the famous Medai Dalavoi family, sought the help of philanthropists Diraviyam Pillai and Thayumanaswami Pillai, and they contributed a lakh of rupees. In 1936, the school and college were renamed ‘Madurai Diraviyam Thayumanavar Hindu High School, and ‘Madurai Diraviyam Thayumanavar Hindu College,’ respectively.
What started as a humble school spawned a college that had on its rolls many men who have left their footprints on the sands of time. Ra Pi. Sethu Pillai and Dr. G. Venkataswamy of Aravind Eye Hosiptal studied in this college, which has produced IAS and IPS officers, judges, and five Vice-Chancellors.
P. Sri, of Ananda Vikatan fame, was a student of the college. During a debate on philosophy, P. Sri narrated how a Tamil described rava uppuma to Vivekananda — uppuma is rava kesari minus sugar plus salt. Philosophy likewise, Sri said, was the art of explaining the unknown through the known. The Principal of the college-Herbert Champion, was so impressed, that he gave P. Sri the title ‘teacher of philosophy’!
The college had first rate faculty, one of whom was K.A. Nilakanta Satry, historian, who taught here from 1913 to 1920, and who was later awarded the Padma Bhushan. Savadi Arunachalam Pillai, sentenced to imprisonment for the killing of Collector of Ash, was a man broken in spirit, when he was released from prison. His fingers had been broken by the prison guards, so that he could no longer write. The police continued to harass him. Shunned by his relatives, he had no one to turn to for help. That’s when the Hindu College stepped in and offered him the post of lecturer in Tamil, a post he held until his death in 1937.
A. Srinivasa Raghavan’s lectures on Shakespeare were so popular, that members of the public would take permission from the Principal and stand in the corridors outside the classroom, to listen!
The MDT Hindu High School, which celebrates its 150th anniversary this year, hasn’t lost sight of its motto — ‘Pay attention to what you are doing’ (Age Quod Agis). It inculcates in its students a respect for tradition, while helping them keep pace with modernity.