The highlight of Madras Week for me was attending an all-day seminar on ‘Pigot, Wallajah and Tanjore’, a conjunction that led to the second coup in Olde Madras and the takeover of the Carnatic by the British, leading to Empire. I have mentioned something of this in my columns dated July 1 and August 12. But what I hadn’t reckoned with was that I would listen to the proceedings in royal splendour.
The seminar was organised by the British Council, and the Prince of Arcot very kindly agreed to host it at his stately residence, recently renovated Amir Mahal . Now, Amir Mahal has a large hall on the ground floor that is used for dining space and this is where I thought the seminar would be held. But Nawabsaab Abdul Ali surprised all of us by throwing open the opulently refurbished Darbar Hall on the first floor. It was a stunning setting for the discussions. When I commented, “Why the Darbar Hall for a seminar of this type, Nawabsaab?” he replied with a wry smile, “Darbar Hall it may be, but where’s the Darbar?” whereupon one of the participants, a young lady standing nearby and who had heard this exchange, gallantly intervened, “Why, Your Highness, aren’t we your Darbar?” And this time it wasn’t a smile but a hearty laugh that was the response.
But what struck me more than the Prince throwing open the Darbar Hall for exchanges on history was his sitting through them throughout the day, even when some of the statements made of the past might have been a bit uncomfortable. An excellent presentation on the interaction between the trinity of the seminar’s title was made by Stephan Roman, a history buff who happens to be the Regional Director, South Asia, British Council, and this was supplemented by S. Anwar, now researching the Muslims of South India, making an information-rich presentation on the Arcot family. In both there were moments in the past that did not show the family at its best, but Nawabsaab took it in his stride and displayed that tolerance he has exhibited in founding and running Harmony India. No wonder Sujatha Shankar, Convener of INTACH Chennai, said at the end of the proceedings that she had “never seen such graciousness at any discussion” she had been to. Unfortunately, the Nawabsaab had left the room to see off one of his guests when she made this ‘thank you’ statement. This, I hope, gives him the opportunity to ‘hear’ an opinion that was loudly cheered in the Darbar Hall.
As for the proceedings, two things emerged from them as far as I was concerned. The need for well-researched histories of (1) the Arcot family from whom the Wallajah family descends, and (2) Paul Benfield, the villain of the piece whose actions changed the course of modern Indian history. And as Anwar pointed out, that since besides the British records, there is much Muslim writing, particularly on the Arcot family; both needed to be studied to get balanced histories of Wallajah and Benfield. It is truly strange that modern Indian history has not really looked at the role of both in the creation of modern India, the India we know.