I would have thought that Madras Christian College School would have brought out its history to celebrate its 175th anniversary this year, but it is the College, through the efforts of two faculty members, Dr. Joshua Kalapati and Dr. Ambrose Jeyasekaran, that's the beneficiary of a well-researched chronicle in its 173rd year.
It's a story that begins in 1837 and stops at 1978, and speaking on the occasion of the release of that narrative, I had hoped that by the time the 175th year celebrations get underway, the two would have brought the story up to date.
We then indulged in a bit of mutual thanksgiving, the authors acknowledging the contributions to the Life and Legacy of Madras Christian College that this column had made and your columnist, having flipped through the book, telling them how much this column would be benefiting from the nuggets they had unearthed over the last three years.
One of those nuggets that I found reflected the signal contributions the College — with its considerable expat faculty — had made to Tamil. What could well have been the first call to bestow classical status on Tamil was made by V.G. Suryanarayana Sastri, who later took the name Parithimar Kalaignar, someone I had not heard of till the book came along.
Recruited to the faculty by Principal Miller as soon as he had graduated in 1892, Sastri joined the Tamil Department as a pundit and before long adopted the name he was to be known by for the rest of his life. It was in 1902, when the University of Madras planned to remove Tamil from the syllabus — where it was taught as a second language — that Parithimar Kalaignar called for the recognition of Tamil as a classical language and urged that it be retained in the syllabus.
A prolific writer of poetry and prose, Parithimar Kalaignar is stated to be the first to have written a sonnet in Tamil. Many of his sonnets were translated into English by G.U. Pope. He also wrote a seminal History of the Tamil Language which deserves to see the light of day again.
Parithimar Kalaignar was only 33 when he passed away, but he left MCC a strong legacy in its Tamil Department. M.S. Purnalingam Pillai, another graduate of the College and who later taught in the English Department, wrote a History of Tamil Literature (in English) in 1929 and dedicated it to Parithimar Kalaignar. Purnalingam Pillai, also a Tamil scholar, was one of the first to urge the founding of a Tamil University.
The one name I recognised amongst the many from MCC who contributed to Tamil Studies was S. Vaiyapuri Pillai, one of the best students nurtured by Maraimalai Adigal who taught at the College from 1898 to 1911.
In 1924, Vaiyapuri joined the University of Madras team working on the definitive Tamil lexicon, and in 1926 became its chief editor. By the time the monumental work was completed in 1936, it had listed nearly 1,05,000 words in 4,000 pages.
While Vaiyapuri's connection with the lexicon project is well known, his connection with MCC is little known. Less known is the fact that the first convener of the Tamil Lexical Committee constituted by the University's Syndicate in 1912 was the College's Rev. George Pittendrigh who was a star of its English Department from 1885 to 1920.
Among the several others from the College associated with the Lexical Committee were the Rev. Earle Macphail and Rev. William Meston. Macphail, who was to become the College's principal (1921-23) was in 1923 appointed vice-chancellor of the University of Madras, and it was during his tenure that Vaiyapuri became chief editor of the lexicon.
Besides members of the faculty, several old students were part of the project, and one of them was Dr. A.L. Mudaliar.
K .R.A Narasiah, a frequent contributor to this column, is another of those engineers who has turned to history. A marine engineer, he has been writing on a variety of historical subjects in Tamil — winning State prizes — as well as in English. A story he is at present pursuing is the human side of the S. Ramanujan legend. It could well be that his interest in this stems from the fact that Ramanujan's brief but brilliant career owed much to the Madras Port Trust, particularly to Senior Accountant R. Narayana Ayyar who got Ramanujan a sinecure in the Madras Port Trust and then persuaded Sir Francis Spring, the Chairman, to make possible Ramanujan's journey to Cambridge — and fame.
In the course of this search, Narasiah has received the picture I publish today of “Ramanujan with friends at Trinity College, Cambridge, in 1916” from V. Viswanathan in the U.S., who is a grandson of Narayana Ayyar. Viswanathan had taken the trouble to trace and identify the others in the picture for a book by Bruce Berndt and Rankine.
The picture is of particular interest because it shows that Cambridge, at the time, hosted several from South India with very special scholarly talents. In the picture are, standing from left to right, K. Ananda Rau, later Professor of Mathematics, Presidency College; S.S. Suryanaraya Sastry, later Reader and Head, Department of Philosophy, University of Madras; and Tenneti Suryanarayana, later Professor of Mathematics, Presidency College and Alagappa College (Karaikudi); and seated are, on left, Ramanujan, and on right P. Adinarayana from Salem who became a barrister and freedom fighter.
P hotographer S. Anwar, with whom I team quite often, called on me the other day to show me the results of a ‘shoot' he had done at the Big Temple in Thanjavur shortly before the recent celebrations. There was one picture in particular he wanted me to look at. It was of a massive dvarapala in the Rajaraja Tiruvaasal. All of six metres in height and hewn from a single stone, it had us wondering how such a huge block had been transported to the site from a stone quarry that must have been about 50 km away.
That oft asked question about the huge stone blocks for the temple and how they were transported, raised and married together to build the temple was not, however, what Anwar wanted to discuss when he showed me his picture. Look at the picture closely, he urged me. And I did, but could not find anything out of the ordinary till he pointed out a small bas relief, tiny in proportion to the dominant figure, beneath the raised right foot of the gatekeeper. And lo and behold, it was of a python (head only) swallowing an elephant! Now what is the significance of that, Anwar asked. And, I didn't have the faintest idea. I wonder whether Dr. Chitra Madhavan or someone else has an answer.
A python, according to B. Vijayaraghavan of the Chennai Snake Park Trust, kills by asphyxiation caused by tightening its coils around its victim's body every time the latter breathes out. But the python in question was not indulging in this. Pythons can also give a victim a rather nasty bite, Vijayaraghavan says, but the depiction in the Big Temple is something rather more than a love bite. So, what's this bas relief all about?
Parithimar Kalaignar was only 33 when he passed away, but he left MCC a strong legacy in its Tamil Department