Ananda Rangappan was born on March 30, 1709, in Perambur, a suburb of Madras, where his affluent father carried on business as a merchant. In the boy’s seventh year, his father, Thiruvengadam Pillai, migrated with his family to Pondicherry. Thiruvengadam Pillai, whose chief intention of coming to Pondicherry was to assist his brother-in-law, Nainiya Pillai, the then Courtier or Chief Dubash, in his trade, earned the goodwill of the people and made a name as an honest man. He was honoured with the post of an assistant native agent and later of Dewan to the French East India Company, an association formed by French merchants for the purpose of trading directly with India. He carried out competently whatever work was entrusted to him, and Ranga Pillai, who always accompanied his father, learnt the nuances of the trade and became well versed in the politics of the day.

While still in office, Thiruvengadam Pillai died in June 1726. Ranga Pillai, to keep his head above water had to open an areca nut shop, which he did not abandon even when he was honoured with powerful posts. We are told that he used the shop as a place for meeting his friends in the evenings and gathering information.

In the same year M. Lenoir came from France and assumed office as Governor of Pondicherry. On hearing of the death of Thiruvengadam Pillai, for whom he had high regard, Lenoir appointed Ranga Pillai native head of the French Factory at Porto Novo, where large quantities of blue cloth known as ‘Company cloth’ were manufactured both for the company and for private traders. As business picked up, Ranga Pillai’s status in the French service rose. But this promising young man had to wait for 12 more years to enjoy due recognition of his services when Joseph François Dupleix, Knight of the Order of St. Michael, arrived as Governor in 1742. Ranga Pillai never believed in either sycophancy or bribery. Yet he rapidly rose to power, working honestly and efficiently. Here is what he wrote about himself in his diary, dated February 26, 1747: “No one has acquired the reputation that I have; and my fame is in the mouths of ambassadors at courts, Governors of Provinces, men of rank and all people living within 300 leagues of this... They all say: ‘We have never seen, or heard a man equal to Ananda Rangappan in diplomatic skill, in keenness of intellect, or in boldness of conception; or in fact, in any other qualification whatsoever’...”

With the death of Kanagaraya Mudaliar in 1746, the post of Chief Dubash fell vacant and Dupleix, who had full trust in Ranga Pillai’s integrity and capacity, made him successor to the dead Courtier. As the most trusted of the Indian advisors, Dupleix consulted Ranga Pillai and acted upon his advice on many intricate points. The public and the officials had high respect and regard for his remarkable shrewdness and honesty in business. The French had an unshakable faith in him and they never thought twice before they accorded him the privilege of minting French coins in India. He was a prosperous merchant who owned ships that toured the seas. Money came flooding in, but he spent much of it on philanthropic causes. As a connoisseur of the arts and literature of his day, Ranga Pillai helped poets by wiping off their debts and they, in turn, sang songs in praise of their patron. Quite a number of such works exist to this day.

Kasthuri Rangaiyar’s Ananda Rangurat Sandamu, Poet Sreenivasa’s Ananda Ranga Sambu and Poet Thiagaraja Desigar’s Ananda Ranga Kovai deserve mention here.

P. Raja