A gifted polymath

April 10, 2011 04:13 pm | Updated November 13, 2021 09:38 am IST

MP: Richard Henry

MP: Richard Henry

Two Gift Siromoney endowment lectures on successive days recently, one on Statistics and the other on Mohenjodaro, reflected the wide range of interests the late Prof. Gift Siromoney of Madras Christian College had. If ever there was a gifted polymath, it was he.

He may have been Professor of Mathematics at MCC, but his interests were from A to Z, from archaeology to zoology. Computer science, theology (of which he was a student), music, sculpture, epigraphy, linguistics, birds, butterflies and plants, tribals, kolam, child health. Mamallapuram, Mohenjodaro and the Harappan script were all subjects on which he wrote well-researched and well-received papers. In none of his interests was he considered a dabbler; in fact, he was considered an authority.

Out of his interest in linguistics and scripts there emerged, designed by him, the first teleprinter keyboard in Tamil. Tamil literature and the flora of Tambaram he teamed together in a publication tracing the origins of some of the Selaiyur flora in early Tamil literature. He worked with Michael Lockwood, a fellow Professor, on the sculptures of Mamallapuram. Computer science — he was a pioneer in the field in Madras — and study of scripts had him using the computer to try and decipher the Harappan script.

His passion for statistics had him get his students to work on several statistical surveys whose findings in fields ranging from politics to child vision attracted considerable official attention.

Gift Siromoney, who joined MCC's Mathematics Department in 1954, came under the influence of its head, Dr. Walter F. Kibble, another polymath who had specialised in statistics and got Siromoney interested in the subject. The Mathematics Department gave birth to a separate Statistics Department in 1970, with Siromoney as its first Head. With elections around the corner, it would only be appropriate to recall that under Siromoney's leadership, the Statistics Department initiated a series of pre-election studies of voting patterns. I don't know whether the Election Commission has made such studies illegal now, but I haven't heard of any such study this year.

Gift Siromoney's wife Rani was also a mathematician and headed the Department at MCC from 1979 to 1988. She took a lead role in setting up the Kibble Computer Centre at the College in 1993 and establishing a Department of Computer Science, both among the first in arts and science colleges in Tamil Nadu. She was present at last year's first and this year's second Gift Siromoney Endowment lecture at the Roja Muthiah Research Library's Indus Valley Civilisation research centre. The latest lecture was delivered by Dr. Michael Jansen of Aachen University, Germany, who is a major player with UNESCO's team working on further excavations at Mohenjodaro. The first were in 1922 after R.D. Banerji discovered the site and Sir John Marshall organised the ‘dig'.

A herpetologist remembered

In the lineage of Patrick Russell was Richard Henry Beddome, I am reminded by S.R. Ganesh of the Chennai Snake Park during what he tells me is the centenary year of the death of this herpetologist who contributed significantly to the knowledge of South Indian reptiles (snakes, lizards etc) and amphibians (frogs, toads etc.). Now, this is a world I know little or nothing about, but when I find that 18 herpetological species have been named in honour of one man, I cannot but feel his contribution to knowledge of the natural world was considerable and have to agree with the assessment by many that he was one of the “foremost authorities on South India's herpetology.”

Beddome, a graduate of one of England's leading public schools (Charterhouse), gave up his subsequent law studies to seek adventure in India. Arriving in Madras as an 18-year-old military cadet in 1848, he was posted to the 42nd Madras Native Infantry. After service in Central India he returned to Madras in 1856 and was grabbed by Dr. Hugh Cleghorn, the first Conservator of Forests of the Madras Presidency, who had heard that Beddome was interested in Natural History. When Cleghorn moved on in 1859, Beddome succeeded him as Conservator of Forests, Madras Presidency. He served in this post till 1882.

As interested in botany as he was in reptilian and amphibian fauna, it was for the former that he was made a Member of the University of Madras in 1880. He retired from service in 1892 and returned to England where he died in 1911. Between 1870 and 1886, he described over 70 herpetological species, mainly reptiles. His herpetological collection, containing all these species and many more, he divided between the Indian Museum, Calcutta, and the Natural History Museum, London.

Of him it was said in 1875, “Perhaps there is now no other part of India, the reptilian fauna of which is better known than the district explored by this indefatigable collector,” who was a Lieutenant Colonel by that time. Nearly 50 years later it was said that (Colonel Beddome)… “explored the South Indian Hills (Eastern and Western Ghats), including the Palni Hills, to such purpose in the Seventies and Eighties of the last century, that he has hardly left a snake for any later enthusiast to discover.”

Obviously, he was a remarkable natural historian, but I wonder how many remember him today.

The Indian aldermen

Were there any Indians who served on the first Council of the Corporation of Madras when it began functioning in 1688, asks T. Sundaram Pillai.

Yes, indeed there were. The three aldermen among the 12 serving were Chinna Venkatadri (a younger brother of Beri Thimmappa), Alangatha Pillai and Mudda Viranna.

Chinna Venkatadri, a dubash of Governor William Langhorne, fell in and out of financial trouble, but with his patron's blessings became a Chief Merchant of the Company. Langhorne also left him a garden house in Guindy which he gifted to the Council in 1684 to gain its goodwill and continued support.

This house evolved into today's Raj Bhavan . He was also involved with the negotiations for San Thomé, which the Elihu Yale government sought to lease from Golconda in 1688. In fact, Yale even suggested that the lease be made in the names of Chinna Venkatadri and another of the Chief Merchants, Allingall Pillai.

Allingall Pillai was another name by which Alangatha Pillai was known. He succeeded to the leadership of the 12 Chief Merchants when Chinna Venkatadri died in 1689. Chinna Venkatadri, his early troubles — mainly with Governor Streynsham Master — forgotten when Yale became Governor, was given a guns' salute at his cremation.

Alangatha Pillai built what was known as Allingall's Pagoda in Mint Street, now known as the Ekambareswarar Temple. The esteem with which he was held by the Council is reflected in his being appointed one of the four judges of the Court of Judicature when it was set up in 1690.

The other judges were two Englishmen and an Armenian. The appointment stated that “Allingall Pillai, the Honble Company's Chief Merchant, a wise and able Jentue, to be another Justice of this Court to appear for the Natives, as well as the Jentues, Moores and Mallabars.”

A rather curious wording, because the Jentues, to the best of my knowledge, were the Telugus, the Mallabars were the Tamils, and the Moores were local Muslims. So who were the ‘Natives'?

As for Mudda Viranna, all that I've been able to find is that he was another of the Chief Merchants, but did not make it to Chief-among-Chiefs. I wonder whether any of the descendants of the three are in Madras.

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