History & Culture

Madras Miscellany - An early donor of a hospital

C.S.I. Kalyani Multi Specialty Hospital Photo : Bijoy Ghosh   | Photo Credit: Bijoy Ghosh

A hundred years ago this month, a hospital for women and children was given the name it is now known by, `Kalyani Hospital'.

Shortly after the hospital received its new name, Dewan Bahadur N. Subrahmanyam, who had donated the Hospital for Women & Children to the Wesleyan Mission in 1902, passed away.

Born to Hindu parents in `Negapatam', Subrahmanyam had run away to Madras because they would not let him study further. In the city, it was the Wesleyan Mission High School that took him in and, in due course, he became not only a Christian but a teacher there and then its headmaster.

While heading the School he took a law degree, then practised for 10 years before going to England to become a barrister. Back in Madras he became a successful advocate before being appointed the Chief Judge of the Small Causes Court and then Official Trustee.

When he was appointed Administrator-General, there were several protests against the appointment for the first time of an Indian to administer the estates of those who had died, including those of Europeans.

But his integrity and fairness won him, in time, great admiration and he held the post till his death in January 1911 when he was 69 years old.

When he was named for the post, it was reported that there were less than half a dozen Indian Christians in all India who had been appointed to such high office till then.

A year before he passed away, he was nominated as a member of the Madras Legislative Council.

The hospital he started and donated to the Mission that had nurtured him had, besides wards, a Nurses' Home and a bungalow for the resident Lady Doctor.

His mother never forgave him for becoming a Christian, but 20 years after her death he requested that the hospital be named after her. And that is how a mission hospital became known as Kalyani Hospital.

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Coffee- growing in Madras

What do you know about coffee-growing in Madras, asked a friend, Timeri Murari. The question was presumably asked because he reckoned me an expert on plantation products having written a history of the United Planters' Association of Southern India.

But my peep into coffee-growing nearly 20 years ago showed me coffee being grown only in the Malnad of Mysore, Coorg, Wayanad and the Nilgiris after the sainted Hazarat Shah Janab Allah Magatabi, better known as Baba Budan, planted in the Chikmagalur area the seven seeds he had brought after a pilgrimage to Mecca around 1600. Coffee, however, became a plantation crop, from the farm crop it was, only in 1823 when Maharajah Krishna Wadiyar III of Mysore announced policies that encouraged British companies to look into large-scale cultivation of Baba Budan's introduction.

Curiously, 1823 was also the year Robert Bruce discovered the tea bush growing wild in Assam. It was tea that was to save the coffee planters whose crops were affected by the Coffee Blight that virtually wiped out the plantations in the Nilgiris.

A contemporary writer, describing the tragic scene at the time wrote, “Acre after acre, mile upon mile, died out and what were once happy valleys became valleys of dry bones and there was no hope of resurrection.” But resurrection there was, though slowly and fitfully. Tea had been introduced in the Nilgiris as early as 1832, but it was James Finlay's tea-growing efforts in the High Range from 1897 that ensured a new life for planters who had depended on coffee and led to the Nilgiris and the lower Western Ghats being carpeted green.

Now in all that following of the trail of coffee in South India, I never once came across mention of coffee in Madras, unless you count Dr. James Anderson's experiments in his botanical gardens in Saidapet and Nungambakkam. Timeri Murari, however, sent me an answer to his own question that shows that not only was coffee grown near his home in Kilpauk but that someone was looking at the crop as something more than an experiment.

I've pointed out in the past that much work on flora in the 19th Century in South India was done by Government doctors. The material that Murari sent me adds one more to that galaxy of Wight, Roxburgh etc., namely Dr. John Shortt who in 1864 was Zillah Surgeon, Chingleput.

This member of the Madras Medical Service appears to have had a variety of interests to judge by what follows the numerous initialed degrees after his name. He was a Licentiate of Midwifery and Dental Surgery of the Royal College of Surgeons, London, Fellow of the Obstetrical, Ethnological, Zoological, and Anthropological Societies of London, and Local Secretary of the Anthropological Society for Southern India, & c., & c. He had written on Indigo and Cotton before his Hand-book to Coffee Planting in Southern India was published in 1864 in Madras.

Shortt, the polymath, writes that he had always been fond of Horticulture and Agriculture and that “for the last six years I have made it my special study during my leisure moments.”

And, in pursuing that interest he found that at 12, Kilpaukam Garden Road, in the garden of an A. Walter there were some 40 trees in their fifth year, growing well and fruiting. And at 38, Poonamalle Road there were 50 to 60 coffee plants about 15 years old and grown tall for want of pruning, but fruiting well. He had also heard of several other gardens in Madras growing coffee plants and he himself was growing several in Chingleput having started with three in 1857. I wonder whether this information will give ideas to those with garden space in and around Madras.

But even if the berry doesn't tempt them, I wonder whether the information about coffee wood will. Apparently “the strong, light-coloured, hard and close-grained wood” was “greatly prized for wood printing, engraving and carving.” In fact, Dr.Hunter, the founder of the School of Arts (now the College of Art) showed Shortt “some admirable specimens of coffee wood carving, &c.”

It was along Poonamallee High Road and its immediate neighbourhood that the first garden houses of the British were built when Company employees and free merchants began to move out of the Fort to live in more spacious surroundings.

Large acreages were granted to applicants by the Council for a pittance. Leases began to be granted in what was called the “Egmore Plain' by 1713, but the earliest to build substantial houses is believed to have been Company servants Richard Horden and Thomas Theobald around 1716. They sold their properties in 1721, but by then substantial building had taken place on either side of Poonamallee High Road.

With the kind of acreages granted, it is no surprise that owners' thoughts turned to potential cash crops like coffee.


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