Madras Miscellany

A builder of Madras harbour

This is the season they come from the West and Australia to search for roots. And many of them land up on my doorstep as though I have all the answers. They soon discover I have few but that on the other hand I am looking for their stories, whereupon there takes place an exchange of sketchy information.

The first to call on me this season was Jack Fulton from Glasgow. He was looking forward to, despite the rain, doing a pilgrim's tour of the places associated with his grandfather, T.W. Mair, and his mother. Mair was part of Sir Francis Spring's team that built Madras Harbour between 1904 and 1919. Mair in those years was Spring's Dredging Master and went on to retire as Harbour Master. The places Fulton was looking forward to visiting were the site of No.1 Clive Battery (the house where the Mairs lived), the Port offices, the Masonic Hall (Mair was a dedicated Mason), and Presentation Convent, Kodaikanal, where his mother went to school till she was nine years old.

All the Port Trust officers' houses at Clive Battery were pulled down some time ago and the picture of No.1 Clive Battery that Fulton presented me — together with several of the Port and the Kodai school — must be about the only one still around of a building that was part of Port history and which is no more. In return, I was able to surprise Fulton with my second picture today, that of Spring's team and their assistants. Fulton promptly identified his grandfather as sitting third from left.

I, however, was intrigued by the Indians in the first row. Spring's first team included Rai Saheb K. Ganapathy Kudwa (Assistant Engineer); R. Narayana Ayyar, Acting Chief Accountant; Rai Saheb S. Seshayya, Engineer's Accountant; R. Van Geyzel, Head Diver (and probably a Ceylon Burgher); G.V. Balakrishna Chetty, Head Draftsman; and J.I. Pinto, Acting Office Manager.

Narayana Ayyar was of special interest (and I'd put him as being seated third from right) as he was the person responsible for getting S. Ramanujan appointed as a clerk in the Port Trust in 1912 and for pleading his case with Sir Francis Spring to send the mathematics genius to work with Prof. G.H. Hardy at Cambridge University in 1913. The Port Trust granted Ramanujan two years' leave, but on loss of pay. He, however, received from the University of Madras a scholarship of Rs.75 a month for the two years.


When the postman knocked

* T.T. Raghunathan wonders whether a grand mansion in Ooty, Walthamstow, which was later owned by some of his kinsfolk, had been the Governor's residence before Government House, Ooty (the present Raj Bhavan) was built (Miscellany, October 19). It was only after Government House was built that the practice of moving the Government up to Ooty for six months in a year took firm root. Before that, Governors generally went up for a month or two on holiday and stayed in rented houses. The houses included Stonehouse, Upper Norwood (Lushington Hall), Southdown (Bishopsdown), Woodside, Rumbold House (now the Ooty Club) , Bombay House, Woodside Hall, Fern Hill, Glendower Hall, Woodlands, Glen View (Coonoor) and Kota Hall (Kotagiri ). But not Walthamstow. That mansion, however, was briefly occupied in 1855 by someone more distinguished than a Governor, the Governor General, Lord Dalhousie.

* Wrenn, Bennett's (Miscellany, November 1), writes reader K.R.N. Menon, was yet another furniture maker in the late 19th and 20th Century Madras and continued in the business after Indian ownership — in fact, till a few years ago. Another letter on the furniture-makers expands on my mention of Curzon & Co. Of its founder who started the business in 1898, Alavandar Chetty, and his successor, son Chimata Seshachalam, I have written in the past. Mano Bakthavatsalam, the latter's daughter, now adds that ‘Curzon Chettiar's' teak and rosewood furniture was considered “the best in South India”. It graced the homes of many of the Indian elite of Madras, including the Travancore palace in Adyar. Seshachalam, she writes, was an expert on parquet flooring and the firm specialised in this as well as roll-top tables, cane easy chairs and baby's cradles. When Andhra Pradesh was formed, many of its new Government offices in Kurnool — the first capital of the State — were furnished by Curzon's. So was Pachaiyappa's College. Today, the firm, rather than get into veneer and plywood furniture, sticks to another specialty, library racks and cabinets. And Pradeep Chakravarthy reminds me of yet another old furniture maker — what used to be known as the School of Arts and Crafts (now a college). And why not, after all, the School taught carpentry as a subject! Much of the furniture in the School and the old chairs in the Connemara Library reading room — which somehow found their way to antique furniture dealers — were the work of the School's craftsmen from the Ramnad District who worked with European supervisors who did the designing. No one else could have carved the yalis under the handrests so well, writes Chakravarthy, who has also seen a rosewood cabinet in S. Rajam's house which the painter-musician had bought at one of “the annual exhibitions the college used to hold in the past.”

* Billionaire Andrew Carnegie wrote a book titled Notes on a Trip Round the World in which he mentions a visit to Madras in 1879, writes Muthiah Ramanathan who wonders about one of Carnegie's references: “These two baby orang-outangs are going to a naturalist in Madras.” Do you know who this person could have been, asks Ramanathan. I don't, but I wonder whether any reader knows of a Madras naturalist of the time who might have been more interested in fauna than flora.

* My item on People's Park on November 9 stirred the memories of many old-timers. Some of the more specific memories are those of reader M.J. Gopalan who recalls the Mayor hosting tea parties and dinners in the Park, the annual flower show, the Park Fair, the professional boxing and wrestling bouts, and the band concerts. He also recalls Victoria Public Hall being used as a centre for the counting of votes till the 1960s.

* There's still no answer to what ‘Ukantatchi' could mean (Miscellany, November 2), but apropos the Ondaatje heritage, C.G. Leo Joseph writes that there is in Nagapattinam a community called the Arya (Ayira?) Nattu Chettys and there is in the town a street called ‘Arya Nattu Chetty Street'. Dr. D.B. James, a former marine scientist, adds that a Prof. F.J. Bell of King's College, London, had in 1887 published a paper on the marine invertebrates of Ceylon and in it “named a sea cucumber after a Dr. Ondaatje which was synonymised later.” Dr. Ondaatje was apparently a surgeon naturalist, like so many other medical doctors of the time.

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Printable version | Jun 19, 2021 7:56:23 PM |

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