The creator of the Tamil Anthem

Major MSV explaining to officials the handling of grain in the harbour.  

Tamizh Thaai Vaazhthu’, the Tamil Anthem, is played now at the start of every official Government event in the State and many other gatherings as well. But I wonder how many know who composed it. I certainly didn't till I caught up with Scholars and Savants by V. Sundaram, I.A.S. (Rtd.). It’s a book which promises to be a learning exercise for me and a provider of much material for this column.

The answer I found in the book is Prof. P. Sundaram Pillai (1855-1897), better known as ‘Manonmaniam’ Sundaram Pillai. The ‘Manonmaniam’ in his name is the name of a play he wrote in 1891 and which is considered a classic. ‘ Tamizh Thaai Vaazhthu’ was written as an invocation to precede the play and was adopted as the State Anthem in June 1970.

From when he graduated in 1876 till his death in 1897, the Alappuzha-born Sundaram Pillai served his alma mater, Maharaja’s College, Thiruvananthapuram - eventually being designated Professor of Philosophy to succeed his own mentor - except for a period of three years at the beginning of his career when he taught in a college in Tirunelveli. Besides Indian and Western philosophy, History, Archaeology and Literature, Modern Science was his passion. In a well-known work, Noorogai Vilakkam, he pleaded for as widespread a diffusion of Western culture and modern scientific thought as ““our own religion and philosophy.”

‘Manonmaniam’ was a poetic drama of 4,500 lines, a literary play that was meant to be read out aloud and not staged. But it has been staged often. In his preface, explaining the form he took to express many ideas, including modern ones, he stated, “Among the rich and varied forms of poetic composition extant in the Tamil language, the dramatic type, so conspicuous in Sanskrit and English, does not seem to find a place. The play here submitted to the public is a humble attempt to see whether the defect may not be easily removed.” Sundaram (the author of this biographical note) feels that this work of Sundaram Pillai was based on the Victorian Lord Bulwer Lytton’s poem ‘The Secret Way’ included in his Lost Tales of Miletus. Lytton's passion for ancient history is reflected in Sundaram Pillai's poem, says Sundaram, but the adaptation has been “so cleverly and subtly done” that its British origin is not easily recognisable. But then Lytton is one of author Sundaram’s favourites.

Sundaram Pillai’s other significant contribution has been to challenge Bishop Caldwell's view that there could not have been any Tamil literature before the 9th Century C.E. and that the Saivite saint Tirugnanasambandar lived around the 13th Century. Sundaram Pillai’s argument that the saint lived in the 7th Century C.E. and Tamil literature could well date to before that has now been generally accepted.


The Port Manager

It was reported recently that this is the centenary year of mathematician S. Ramanujan joining the Madras Port Trust, from where he went abroad to be recognised as a genius. The story is well-remembered today that S. Narayana Iyer, the Chief Accountant of the Port Trust, persuaded Sir Francis Spring to give the penurious Ramanujan a job. The centenary triggered a few memories and Reader S. Viswanathan has recalled that, a few years later, it was Narayana Iyer who persuaded Sir Francis Spring to recruit his son-in-law, M.S. Venkatraman (MSV), as one of two Traffic Probationers selected that year.

It was Sir Godfrey Armstrong, later to be Chairman of the Madras Port Trust but then its Traffic Manager, who trained MSV who, in time, was to succeed him. It was during World War II that MSV made a name for himself by ensuring that ships’ movement, transhipment of military equipment, and material handling went on without interruption. Major Venkatraman (all Port officers were conscripted during the War and given a military rank) would even go out at night with several lorries, and drag workers out of their homes and toddy shops to work the night shifts.

All food items were in short supply and had to be imported and strictly rationed. The quality of the grain was not always the best and there were numerous complaints from the public. The Governor, Sir Archibald Nye, periodically visited the Port and examined the rice. My picture today is of MSV in the duty dress he chose to wear daily explaining to Sir Archibald the handling of the grain in the harbour. This and several other responsibilities - such as ensuring speedy coal loading for the freighters which were all coal-fuelled, arranging berthing, and quick turnaround of ships - all enhanced MSV’s reputation.

His performance and rapport with labour led to his being appointed Acting Chairman of the Madras Port Trust at Independence. But then G.P. Alexander, the last British Chairman, stayed on till 1951 after returning from leave and from 1951, Government's policy appeared to be that only a Civilian should be Chairman. When the first Indian Chairman of the Madras Port Trust, G. Venkateswara Ayyar, I.C.S., took charge in 1951, MSV was moved to Cochin as Administrative Officer, mainly because of his ability to handle fractious labour. But labour apart, his major contribution in Cochin was overseeing its development and expansion into a Major Port during his ten years there. When he retired, there was no pension - only what he had in his Provident Fund.


When the postman knocked…

There has been quite a bit of response from readers to my item on the Khaleeli properties and the people involved (Miscellany, September 10). Abbas Khaleeli, I’m told, was the first Industries Secretary of Pakistan and laid the groundwork for the growth of industry in the new nation. He held several other key positions in Pakistan and represented it abroad at several international conferences till Gen. Ayub Khan took over in 1958. Khaleeli, who belonged to the Jinnah ‘School of Moderation,’ fell out of favour with Ayub and thereafter faded out. A son of his, Zia, was a businessman who represented India’s Metals and Minerals Trading Corporation in Pakistan but he too ran into difficulties with the authorities. Abbas Khaleeli died in 1995, a much-respected Civilian in Pakistan even if the leadership and he did not speak in the same voice.

Reader Ravi Menon, who was with Best & Co from 1958 till he retired as a Director in 1976, is not quite sure whether I’d got my facts right about the Khaleeli Building on First Line Beach. My facts came from the late A.M.M. Arunachalam of the then T.I. Group when I was writing his biography and he narrated how TIAM House came up on the site. According to him, Best & Co built the classically-styled building around 1900 and rented a substantial portion of the building to Burmah Shell. The flags seen atop the building I featured last Monday are clear indicators of a firm with shipping connections occupying the building, or at least part of it -- and Best’s represented shipping lines, such as P&O, Bucknall, Anchor and Ellerman. When Shell built its own building and moved out, the building was sold to the Khaleelis around 1926, shortly before which the picture was taken. Best’s moved into the smaller building next to its old property, but did at different times rent a part of its old building from the Khaleelis till the TI Group bought it in 1956 and pulled it down.

Khasim Khaleeli was a neighbour of his, recalls Menon, and remembers him (Khaleeli) telling him (Menon) how the family lost heavily - about a million Pound Sterling - in the 1929 crash but made it all back in five years. The Khaleelis were big in hides and skins, he adds. Menon also writes that the building was offered to Best’s before it was to the TI Group, but Best's turned it down, choosing to invest in industry rather in office/trading space.

* Reader Bharath Yeshwanth has come up with a couple of intriguing questions again. What can you tell me about Madras in Red River County, eastern Texas? he asks. And, he goes on… Can you add anything more to the fact that Edward Felix Norton, an Army officer stationed in Madras, was on Mallory's two attempts to conquer Everest, in 1922 and 1924?

I’m afraid I have few answers, but perhaps readers will add more details. I know of Madras, Oregon, but Madras, Texas, is new to me. What little I’ve been able to find is that it has been in existence from the late 19th Century, has never had a population of over a hundred persons, and no one knows how it got its name. As for Norton, he was the Commanding Officer of the Madras District in 1937-38. I wonder whether anyone in the Army can add more to that. Believed to be the strongest climber in both Mallory expeditions, he reached 27,000 feet in 1922 and 28,000 feet in 1924 without oxygen, a record that stood till 1978. He took charge of the 1924 expedition when its leader fell ill.

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Printable version | May 14, 2021 5:34:18 AM |

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