Visionary zeal

The invitation to M.S. Subbulakshmi’s first concert. Photo: Special Arrangement  

Prema Srinivasan remembers her grandfather, C .Rajam, as a lean old man dressed in crisp Khadi, who walked with a walking stick. His eyes were failing and yet he knew everything that was happening around him. Sharp, shrewd and well-connected, C. Rajam was one of yesteryear Madras’ industrialists who built his empire from scratch. And through her book, ‘A Visionary’s Reach, C. Rajam and the founding of the Madras Institute of Technology’, Prema pays homage to his life before and after MIT.

The book, which traces Rajam’s journey from the time he was a high-school graduate from Kumbakonam to his founding role in the institution, talks of the many challenges he overcame at different points in his life. “Everything about his life is fascinating – Rajam came from a very poor family and had only finished school. But he was enterprising and had good business sense. Soon, he became one of the city’s eminent industrialists,” explains Prema. “He built his dream home, India House, when things were going well but didn’t hesitate to sell it to build his dream institution.”

Born in 1882, Rajam came from Swamimalai and moved to Salem to look for jobs after school. Over the next few years, he started a handloom factory, worked at two tanneries, started a coal tar business, car agency, steel company, electric supply corporation and finally, in 1949, founded the Madras Institute of Technology. “Business in the companies proved extremely lucrative and Rajam became a leading industrialist in the State. He was the Chairman of five companies,” writes Prema, in her book.

The book goes on to explain how intrinsic Rajam’s life was to the evolution of the institute. This is interspersed with delightful anecdotes and incidents involving the founder. Rajam’s tea parties were popular in Madras back then and attended by the intellectuals of that time. The book even talks of how Rajam sponsored the musical event in which M.S. Subbalakshmi made her Madras debut in 1933. “Our favourite family story, of course, is how he could pinch a calf’s ear and tell what quality of leather it is. He was sharp and nothing could pass by him,” adds Prema.

The idea to start the institute came from the fact that Rajam had to employ engineers from Germany to work at his steel mills in Nagapattinam. He realised that there was a dearth of competent technical engineers in the country. To meet this need, MIT, an institution that provided practical and theoretical knowledge, was formed. It offered three-year diplomas in Aeronautical, Automobile, Electronics and Instrumentation. “The course is so selected and arranged as to offer a ‘prolonged and thorough training’ on industrial science and applications,” Prema writes. There was also a personal side to it – Rajam had just lost his oldest son and his wife in quick succession and he decided to detach himself from material possessions and instead began to envision a different future for the country. To fund the institute, Rajam sold his house for a sum of 5 lakhs.

‘A Visionary’s Reach’ does not stop with Rajam’s story but goes on to detail the institution’s past, present and future. The pages are interspersed with pictures of the family and Rajam, the beginnings of the institute, Rajam’s letters, newspaper clippings of the institute and people involved in it, articles by popular alumni such as A.P.J Abdul Kalam and also pictures of the initial staff and buildings. Later pictures are of the convocations, Founder’s Day and MIT as it stands today, after its merger with Anna University in 1978.

The diploma that the college once offered may now be a degree, but the initial classrooms (old hangers that Rajam had procured with permission from Jawaharlal Nehru) and the zest of its students remain. “The students were the ones who wanted this book published,” says Prema, “I merely helped them put it together. And since my father, C.R. Ramaswamy, took over MIT after my grandfather’s demise, I dedicated the book to him. We have printed about 500 copies and want to give it to people who care about the college and its history. Of course, this is for those who also share a history with Rajam. The book, in a way, is about him letting go of the pursuit of success to go in pursuit of happiness,” she smiles.

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Printable version | Dec 6, 2021 8:15:43 PM |

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