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Madras Miscellany: Keeping the records straight

Tamil Nadu Archives and Historical Research Department building

Tamil Nadu Archives and Historical Research Department building

The National Archives in Delhi recently celebrated with considerable fanfare its 125th birthday. I wonder whether in all the exhibitions, presentations, lectures and speeches there was any mention of where modern record-keeping began in India nearly 350 years ago. In fact, I wonder how many in Madras realise that Madras got a formal archives even before Britain’s Record Office and that this archives had its beginning in Fort St George in 1672.

It was William Langhorne, appointed Governor of Madras that year, who first insisted that not only should records of all government transactions be kept but also preserved. His successor, Streynsham Master, was even stricter about this. Between them they had preserved all the Public Consultations, the Public Letters to London, and the despatches from the Court of Directors in England to the Council in Madras, from 1670, when Langhorne had arrived in Madras as an Adjudicator in a gubernatorial dispute. These records, which still survive, were stored in the Council Room of Fort House , now the core of the Secretariat-Assembly complex.

So meticulously were these records maintained that they grew so much in volume that they necessitated more space. No sooner did Lord William Bentinck arrive as Governor in 1803 than he began to address the issue – and more. In November 1805, he ordered separate space for the records and, more importantly, the appointment of a Record Keeper to index the holdings. The records – and the Record Keeper – were moved to buildings north of the Council Room, probably to a building which was razed more recently to make way for the new Secretariat tower block.

That tenure in what was little better than residential quarters lasted till 1825 when still more space was necessary. And the next move has a memorial to it in the 20 tall charnockite pillars that adorn the front of the Assembly building today.

These pillars are the best of 32 that once were a colonnade created by Governor Morton Pitt in 1732 from Fort Square, now the Parade Ground, to what was the Sea Gate, where now there is the giant bastion over which towers the Fort’s flagstaff. Through it, merchants, traders and ships’ captains strolled discussing business and sealing deals. When the French occupied Fort St George in 1746, they carried away these pillars to Pondicherry as loot. When the British took Pondicherry in 1762, back came the pillars and the colonnade was re-created, but as part of a closed building intended for official entertainment as well as for a business exchange. When Banqueting Hall (now Rajaji Hall ) was completed in 1802, what was known as the ‘Pillar Hall’ became the ‘Pillar Godown’. And that suited Bentinck just fine – he moved into it the records office and the printing press, that had also come as part of the loot from Pondicherry and which became the nucleus of today’s giant Government Press. There, the records office remained till 1909 when it moved into its own building in Egmore. The next year, the Pillar Godown was demolished and the best of the pillars used to embellish the expansion of the Assembly building that was going on.

But the move to Egmore was not without issues. Opposite the Egmore Railway Station was a government bungalow called Grassmere in a large acreage of land. The Medical and Sanitation Department was eyeing it to raise its own office block. But the sewage farm next door (now the Mayor Radhakrishnan Stadium) had several officials questioning the wisdom of this move. This was a debate that was to last two years at the end of which it was suggested the site would be better suited for the Archives that was looking for space. And so, after P Loganatha Mudaliar had reconstructed Grassmere for Rs.2.25 lakh and Rs.1.25 lakh was spent on stacks and furniture, the new Madras Records Office opened in October 1909. C M Schmidt, the Registrar of the Secretariat, was put in temporary charge till Prof Henry Dodwell of Presidency College and Teachers’ College was appointed the first Curator in April 1911. Today, the complex is known as the Government of Tamil Nadu Archives and Historical Research – but I wish it would flaunt its lineage dating to 1672. There are few modern archives in the world older than this one.

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He left us a ‘Bible’

I am surprised that in all the reports on the commemoration of the birth centenary of Rangaswami Parthasarathy there has been little emphasis on what I consider his most important contribution to the city, his book A Hundred Years of The Hindu: The Epic Story of Indian Nationalism . To me, and many others like me, it is a ‘Bible’ of modern Indian history with a considerable leavening of Madras history. It is a book that should be compulsory reading for every college history and journalism class. My only regret has been that nowhere in the book has he spoken of what he hoped it would offer generations of readers; he keeps emphasising that it was a book only about The Hindu , the men who made it what it is, and the signal contribution they made to the freedom struggle.

Parthasarathy’s other books include Basic Journalism , a must for beginners, Journalism in India , which includes profiles of leading journalists in the country and the policies newspapers in India followed during the freedom struggle, and The God who Walked on Earth , on the life and times of Shirdi Sai Baba. All of them were written in what was that ever-so-correct Hindu style, shorn of the flourishes of journalistic writing today, but communicating so much better. He might have been known as ‘Mail’ Parthasarathy, having started with The Mail and very much a protégé of the legendary Hayles, but like so many trained at The Mail and The Indian Express he too wound up at The Hindu .

Our paths crossed at the Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, where both of us were guest lecturers. He was at the time a local correspondent for Reuters. Many were the times both of us sat across from V P V Rajan, The Editor of The Mail and Principal of the College, the two of them swapping yarns about the past and the present while I, a newcomer to Madras, sat listening to them and learning about the city and State.

At the commemoration function I was glad to hear that the Parthasarathy family would annually award scholarships to five needy journalism students and would also recognise “the best journalist” for lifetime achievement. The first to be so recognised was Shekhar Gupta, whose style would have found favour with ‘Hindu’ Parthasarathy too.

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Giving new life to landmarks

For some years now Chandra Sankar of Kalamkriya, a communications unit of the Sanmar Group, has been bringing out a series of books on heritage which have been freely distributed. Looking at built heritage, she brought out a book on the old homes of Madras. Turning to cultural heritage, she brought out books on Ayurveda and old Tamil sayings. And now, to address natural heritage, she has helped Nizhal, the tree people, to bring out Living Landmarks of Chennai , a book which might also have been called ‘The heritage trees of Chennai’. Like all her other publications, this too is in English and Tamil.

Lavishly illustrated with excellent photographs of forty species of trees, this is a cornucopia of greens. Nizhal chose these landmark trees because 1) they were mature, old trees with historical/cultural significance, 2) were indigenous, but hardly seen, and 3) exotic, but rarely seen. The bulk of the pictures were taken in the Theosophical Society, IIT, Guindy National Park, and Madras Christian College, but others were taken at Kalakshetra, the Railways’ Rostrevor Gardens , Anna University, several college campuses, and Vasant Vihar of the Krishnamurthy Foundation among other places. Happily, apart from stating where the particular trees were photographed, the captions tell us where else in the city trees of the same species are found. Perhaps the next step should be for all the institutions where these are, to loudly proclaim them as ‘Landmark’ or ‘Heritage Trees’ and to ensure their protection. Sadly, says Shobha Menon, that “between the time the photographs were taken and the book was published some of the trees have had to make way for ‘development’,” no doubt on the orders of some of the best brains in the country.

Nizhal started as virtually a one-woman show, with Shobha Menon forsaking freelance journalism and visiting a dozen Corporation schools to introduce a greening programme. Seeing her enthusiasm, indefatigability and the degree of success she was achieving, water harvester Sekar Raghavan, former Chief Town Planner Dattatri and Dr. P. Dayanandan of Madras Christian College got her to form a Trust. And, so, in September 2005 Nizhal (meaning `shade’) was born, the name the contribution of Dattatri.

Since then Nizhal has been one of the most successful NGOs in the city. On the long way it has come, two of its landmark successes are its Green Prisons Programme, that has made many a Tamil Nadu prison start an organic farm with a Prison Bazaar to sell its produce to the public, and transforming a 5-acre dump yard into a community Tree Park with 600 trees, including 100 indigenous species, and a forested grove to explore for those wanting to get off the walking tracks.

To spread the message wider, Nizhal has begun helping with or creating books. Only recently there came out Pidhana – The Canopy of Life on the trees of Kalakshetra ( >Miscellany, March 16 ) and now comes Living Landmarks . Will these help getting Shobha’s message across to create a green Madras: “With deeper appreciation, living with nature becomes a real possibility.” And Dr. D. Narasimhan of Madras Christian College adds: “Chennai is famous for using statues as landmarks. Let this book develop a new culture of using trees as landmarks.”

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Printable version | May 27, 2022 1:43:48 pm | https://www.thehindu.com/features/metroplus/madras-miscellany-keeping-the-records-straight/article7216529.ece