Madras miscellany: Round the world with a camera

AK Chettiar Signature

AK Chettiar Signature  


It’s not the best of photographs that I use with today’s column, but it is a rare photograph and a unique one that has survived so long. It is of A.K. Chettiar (AKC) and his movie camera. Together they had travelled around the world in the 1930s, earning for AKC the sobriquet “ Ulagam Sutriya Thamizhan” (The Tamil who went around the world).

The picture had been sent by AKC to E.R. Govindan, a fellow journalist, and a good friend of his, in January 1939. Govindan was at the time with the Sunday Times (Madras) and in August that year founded Free India Weekly, a title still with Govindan’s son G. Rangarajan who sent me this picture.

(Picture: AK Chettiyar)

Of both AKC and Free India Weekly I have written in the past — about AKC in Miscellany, July 26, 2004 and about the weekly in Miscellany, May 28, 2007. But while of the weekly’s story I had written much, of AKC I had only concentrated on his best known contribution (at the time, but now virtually forgotten), a full-length documentary on Mahatma Gandhi for which he collected material during his journey around the world. A few additional words about him would, therefore, not be out of place.

He was a well-known Tamil writer in his day, writing in a language appreciated by the purists yet one with which the educated lay reader was comfortable. It was in this easy-to-grasp language that he pioneered travel writing in Tamil and found such books selling well. The most popular of these books was A Tamil Wanderer in the World, much of which dealt with interviews with well-known people around the world who had interacted with Gandhi.

AKC was also known as the Publisher-Editor of Kumari Malar, the quality of whose Tamil was highly thought of. The magazine also benefited from AKC’s research into the work of Subramania Bharati and the considerable unknown work of the poet he unearthed and brought to light in this monthly journal.

The much-travelled journalist was from the small village, Kottaiyur, in Chettinad. A happy coincidence is that two other Nattukottai Chettiars connected with spreading knowledge came from the same village. One was Roja Muthiah Chettiar, who founded what is now the Roja Muthiah Research Library in Taramani, the other was Rm. Alagappa Chettiar who founded the institutions that became the nucleus of Alagappa University in Karaikudi and had much to do with the establishment of the A.C. College of Technology in Madras, the Central Electro-chemical Research Institute in Karaikudi and the Ramanujan Institute of Mathematics in Madras.

In another curious coincidence, Kottaiyur is neighboured by Pallathur and Pallathur is neighboured by Kanadukathan and from the first of the latter two villages was A.M.M. Murugappa Chettiar and from the second M. Subbiah Chettiar who together were the first two Chettiars (possibly the first two South Indians) to go around the world. Their journey in 1930-31 was centred on the International Chambers of Commerce Convention in Washington, D.C. At a dinner hosted by President and Mrs. Hoover for all the delegates, the Hoovers circulated round the tables. When Mrs. Hoover stopped at their table, where theirs were the only two ‘foreign’ faces and in pidgin asked, “You English speak?”, the table burst into laughter and one of the Americans said, “Better than us and you, Mrs. President.” Then ensued a brief conversation during which she wanted to know whether they had studied outside India and was told that both had only studied up to high school, one in India and the other in Ceylon. A.K. Chettiar who had done a cinematographer’s course in New York spoke English as well as them, but always preferred Tamil.


From writer to soldier

(Picture: Robert Clive)

A French student I met the other day wanted to know whether I could tell him something about the French occupation of Madras in the first half of the 18th Century. That’s a long, long story which I’ll get to telling in this column in bits and pieces in the days ahead. But suffice it to say for now that the first of the Anglo-French conflicts in the Carnatic ended 265 years ago tomorrow with the English occupying San Thomé for the first time, taking it over from the French.

That conflict had begun with Adm. Mahé de la Bourdonnais capturing Madras on September 10, 1746 and agreeing to return it for ransom. Dupleix repudiated the agreement on October 30 but had to return the town to the English under the Treaty of Aix-la-Chappelle signed by the English and the French in Europe on October 7, 1748. The rendition of the town to the English, however, was only on August 21, 1749. It’s a long, long complicated story that needs telling in parts, but while going through it to tell my French visitor the highlights, I came across the order making Robert Clive the Writer a soldier.

Before Fort St. George surrendered, many of its 300-strong garrison (100 of them incapacitated) and several civilians had fled to Fort St. David, Cuddalore, and there they had performed, under the leadership of the newly arrived commandant, Major Stringer Lawrence, much better than at Fort St. George. They beat off three French attacks successfully and held what was effectively the only English bolt-hole on the Coromandel. One of those civilians was Robert Clive. The Fort St. David Council in March1747 advised London: “Mr. Robert Clive, Writer in the Service, being of a Martial Disposition and having acted as Volunteer in our late Engagements, We have Granted him an Ensign’s commission upon his Application for the same.” Well thought of by his mentor, Lawrence, Clive was made Quartermaster in January 1749. A month later, however, he seemed to be in trouble.

The irascible, abusive chaplain of the fort, the Rev. Francis Fordyce, complained to the Council that Clive had physically attacked him. Clive deposed that Fordyce had publicly called him “a Scoundrel and a Coward”, had “shook his cane over him” in public, and threatened “to break every Bone in his Skin.” These “repeated abuses so irritated him that he could not forebear… to reproach him for his Behaviour… (and) thereupon struck him two three times with his Cane, which Mr. Fordyce returned, and then clos’d in with him, (till they were) parted…”

When Fordyce disputed the Council’s right to decide on the matter, he was dismissed for insubordination. The Council then wrote to London, “It is not to be doubted that Mr. Fordyce will set forth his story to your Honours, and least the same should be to Mr. Clive’s Prejudice, We think it not improper to assure You that he is Generally Esteem’d a very quiet Person, and no ways guilty of Disturbances.” No doubt too London looked on Clive with favour — thus enabling him to head for Arcot and fame.


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Printable version | Jan 20, 2020 12:52:16 PM |

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