Made in Madras Society

An alliance to remember

At Alliance Co., Mylapore. Photo: V. Ganesan

At Alliance Co., Mylapore. Photo: V. Ganesan

A teenaged couple came to Madras from the village of Komal in Thanjavur, looking for a new beginning. The year was 1896. The husband, aged 16, and wife, not more than 13 years old, set up a small stationary shop on Adam Street in Mylapore. Little did they know that it would one day grow into a publishing empire. V. Kuppuswamy Iyer wanted to tell the world the story of India. When kids thronged his shop, he sensed an opportunity to make them read. He printed and sold pocket-size books on freedom fighters. These books offered a taste of what Kuppuswamy would publish during the next five decades.

Kuppuswamy’s life revolved around the Kapaleeswarar temple tank. In 1901, he started The Alliance Co. in a rented building opposite the tank. The oldest existing Tamil publishing house in Chennai, it is now being run by Kuppuswamy’s grandson V. Srinivasan. Alliance spread its wings at a time when the country was seized by patriotic fervour, and nationalist books naturally figured widely among their titles.

During their initial years, Kuppuswamy started a monthly magazine called Viveka Bodhini , said to have sold 25,000 copies a month even during those times. “It was a lot like Reader’s Digest ,” recalls Srinivasan. “It covered a range of topics. I remember S.S. Vasan saying that the magazine inspired him to start Ananda Vikatan .”

Kuppuswamy brought out translations of quality literature in Hindi, Bengali, Telugu, Kannada and Malayalam in Tamil. Prominent writers of the time, such as Bankim Chandra Chatterjee, Sarat Chandra Chatterjee and Rabindranath Tagore made their way into Tamil Nadu through Alliance.

But Tamil was unquestionably close to his heart, and Kuppuswamy wanted to take good Tamil writers to the people. He started a series called Tamizh Naattu Sirukadhaigal (Short Stories from Tamil Nadu). Kuppuswamy’s only rule was that they don’t repeat writers. Akilan, Vallikannan, Pudhumaipithan... several master writers featured in the anthology.

Life went on in a blur of stories when Kuppuswamy’s neighbours transformed his life. These were no ordinary neighbours — they were leaders of the Congress party. “Leaders such as Rajaji would sit on our thinnai to chat,” remembers Srinivasan. Kuppuswamy was drawn to their spirit. He went on to publish journalistic accounts of Congress meetings across the country.

Among the fieriest titles that Alliance brought out was a collection of speeches and letters by Subhas Chandra Bose. The books were banned by the British, but Kuppuswamy managed to send copies to the then Ceylon and Singapore. “They were among the prime factors that inspired Tamilians in Singapore to join the Indian National Army,” says Srinivasan.

News spread of the man in Mylapore who was silently doing his bit for the nation. Alliance even launched a book by Dr. Rajendra Prasad at the Central station. But their most memorable moment was when Gandhiji visited their stall in Hindi Prachar Sabha during his visit to Madras.

Alliance’s logo — a mountain with a lamp atop it — was inspired by a conversation Kuppuswamy had with Ramana Maharshi when he met the latter in Tiruvannamalai in the late 1920s.

The company did have hard times. “In the 1930s, the family was in the doldrums,” says Srinivasan. That’s when Rajaji came to their rescue. “He offered my grandfather five of his books to publish,” he adds. The books, especially Kannan Kaatiya Vazhi , went on to become bestsellers. “Similarly, Cho’s books helped me overcome a lean patch in 1993,” says Srinivasan, seated at a desk with a pile of manuscripts containing cinema songs. They are gems by Vaali, which Alliance plans to publish.

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Printable version | Jul 4, 2022 3:34:54 am |