Society

Madras Miscellany: A dictionary pioneer

The Grihalakshmi cover  

I’m delighted to find readers once again taking over the column, leaving it to me only to add the supplementary touches.

It all started with Ganesan Amirthalingam writing from London to ask for information about his great great great grandfather, V Visvanathapillai, who had compiled a Tamil-English Dictionary in the 19th Century. Was this author, a Tamil from Jaffna, Caroll V or Kellogg V Visvanathapillai, who were both in Madras around the same time? The doubt arises from the fact that the dictionary only gives V Visvanatha Pillai as the author, the identical initial causing the confusion. The V in the initials stood for Vyramuttu in the case of the Madras University graduate, CV, who also went on to be a Tamil scholar, and Veerakathi in the dictionary compiler’s case, I would presume, given his father was Veerakathi Pillai.

Daniel Caroll Visvanathapillai arrived in Madras in 1857, after teaching in the Jaffna Seminary, to become one of the first two graduates of the University of Madras, passing out second; the first was his student in Jaffna, C W Thamotharampillai (Miscellany, August 9, 2004).

Amirthalingam’s kin was Kellogg, who dropped the name the Americans at the Seminary gave him and became Mallakkam V Visvanathapillai. He came to Madras around 1860 and joined the Education Department as Official Translator. It was in this role that he compiled the Tamil-English Dictionary, the first Tamil to do such a dictionary. It was first published in 1870, it has been claimed, but a revised and enlarged first edition was published in 1888 by the Madras School Book and Vernacular Literature Society. It has been reprinted several times and is, I am told, still in print. Its publication followed the pioneering effort by Johann Fabricius (1779) and Miron Winslow’s comprehensive work published in 1862.

Thanks to the American Seminary in Jaffna, started in 1824 and which has now evolved into Jaffna College, a large number of young Jaffna Tamils acquired the equivalent of a collegiate education. With Presidency College, Madras, still to turn out students with that level of education at the time, a large number of Tamils from Jaffna were employed in Government Service in Madras. Writes Amirthalingam, “My great grandfather Amirthalingam Pillai was Postmaster General in Madras in 1921 and his brother Rao Bahadur Vaithilingam Pillai was Presidency Postmaster General. Even now I have many relatives living in Madras.” I’d be glad to hear from the relatives as well as former Tamil Nadu Postmaster General Theodore Baskaran on this.

The Roja Muthiah Research Library tells me that it has a second edition copy of Viswanathapillai’s dictionary as well as copies of two other editions. The second edition, published in 1897 by the same publishers, is about 22 cm by 13.5 cm and has 736 pages with about 9,000 words. Its first page says that it chiefly comprises “High Tamil words”. The title page says it has been “Authorised by the Director of Public Instruction”.

Caroll Visvanathapillai too has a claim to a pioneering effort: he wrote the first book in Tamil on Algebra – Visa Kanitham.

A tale of two presses

Grihalakshmi, which was printed at Kesari Kuteer’s Lodhra Press (Miscellany, July 25), was a Telugu monthly for women, which first appeared in March 1928, relates my favourite purveyor of information from ‘north of the border’, Ramineni Bhaskarendra Rao. World War II, apparently, led to cessation of its publication in 1942. The magazine was revived in January 1947 and carried on till 1960. Bhaskarendra Rao also tells me that when Kesari Kuteer moved into its own building on Westcott Road, Royapettah, on August 21, 1937, the Lodhra Press moved with it.

Meanwhile, a Tamil version of Grihalakshmi was published from 1937. In an announcement in Grihalakshmi, it was stated that the Tamil version would be the only exclusively women’s Tamil magazine to be published at the time. R.A. Padmanabhan’s series on Tamil newspapers and journals does not, however, feature this publication, so I must look elsewhere for even its name.

Grihalakshmi was almost a footnote to my item on the Malayalam journal Jayakeralam. I’ve received much more information on the ‘Malayalam in Madras’ part of the item.

For those who have stored away the picture which appeared with it, two more faces have been recognised. Standing fourth from right in the front row is P. Bhaskaran, the Malayalam poet and film lyricist, according to information passed on to me from Sashikumar of the Asian College of Journalism, Bhaskaran’s son-in-law. And, Parvathi Menon identifies her father, K P S Menon, who was the Government of India’s Foreign Secretary. He is, she writes, seated in the front row in a dark suit.”

And. G. Vijay Kumar tells me Janatha Press is still very much around, specialising in Malayalam work and that he is running it after his father C.G. Kurup passed away in 1995. Kurup joined the press a year after it had started and went on to become its owner in 1974. The press started in 1947 in rented premises on Bell’s Road and then moved into its own building on Peter’s Road where it still is.

The Janatha Printing & Publishing Company was started to print and publish Jayakeralam in November 1947. Dr. C.R. Krishna Pillai, a general practitioner, was its promoter and its first shareholders were V.J. Kurien, Managing Director of Cochin Commercial Bank, P. Maruthai Pillai of Aruna Sugars, V. John, who had taken over Klein & Peyerl, the photographers, to which he had added his block-making unit, and A.K. Gopalan, founder of the Asan Memorial Association.

Dwindling advertising revenue and the rise of Communism in Kerala led to Jayakeralam closing down in the 1960s. Aneshanam was started after that and ran for a while, but it too faded out. Then, the Soviet Union’s Information Department publication Samiksha was printed at the Janatha Press for over two decades; the USSR becoming Russia brought this journal too at an end.

Among the Malayalam books the Press still prints are the work of the Madras-based Malayalam and Tamil pundit, the late Dr. Unnikidavu.

The oldest of its kind

Yesterday and the day before saw the Madras Christian College Alumni Association celebrate the 125th year of its founding. Joshua Kalapati, the chronicler of MCC, writes to remind me that the Association is the oldest collegiate alumni association in India.

That reminder had me chasing its history and I found that it had its roots in cyclonic rains in November 1885, which badly affected the construction of the college’s new buildings across from the Esplanade, bringing down the upper half of the newly-built College Tower, and badly damaging the hall below it as well as much of the roof and the staircase and rooms it sheltered. The alumni came to the rescue, contributing generously to a restoration fund. They followed this up by deciding to celebrate College Day every year as an annual get-together.

This led to over 700 alumni gathering on December 24, 1891 at the Rajah Sir Salavai Ramaswami Mudaliar Choultry during the day, and at the Town Hall (Victoria Public Hall) in the evening, eventually deciding to establish the Madras Christian College Day Association. In 1963, the Association revised its Constitution and renamed itself as the MCC Alumni Association.

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