Administrator par excellence

Dewan T. Madhava Rao was an able administrator who triggered the transformation of erstwhile Travancore into a model state with his far-reaching reforms

Published - September 25, 2015 04:16 pm IST - Thiruvananthapuram

Statue of Dewan T. Madhava Rao at Statue Junction. The photo was published in the Travancore State Manual (1904)Photo courtesy: Achuthsankar S. Nair

Statue of Dewan T. Madhava Rao at Statue Junction. The photo was published in the Travancore State Manual (1904)Photo courtesy: Achuthsankar S. Nair

An administrator praised by Mahatma Gandhi, and an author of a book that Prime Minister Narendra Modi recommends as a must-read for all new IAS officers, stands as a mute spectator to the transformation of Thiruvananthapuram for nearly 150 years. The oldest statue in the city – that of T. Madhava Rao, who became Prime Minister (Dewan) of erstwhile Travancore at the age of 30 and retired at the age of 44, is now known more as a landmark (Statue Junction) than as a tribute to an erstwhile administrator. Even for history buffs who know about his administrative acumen, not much is known about him as a person.

Madhava Rao found time to recommend to the common people that children should not be brought up as fatalists believing in ‘grahapizha’. He brought a steam engine to the city and drove a vehicle with it, made telescopes with bamboo pipe and found value in the use of early projectors (magic lanterns) in educating children. He triggered girl’s education in the city by sending his own daughter to the newly started Zenana Mission school. He was senate member of Madras and Bombay Universities, was one of the early members of Indian National Congress.He became a subject of ridicule in Cadwell’s poems for the Brahamnical rule he represented. He was a great follower of sociologist and political theorist Herbert Spencer.

It is not only the statue of Madhava Rao that history has left behind. His descendent lives quietly in the city speaking Desishta Mahratta language. Curiously, the descendent is named A. Madhava Rao and his wife, is named ‘Prathima’ (statue).

Minor Hints and Hints On the Training of Native Children authored by Dewan Madhava Rao and biographies on him by Sakha Rama Rayar Lakshmana Rayar and Kulathu Iyer bring to light some of the rare facets of his personality.

His family had a presence in Travancore since 1817. His father, Runga Rao (acting Dewan in 1837), and Runga Rao’s brother Venkita Rao (1817-1830 and 1838-1839) were also Dewans of Travancore. The practice of having foreigners as Dewan became a norm soon after the times of Velu Thampi, when it was felt that local persons in the office might get involved in politics and that the power struggle among the King, the Dewan and the Resident might become complicated. Later, the choice fell on Maharatta Bramins settled in Kumbakonam(they were probably Maharatta officers who migrated to Tanjore following the Maratha conquest of Thanjavur). They came to the city along with their families, who were appointed in key positions.Madhava Rao was born in 1828. He studied in Madras High School (which subsequently became Presidency College). In 1846, he received his Proficient’s Degree with high honours. He passed in first rank and received medals from Madras Governor Lord Tweedle. When he was 19, he became tutor in Mathematics and Physics at Madras High School. Thereafter, he was a ‘writer’ in Tanjore Collectorate and then in the Accountant General Office for brief periods. Then he took up the job as tutor of the princes of Travancore in 1849 at a salary of Rs. 200. He presumably did a good job. His rise thereafter was meteoric. He was appointed as Deputy Peshkar in 1853 at a salary of Rs. 300. In the year 1855, he was appointed Dewan Peshkar at Rs. 600. In 1858, he became acting Dewan at Rs. 1,000 and the next year he was confirmed as Dewan at Rs. 2000.

His administrative reforms include strengthening the Public Works department by appointing Mr. Greenway as Civil Engineer in 1860. The telegraph office was started and the anchal (postal) department, which was so far carrying only official letters, was opened to the general public. The Education Department was formalised with the appointment of Sanakra Subba Ayyar as Director. A text book committee under Kerala Varma Valiya Koyi Thampuran was also constituted. The Maharaja’s free school was made a junior college (the present University College). He promoted coffee cultivation. In his final administration report, he demonstrated his vision of development as “ to provide every subject within a couple of hours of journey, the advantages of a Doctor, a School Master, a Judge, a Magistrate, a Registering Officer and a Postmaster”.

Historian Malayinkeezhu Gopalakrishnan rates the foremost contribution of Madhava Rao as ‘Pandarapatta Vilambaram, in which Government land that was given on lease for farming were given to the land holders for a nominal price. This had magical effect on Kerala society as the youth who aspired for modern education sold the land and pursued education, triggering a renaissance.

Early congressman and freedom fighter G.P. Pillai wrote thus about Madhava Rao: “As a reward for these labours, Madhava Rao was honoured by the British Government, with the title of K.C.S.I., an honour rarely conferred on Indian gentlemen in those days. He brought sunshine into a land covered with darkness. He secured the blessings of good government to people harassed by anarchy. He obtained freedom of person and property to those who were constantly assailed by hereditary robbers. He reared costly edifices in a city covered with mud huts. He constructed various works of public utility, such as roads, bridges, canals and tunnels, and put the most distant and inaccessible parts into easy communication with one another. Forests were reclaimed, waste lands cultivated, and new industries, such as the cultivation of coffee, were encouraged. Peace and plenty reigned supreme. Travancore, which, when Sir Madhava Rao took charge of it, was in hourly danger of annexation, obtained, when he left it, the appellation of a ‘Model State’”. In short, in the words of the late Visakham Tirunal Rama Varma, “What Pericles did for Athens, what Cromwell did for England, that Sir Madhava Rao did for Travancore.”

(The author is head of the Department of Computational Biology and Bioinformatics, University of Kerala. He is a music and history buff.)

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