Madras miscellany

S.R. Ranganathan in London

S.R. Ranganathan in London  

A Very Happy New Year to all my readers, questioners and contributors, may 2016 be a wonderful year for all of us. I look forward to an even more vigorous interaction between us, because you are the people who keep this column alive with the information you provide and the questions you ask, making me search for answers. Together, may we make Madras Miscellany even more interesting and readable in 2016.

The Father of Library Science

S.R. Ranganathan (SRR), the ‘Father of Library Science’, has figured in this column before (Miscellany February 14, 2011), but writing to me from abroad with more information is his grand-niece Chandra Sri Ram, who during a recent tour of Thanjavur District visited the Sabhanayaka Mudaliar Hindu Higher Secondary School in Sirkazhi where SRR had his entire schooling before going on to Madras Christian College and then on to fame in the field of Library Science.

I wonder how many in that field in India, indeed even in the Library of the University of Madras, remember that today, January 4, is the day in 1924 SRR was appointed the first Librarian of the University, his acceptance the first step taken by a person who knew nothing about running a library but who went on to become an internationally acknowledged expert in the field. I wonder whether that library will even talk about him in remembrance today.

SRR applying for the post was itself in fortuitous circumstance. His field was Mathematics. And that became a specialisation entirely because of Prof. B. Ross, who stopped him from quitting college after a basic degree. SRR, intent on supporting his widowed mother and siblings, planned to leave MCC to get a job. Ross not only advised him against it, but paid his admission fees for the MA course. And thereafter, on the first of every month, SRR would find a gold sovereign under his pillow. SRR never found out who his benefactor was, but the first thing he did on receiving his first salary as the University Librarian was to establish the Prof. Ross Endowment for Mathematics at MCC.

Before that appointment and straight after leaving MCC with an MA, he joined Presidency College as a Lecturer. And there, in 1923, there came about the turning point in his life in unusual circumstances. SRR was a member of a negotiating team of Indian faculty members who pointed out to the authorities that their salaries were only about ten per cent of what was paid the expatriate faculty. Find another job, was the response of the authorities. But SRR was not looking for another job; he loved mathematics and teaching. His colleagues, however, knowing he was a marked man, urged him to respond to an advertisement by the University of Madras for a full-time Librarian, it’s first. SRR procrastinated till the last day, then sent in his application more to please his colleagues, than anything else, not even certain he had the necessary qualifications. To his surprise, on January 4, 1924, he received his orders to report for duty at the University Library which was then in the Connemara Museum complex in Egmore, rather removed from the university.

It was a library that was hardly used and SRR effectively spent his first eight months twiddling his thumbs in boredom. Then, out of the blue, came orders to go to London to study and train in librarianship. The rest is history.


Western look at Indian drugs

A fascinating document reached me recently from reader Dr. A. Raman in Australia. It is the Preface, in all likelihood of the Indian Pharmacopoeia brought out in 1868 by the Government. It was sent to me for two reasons. One was the references to contributors from Madras, and two, to indicate how much attention was paid by the (British) Government of India to indigenous drugs and how they could be incorporated into Western medicine.

The preface begins, “Twenty-four years elapsed since the Bengal Pharmacopoeia (1844) was issued in Calcutta ‘by order of Government’. Since then, great advances have been made in our knowledge of the medicinal properties and therapeutic uses of the drugs indigenous to our Eastern Empire. Some of them have already been admitted into the British Pharmacopoeia; whilst many others, having been subjected to the test of clinical observation, have been found to possess considerable value as therapeutic agents, and to be well worthy of the attention of the medical profession in India…”

The Committee appointed to carry out this work included Robert Wight, M.D., F.R.S., late Madras Army, and Edward John Warring, M.D., M.R.C.P.(Lond), F.L.S., Madras Army, who was appointed Editor of what was to be a Pharmacopoeia of India. The Committee sought from medical officers serving in India “lists of the principal drugs and medicinal plants of India” which would be added to the information already available in “the principal English works on Indian Materia Medica. Tested and tried drugs were listed as ‘Officinal’ and those whose reputation was not well established but because of general usage were “worthy of attention” were listed as ‘Non-officinal’. Still others that could not be properly assessed were sent to the India Museum (Calcutta) “in order that the information should not be lost”.

Of special interest to this column were contributions by four British Surgeons, six Assistant Surgeons who may have been British or Anglo-Indian (J. Shortt, M.D., the best known of them, was Anglo-Indian), and two private practitioners, S. Pulney Andy, M.D., and D.R. Thompson, M.D. On Moodeen Sheriff’s (Miscellany April 5, 2010) contribution is made the only special reference in the Preface. It reads:

“Amongst the returns received from India was one from Native Surgeon Moodeen Sheriff, of Madras, containing the vernacular names of indigenous plants and drugs, in twelve of the native languages of India, a work of immense labour, reflecting the greatest credit on the intelligence and industry of the compiler. This Catalogue, having been submitted to eminent Oriental scholars at home, and pronounced generally correct, it was decided to append it to the Pharmacopoeia. It was accordingly forwarded to Madras for the purpose of being printed under Mr. Moodeen Sheriff’s superintendence. Unexpected circumstances, however, having arisen there to delay its publication, it has been deemed advisable, rather than to defer the publication of this work, to issue the Catalogue in a separate or supplementary volume.”

I have written before about Moodeen Sheriff (Miscellany, April 5 & 12, 2010) asking for more information about him. Surely one of the Islamic libraries or scholars in the city would have come across the name.

Footnote: It is ‘officinal’, not a typo for ‘official’ and means “(of a herb or drug) used in medicine”. We live and learn.


(Soundarya, the Garden House)

The timber family’s home

A slim little booklet on the Madabushi Seshadri Iyengar family by Radha Padmanabhan, whose husband belongs to it, provided me a glimpse of a garden house that’s no longer there, but whose name was derived from an institution I had not associated with this Teynampet area. But a little bit of background before we get to the handsome house seen in my picture today.

Madabushi Doraiswamy Iyengar came to Madras from a village near Tiruttani in the late 1800s. In 1894, he started a timber business with a T. Seshadri Iyengar. In the early 1900s, the partnership was dissolved and Doraiswamy Iyengar with his three brothers, Chakravarthy Iyengar, Seshadri Iyengar (not to be confused with the original partner) and Sudarsanam Iyengar started M. Doraiswamy Iyengar and Brothers which became popularly known as ‘M.D. & Brothers’. In due course, the firm virtually “commanded the Madras timber market”, specialising in teak from Southeast Asia.

After the death of Doraiswamy Iyengar, the business split and Seshadri Iyengar and his two sons, Pattabhiraman and Padmanabhan, continued the business in the existing name. Meanwhile, Seshadri Iyengar and family kept moving to rented houses, till he found the house he wanted — at 35 Eldam’s Road. The house was called Soundaraya. Was it connected with the plant nursery of the same name? I had always associated the nursery with Mount Road, but Radha Padmanabhan narrates that the house’s name “derived from the nursery which existed there by the same name much earlier.”

Soundaraya, she relates, was in a property that stretched between Eldam’s Road and Murray’s Gate Road, but it was built facing Mowbray’s (TTK) Road, its vast grounds stretching all the way to Mowbray’s Road and with spaciousness to the rear of the building as well. It was truly a garden house with a wealth of trees, plants and gardens.

Seshadri Iyengar bought the once British-owned house and 24 ground (1 1/2 acre) property from P.S. Ramachandran in 1944 for around Rs. 55,000 and spent much more renovating it. After Seshadri Iyengar and his wife passed away, the house was pulled down in 1981-82 and in its acreage today is a maze of houses and apartment blocks in which live many from the Madabushi Seshadri Iyengar family.

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