A sporting rationalist

Robert Bruce Foote. Photo at special exhibition at Government Museum, Egmore. Photo: M. Vedhan  

As these lines are written, another national hockey championship is about to get underway. Yes, another, for one organised by another claimant to national hockey management has just been completed. Imagine two national hockey championships run by rival bodies within a few days of each other! No wonder our national sport is in the doldrums that it is!

That state of affairs would have broken the heart of the man after whom the trophy for the recently completed championship was named. The S. Rangaswami Trophy was presented by The Hindu in 1957 in memory of an Editor who was passionately fond of sport, particularly hockey.

S. Rangaswami was the son of S. Kasturiranga Iyengar’s elder brother Srinivasaraghava Iyengar, once the Inspector-General of Registration, Madras, and, later, a Dewan of Baroda. Rangaswami, a small-made person, was a keen sportsman at Presidency College where his hockey prowess was well recognised. He was also in his youth a promising cricketer and, later in life, a regular at the billiard tables of the Cosmopolitan Club. His interest in hockey was so great that of him it was said that he never missed a match in the major hockey leagues and tournaments in Madras. It is this interest that The Hindu remembered when instituting the trophy named after him. Sadly, it has not been played for as regularly as it should have been; this year, it was competed for after a gap of 16 years!

It was in 1910 that Rangaswami joined his uncle at The Hindu, not long after passing out as a lawyer. In him the paper gained a brilliant analyst and a writer described as a “master of satire and irony”, a writer who contributed “fire, flashes of wit, ridicule and sarcasm, the outpourings of an outraged patriot demanding instant satisfaction.”

His analytical weekly reviews of the action during the Great War were what brought him into the public eye. With no military background whatsoever, he still was able to analyse with remarkable accuracy the happenings on the various battlefronts.

The War over, The Hindu began to pay greater attention to the domestic scene. And this was when Rangaswami was seen at his trenchant best, His “invective”, as some saw it, was neither offensive, vulgar or malicious but was “a fine art”. Of the Moderates who leaned towards the Establishment he wrote, that they are “Moderates only in their patriotism” and that “Moderatism is not a policy but a disease”. Of one of the leading Moderates, the Rev. Hon. V.S. Srinivasa Sastri, he wrote, “It was said of the Austrians that they had a genius for defeat. It may be said with equal justice of Mr. Sastri that he has a genius for surrender.”

A voracious reader of everything from penny dreadfuls to the English Classics, Rangaswami developed not only a mastery over the language but also a rationalist’s outlook to life. A friend described him as “an emphatic, exaggerated and extraordinary protest against all social and moral conventions of the world, especially those attached to a Brahmin by birth”. Reflecting these views were his words to a writer on religious topics:

“The best way of influencing humanity for good would be to carry conviction to your fellowmen by a process of rational persuasion and not by mantras… Never mind your textbook theories and discussions. I realise some superhuman agency (what it is I do not care or stop to investigate) is responsible for the creation of the universe and the best way to worship him is to devote your energies and intellect to the service of the poor, the weak and the downtrodden who are all God’s creatures.” This is what students should be taught, he emphasised over and over again.

Stricken by tuberculosis, he died young. At 40, he had been Editor of The Hindu for only three years. But in those years he had made the paper’s anti-Establishment voice heard louder than ever. It was felt that “a great calamity” had befallen The Hindu when S. Rangaswami passed away in October 1926. But given that he thought the best years of his life were his college years, the S. Rangaswami trophy for the national hockey championships is probably the best memorial to him.


Where did Foote find them?

It was 150 years ago on May 30 that Bruce Foote unearthed those Palaeolithic (Stone Age) finds that gave India a prehistory. The generally proffered story is that he found them in “a ballast pit” in Pallavaram, ballast in this context perhaps meaning coarse stone or gravel for road-building or rail track-laying, for which the Pallavaram area is well-known. It is also reported that he made his finds near the ‘Parade Grounds’ in Pallavaram. The ‘Brigade Grounds’ are also mentioned in this connection. Now where were these grounds in Pallavaram, that southern suburb of Madras?

To the best of my knowledge, the St. Thomas’ Mount Cantonment is really the St. Thomas’ Mount-cum-Pallavaram Cantonment, stretching south from Kathipara Junction to what was the first major industrial unit in the area, once known as English Electric and now as Areva. The almost 3,200-acre cantonment once had, I’m told, three parade grounds. They were the regimental parade ground in Pallavaram, the Madras Area headquarters parade ground that is now the Officers’ Training Academy ground, and the Artillery Park and parade ground in what is now Mohite Stadium in the shadow of the Mount. In which of these or near which of them was the ballast pit that Foote delved into and achieved fame? Juxtaposing Parade Ground and Brigade Ground, the two sites mentioned, I would be inclined to point to what’s now the Mohite Stadium grounds, the only space big enough for the parade of a brigade. But can anyone offer something more than speculation?

The St. Thomas’ Mount-cum-Pallavaram Cantonment is said to be the second oldest in India. The oldest I’m told was Calcutta’s Barrackpore, established in 1772. But it got its administrative Board in 1775. St. Thomas’ Mount-cum-Pallavaram got its Board in 1774 and was a much earlier military station than Barrackpore. So I’d be inclined to claim St. Thomas’ Mount-cum-Pallavaram as the oldest cantonment — and not the second oldest as the Army would have it — in the subcontinent. But then, as many say about me, I’m prejudiced. More definite, however, is the fact that Bruce Foote’s were the first Palaeolithic finds in South Asia. And, so, he is called the ‘Father of Indian Prehistory’, according to Dr. Shanti Pappu who is tracing his life story and re-exploring his excavation sites.


When the postman knocked…

*Referring to my piece on Dr. S. Gopal, that outstanding modern Indian historian (Miscellany, April 22), V.C. Srikumar, an advocate, tells me that Gopal could have been an equally outstanding advocate if only he had chosen the Law as a profession. Gopal took his Law degree from the University of Madras in 1944. The previous year, he was awarded the University Gold Medal for Constitutional Law. But instead of following the example of two of his brothers-in-law, Kasturi Seshagiri Rao and M. Seshachalapathy of the Madras Bar — the latter went on to become a Judge of the Andhra Pradesh High Court — he chose to go to Oxford to improve on his Master’s in History which he had obtained in Madras. The Law’s loss was History’s gain thereafter.

*P. Krishnan, who on a recent visit to the Marina caught up with the Tilak Ghat memorial that was installed after years of appeal, tells me that it’s yet another forgotten landmark in the city: “no one pays any attention to it”. But, he continues, the authorities constantly keep speaking of new plans for the Marina. And there are also now plans for the San Thomé beach, he adds. Perhaps they’d like to add markers at both sites to a historic event — and find them as ignored by the public as the event itself has been forgotten. The event he refers to is the Madras Salt Satyagraha in 1930, following on the heels of the Dandi and Vedaranyam marches. The march to the sea at the Triplicane Beach (later called Tilak Ghat) was led by T. Prakasam, S. Satyamurti and others. At San Thomé Beach, many from the film world were in the forefront. As usual, my correspondent adds, arrests were made followed by releases after brief detentions. And that was that.

*My New South Wales correspondent, Dr. A. Raman, sends me yet another tidbit and I wonder whether the Meteorological Department will have anything to add to these bits of information relating to a Dr. Alexander Turnbull Christie, who was an Assistant Surgeon in the Madras medical establishment until 1828 and who wrote a treatise on “Epidemic Cholera”. When he returned to Scotland on furlough that year, he got interested in Geology and Meteorology and got down to studying them. This academic pursuit of his led to Christie being appointed Geological Surveyor, Government of Madras, in 1830. When he returned to Madras in 1831, he brought with him several meteorological instruments bought from “Robinson, Optician, Portland Place” (London or Edinburgh?). These included a thermometer, a barometer, an oethrioscope, a photometer, an electroscope, a hygrometer, an ombrometer (rain gauge) and an atmometer. Fort St. George thereupon ordered 20-30 sets of this equipment for the Presidency. Dr. Raman, in a footnote adds that “it is interesting to note that Christie speaks highly of (in the Madras Journal of Literature and Science) Centigrade measurements of temperature as against Fahrenheit readings even as early as 1832, when Fahrenheit measurements were followed religiously in the U.K.!”

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