Will Corporation celebrate too?

June 23, 2013 01:56 pm | Updated November 13, 2021 10:25 am IST

Ripon Building

Ripon Building

The coordinators of Madras Week recently announced that Madras Day, August 22, will this year be celebrated as what it has become, Madras Week, from August 18 to 25. But they went on to add that this year’s celebrations, as usual by institutions volunteering to arrange talks, quizzes, exhibitions, contests etc., already has programmes planned from the first week of August to the first week of September. And they hoped that even more institutions will volunteer to join what looks like becoming a ‘Madras Month’. “The more the merrier,” they say, “if it means creating a greater awareness about this ‘First City of Modern India’.” And one of those firsts, they pointed out, is the Corporation of Madras, the oldest municipal body in any British territory outside the United Kingdom.

This year it is also a significant year for the Madras Corporation. It is the 325th year of the Corporation beginning to function and it is also the 100th year of it moving into its new home, Ripon Building , after starting work in the Fort and then in premises in Errabalu Chetty Street. Two reasons to celebrate – and particularly if those celebrations can be a year-long one that could be flagged off from the restored Ripon Building on September 29.

It was on that date in 1688 that the Corporation first sat, after the mayor and twelve Aldermen had come in grand procession to what was called the Town Hall. In this building in Fort St George, the first mayor of Madras, Nathaniel Higginson, read out the Royal Charter issued by King James II in December 1687 and thanked Sir Josiah Child, the Chairman of the East India Company, for seeing the need of a municipal body for a city with a population at the time of about 300,000 and making it become a reality. Left unsaid was that though the rather dictatorial Agent (Governor) heading the Company’s Council in Madras carried out London’s orders, Elihu Yale was not at all in favour of the establishment of the Corporation, which he felt took away some of his powers. Curiously, Madras’s first Mayor was American-born, like Yale; Connecticut where he was born and Massachusetts where Yale was born were British colonies at the time.

The first aldermen were three Englishmen, a French merchant, two Portuguese merchants, three Jewish diamond traders, also of Portuguese origin, and three ‘Gentu’ merchants. The Gentu (a term use for both Telugus and Tamils at the time) were Chinna Venkatadri (younger brother of Beri Thimmappa who helped found the settlement), Mudda Viranna and Alangatha Pillai. Higginson also established, under the Charter, a Mayor’s Court to try minor offences and one of the Gentus always sat on the Bench with one of the Europeans when an Indian was being tried or was the victim. It was with such healthy practices that the Corporation of Madras got off to a start. Surely an event and an institution to celebrate.

During Madras Week a few years ago the Corporation held, in a shamianaed-enclosure on its lawns, an exhibition of photographs and prints narrating some of its story. Perhaps it should think of an even-better mounted exhibition during Madras Week this year and let it grow into a September celebration that would climax on September 29th and continue through the year ahead.

The father of Loyola

It was recently announced that Loyola College, Madras, was to be recognised as one of five stand alone colleges in the country who would be allowed to grant its own degrees. No one would be happier than this than someone up there, Pere François Bertrand, better known as Fr. Francis Bertram, the founding father of Loyola.

Father Bertram was French-born but there were many who took him to be English, as much for his speech as his knowledge of English Literature. This love of English and skills in Mathematics he acquired at St. Joseph’s College, Trichinopoly, to which the Jesuit Order in India sent him. Much as he wanted to do his degree in Literature, the Jesuit schools needed teachers of science and so mathematics became his major at St. Joseph’s. And natural science became his hobby; an unfortunate one when to his hearing-impaired left ear was added a blinded eye when a thorn pierced it while he searched for insects amidst prickly pears.

These handicaps nor his constantly indifferent health did not, however, slow him down. From 1896 till 1925, he taught Mathematics at St. Joseph’s as he progressed towards becoming Rector and Principal of the College. This progress was interrupted with spells at Sacred Heart College, Kodaikanal, where he was sent to study Philosophy, the Jesuit institution in Kurseong where he studied Theology, and the seminary in Ranchi where the focus was on spiritual training. Brother Bertram soon afterwards became Father Bertram.

Fr. Bertram’s stewardship of St.Joseph’s came soon after the announcement in 1904 of University reforms. He not only implemented these reforms but by the Great War had made those seeking a St. Joseph’s education grow from 300 to 1000. And provide a steady stream of teachers of science, history and economics for all the colleges of the Presidency and for many beyond. Then came the mission to start a college in Madras.

The travails of starting Loyola, an institution first conceived as an idea in 1895, more seriously taken up in 1907 and made a commitment only in the first years after the Great War is too long and complicated a one to narrate here. So the story begins with the search for land. When the Nawab’s Gardens, 16 acres at the end of Sterling Road with a large mansion in it, was offered, it was felt that the area was too small for all the buildings planned. Eventually, what is recorded as Puliyur land, across from the Nungambakkam tank, where the College now is, was agreed on. Then began the search for funds to raise the buildings.

Fr. Bertram sailed for Europe in 1920 and hoped he’d be able to raise the funds there. After unproductive visits in France, he went to Rome and rather diffidently requested an audience with the Pope, who said, “They who want the end, they must find the means to pay.” But then added, “The Pope must set the example.” And he gave his visitor a hundred 1000 lire notes amounting to about Rs.27,000, a little more than a quarter of the budget Fr.Bertram had shown him. That gift from the Pope was the first for the raising of Loyola College. But not much more was forthcoming from Italy, England or the U.S. Fr. Bertram returned home a disappointed man, but found the Jesuit Order drawing up plans for a College building and three hostels despite the odds. He also heard from England that the Order would be sending an MA from Oxford and another from Cambridge. Loyola College was on its way.

Lord Willingdon laid the foundation stone for the first building on March 10, 1924. On May 1925 Fr. Bertram was officially named the Principal of Loyola. And on July 6 he registered the first 40 students. Over the next few days 38 more were registered.

A person who worked with him wrote some years later, “Of all the Jesuists I have met, Fr. Bertram was unquestionably the greatest. Only he could have planned Loyola College and carried out his plan.” His loyalty to Loyola was such that he turned down offers of the Vice Chancellorship of Madras and Annamalai Universities, though he did serve Madras as acting Vice Chancellor on several occasions. But the University never responded with a doctorate. Posthumous doctorates are not unknown, so it’s not too late. Lifelong ill-health took its toll and Fr. Bertram passed away in 1936, still a young 65 and dreaming of where Loyola would be one day. That day is not far off, when there will be recognition as a full-fledged university.

Heritage Trees need listing

Referring to the item ‘Bulldozing Heritage’ (Miscellany, June 10) and the levelling to dust of another heritage building, Dr. Pauline Deborah R writes that trees in general but ‘Heritage Trees’ in particular need saving from the bulldozers or axe men of institutions that should know better. Identifying several Heritage Trees in the city, she writes,

“My professor Dr Narasimhan (Madras Christian College) and I have seen a few Heritage Trees in the College of Education campus. Two noteworthy ones are a neem and a button tree. The neem is one under which former President Dr S Radhakrishnan is believed to have studied during his student days in the College. The button tree (Anogeissus acuminata) has a girth of about 5 m and is 20 m tall. It is quite a rare species in the city, numbering not more than ten in all in Madras.

“When Thiru-vi-ka Park was taken over for Metro work, a few rare trees were axed, including seven Trincomalee Teak (Berrya cordifolia) and a large Indian Oak (Barringtonia acutangula), which is a mangrove species. For the same reason a few large and rare medicinal trees were cut in the Arignar Anna Medicinal Farm at Arumbakkam. A few Belleric Myrobalan (Terminalia bellirica) and Sage-leaf Alangium (Alangium salviifolium) were cut down without realising their rarity in Madras and also their medicinal significance. The fruit of the Belleric Myrobolan is one of the main ingredients in the Ayurvedic Triphala along with gooseberry and ‘kadukkai’. I have seen a tree or two of these species only in the Madras Museum campus and the Semmozhi Poonga.

“Metro work in Nehru Park saw the loss of more than ten Australian Wattles and a large Bottle Brush Tree. Though these trees are not ecologically significant, they imparted aesthetics to the Park.

“Another heritage tree, Indian Persimmon, also known as Mountain Ebony (Diospyros malabarica), near Adrian Fourbeck’s memorial in Nandanam, is waiting for the axe. This specimen of a not-so common species, with a girth of more than 3 m, is considered to be at least 200 years old and a contemporary of Adrian Fourbeck, who was instrumental in building the Fourbeck’s bridge between Nandanam and Saidapet. Though it is not as robust as Baobabs or Rain Trees in the city, it is a larger specimen than usual for this species and this rare example needs special attention for conservation and due recognition as a heritage tree.

“Indeed, a listing of ‘Heritage Trees’ needs to be done urgently.” I couldn’t agree more. And a naturalist needs to be added to the Heritage Conservation Committee.

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