Madras Miscellany | History & Culture

Education beyond religion: on collapsing Madrasa-e-Azam Higher Secondary School on Anna Salai

The main building of the Madrasa-e-Azam Higher Secondary School on Anna Salai is in a state of collapse and under threat of being razed. The School survives in dilapidated neighbouring buildings. The Prince of Arcot’s offer, therefore, to take the School over, and restore it to the premier position it had when founded by his ancestors, is a welcome one. And that main building can be restored too.

It was Dr Edward Balfour, Agent of the East India Company to the Court of the Nawab of the Carnatic, Ghulam Ghouse Khan, who in 1851 persuaded the Nawab to transform the family’s madrasa into a modern school called the Madrasa-e-Azam, named after his father, Nawab Azam Jah, who had first favoured a proposal by Balfour. The School was opened to the public and began teaching English long before Muslim institutions in North India. The Madrasa-e-Azam also taught “the secular sciences and Tamil and Telugu”, apart from Urdu. It had British, Hindu and Muslim teachers from the time it started its new innings. In 1860, it was taken over by Government which paid rent for the Nawabocracy’s Mount Road property for some years, before acquiring it.

One of the intentions in modernising the Royal Madrasa was “to fit (students) for the prosecution of those higher studies which were followed in the Presidency College.” This example was followed by later Muslim institutions in several other parts of South India, but coming from a rather different background was a school in Madras, which originated in a donation of £1,500 from Sybilla, wife of Governor Lord George Harris, in 1855; it was “to start a Muslim school”. The money given to the Church Missionary Society was supplemented by ₹7,000 from Government to raise buildings for it. The Harris School, inaugurated in 1857 in Royapettah, initially met much opposition from the Muslim community, who charged it with the intent of converting Muslim boys. By the late 1860s, the School had almost closed down, but it survived and, thereafter, was able to, like the Madrasa-e-Azam, successfully “prepare Muslim youth for government service”.

Balfour, who is perhaps better remembered for founding the Madras Museum and Zoo, was a dedicated student of Urdu and Persian. This led him, while at the Carnatic Court, to propose, in 1849, establishing a Muslim library. Persuading several leaders of the community to support it, Balfour got the Muhammadan Public Library going on Wallajah Road in 1850. Donors of books included the Egyptian King and Governor Henry Pottinger. Within a few months the Library had 1,500 scholarly titles. But, over the years, the building was allowed to deteriorate. It was, however, renovated in the new Millennium.

Education beyond religion: on collapsing Madrasa-e-Azam Higher Secondary School on Anna Salai

The one venture Balfour failed to get going was a research institute he had hoped to call the Society of Arts and Science, focussed on the Muslim contribution to these fields. At a meeting of Muslim leaders he convened in the Madrasa-e-Azam in March 1854, he made an impassioned plea for it. Sadly, nothing more came of it than promises despite his memorable words: “In the olden days, when nobody knew about the English people, there arose a long line of great scholars, during the period of the Abbasid Caliphate, who made their names in Arts and Science. The English people took this knowledge from you. They not only disseminated this knowledge among themselves, but also advanced it further by their indefatigable researches. It is regrettable that you did not advance further and thus lagged behind others. Now you have to learn the same from English people…”

When the postman knocked…

* Searchers for roots were at my doorstep again, two in person, the third knocking through the postman. I had no answers for them, but the third had a few more clues that just might get a reader response.

Dr Leo Anthony wants more details about his ancestors than he has. What he has is that his great-grandfather, C Masilamoney, a vakil in Trichy, moved to Madras around 1889 to practise at the High Court, and may have lived in Nagathamman Koil Street, Royapuram (which I am unable to trace). In the early 1900s, his son, Francis Masilamoney, born in 1880 and my correspondent’s grandfather, migrated “to Africa.” Francis had a brother, Anthony, who signed himself CA Masilamoney while with the Indian Copper Corporation in the 1930s. Perhaps readers with High Court and Copper Corporation connections may have some answers, Dr Anthony hopes.

*I am told, writes Kamal Ahmed, that Nawab Wallajah’s brother Mahfuz Khan is remembered in a street name and an area name. Where are they? I must again say, sadly, I can’t trace them. Would they be near Seven Wells where the French stopped him as he came to relieve the British in Fort St George in 1746? Or would they be near Egmore Station, where the Egmore Redoubt was and where he regrouped? Or would they be near the Theosophical Society where the French routed his forces? Not identifiable today, it’s possible the locations’ names have been replaced over time. Place names and locations are indeed a problem in Madras. One of those searchers for roots accusingly told me that my house is not on Google. No surprise; when re-numbering was underway, the Corporation forgot mine. So 2F does not exist!

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Printable version | Feb 28, 2020 6:50:22 AM |

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