Presiding over history

Hallowed room Where historic people once sat

Hallowed room Where historic people once sat   | Photo Credit: Photo: R. Shivaji Rao

Dr. S. Ramanathan is completely in awe of his office, The Principal’s room at Presidency College

The walls could do with a lick of paint and “free” students include ones that coo and drop things around, but the carved balustrade gives a hint of things to come. I push the swinging doors up four cement steps to enter the office of Dr. S. Ramanathan, Principal, Presidency College.

Walking into this ante-room, partitioned by a wooden screen, is like peeping into Chennai’s academic history. If you can shut out the present — the colourless sofa set, moulded plastic chairs, everyone’s computer table, lamination on the showcase and the clutter — you will be treated to a slice of a stately past.

The Principal’s table, the five elegant chairs with the college emblem carved on the headrest, the cabinet that looks oh-so-propah, the glass-cased clock with Roman numerals and the two lovely end tables are “as old as the college” Just imagine Eyre Burton Powell, the first Principal (1840-62) in his reclining chair.

Blink and you hear Prof. Ramanathan. “I entered this historic office as the 39th Principal. Some great teachers have sat in this chair. That picture on the wall, it’s Prof. J. Ramachandran, the only Principal to have been honoured with a life-sized portrait.” Coloured prints of the others hang in the passage.

Distinguished visitors

The 168-year-old history of this office comes in many forms, but the ‘distinguished visitors’ register — Vol II’ is a primary source. With the enthusiasm of a fresher, Principal Ramanathan opens its yellowing pages. “Presidencians have come back as politicians, bureaucrats, lawyers, people after whom streets have been named, and, of course, professors, to sign this,” he says.

“Look, the first signature belongs to Dr. AL Mudaliar, VC of Madras University. You have C.P. Ramaswamy Iyer, Sir Sivaswamy Iyer, Field Marshal Cariappa, U. Ve. Swaminatha Iyer, Lord Erskine … This is CV Raman’s signature! He studied here, returned as Nobel Laureate.” He thumbs the book. “Dr Chandrasekar was here too. He has signed, “Nobel Laureate, old Presidencian. And Dr. Shanta, of the Laureate family.”

“Mr. Annaduarai sat in your chair,” he says, making me jump.

“This was February 4, 1949, before he started the party. He has identified himself as “Journalist”. The Sultan of Malaysia has signed in neat capital letters. Dr. Abdul Kalam, as a scientist. The Prince of Arcot. Whoever signs the ledger goes on to make history.”

He sits back. “I keep reading this and I’m overwhelmed. I have a record book that lists students from 1840 onwards.” I pull him into the now. “I’m satisfied I was able to uphold and sustain the pride of the college,” he says. “Yes, students are different now. But even the hostile ones respect the tradition and dignity of this office.”

“From classic to contemporary to future,” he says, pointing at the emblem, the matchstick model of the building, Best NSS Unit Award, citation from Mylapore Academy, the broadband connection, a nod to his position as nodal officer of the Bio-Informatics Centre. He spends long hours here. “I have one unfulfilled wish. I must come back to sign the distinguished visitor register.”

Prof. Ramanathan will soon leave behind an impressive tenure, but he will be the first to admit that he takes with him something invaluable — anecdotes from the history of this great institution on the beach.

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