Of all the Associations of British Scholars (ABS) in India, the first of them, the Chennai chapter, has been the one that has made perhaps the most significant contribution of them all to its home city. This, in Madras, has taken the form of a three-volume history of the city titled Madras/Chennai - A 400-year Record of the First City of Modern India .
The first volume was sub-titled ‘The Land, The People and Their Governance’ and the second ‘Services, Education & The Economy’. The volume due to be released at the end of the year will be on ‘Communication, Culture & Entertainment’. The 50 articles for this five-year project have been about equally divided between the volumes. Each chapter deals with the history of a particular aspect of Madras, such as History, Politics, Technical Education, Social Welfare, Media and Sport. Most of them have been written by ABS members specialising in the subject of his or her choice. Many of these subjects are related to fields the authors studied in the United Kingdom, either as scholars or as professionals upgrading their knowledge through international experience.
To disseminate the contents of the books wider, the ABS recently started a series of lectures by the authors, each one speaking on, as well as adding to, his or her contribution. And it was at the last one I attended that the grist for today’s column cropped up. Speaking on ‘Social Welfare’, Prof. Vidya Srinivasan recounted how institutionalised welfare in Madras had its beginnings in St. Mary’s Church in the Fort where the congregation initiated a charity school and orphanages that led to what is known as St. George’s H.S. School today and poor relief measures that sowed the seeds for the Monegar Choultry and the Friend in Need Society.
It was at the question and answer session that followed that the Nawab of the Carnatic’s name cropped up. A member of the audience wondered whether anyone had heard of a langarkhana that the Nawab had started, probably in the 1770s after moving into Chepauk Palace. The speaker went on to say that it has also been reported that besides this poor feeding centre to the southwest of the Palace, there were several other ways Muhammad Ali Wallajah generously helped the poor. Neither he who raised the subject nor anyone else in the audience could add anything to this, but I couldn’t help but cynically wonder whether this was not one more expenditure that added to the enormous debt the Nawab had incurred by borrowing from the British in Fort St. George to support the huge number who were family and kin, the large army he maintained (more it seemed to provide employment than to serve as a capable military force), the lavish entertainments he organised every day, the magnificent gifts he gave the British and other VIPs who called on him, and the building of Chepauk Palace and a host of other buildings raised on land he acquired at the drop of a suggestion. What this led to was the Carnatic Debts and the Carnatic becoming the first major British possession in India.
The next lecture in this series will be on June 20 at 6.15 p.m. at the British Council and will have Theodore Baskaran speaking on the ‘Wildlife of Chennai’ that is badly in need of saving.