Saturday, October 24, 2015

August 15, 2015: Heritage walk - "Mylapore and the Freedom Movement" by V. Sriram

Had a memorable Independence Day with the Mylapore walk led by Sriram Venkatakrishnan​.   We began at the Srinivasa Gandhi Nilayam at Ambujammal Street where ashes of Mahatma Gandhi are kept. At the entrance to the building was a huge portrait of Ambujammal. Ambujammal, the daughter of S. Srinivasa Iyengar CIE, a leading advocate and politician, was a freedom fighter who was awarded the Padma Shri by the Indian government in 1964. Next Mr. Sriram led us to Murray's Gate Road   , where singing star K. B. Sundarambal once resided. The house was a gift from media magnate K. Srinivasan of The Hindu. Mr. Sriram narrated interesting anecdotes from the lives of Sundarambal and her husband, S. G. Kittappa including the fact that Kittappa auctioned off his fountain pen once for a princely sum. The amount so earned was deposited in the coffers of the Indian National Congress. But their love story was by no means a dream tale - a pity that Kittappa died young. Mr. Sriram also narrated how Gandhi visited the twenty-something widow and convinced her to return to public life and fight for independence.

Next in our itinerary, was The Grove, the residence of Sir C. P. Ramaswami Iyer, one of those enigmatic personalities who lend colour to the history of the freedom struggle and Partition. Born with a  silver spoon in his mouth. Sir C. P. excelled in his studies and chosen profession. By 1920, he had established his reputation as one of the leading lawyers in the country. Among his briefs was the Krishnamurti-Nityananda custody case against Annie Besant also called the Besant v Narayaniah trial which became a sensation in the country. While Sir C. P. successfully fought on behalf of Narayaniah for the custody of his two sons, he reconciled with Besant shortly afterwards and lent vociferous support to her Home Rule Movement. When the British government decreed that it would be illegal for Besant's newspaper New India to function from any building whatsoever, Sir C. P. bought the newspaper and allowed the press to function from underneath a tree in The Grove, his family residence.  It was a great experience to meet the acclaimed scholar and great grand-daughter of Sir C. P., Dr. Nanditha Krishna who resides in a building within the property. We did visit that building, too, and at its entrance came across a tablet commemorating the birth centenary of Sir C. P.

Then Mr. Sriram took us to Luz Church Road for the most interesting part of the walk. It was the story of two remarkable, independent-minded women - Ambujammal and Durgabai Deshmukh. The first  building Mr. Sriram took us to was Amjad Bagh, once a residence of the Nawab of Arcot which was later occupied by British government officials and finally ended in the hands of S. Srinivasa Iyengar. Srinivasa Iyengar was a highly successful lawyer who served as Advocate general of the Madras Presidency from 1916 to 1920. In the later years of his life, he was also a very successful politician leading the Swarajya Party to a majority in the Madras Legislative Council in the 1926 elections. Srinivasa Iyengar was married to one of the many daughters of Sir V. Bhashyam Aiyangar, one of half-a-dozen famous Vembakkams and the first Indian to act as Advocate General of Madras. Mr. Sriram then listed other famous Vembakkam lawyers, V. C. Desikachari, V. C. Gopalratnam, etc. The life of one of the Vembakkams (though not a lawyer), V. Ramiengar, would make interesting reading in itself. Until recently, there used to be opposite to the Amjad Bagh the residence of C. V. Ananthasubramaniam, once Chief Justice of Cochin state. But the house has been demolished recently probably to make way for a series of flats. Today, C. V. Ananthasubramaniam is remembered for  framing that famous ordinance which banned the singing or publication of any song written by the nationalistic poet, Subrahmanya Bharathi. The prohibition of Bharathi's songs back then, I can imagine, must have produced a Streisand effect enhancing their popularity and prestige even more. 

Now coming back to Ambujammal, born into one of the most affluent families in the city, both Ambujammal and her husband Desikachari (who was from a humbler background) felt themselves surrounded by a gilded cage. Whilst the situation had a strong adverse effect on Desikachari's mental health, upon Ambujammal the impact was more mild and physical. And then came Gandhi on a visit. The visit that lasted barely a week changed Ambujammal forever. She renounced all the luxury and comfort and plunged into the freedom struggle spending time in jail on a few occasions. When Ambujammal returned after serving a particularly long prison term, Srinivasa Iyengar surprising welcomed her back into the household. Whatever be his attitude toiwards Gandhi and the Civil Disobedience movement, Srinivasa Iyengar was still an ardent nationalist - the discoverer of Kamaraj as well as "Pasumpon" U. Muthuramalinga Thevar. However, fate was not to be as good to Srinivasa Iyengar and his descendants as they had been to the nation.  Srinivasa Iyengar's grandson died in a lightning strike and his son Parthasarathy renouned family and pleasures and became a sanyasi taking the name Anbananda.

Next comes the epic tale of Durgabai Deshmukh, portions of which seem too improbable to be believed. Born in 1906 or 1907 in Cocanada (as Kakinada was known back then), Durgabai was married off at an early age. But she despaired of her married life and compelled her husband to marry again, even  finding a wife for him and conducting their marriage herself. Now these appear fine ingredients for a feature film (or one of those wierd soaps you come across on TV).  Freed of her family bonds, Durgabai started with social reform and gradually entered the freedom movement. Once when Gandhi insisted upon a  donation of Rs. 500 from each visitor who came to see him, Durgabai went on a collection spree  and accumulated a sum of Rs. 8,000 for all the inmates of the destitute women's ashram that she ran. Durgabai was later elected to the Madras legislature and remarried on the advice of Jawaharlal Nehru. Her husband this time was the eminent civil servant Sir C. D. Deshmukh, the third Governor and the first Indian Governor of the Reserve Bank of India.  In regard to appearance they were poles apart, Durgabai being considered far less attractive than her partner. But in temperament, they were extremely compatible and proved to be an ideal pair. Towards the end of her life, when Durgabai had lost her eyesight, she typically remarked that as long as Chintaman Deshmukh was there by her side she had nothing to fear. They would die within few years of the other, Durgabai predeceasing her partner.  Today, there are few relics of Durgabai in the city, one the street named after her and the other, the Andhra Mahila Sabha that she helped establish. And it was as a part of the history of the Andhra Mahila Sabha that Mr. Sriram narrated her story.

Also in our itinerary was Ekamra Nivas, the house of Sir Alladi Krishnaswami Iyer. Alladi, Mr. Sriram explained, was by far the longest serving Advocate General of Tamil Nadu. In his younger days, he was known to be a studyholic and he established a reputation for expertise in legal matters. Mr. Sriram compared Alladi with Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer while equating Alladi's predecessor T. R. Venkatarama Sastri to Ariyakudi Ramanuja Iyengar. While Ariyakudi was smooth and polished, Mr. Sriram remarked, Semmangudi was crude though far more knowledgable. 

Another famous Mylapore house was Shree Bagh owned by freedom fighter and Telugu language activist Kasinadhuri Nageswara Rao, the editor of Andhra Prabha who founded the herbal balm Amrutanjan. In this house was penned the Shree Bagh Agreement which for the first time proposed the establishment of a separate Andhra State with its borders clearly delineated. But before it came to Rao's hands, Shree Bagh was the property of P. R. Sundaram Iyer, another legal luminary. Sundaram Iyer and his contemporary V. Krishnaswami Iyer, Mr. Sriram remarked, were the Siamese twins in the legal profession. Both were born at about the same time, studied together, graduated at the same time and practised at the same time. Both would die young, probably due to overwork. Krishnaswami Iyer shared a love-hate relationship with the great Tamil nationalist poet Subrahmanya Bharathi. While he funded some of Bharathiar's early publications, towards the end, he became a imperialist icon  hated by militant nationalists and ironically, his protege Subrahmanya Bharathi. When Krishnaswami was appointed judge, Bharathi was openly critical of the appointment.

The last leg of our walk took us to Ranade Hall. Named after M. G. Ranade, the hall was founded in 1905 as a part of the South Indian National Association. In the 1950s, the Srinivasa Sastri Hall named after V. S. Srinivasa Sastri was constructed on the first floor of Ranade Hall. Sastri hall was the venue for many Carnatic concerts and according to Mr. Sriram, the hall had a profound influence on the history of Carnatic music. From the edge of North Mada Street, Mr. Sriram pointed out the house of Diwan Bahadur R. Raghunatha Rao that lay across the road. A cousin of Sir T. Madhava Rao and a former Diwan of Indore, Mr. Sriram said, Raghunatha Rao's house was the place were a prominent meeting of seventeen eminent people of South India, most of them members of the Madras Mahajana Sabha, were held in 1884 to discuss the need for a pan-Indian body. These were the seeds of ideas from which germinated the Indian National Congress, an year later. The house no longer exists and a highrise had been built at the spot - an indicator of how much regard we have for our heritage.

This is a brief synopsis of a 2 hour narrative. Words simply don't do justice - you should be a part of the walk to see places and hear things first hand. Thanks to Mr. Rajagopalan Venkataraman for providing hints - dots that made it easy for me to connect. And thanks to Mr. Sriram for enriching our knowledge. And it was a privilege to actually have members of Sir Madhava Rao's family and Krishnaswami Iyer's around.

 Srinivasa-Gandhi Nilayam

 Portrait of Ambujammal

 Inside the Srinivasa-Gandhi Nilayam

K. B. Sundarambal's house since demolished and replaced with modern buildings

 Plaque erected by Dr. Hidyathullah, the then Governor of Tamil Nadu, in 1980 during Sir C. P.'s centenary commemorating the tree underneath which the press of "New India" functioned during Annie Besant's incarceration.

Ranade Library (ground floor) and the Srinivasa Sastri Hall (first floor)

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