Mudaliars who maketh Madras

Historian Sudha Umashanker details the contributions of Mudaliars in education, politics, films, medicine, culture and social work.

Published: 06th September 2021 01:47 AM  |   Last Updated: 08th September 2021 07:10 PM   |  A+A-

Raja Sir Savalai Ramaswami Mudaliar Choultry (L) and renowned Mudaliars (R)

Raja Sir Savalai Ramaswami Mudaliar Choultry (L) and renowned Mudaliars (R)

Express News Service

CHENNAI: The first Indian educational institution of south India — Pachaiyappa’s school — was funded with the generous bequest from Pachiyappa Mudaliar.

The Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam was founded by CN Annadurai. The first south Indian silent film was directed by R Nataraja Mudaliar. And, the list goes on...,” says storytellercum- writer Sudha Umashanker.

Raising a toast, in her virtual presentation on ‘Mudaliars and Madras’, Umashanker recounted the notable works of some of the illustrious and forgotten Mudaliars.

Enterprising educationists

Diving into the topic, Umashanker began with the community’s contributions in the field of education. Pachaiyappa Mudaliar was instrumental in starting Pachaiyappa’s School on NSC Bose Road in 1842. Pachaiyappa’s College was started in 1880 and was relocated to the present location on Poonamallee Road in 1940.

"Pachaiyappa Mudaliar’s life is a rags-to-riches story. With the help of merchant Powney Narayana Pillai, Pachaiyappa became a dubash (interpreter).  He was known for his integrity, was respected by people, and also amassed a fortune from his job. After his death, his will was contested and there was a lot of embezzlement by the executors. George Norton, the advocate general, resolved the matter after 42 years. The money was earmarked for various charitable causes," she narrated.

Pachaiyappa’s School in Esplanade

A like-minded educationist, who donated 20 acres of ground to build TTV Higher Secondary School, was medical practitioner Dr MR Gurusamy Mudaliar. A bridge in Chetpet and a block in Kilpauk Medical College are named after him.

"Education was everybody’s priority back then. Among the many who supported women’s education and empowerment was a successful lawyer called VL Ethiraj. He donated Rs 10 lakh for the setting up of what is now called the Ethiraj College for Women. The Commander-in-Chief Road is named after him as Ethiraj Salai," said Umashanker.

Some of the other reputed names in the field of education were Padma Shri recipient ND Sundaravadivelu, former vice chancellor of the University of Madras; G Viswanathan, founder, VIT; and M Anandakrishnan, former chairman, IIT Kanpur.

“Cut to the present generation, one of the internationally known professors of Corporate Finance & Valuation at Stern School of Business is Ashwath Damodaran.”

For the future of medicine

One of the most respected names in medicine was Dr A Lakshmanaswami Mudaliar, an obstetrician and gynecologist. His book on clinical obstetrics is a bible for students to date, she shared.

He was an eminent educationist, the first Indian principal of the Madras Medical College and the vice chancellor of Madras University for nine terms.

"Some of the other decorated names were clinician BN Sundaravadanan and urologist A Venugopal. Dr N Pandiyan, a pioneer in assisted reproductive technology in south India, continues to render his service," added Umashanker.

Game-changers in politics

While most members had a short stint in politics, there were a few who made a mark. Minjur Bhaktavatsalam, who served as the last Congress chief minister of Tamil Nadu from 1963-67, was also a part of the independence struggle, Salt Satyagraha and Quit India Movement.

Popularly known as Anna, CN Annadurai was the last chief minister of Madras and first CM of Tamil Nadu. Dr Natesa Mudaliar was one of the founders of the Justice Party and OV Alagesan, an MP.

"Beyond politics, there were members like Arcot Ramachandran, the former Under-Secretary General of United Nations Centre for Human Settlements and P Sabanayagam, a senior civil servant," said Umashanker.

Not to forget A Ramaswami Mudaliar — the multifaceted personality who became a successful lawyer, vice chancellor, parliamentarian and politician. He joined the Justice Party and even edited Justice, the party organ. Renowned for his knowledge of public affairs, he held reputable positions in other fields as well.

Philanthropy at its peak

To amass a good fortune is one thing, to donate a sizable portion of it for the welfare of people is another story. One such philanthropist was a dubash by the name Manali Muthukrishna Mudaliar.

He donated 5,000 pagodas for the relocation of two ancient temples — Chenna Kesava Perumal and Chenna Malleeswarar temple on Devaraja Mudali street in George Town.

Several other hospitals, libraries and choultries were established by Savalai Ramaswami Mudaliar. A choultry, constructed by him in 1888, is soon to be converted into a Metro rail museum.

Behind the screens

Apart from the contributions towards social development, three stalwarts shaped the early years of the entertainment industry in Tamil theatre and cinema.

Among them is Padma Bhushan awardee Pammal Samanda Mudal iar, fondly called the founding father of Tamil theatre and founder of Suguna Vilasa Sabha.

Some of his plays were staged in the Victoria Public Hall, she recalled.

“He elevated the standards of theatre by permitting only graduates to act. He has written 60 plays and done many adaptations of William Shakespeare. His first play was Pushpavalli and many plays were even made into films like Sathi Sulochana, Ramalingam Swamigal and Ratnavali,” detailed Umashanker.

Then, there was R Nataraja Mudaliar. An automobile dealer, he was inspired to make films, and trained with a Britisher called Stewart Smith. The theme for his first silent film, Keechaka Vadham, was suggested by Pammal Samanda Mudaliar.

"Known as the f irst Tamil film, it came out in 1918 and had its debut at Elphinstone theatre. The budget was Rs 35,000 and it made a neat profit. The script for the film was penned by attorney Ranga Vadivelu. He built a film studio in his garden house on Miller’s Road, Tower House, and that was south India’s first film studio," said Umashanker. It was screenwriter and director AC Tirulokchandar’s Deiva Magan, which was the first south Indian film to bag the Academy Awards, she noted.

All walks of life

Besides politicians, educationists and medical practitioners, some members held other coveted positions — cricketer CD Gopinath, palynologist Ganapathi Thanikaimoni, contractor CS Loganatha Mudaliyar.

Adding to the list, Umashanker said, "Music director AR Rahman’s father RK Shekhar was also a mudaliar. RN Manickam was a respected policeman and a personal security officer to former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. The Rajaratnam Stadium is named after a highly decorated police officer under the same name. There are also corporate leaders like CR Ramakrishnan and AL Mudaliar. Quizzer Naveen Jayakumar is also from the community."

The wonder women

While a larger part of the talk focused on the male contributors, it also brought to the limelight some of the female achievers in the fields of social work, academics, art and entrepreneurship.

Padma Shri recipient Sarojini Varadappan, champion of women welfare and empowerment; Andal Damodaran, champion of child rights; and Geeta Viswanathan, chairperson, Tamil Nadu Social Welfare Board. Dancers Alarmel Valli and Meenakshi Chittaranjan are celebrated for their Pandanallur style, textile revivalist Sabita Radhakrishna, professor

Yasodha Shanmugasundaram and Hemu Ramaiah, founder, Landmark, have been actively engaged in keeping the socio-cultural landscape alive.

Drawing curtains to the in-depth talk, Umashanker said, “I’m sure there are more such noble members that deserve a mention but it’s not practically possible to include all the names. It’s a work-in-progress list.”

Celebrating Mudaliar women

Sarojini Varadappan, champion of women welfare and empowerment; Andal Damodaran, child rights champion; and Geeta Viswanathan, chairperson, TN Social Welfare Board. Dancers Alarmel Valli and Meenakshi Chittaranjan are celebrated for their Pandanallur style, textile revivalist Sabita Radhakrishna, professor Yasodha Shanmugasundaram and Hemu Ramaiah, founder, Landmark, have been engaged in keeping the socio-cultural landscape alive.


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  • Mahendra Kumar

    Finally an article describing the Mudaliars who made Chennai what it is today. My Grandfather Er.Thanigachalam from Chengalpattu was Asst Engineer for Govt Highways & Roadworks. Many buildings if still in existence would have it's plan approved & signed by him. Proud moment for Mudaliars. Thank you.
    8 months ago reply
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