Chitrakulam, a dry pond in the south of Chennai hosts a shrine at its centre. Dogs roam through awkwardly placed arches and hastily constructed pandals and garbage is regularly dumped by residents there. Early on a January morning however, forty of us gathered near the decrepit pond for an unusual purpose – a walk led by V Sriram, one of Chennai’s foremost historians. Sriram has conducted sixty-eight walking tours in Chennai (his first was back in 1999), each one focussing on a different narrative in the city’s history. On his latest tour, he introduced us to some of the prominent figures in Mylapore’s literary history, names etched in public consciousness but whose exploits have been forgotten by most.

As we trooped along, adjusting our wireless tour systems to hear properly, Sriram pointed out buildings that stand tall in the history of the area and initiated us to a slew of names. A large number of these were prominent lawyers, many of whom lived in bungalows in Mylapore and established journals, publications and libraries in the area. A few houses are weather-worn but still standing. Others have been long torn down to make way for modern apartment complexes in what is sometimes known as Chennai’s Brahmin nucleus.

Among these was VC Seshachariar, who founded The Law Weekly back in 1914, a journal that summarised law reports and continues to function till this day. Seshachariar was the nephew of Vembakkam Sadagopacharlu, the first Indian to serve as a member of the Madras Legislative Council and is also remembered by a rather unfortunate personal tragedy. While he was showing off his rifle to his brother-in-law near the Chitrakulam pond, the gun accidentally went off, killing his brother-in-law on the spot.

Durgabai Deshmukh, the founder of Andhra Mahila Sabha also lived in the vicinity and was one of the few women who found a place on our walk. Deshmukh was a strong advocate for women’s emancipation and her modest home at Dwaraka street was filled day in and day out with women. She studied at the Madras Law College and in 1953, at the age of 44, married CD Deshmukh, the first Indian governor of the Reserve Bank of India, in a wedding ceremony that was officiated by Nehru. She later wrote the book Chintaman and I, an account of their marriage and social activism.

PR Sundaram Iyer was another prominent lawyer who lived in the area. Financial difficulties later forced his family to sell his property after his death. Together with V Krishnaswamy Iyer, he founded the Madras Law Journal which was run continuously by V Krishnaswamy Iyer’s family till it was disposed of ten years ago.

Heritage libraries

PR Sundaram Iyer was also one of the founders of the 113-year-old Ranade Library. Named after Mahadev Govind Ranade, the prominent Maharashtrian social reformer, one of the founding members of the Indian National Congress and a judge at the Bombay High Court, it opened a few years after his death in 1901. It was at this library that Alladi Krishnaswamy Iyer, a member of the Constituent Assembly and the Advocate General of Madras vociferously defended the Constitution. The library sits inconspicuously on Luz Church Road, its plaster of paris facade and wooden cabinets betraying the history it once witnessed.

Photo by Tejas Kinger

Another notable figure in the Madras library scene was KV Krishnaswami Aiyar, a figure many in Chennai are familiar with due to his association with The Music Academy, one of the central locations for the December Carnatic music concerts. A lawyer who had Parkinson’s, Aiyar was responsible for the formation of the Madras Library Association (MALA) in 1927. Along with Basheer Ahmed Sayeed, another Madras High Court judge, he expanded libraries to rural areas. With their support the first mobile library that lent books on a bullock cart launched in Mannargudi in 1929.

Aiyar also recognised, very early on, the vision of SR Ranganathan, now recognised as the father of library science who came up with the colon classification system which is used by libraries all over India. Aiyar along with others fought vigorously for legislation that strengthened access to libraries. Finally, in 1948, the Madras Public Libraries Act came into force, the first of its kind in the country, which among other things stipulated that cities in the Madras Presidency with a population exceeding 50,000 had to have central libraries of their own.

Publishing houses and the freedom struggle

The strong links between publishing houses and the freedom struggle also became more pronounced as we continued along the walk. Mylapore isn’t exactly a modern day urban hub, but a fair amount of imagination is needed to erase the modern fixtures out of these scenes and visualise them as sites of pre-Independence history.

The Alliance Company’s showroom still stands on the same small plot of land at a corner of Ramakrishna Mutt Road where it was founded in 1901 and continues to sell books. Started by V Kuppuswamy Iyer, the publishing house churned out thousands of books in Tamil, many of them translations. Alliance was the first to translate Tagore’s work in Tamil and their monthly publication Viveka Bodhini at one point had a circulation of more than 35,000. The publishing house had such a wide reach that it was responsible for galvanising Tamil support for Subhas Chandra Bose when he visited Singapore and Malaysia, since the Tamil translations of his speeches by Alliance had reached those shores. Even Gandhi visited the store a year before independence. When India finally attained independence, Iyer printed over 50,000 copies of Desiya Geetham, a collection of patriotic verses and distributed them free of cost.

The House of Natesan was another prominent publishing house in the area. Founded in 1897 by a young GA Natesan, it sold religious and nationalist books. In 1900, Natesan started The Indian Review, which operated out of Mangala Vilas, his house in Luz and quickly grew to become one of the most reputed literary magazines in India. While purportedly a monthly literary journal, it contained scathing attacks on colonial rule, profiled freedom fighters and put forth strong cases for pan-Indian nationalism. Natesan’s home unsurprisingly became a meeting venue for Madras-based literati and freedom fighters. In fact, the first letter Gandhi wrote in Tamil (currently housed in the Gandhi Museum in Madurai) was addressed to Natesan.

K Nageswara Rao, the creator of Andhra Patrika also lived nearby. The weekly newspaper was founded in Bombay in 1909 but moved to Madras in 1914 and expanded its audience. It played a vital role in the Telugu nationalist movement and shaped opinions on the formation of the state of Andhra Pradesh. For decades it remained the largest Telugu daily before it finally folded in 1991. After PR Sundaram Iyer’s death Rao acquired his lavish home, which later came to be known as the Sri Bagh residence since the Sri Bagh pact was signed there. The house which we viewed from outside its gate still retains its old school grandeur and is said to have been only slightly modified over the years.

We were introduced to several other prominent figures during the course of the walk, most of them male Tamil and Telugu Brahmins, whose cultural and political hold in the areas they lived in was an extension of their caste patronage influence. However, Sriram notes that Mylapore’s literary history is not a reflection of the city’s book history itself, which was far more diverse. “There are plenty of other areas associated with books – George Town, Triplicane, Purasawalkam, Tondiarpet and Chintadripet for instance that have an equally rich history,” he said. “If we looked at Chintadripet for instance, a lot of Dalit literature would have come to the fore.”

That should make for some fascinating walks.

V Sriram’s next walking tour will take place in February. Details will be updated on his blog.