Large portraits of some of its most illustrious alumni hang against the faded yellow walls of Pachaiyappa’s College, one of Chennai’s oldest educational institutions. Noted mathematician Ramanujan and former Tamil Nadu Chief Minister CN Annadurai are among its many alumni. Mahatma Gandhi, BR Ambedkar and Swami Vivekananda have also walked through this institution’s narrow corridors.

On Friday, the college celebrated its 175th anniversary at a grand function attended by Tamil Nadu Chief Minister E Palanisamy. As souvenirs were distributed to attendees, a large helium balloon loomed overhead. It bore an image of the college emblem – Pachaiyappa Mudaliar blessing a child. This prosperous Madras merchant, who died in 1794, had left behind a sizeable endowment for religious purposes in his will. The will, however, was subject to litigation for decades. In 1842, a portion of his bequest was finally used to start a preparatory school for Hindu students in Broadway, Chennai. It was upgraded to a college in 1889. The college campus moved to its current location in Poonamallee High Road in northern Chennai in the 1940s.

“The legacy of this college is very profound,” said Arasi, the head of the English department. “But the link between our history and the present is missing. Our students need to take the institution forward just like the previous batches.”

Today, the college is literally a shadow of its past. Several buildings in its 43-acre campus are crumbling. College alumni say that the members of the Pachaiyappa Trust Board – against whom charges of corruption have been levelled – are to blame for this. Others lament that the institution’s academic standards have fallen. They say that the institution – which once produced a number of parliamentarians, Indian Administrative Service officers, academicians and authors – is now mainly known for its unruly students and violence on campus.

The postgraduate library for Humanistic Studies in the campus of Pachaiyappa’s College. (Photo credit: Vinita Govindarajan).

Crumbling structures

The college buildings are constructed in the Indo-Saracenic style, which incorporates traditional structural techniques with colonial architecture. The buildings require urgent restoration work. The hostel buildings are in particularly bad shape.

The faculty of Pachaiyappa’s College acknowledges that the institute lacks physical infrastructure, but says these problems are being addressed. “In the academic blocks, we have made tremendous improvement,” said TKS Vilalan, the head of the Economics department. “We still have a problem in the hostel side. We are pressurising the management to come forward and reconstruct these parts.”

Arasi said that plans were underway to renovate the library.

The faculty disagrees with claims that the college is now better known for its unruly students than academics.

Vilalan pointed out that Pachaiyappa’s has always been a college for students from downtrodden and backward communities, and has given them the space to grow and flourish. “Most of them are first-time graduates,” added Uma Rajan, the head of the Botany Department. “It is only 10% of students who are not coming to college who are doing all sorts of mischievous activities. That is due to their family background, because their parents are not taking any initiative in controlling them.”

She said that the institution produces one of the largest number of PhD students in the state. “At least 11 of 18 departments offer PhD programmes,” Rajan said.

Archival image of Pachaiyappa's College. (Photo credit: Pachaiyappa's College via Facebook).

Student activism

Graffiti exhorting students to join the Students’ Federation of India is scrawled on several exterior walls of the college buildings. While student activism on campus is discouraged today, the college has a long legacy of student participation in public affairs. This dates even before the Quit India Movement of 1942, said city historian Venkatesh Ramakrishnan.

He said at that time, all of Tamil Nadu was against the Quit India movement, but students of Pachaiyappa’s College played a prominent part in it. Since their hostel was near a railway station, they would stop trains from proceeding. In the 1980s, student activism in the college was so rampant that its administration kept the wide main gates of the campus permanently closed. “Students were sent in by the turnstile gates to restrict fast movements of large crowds,” said Ramakrishnan.

Today, Pachaiyappa’s College students still find themselves at odds with law enforcement agencies. The police often enter the campus when students get into fights, said some students.

But that was the only downside, according to one of them. “This is a very relaxed college,” said Prem, a final year philosophy student. “We can attend classes or bunk them, we get good food, we can loaf around if we want to, there are no issues. As long as the police remains outside we are happy.”

Rundown buildings in the campus of Pachaiyappa's College. (Photo credit: Vinita Govindarajan).