On a busman's holiday in the deep south of Tamil Nadu, I recently discovered quite serendipitously a resplendent little gem that shone its light on a bit of Madras history while at the same time encouraging the reading habit and culture. Today, this Rajapalayam landmark is known as the Gandhi Kalai Manram; once, it was the ancestral mansion of P. S. Kumaraswamy Raja, Premier of Madras, 1949-52.
Gandhiji had visited the house in 1927 and 1935, Rajendra Prasad in 1935, Jawaharlal Nehru in 1936 and Rajaji several times.
After this `house of culture' was dedicated to Gandhiji in 1954, it was visited by T. T. Krishnamachari, Rajendra Prasad again, when he, as the President of India, inaugurated it, Indira Gandhi, R. Venkataraman and C. Subramanian, among others. The nucleus of the activities here today is the 50,000 books and journals, mostly in English and Tamil, it holds, a library built on the foundation of Kumaraswamy Raja's personal holding. Today, the library has over 3,000 members, many more who use its reading room, and it last year recorded borrowings on 70,000 occasions. That's quite a usage for a library in a rural town.
The Kalai Manram which he started
Next door is the GKM's auditorium that is used for book exhibitions and cultural performances and meetings. It was a surprise to hear that Rajapalayam had over half a dozen cultural societies, like the Bharati and Kambar Societies, that meet regularly. But the ten-day Music Festival that Kumaraswamy Raja had initiated in 1957 is, sadly, not a tradition that has continued.
What struck me most, however, was the picture gallery on the first floor. I have seldom seen a more comprehensive pictorial biography of anyone of note in India. This one of Kumaraswamy Raja was meticulously put together over nearly a year in 1957-58 by his brother-in-law and confidante, A. K. D. Venkata Raju. Venkata Raju, a District & Sessions Judge, was the first judicial officer to serve as a Premier's gazetted Secretary. He was also, I was told, the person who helped design the Madras (and now Tamil Nadu) State emblem with the Srivilliputtur Andal Temple gopuram towering in the centre.
Kumaraswamy Raja, born into a moderately affluent agriculturalist's family, was orphaned by the time he was three and was brought up by his paternal grandmother who encouraged him to study. To reach the famed Hindu High School in Srivilliputtur, now over 200 years old, he would walk the eight miles at the beginning of the week and return on foot for the weekend. Here, he became more interested in sport and what the newspapers and journals had to say than his books. Annie Besant's call for Home Rule inspired him and soon he was inviting speakers like Satyamurti to address Rajapalayam audiences. Gandhiji's call to Satyagraha put an end to Kumaraswamy Raja's studies and he became a dedicated Congress worker and an active co-operator. So began the journey from the Rajapalayam Panchayat to Fort St. George.
When he was elected to the Central Legislature in 1934 to represent a constituency comprising the `Madurai,' `Ramnad' and `Tinnevelly' districts, he got 98.5 per cent of the votes polled! A tall, well-built, jovial personality with a hearty laugh, but who also too often tended to call a spade a bloody shovel, he laughed loudest on the morning of 12.1.1952, when he replied, on being asked by the Press for the reasons for his electoral defeat by just 118 votes "I am not wanted by my constituency. What else could be the reason?" The night before, he had slept early in his official residence, Brodie's Castle, now the College of Music, and when woken up at 10 p.m. by a friend who wondered how he could sleep through an election count, he had replied, "Success and defeat are normal in an election. Why should I lose sleep over it?" and turned over and gone to sleep. When the Returning Officer telephoned him at midnight, he had thanked him and went back to sleep. The next morning, he began drawing up plans for the Gandhi Kalai Manram.
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