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The beginning of Tamil journalism

S. MUTHIAH

C.R. Srinivasan bought the Whiteaway's building shortly after Independence and linked the Swadesamitran's fortunes with it. He named it Victory House, marking the success of the `Quit India' movement. It is here that one saw the birt h of Tamil journalism.


ACROSS FROM D'Angeli's Hotel were two Indo-Saracenic buildings that were landmarks in Madras throughout the 20th Century. The former no longer exists, replaced by a typical tasteless highrise, but in its loss only a bit of the city's architectural heritage has been lost. The latter underwent one remodelling, and is in the throes of another, but neither marks the significance of what flourished behind its once-handsome façade, namely, the beginnings of Tamil Journalism.

The building that vanished was first known as Tawker's Building. The Tawkers from Gujarat - a family that still calls Madras home - were the city's leading jewellers in the 19th Century, their business having been established in the city in 1761, shortly after they arrived here. The family was equally renowned for its philanthropy. A trust endowed by two women of the family built the Sri Kasi Viswanathar Temple in 1805 and the neighbouring Tawker's Choultry in Ayyanavaram and endowed several other charities. The Choultry was being used as a students' hostel the last I heard of it, but the tradition of the Tirupati umbrellas taken to Tirumala from Madras being kept in the Kasi Viswanathar Temple for the night still continues.

T.R Tawker and Sons bought the Mount Road site in 1893 and had Henry Irwin design them a showroom worthy of their jewellery and gem collection. T. Manavala Chetty, the contractor, built a building to last; little did he dream that in 80 years, it would be deliberately pulled down. When the golden era of Tawker's began to dull, the firm sold the building to the Rajah of Venkatagiri in 1926 who, in turn, sold it to Kasturi Estates five years later. The South Indian Cooperative Insurance Society, founded in 1932, bought the property in 1948 and, on the nationalisation of insurance in 1956, it became the Life Insurance Corporation's. From 1953, Indian Airlines occupied its ground floor in considerable spaciousness, but when it moved into its more modern offices in 1979, the LIC, an organisation not the most sympathetic to heritage or architecture, decided to pull it down. And so the building came down in 1980 - a classical Irwin design with a clock almost as famed as P.Orr's lost forever.

Next door remains the building that VGP, those pioneers of consumer durables' hire purchase, keep remodelling as they refurbish what has become a giant showroom. Interestingly, the building's beginnings go back to another merchandiser of consumer products. In the 1890s, Whiteaway, Laidlaw's, `Furnishers and General Drapers', were as much into textile retailing and tailoring as they were into selling a whole range of household requirements. The firm had branches throughout British India as well as in the capitals of many of the other British colonies in the East. Looking very much like its neighbour, the Whiteaway's building could very likely have been built around the same time as the Tawker's Building by the same team. But where it got the name it became known by, Victory House, is something I have not been able to discover with any certainty.

A story I've heard is that when C.R. Srinivasan bought the building shortly after Independence and linked the Swadesamitran's fortunes with it he named it Victory House, marking the success of the `Quit India' movement. Others hold that it's an older name, going back to Whiteaway's commemorating the Allied victory in the Great War. Whatever the reality, it is as the home of the Swadesamitran that I knew Victory House, even if most of the activities of that pioneering Tamil daily took place well behind the handsome Mount Road façade.

Rajavritti Bodhini and Dina Varthamani in 1855 and Salem Pagadala Narasimhalu Naidu's fornightlies, Salem Desabhimini in 1878 and Coimbatore Kalanidhi in 1880, were the earliest Tamil journals. But in 1882 there arrived on the Tamil publishing scene a journal that would transform Tamil Journalism. It was started by G. Subramania Aiyer, the Founder-Editor of The Hindu, while he was still with the paper he had founded. He was more familiar with English, but he was to hone his Tamil with the Swadesamitran; in the event he was never to become a great Tamil writer, but he created a whole new Tamil political vocabulary. His foray into Tamil journalism was to be later explained by Narasimhalu Naidu so: "(He) was conscious that those with a knowledge of English are a small number and those with a knowledge of Indian languages the vast majority. He felt that unless our people were told about the objectives of British rule and its merits and defects in the Indian languages, our political knowledge would never develop." Subramania Aiyer, an Anglophile in his early years, saw himself as a bridge of understanding and communication between the ruler and the ruled.

When Subramania Aiyer quit The Hindu 1898, feeling so fettered by his partner that he could not wage his impassioned campaigns for social reforms, he made the Swadesamitran his full-time business. Operating from premises at the rear of Whiteaway's, he made it a thrice-weekly paper, then, in 1899, the first Tamil daily. It was to enjoy this status for 17 years - and even thereafter did not meet any real challenge till Swararajya started in 1925, Tamil Nadu in 1927 and Dinamani in 1934, but they too were unable to shake the Swadesamitran's primacy till the 1950s.

Subramania Aiyer's "pugnacious style, never qualifying words to soften the sharp tenor of a sentence," his use of words "dipped in a paste of extra pungent green chillies," made the Swadesamitran sought by the zamindars and the plutocrats by the "Sanga Boyans and the Rama Boyans" as well as women and Tamils wherever they lived in the world. And the daily became even more popular when Subramania Bharati joined it in 1904. But with two heavyweights, something had to give way and Bharati left in 1906 to start his weekly, India. The next year, when Lala Lajpat Rai was arrested and agitation followed in the Punjab, Subramania Aiyer's attitude to the British changed and he became a trenchant political critic of the Raj. Arrested in 1908 for sedition, he broke when faced with hard labour and was a beaten man thereafter. Nevertheless, Bharati in 1914 wrote of him, "unaided he has made Tamil Journalism a fact of the world in spite of his imperfect early training in Tamil. ... They win who dare; Mr. Aiyer dared and he has succeeded in establishing a Tamil daily journal which, with all its faults, is the most useful paper in the Tamil country. His whole political gospel can be summed up in these words: `Peaceful but tireless and unceasing effort.' Let us sweat ourselves into Swaraj, he would seem to say."

Seriously ill in 1915, Subramania Aiyer persuaded A. Rangaswami Iyengar, Kasturi Ranga Iyengar's nephew and right-hand man at The Hindu, to take over the paper and he made the Swadesmitran "a new force, potent and pervasive... (changing) the placid atmosphere of Tamil Journalism". Rangaswami Iyengar brought in his kin C.R. Srinivasan to manage the business end of the paper and Bharati, back from Pondicherry, rejoined the paper in 1920. The three made the Swadesamitran " a literary masterpiece of political analysis."

When Rangaswmi Iyengar returned to The Hindu in 1928 to become a memorable editor, Srinivasan bought him out. And the readers of the Swadesamitran discovered what a trenchant writer Srinivasan could be. He made the paper such a success that he could buy the Whiteaway's building and make it better remembered as the home of the Swadesamitran. But after his death in 1962, the paper began to fade, especially in the face of the `new journalism' introduced by the Dina Thanthi. And by the 1970s, the end was inevitable, a sad end to a paper that had created Tamil Journalism.

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