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"To us all towns are one, all men our kin.
Life's good comes not from others' gift, nor ill
Man's pains and pains' relief are from within.
Thus have we seen in visions of the wise !."
- Tamil Poem in Purananuru, circa 500 B.C 

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Home >Tamils - a Trans State Nation > One Hundred Tamils of the 20th Century > Dr. Rajah Sir Annamalai Chettiar

One Hundred Tamils of the 20th Century

Dr. Rajah Sir Annamalai Chettiar

[see also Annamalai University - Genesis and
Bharathidasan on Rajah Annamalai Chettiar]


From A Biographical Sketch in theAnnamalai University
Golden Jubilee Souvenir, 1929-1979

 " Nobler loves and nobler cares." These words appear at the base of the statue of Rajah Sir Annamalai Chettiar, installed in the University campus at Annamalainagar. They sum up the man and his mind. Rajah Annamalai Chettiar had his share of the ordinary man's cares and anxieties, but it was a measure of his wider humanity that he gave himself nobler loves and nobler cares.

One such love was the Annamalai University which he founded and to which, again in Wordsworth's phrase, he was " unwearied in service." And so, on this day of jubilation and grateful recollection, our thoughts naturally turn to one, to whom so much has been owed by so many.

Annamalai Chettiar was born at Kanadukathan, in the district of Ramnad, on the 30th of September 1881. He came of a community known for its business enterprise and active benevolence. His own family had a number of public benefactions to its credit, including a choultry for pilgrims at Chidambaram. Piety, charity and devotion to business were the family characteristics, and these shone with even brighter flame in the life of Rajah Sir Annamalai Chettiar.

He was the last of the four sons of S.RM.M. Muthiah Chettiar, a rich and influential banker of his community. Annamalai Chettiar received his schooling at Kanadukathan and at Karur, and was then apprenticed to the family business, of which he quickly gathered the threads. It was a flourishing concern, wth branches abroad, and when, in due coarse, the brothers effected a partition, Annamalai Chettiar succeeded to a goodly inheritance. Banking was in his blood, and Annamalai Chettiar devoted himself to the expansion of his business. He visited Ceylon, Burma and the Far East, and obtained first-hand knowledge of his firms there and the conditions in which they were working. This enabled him to have a close, personal grip on his affairs ; and the results were seen in growing efficiency and fuller returns.

Very early in his career, in 1910, he paid a visit to Europe and spent quite a considerable time in Britain. He witnessed the celebrations in connection with the Coronation of King George V. He travelled with his eyes and ears open, " a chiel, takin ' notes ". And he put those notes to excellent use when he turned his attention to public affairs.

On his return home, he became Chairman of the Karaikudi Union which has since become a Municipality. Karaikudi is the heart and nerve-centre of Chettinad and needed a lot of improving ; and Annamalai Chettiar set about improving it. Things began to hum. Dirt and squalor disappeared, the streets became cleaner, and more and more public amenities came to be provided. Since then, the interest of the citizens of Karaikudi in their town has been close and unremitting. He was a member of several local organisations and of the District Board which operated from Madurai the headquarters of the Ramnad District.

From local affairs to the Legislative Council was but a step. In 1916, he was nominated to the Madras Legislative Council, where he sat for three years. In 1920, he stood for election to the Council of State, newly established under the Montagu-Chelmsford Reforms, and was returned for the general constituency (the whole of the Presidency) at the head of the polls. It was a five-year tenure, which he held for three consecutive terms, always by election, and returned every time at the head of the polls.

Annamalai Chettiar's natural bent was for finance, and his appraisement of the forces which influence the turns and twists of the world of finance was sound and sure. He was one of the founder-members of the Indian Bank and was on its Directorate for many years. His grasp of the imponderables ' of banking and finance led to his appointment as a Governor of the Imperial Bank of India when it was established in 1921. He was connected with the Bank as Director almost to the end of his life.

Meanwhile, his charitable 'instincts were being given full play. He had got into the habit of giving, and giving liberally, to all worthy causes. He built and endowed a Women and Children's Hospital at Kanadukathan and made handsome donations to educational institutions. In 1924 he gave two lakhs of rupees for purchasing a building to accommodate the Ladies' Club at Madras.

This building was named `The Willingdon' and it is a very popular centre of social activity. Nor was he unmindful of the traditional objects of Nattukkottai Chettiar charity. At the same time, he saw that the times called for liberal endowments in the fields of education, medical relief, improved sanitation and so forth. He thus gave a new direction to the eleemosynary activities of his community which was not slow to profit by his example.

Very early in his life, he came to hold the view that education was the primary need of the country and that, with wider dissemination of education, the other ills of the country would gradually disappear. He felt that Colleges were in short supply and that there should be more and more of them. He made up his mind to found and endow a College and looked about him for a suitable locality. There were rival claims. but his own mind, right from the start, was tending in the direction of Chidambaram. Its claims were powerful.

His elder brother, Ramaswami Chettiar—on whom an appreciative Government had bestowed the distinction of Dewan Bahadur— had been the Municipal Chairman of Chidambaram and given it a protected water supply and also established a High School at Chidambaram which is happily now flourishing as a Higher Secondary School. It was the home of the family deity, Sri Nataraja. Annamalai Chettiar was deeply read in the lives of the Tamil Saints, and to him Chidambaram held a spell irresistible.

Here, at Chidambaram, through the ages, scholars had striven in the quest of Truth. The very air of the place, its holy associations, and ins history, which stretched back into the dim past, marked it out as the ideal abode of a temple of learning and Annamalai Chettiar decided to establish a College there. It was a wise decision. The College affectionately named the Sri Minakshi College, after the Rajah's mother, was formally opened in 1920. It was temporarily located in the High School building.

Annamalai Chettiar lost no time in acquiring a spacious site to the east of the town. At the time of the acquisition, it was a depressing site. It was low and marshy, except in parts, and its reclamation appeared a heart-breaking business. But not to Annamalai Chettiar, who promptly took in hand the work of reclamation and, by direct, close, and almost daily supervision, accelerated the pace of work, and completed the construction of the College building in time for the classes to move into it in July 1923.

The first Principal of the College was Mr. K. A. Nilakanta Sastri, a man of great scholarship, whose later researches into South Indian history are well known. His colleagues were men of mettle and experts in their subjects; and they seconded the Founder's efforts with almost missionary zeal. The College grew, with hostels attached and ample playing fields, and students flocked to it in increasing numbers. (The hostels, one likes to recall in these expensive days, provided excellent food at charges within the reach of the poorest student.)

Sir Annamalai's services were fast winning recognition. He was already a Dewan Bahadur ; and, in 1923, after the establishment of the Sri Minakshi College, a knighthood was conferred on him.

On thing invariably leads to another. With the starting of the Sri Minakshi College. the idea of a University for the Tamil Districts took possession of the public mind. Sir Annamalai was thinking of a University at Chidambaram right from the start and, indeed, had been planning the College buildings and staff quarters with that end in view. He held the view that Chidambaram could well be the home of a University, which would endeavour to preserve Tamil learning and Tamil culture. Sir Annamalai felt that there was a fundamental unity in Indian culture ; but he realised the need to redeem and revitalise local variations of it which had suffered through neglect. The resuscitation of Tamil culture. Sir Annamalai regarded as a pious duty.

In 1926. buildings for the accommodation of the science departments were opened. The Science block, as it was called, in size and appointments, rivalled the Arts College. It was formally inaugurated in July 1926, and it was on that day Sir Annamalai finally made up his mind to establish a University at Annamalainagar. Sri. C. R. Reddi the well-known Parliamentarian, educationist and savant who was present on the occasion, made a forceful plea for a School of indology in the country. That was a matter for the Universities to tackle, hesaid. "Why do they not tackle it?" askedSir Annamalai Chettiar. The usual answer was given lack of funds, lack of enterprise and also lack of a sufficient number of universities. That night the idea of a University at Chidambaram was born.

The idea, once formed, grew, and gathered shape. The Sri Minakshi College prospered and every year registered a notable advance. In 1927, Sir Annamalai endowed a Sanskirt College and a Tamil College at Chidambaram. Mahamahopadhyaya Dandapaniswarni Dikshitar, an outstanding Sanskrit scholar, was appointed Principal of the former, while Mahamahopadhayaya Swaminatha A iyar, whose scholarship was matched by the grace and simpicity of his style, was made the Principal of the latter. Soon an Oriental Training College was established, to be followed by a College of Music.

Here was a splendid nucleus for a University and Sir Annamalai went to work on it. In 1928, he made formal proposals to Government for the establishment of a University at Chidambaram. He offered to make over the Sri Minakshi and other Colleges which he had ounded, with all the attached hostels, staff .quarters, equipment and the grounds on which they stood (about 200 acres in all) to the proposed University, and also make an endowment of twenty lakhs of rupees.

Such generosity was without parallel and was hailed with delight by the public and the Government. The least that an appreciative Government and legislature could do was to prepare a Bill and get it passed without loss of time. The Government agreed to make a contribution of twenty-seven lakhs of rupees to the endowment fund and did everything in its power to expedite the passage of the Bill into law, and it was dote in double quick time. The Annamalai University Act came into force on 1st January, 1929. It must be mentioned that Sir Annamalai's son Muthiah Chettiar, who had taken his degree a few years previously and who was just entering public life, caught his father's enthusiasm and assisted him in getting the Bill passed into law.

The Annamalai University started functioning from July 1929 and the first Senate was formally inaugurated by H. F. Sir George Frederick Stanley, Governor of Madras, on the 24th of March, 1930. In his speech requesting the Governor to inaugurate the University, Sir Annamalai gave expression to his hopes for the University. He said, " In this, the very first year of its existence. the University has attempted the starting of research departments, the equipping of the Library and the provision of staff at the rate of one for every fifteen students. Its building schemes are expected to cost 24 lakbs. It is sought to improve the amenities of the place by taking in hand a drainage, water-supply and an electric supply scheme. It is hoped that facilities for boating and swimming and other kinds of exercise will be given in the near future." Great expectations, which were soon realised

A good launch, they say, is half the voyage. The Annamalai University was launched on a fair sea in a favourable wind. It had a skilled skipper in the Vice-Chancellor, Mr. (later Sir Samuel) Runganadhan, and a willing and efficient crew. It was seaworthy and made port every year.

Early in 1929, in recognition of his unique services to the cause of learning, the distinction of a hereditary Rajah was conferred on Sir Annamalai, who came to he known as Rajah Sir Annamalai Chettiar of Chettinad. This generous gesture of appreciation gratified the South Indian public beyond measure and, more parparticularly, the Nagarathar community who celebrated the event in a carnival of rejoicing. There was an immense gathering of friends and admirers at Kovilur on the outskirts of Karaikudi, the traditional meeting-place of the Nagarathars and the Rt. Hon'ble V. S. Srinivasa Sastri, an old and valued friend of Sir Annamalai, presided on the occasion. The telegram of appreciation which he had sent earlier to the Rajah, " A noble deed, nobly rewarded ", justly summed up the scale of the deed and of its recognition.

With the impending separation of Burma, questions affecting the Nagarathars in that province assumed great importance. Steps had to be taken in time to safeguard the interests of Indians in Burma. A gathering of Burma Indians decided to send an influential deputation to London to lay the case for Indians before the Secretary, of State in order to obtain certain statutory safeguards ; and Rajah Sir Annamalai Chettiar was requested to lead the delegation which included, among others, Mr. Mirza Mahomed Rafi, Mr. S. N. Haji, Mr. Soorma and Mr. K. Nagarajan. The delegation met in England in February 1935 and placed their case before the Secretary of State (Sir Samuel Hoare, later Lord Templewood), the Under-Secretary, Lord Winterton and Lord Hailey. and certain members of Parliament.

The justice of the Indian claim was recognised and adequate safeguards were provided in the Government of Burma Act. The relations between the Burmese and Indians had been uniformly cordial and the Nagarathars had occupied a useful place in the Burmese economy. This has been of immense benefit to both sides and, while aware of the vast commitments of Indians in Burma, the Rajah had a lively sense of what India owed to Burma.

Questions relating to Indian immigration were repeatedly coming to the fore and Rajah Sir Annamalai Chettiar was tireless in pleading for a fair deal to Indians both in the Legislative Assembly (to which he was nominated in 1937) and outside it. In all his zealous work on behalf of Burma Indians, the Rajah had the unflagging support of all Indians who had interests in Burma, among whom he always singled out for mention Mr. M. A. Master of the Scindia Steam Navigation Company and Mr. S. N. Haji (who had himself been on the Burma-Indian Delegation of 1935).

Earlier, the Rajah Saheb had taken up the cause of Indians in French Indo-China. They were coming to be treated in a step-motherly way, and Rajah Sir Annamalai Chettiar went to Paris in the spring of 1935, and presented the case for Indians with such fairness that the French Government lost no time in setting matters right.

From Europe, Rajah Sir Annamalai Chettiar crossed over to America. The Rani, Lady Annamalai Chettiar, accompanied him on his European and American tours, and thus set an example to the ladies of her community, who have not been slow to follow it. Their son, Ramanathan Chettiar, who had just come back from England after a stay of about a year, accompanied them in their travels,

Even while immersed in political affairs, the Rajah did not forget Annamalainagar. Wherever he was, or whatever work he was engaged in, his thoughts were always with the University. Its development and expansion was his master passion. He was aware that a University, if it was to expand and serve its purpose, should have ample resources and it was his aim, happily achieved, to stabilise its finances and place them on a sound footing. Not a year passed without his making some endowment or other. He also liberally instituted prizes year after year in the names of distinguished visitors to the University. Professor M. S. Duraiswami, in a striking brochure entitled A. Pattern of Kingship ', quoted from a letter written by the Rajah to a friend of his, " My heart and soul are in Annamalainagar ".

From impressive beginnings, the University has grown, like the walls of Troy, " slowly to a music slowly breathed ". The musical metaphor is appropriate and can be carried further, for Rajah Sir Annamalai's devotion to music amounted to a passion. Music, more than anything else, was his relaxation ; and he wanted that music, especially Tamil music, should occupy the pride of place in the University, and to this end, not only did he start a Music College at Annamalainagar as far back as 1929 but he strove for it unceasingly to the end of his life. A great Conference was held at Annamalainagar to consider ways and means to revive Tamil music, and the Rajah to whom the South Indian public looked for guidance and support, made an endowment for the purpose. The movement and the impetus given to it were hailed with extreme satisfaction by the Tamil-speaking world. The Rajah collected musicians of repute and made them bring out the hidden treasures of Tamil music, encouraged research and arranged for the publication of Tamil musical compositions In this pious work, his collaborator was his distinguished friend, Sir R. K. Shanmukham Chettiar. To these two is due the entire credit for the growth of the Tamil Isai movement. The gratitude of the Tamil people for the Rajah's services found expression in the putting up of the beautiful concert hall in the city of Madras, rightly designated the ' Rajah Annamalai Manram.'

The Rajah's Shastiabdapurti was celebrated on the 28th September, 1941. It was the occasion for a unique demonstration of the regard and esteem in which he was universally held. There was a great concourse of all classes and communities at Chettinad which made the day one of jubilation. The University was en fete and celebrated the occasion with rejoicings. The Rt. Hon'ble M. R. Jayakar came down specially from Bombay to preside at the festivities, which were organised by the Vice-Chancellor of the day, Sir K. V. Reddi.

The Rt. Hon'ble V. S. Srinivasa Sastri, though not in the best of health, made a point of being present on the occasion. The University testified its gratitude to the Founder by publishing a Commemoration Volume on the occasion, to which leading personalities contributed messages and articles expressing high appreciation of the Rajah's great qualities and his monumental endeavour in building up a university of a unique kind, combining the best in the modern scientific system of education and the finest cultural tradition of the Tamil civilization.

While the completion of sixty years may be said to mark a stage in his life's career, Rajah Sir Annamalai did not " rest from toil" but believed that, so long as life lasted, " something of nobler note may yet be done." Life had taught him many lessons. He had seen " cities of men and government and made deep and abiding friendships. He had a well-stored mind and was an engaging talker. Hishospitality was princely and at Chettinad Palace one always met people worth meeting and talking to, not the least of them being Rajah Sir Annamalai himself, who could always throw an informing beam of light on the subjects under discussion. After his Shastiabdapurti, music was the only rival to the University in his affection. To the University and to the Tamil Isai Movement, he continued to give of his best.

In his home life, the Rajah was exceptionally fortunate. Rani Annamalai Chettiar was a gracious lady, known for her piety and liberality. They have left behind three sons and four daughters. The eldest is Rajah Sir Muthiah Chettiar who has succeeded to the title and the family dignities. He was the first Mayor of Madras when the Mayoralty was first established in 1932. He was also Minister for Education and Public Health and Fro-Chancellor of the Madras University. The Rajah's second son, Sri R. Ramanathan Chettiar, was Sheriff of Madras in 1950, its Mayor in 1950-51, a member of Parliament for several terms and a Director of the Reserve Bank of India. Sri M. A. Chidambaram Chettiar, the third son, has been President of the South India Chamber of Commerce and a keen sportsman, a well-known Industrialist and a former Mayor of Madras. The sons are all carrying on the high family tradition of beneficent activity of doing public good and each of them has achieved ditinction in specially selected field.

The Rajah's health began to decline in 1947, though he bravely held on ; and the end came on 15th June 1948. His association with the University which he loved was so close and constant that he will ever live in its memory. Within his life time, he had the satisfaction of seeing the university expanding its activities and usefulness in various directions.


Paventhar Bharathidasan - பாரதிதாசன

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