The first Tamil newspapers – The Hindu

The recent celebration of its fourth anniversary by THE Indhu, as I choose to call it, transliterating its title, had me recalling that though, for well over a century, The Hindu stable did not have a Tamil paper, it significantly contributed to pioneering Tamil dailies. How many today remember that G Subramania Aiyer, a founder of The Hindu in 1878 and its first Editor, played a lead role in spreading the idea of a Tamil daily.

The first Tamil newspapers providing hard news and writing on politics, both started by Salem Pagadala Narasimhalu Naidu, were Salem Desabhimani, the year The Hindu started, and Coimbatore Kalanidhi in 1880. In 1882, Subramania Aiyer founded his own Tamil weekly, Swadesamitran. When he left The Hindu in high dudgeon in 1898, he made his journal a tri-weekly and the next year, a daily. Speaking at its Silver Jubilee celebrations, Naidu said: “The reputation of ‘The Hindu’ as a paper read all over India and even in England is well-known. However Subramania Aiyer 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 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. It was because of this conviction that he founded ‘Swadesamitran’ in Tamil.”

Tamil, however, was not Aiyer’s strong point. He ‘learnt’ to write forcefully in it. In the process, he created numerous words and phrases to express modern political thought. A senior Swadesamitran journalist once said, “If it is considered (by some) that the style of ‘Mitran’ is not beautiful, it is not right to hold Aiyer responsible. The shortcoming is in the language. Our language has been used mainly for expressing religious ideas and for poetry. It does not have a wealth of vocabulary in political matters. …Prose as such is not common in Tamil. It is a newcomer … It is only after Thandavaraya Mudaliar and Arumuga Navalar that prose has been recognised as a limb of Tamil…Under the circumstances, it is more difficult to write a flawless prose piece than to write a political one.”

Despite this – and possibly due to Subramania Bharati’s later contribution – Mitran became the most successful Tamil daily well into Independence. Naidu has the last word: “Aiyer’s ‘Mitran’ not only decorates the drawing-rooms of the rich and the palaces of the zamindars, it also is seen in the hands of Sanga Boyan and Rama Boyan as well as of women of all shades. It also goes to Africa, America, Europe, Burma and other places…”

Alas, the Swadesamitran is no more, but what the paper and G Subramania Aiyer did for Tamil journalism – flourishing today – deserves to be recorded in much greater length than has been done.

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When the postman knocked…

Sayeed Cassim comes up with another poser connected with his share certificate collection. We’ve heard of the Madras Electric Tramways Company (METC), so its share is no surprise, but who’s heard of the even earlier Indian Tramway Company? The METC, with considerable German interest in it in its early years, dates to 1904 and was shut down in 1953. Preceding it was the Madras Tramways Corporation, promoted in 1892 by Hutchinson & Co, London, and with its first trams in Madras in 1895. But Indian Tramway’s?

Curiously, in a chronological history of the Indian Railways, there’s reference to an Indian Tramway Co formed in 1862 “to construct short lines around Madras, with a 20-year subsidy.” Years of losses later, it was reorganised as the Carnatic Railway. This later became the South Indian Railways. It’s further recorded that Indian Tramway’s first electrical trams with overhead electrification ran in Madras in 1905.

Now for the puzzles. The only railway company in Madras from 1856 was the Madras Railway Company, first mooted in 1832 – the first suggestion for a railway in India. Madras Railways merged with South Mahratta Railway in 1908 to form the M&SM. Did Madras Railways promote Indian Tramways? Who later took over the business and when? If it was METC, was it after its first trams were on the rails? Has any railwayman an answer?

NE Padmanabhan writes that Braithwaite’s (Miscellany, August 21) teamed which Jessop’s and Burns in a consortium to help build the Howrah Bridge, the Rabindra Sethu, that opened in 1943. He adds, Braithwaite, Burn and Jessop Construction Co Ltd, a joint venture of three old Calcutta firms, later built the second cross-Hooghly Bridge, the Vidya Sagar Sethu, opened in 1992. Working with BBJ at the time was his elder brother, NEV Raghavan, who was involved with the work of the design reviewers, Freemen Fox of London. The Vidya Sagar is the largest bridge in Asia and the world’s third largest cable-stayed one. BBJ’s work figures in my book Office Chai, Planter’s Brew.

Sriram V. tells me it would have been more meaningful if I had said Devicotta (Miscellany,September11) was very close to Chidambaram. Its fort was built by a Mahratta raja of Tanjore.

Shantha Mohan writes that more details about Rajyalakshmi Reddi can be found at https://mathisarovar.com/ 2017/07/24/ rajalakshmi-indias-first-woman- telecommunications-engineer/

The chronicler of Madras that is Chennai tells stories of people, places, and events from the years gone by, and sometimes, from today

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